Obituary: Sue Sumii

James Kirkup
Sunday 22 June 1997 23:02

Why do some people, through no fault of their own, apart from the basic error of having been born, become outcasts of society - a society no longer desirable when even one of its creatures is rejected, mocked, excluded?

Such societies have always existed, in every region of the world, in the animal as well as the human realms. In Japan, unsuspected by the passing tourist, the company representative on a temporary stint, there exist a minority group, the burakumin, estimated at three million outcast people existing in some 6,000 communities scattered over the whole land and comprising over 2 per cent of the Japanese population. One of the various names for them is hinin, literally "non-humans". They have been discriminated against for centuries. Burakumin were originally people engaged in trades associated with animal slaughter (a crime in the Buddhist religion) and the handling and burial of the dead. They were therefore considered to be "polluted" and not fit to mingle with the rest of their fellow men.

Despite laws officially abolishing such racial discrimin-ation, it still continues. Outside government buildings, huge banners hang proclaiming "Dowa mondai [assimilation] now!" (Buraku is no longer PC, though it is still used.) But few people take much notice of such empty exhortations. Employment, marriage, accommodation, education are still among the subjects for which people's family background is closely inspected, often by specialist detective agencies. Companies engaging new workers possess secret (and illegal) lists of inhabitants in the burakumin districts of cities, towns and villages.

One of the largest burakumin populations can be found in Nara Prefecture, where the best-selling anti-discrimination novelist Sue Sumii was born, and this fact must undoubtedly have influenced her choice of subject matter, the daily lives of the burakumin. She started writing her great seven- volume saga Hashi no nai kawa (The River With No Bridge) in 1961, at the age of 59, an immense work of wide popular appeal that was to occupy her for almost the rest of her long life.

It was not the first time that a great Japanese novel had been written on such a subject. The poet and novelist Toson Shimazaki published his first work of fiction on the burakumin phenomenon, Hakai ("The Broken Commandment"), in 1906, a landmark in Japanese realism. It is about a schoolteacher who keeps his outcast origins secret (in obedience to his father's "commandment") until the end of the novel, when he breaks his promise. It is one of the finest and most honest novels ever written in Japanese, with a hero and other characters of memorable authenticity, and with dialogue of untypical Japanese frankness.

Sumii's story is also one concerning a burakumin youth who grows up under the burden of prejudice in a hypocritical society but fights to become a leader in the burakumin, liberation movement. The River With No Bridge has sold over eight million copies. It has twice been filmed, first in two parts by the politically engaged director Tadashi Imai in 1969 and 1970, and then by Yoichi Higashi in 1992. An English translation was published in 1992.

Sue Sumii had an unusually good education for a woman in a period of almost exclusively male domination, a form of sexual discrimination that she was also to fight against all her life. She graduated from Haramoto Women's High School, and at the age of 18 went to Tokyo to work for the publisher Kodansha. But after a couple of years she rebelled against working conditions that belittled women and resigned.

In 1921, she married Shigeru Inuta, a literary activist prominent in the proletarian agrarian movement producing "peasant literature" in defence of poor farmers. They founded the Peasant Literature Study Society, which was anti-authority and campaigned for sexual and social equality. It was also "anti-urban", so in 1935 they moved to Inuta's birthplace at Hitachino in Ibaraki Prefecture, where they worked on the land and produced four children, two boys and two girls.

Sumii had started writing early in her life, mainly stories for young people associated with nomin bungaku or the agrarian literature movement. One of these, Yoake asaake ("Dawn-Daybreak") won the Mainichi Publishing Culture prize in 1954. In 1957, her husband died, and in the following year she started writing the first volume of The River With No Bridge, which was first serialised in Buraku, the magazine of the Buraku Mondai Kenkyusho or Buraku Study Group. It was a huge success, and was published in hardback in 1961.

The book was based on her own observations of burakumin life, and tells the story of a boy growing up in an urban hamlet who becomes a member of the Suiheisha or "Levellers" movement, the birth of which is described in vividly emotional scenes. The movement had started in 1922, when the first meeting of the group was held in Kyoto, and spread over the whole of Japan.

Sue Sumii was a pacifist as well as a writer against all kinds of discrimination. She used her royalties from her best-selling books to build a small cinema and a lecture-discussion hall at her home in Ushiku City in Ibaraki Prefecture, where regular lectures and study groups drew hundreds of her admirers.

After completing the seventh volume of her great saga, at the age of 90, she said: "I don't feel I'm getting old at all." So she started on the eighth volume, of which about a hundred pages had been completed before her death. A Suiheisha museum will be opened at Gosho, in Nara Prefecture, a museum illustrating the movement's history and also incorporating Sumii's archives.

She was a great woman, an enduring spirit in the call of human freedom from all prejudice. She helped the Buraku Liberation League, which led to the formation of a new international organisation, the Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism in 1988. Through the life and works of Sue Sumii, there still remains hope for us.

James Kirkup

Sue Sumii, writer and campaigner: born Nara Prefecture, Japan 1902; married 1921 Shigeru Inuta (died 1957; two sons, two daughters); died Ushiku City, Japan 16 June 1997.

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