Buraku Obama

On the 16th, the New York Times carried a poignant front-page story on one of Japan’s minority groups (Norimitsu Onishi, “Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Society’s Embrace” in the paper edition, “Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance” on-line), featuring Hiromu Nanaka, a member of this hereditary minority who, having risen to the #2 position in the Japanese government, decided in 2001 not to seek the prime ministership (because of the harsh light such a move would have shed on his family; he is in a mixed marriage). Nanaka, now 83, has since retired (though not quietly).

What makes the story noteworthy is that the group was officially “liberated” only a few years after the American Emancipation Proclamation (but still experiences discrimination, and is virtually never mentioned in public by outsiders), and that today a black man became president of the United States. Also that the name Onishi uses for the group is buraku — no connection to Barack at all, but still an irresistible hook for journalists, and for me.

Asked whether a Japanese Obama was now possible, Nonaka replied, in his cautious Japanese politician’s way, “Well, I don’t know”. One younger interviewee was frankly negative, but another was even hopeful.

I’m taking advantage of the fact that this is Arnold Zwicky’s Blog, not Language Log, to occasionally talk about things that aren’t much about language (though I will touch on language, in passing, in this case). I will ask commenters not to turn this discussion into an account of how much the situation of African Americans has improved (so why are people complaining?) or into a debate about whether Barack Obama is “really” African American, is “really” black.

On to the main story. The NYT piece uses buraku as the designation for the group in question, though (as I understand things) the word means just ‘hamlet’, and originally referred to the neighborhoods in which the burakumin were segregated; buraku is presumably a clipped version of burakumin, and I’ll use it in this posting, since it’s the term Onishi uses. (Apparently, the buraku used to be distributed across much of Japan, but are now concentrated mostly in the Kansai region, with its urban centers of Osaka and Kyoto.)

As is usual with references to despised minorities, there’s a big range of terms used by different people, in different contexts, for different purposes. The buraku used to be (and sometimes still are) known as eta, a derogatory ethnonym, and there are official / administrative counterparts as well.

The roll-call of despised minorities around the world is almost endless. Not all are hereditary, though a great many are, and, of those, many are “ethnic”, associated (at least probabilistically) with physical characteristics. This is not the case for the buraku; as Onishi says, they are “ethnically indistinguishable from other Japanese”. Instead, they

are descendants of Japanese who, according to Buddhist beliefs, performed tasks considered unclean. Slaughterers, undertakers, executioners and town guards, they were called eta, which means defiled mass, or hinin, nonhuman. Forced to wear telltale clothing, they were segregated into their own neighborhoods.

There are themes here that resonate with other cases of despised minorities: occupational restrictions; marking by signs other than those of physical appearance (types of clothing, visible symbols like the star of David, audible signs like the ringing of a leper’s bell); spatial segregation (ghettoization); naming practices (according to which having a particular name “marks you” as belonging to some group); folk characterizations of members of the group as dirty, criminal, ignorant, not fully human (even specifically “animal”), and the like.

Much of this could be manipulated so that you could “pass” for the ordinary case. This is harder to do with physical characteristics — though there is a rich literature about people who have passed for ordinary by virtue of the great variability in human characteristics, or by virtue of the “mixing” of populations.

But what about behavioral characteristics, like stance, gesture, gaze, etc. — and dialect, prosody, speech tempo, vocal qualities, and much else having to do with speech? What I’ve seen about the buraku doesn’t mention any of this; there’s no hint about how you might develop “burakudar”, the ability to spot (with some accuracy) buraku from behavioral clues.

The buraku are, at least originally, a population dispersed in separated locations, so that there’s no reason to think that they should share behavioral characteristics, except perhaps in local groups. So I wonder what the facts are about the behavioral, in particular the linguistic, characteristics of the buraku.

One Response to “Buraku Obama”

  1. Chad Nilep Says:

    You might be interested in The Invisible Visible Minority: Japan’s Burakumin by I. Roger Yoshino & Sueo Murakoshi (1977). Unfortunately, my copy seems to have been lost somewhere along the way, so I can’t refresh my memory as to whether Yoshino and Marakoshi address any “ability to spot (with some accuracy) buraku.” I don’t recall having read or heard about any reliable cues, however. As I understand, most people consult either family registries or lists of burakumin families specifically made for the purpose of “protecting” one’s family against miscegenation and the like.

    In searching for a copy of Yoshino and Murakoshi, I came across this title, which might also be of interest: Race, Ethnicity and Migration in Modern Japan; Michael Weiner, 2004.

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