Tokyo press spurns `unclean' quake victims

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The Independent Online
Above the wrecked city of Kobe the helicopters of Japan's rich and powerful media still fly on reconnaissance missions, while below their teams of reporters supposedly exhaust every seam of social, economic, or political interest in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 17 January. Yet, it is not saturation coverage. Right under their noses in Kobe is an emotive topic that the press has ignored.

It concerns the presence in Kobe and its surroundings of a minority group called "burakumin". The meaning is "hamlet people," and their mention in public causes embarrassment.

Descendants of outcasts, they were called "Eta" ("filth- abundant") and "Hinin" ("non-people") until an Emancipation Act of 1871. But they have since been subject to stigma within Japanese society.

A survey by their main association after last month's earthquake found that 40 burakumin were killed, 239 were injured, and 806 of their dwellings were totally destroyed. The biggest single buraku ghetto in Japan, with 3,000 households, or about 10,000 burakumin, is inside the solidly working- class ward of Nagata, scene of the worst devastation. Yet, in the Japanese media coverage from Nagata, including sympathetic reports on the plight of ethnic Koreans and more recent immigrants from Vietnam, there has been nomention of the burakumin.

The office of the Hyogo prefecture branch of the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) is atop a hilly street in central Kobe. At the bottom of the hill is the fortress-like headquarters of the local government, where chauffeurs of Japanese journalists snooze inside limousines while the reporters attend police and government briefings.

The reporters seem to have difficulty finding their way to the Buraku headquarters. Yet, the BLL secretary-general for Hyogo, Kenichiro Tatumi, appears to welcome the reluctance of the Japanese press to walk up the hill to his office and report on the burakumin in Kobe. "We are not the only victims of the earthquake, so it is not necessary for the media to emphasise burakumin," he said.

"If the Japanese media was to emphasise burakumin, it really would be discrimination. Koreans are a different race. We are trying to appeal to Japanese that we are the same people, even though some have mistaken ideas about burakumin, for instance that we eat different food or wear different clothes."

The region around the Inland Sea where Kobe is located has almost half of Japan's population of burakumin, said by the government to total 1.17 million, but according to the BLL about 3 million.

Mr Tatumi said the Kobe buraku developed around a strategic road, heavily used by the "daimyo" great lords of feudal Japan in their processions to and from the Shogun's court in Edo (Tokyo.)

The burakumin were used by the daimyo as porters on this route and to arrange shipping to islands in the Inland Sea. They were also assigned the "unclean" occupations of slaughtering animals, tanning, and leather work.

The Kobe region today is famous in Japan for its expensive, marbled beef. Less recognised is Kobe's importance in the shoe industry, which, because of leather work, retains a strong burakumin presence.

With Nagata levelled, some in Kobe ask why rebuilding a ghetto should be part of the ``Phoenix Plan'' for the city's recovery. But the ghetto, where burakumin once were forced to live, offers advantages, said Mr Tatumi. "There are strong ties among people and households in Nagata ward. So even if they have to move temporarily, they will want to come back. You can only talk about certain things among yourselves."

Mr Tatumi said discrimination is not limited to the ghetto. "You might think that with the dispersal of burakumin the problem would vanish, but even if you move to another town, people always ask `Where do you come from?' so there is no way out."