The narrow street is lined with people squatting on small stools tending steaming pots of boiled innards; behind them hang hunks of raw meat. Children joyfully run loose, kicking up dust as they shuffle back and forth hiding in between the crevasses of the wooden walls that demarcate one space from another. Weaving in and out of the upturned bicycles, plastic furniture and odd wares for sale, dodging adult cries to calm down, are the mischievous faces of youth, testing their limits. While we are strangers, we muster little attention as our host is known in the area, a friend and advocate. To him a nod is offered, a greeting, a smile, a brief wave of the hand. This is a community unlike most others in contemporary Japan. Here there is interaction, open communication, a village within an urban space. While all the stereotypes that I have been fed over the years are validated within a few blocks of our route, here they take on a different face. How can laughter and cries of contestation across a village road be viewed as vulgar and non-Japanese? How can suppression of feelings, emotions, and thoughts be seen as more acceptable? Do the Burakumin, in fact, represent an echoing back to a past when the distinction between tatemae (what is displayed) and honne (what is felt) were not so rigidly enforced? Hiroshima’s Buraku neighborhood of around 6,000 members has been transformed over the past twenty years from a slum of rundown shacks into respectable newer housing, thanks to the pressure exerted on the government by the Buraku Liberation League, the principal organization for advancing the cause of the Burakumin since the end of the Asia-Pacific war. The area has become far more diverse in the process, not only because it lies next to the local Korean community and public housing for victims of the A-bomb, but also due to the influx of newly arrived immigrants, in particular, the Chinese. Resting alongside the river and newly developed park, the community buzzes as people move in and out of small shops and eating places. The leather factory is now gone along with many jobs, though the meat industry still thrives, providing a good living for individuals well positioned in the local hierarchy. Older people
who live in the neighborhood tend to stay within its confines. As a result, it is difficult to actually measure the changes in the degree of discrimination since contact with the outer world is limited. A Buddhist temple in disarray stands as testimony to one priest’s attempt to lift the community and fight discrimination from the prewar days. Now abandoned, it quietly bids the visitor to enter. I am reminded, musing on the isolation of this enclave, of a story as told by a friend, a longtime student and researcher of Buraku issues. In the past there were two hospitals in Osaka that accepted Buraku people: Arakashidashi and Habikino. For years regular doctors were at a loss as to how to help their Buraku patients; no one knew how to treat some of the diseases they found: infant mortality, tuberculosis, and high cholesterol. The latter caused considerable consternation, given traditional Japanese eating habits. Doctors couldn’t fathom the source of the problem. Finally, one nurse, who knew the daily lives of the Burakumin, linked their maladies to diet, in particular the eating of organ meat called aburakasu, or kasu. Thereafter, doctors were sent out into the community to learn about some of the unique aspects of Burakumin life. There is something compelling about this story.