Running along the bank of the Yamato River on the southern edge of Osaka City lies the Buraku of Asaka, whose residents for many years suffered multiple indignities due to their designation as Burakumin. Living in wooden shacks perched up against the bank of the river, their homes provided little protection from the rain, often sliding into the muddy waters below. Cut off on the west by the Abiko Great Bridge and the east by the campus of Osaka City University, OCU, the people of Asaka found their community bordered by garbage dumps and other undesirable public facilities. Further isolation from the rest of Osaka City increased with the building of a noisy train depot to the north of the Buraku in 1960.1 Within this context children were raised and families constructed, though not without significant struggle. In 1965, five years after the train depot was built, the Asaka Branch of the Buraku Liberation League (BLL), organized by a number of residents, made a claim to the local government that the debilitating living conditions of Asaka were a direct result of social discrimination and that compensation should be forthcoming. In 1968, after a long and exhausting struggle, the Asaka Branch of the BLL succeeded in negotiating with the Osaka City government to begin Special Measures projects. This success did not come without disaffection among some members of the community, including those who did not want their community to be labeled as Dowa for fear of further stigmatization.2 Still the BLL was able to hold the dissenters together sufficiently to gain access to funds to assist in the rebuilding of the community. Starting in the late 1970s, the riverbed houses began to be replaced with modern apartment complexes and the train depot was moved and placed underground in 1982. Gradually the quality of life of the Asaka Burakumin improved through the building of paved roads and walkways, sports facilities, a community center, home for the elderly, parks, playing fields, a daycare center, medical and welfare facilities, and youth education programs. Still the educational level of the community lagged almost twenty years behind the national average.3 The neighboring Osaka City University, criticized for not being more engaged in the process, moved towards greater collaboration by eliminating
physical and mental barriers that had separated it from the local community. One of the leaders in this effort was Professor Michihiko Noguchi, who became my primary link to the Asaka area beginning in 1998. An initial meeting included my first visit to Abiko Minami Junior High School where I was introduced to Mr. Maruyama, a longtime Dowa educator, counselor, and English teacher, who agreed to speak with me about the development of the new school. Born out of the effort to rectify academic disequilibrium, Abiko Minami offers a taste of what successful organization and community collaboration can accomplish in the face of extensive setbacks. The goal was simple: establish a school that would enable children who lived in the local Buraku community to attend a school close to home. Discussions, which were underway as early as the 1960s, faced particularly strong resistance from elderly non-Burakumin who did not want their grandchildren studying alongside Buraku children. Sensitive to this possibility and needing the cooperation of all concerned in order for the project to go forward, these resistant individuals were not publicly accused of discrimination, as had been popular in other cases, but rather were brought along through intensive investment of time and persuasion over the years to see the value of having a beautiful new school located in their neighborhood. The final removal of the train and subway factory in the 1980s provided space for the building of Abiko Minami Junior High School. However, the process continued with unexpected twists and turns. During the excavation, prehistoric elephant remains were found on the site and great care had to be taken not to disturb the bones. It was decided that the floor and walls of the entrance of the school would be constructed to feature the remains of the elephants along with an educational time line. Ten years later, in March 1995, the school was finally completed in time for a new academic year to begin in April. Extraordinary in its graceful design, using an open-school concept with natural wood wherever possible, it is a tribute to those who worked tirelessly to create a space that exudes warmth, safety, and exuberance. This is extremely rare in Japan where the typical school is very utilitarian and of unadorned gray concrete. But improvement in the physical structures of the community did not alter employment practices or the socioeconomic status of the Burakumin, nor did it eradicate years of ignorance and isolation on the part of all concerned. The historical legacy of discrimination had left many parents illiterate, unemployed, on social benefits, and unsure of the connection between education and success in a society that marked and relegated a portion of its population to the lowest rung. While the swampland, shacks, and unhealthy conditions that rimmed the riverbed were removed, the negative stigma linked to the community remained. Even though only 10% of the students at Abiko Minami were identified as Burakumin, parents of non-Burakumin youth, who were either low-income Japanese or Zainichi or Chinese, feared their children would somehow be contaminated through association with Buraku youth in a school setting. As a result, teachers spent an inordinate amount of time listening to complaints and concerns aired by parents and students alike. Part of the explanation required parents’ understanding that by designating Abiko Minami a Dowa School, additional
resources in the form of more teachers, counselors, activities, funding, and supplies would be available. But it also meant that the curriculum would include the teaching of the historical legacy of discrimination towards the Burakumin, a major focus of the Dowa Kyoiku agenda to be advanced by Mr. Maruyama and his colleagues who shared a commitment to social justice. I returned to Osaka in 2001, after conducting interviews in other parts of the country about the changes in the respect granted to teachers as well as the image of teaching itself in contemporary Japan with the understanding that I would interview a range of people who worked with Buraku youth in Dowa Schools. No longer hesitant to raise the issue of discrimination and assured by Professor Noguchi that the people I would speak with would be knowledgeable and forthcoming on the topic, I was introduced to Professor Nabeshima, a longtime advocate for social justice. He was also a friend of Mr. Maruyama who I first met in 1998 and who would now serve as my principal guide through what I had already come to understand as a rather complex and explosive terrain.