Japan and the Emancipator

Japan and the Emancipator

Harvard history professor Daniel Botsman discusses the progress and plight of Japan's Burakumin under Meiji rule.

A story involving beautiful flowers, Mito Mitsukuni, and then, to top it all off, the greatest military hero of the imperial past, Kusunoki Masashige, seems just a little bit too good to be true.

They took away the corpses of people who fell ill and died in the streets. They posted the severed heads of criminals in public and guarded them. They were responsible for the carcasses of cows. Some made leather and some sold flowers. These were the Burakumin, the outcasts of Japan.

Descendants of Burakumin, Japanese people distinguished by caste, not ethnicity, continue to face unofficial discrimination in Japan.

Daniel Botsman, a professor of history at Harvard University, told the ironic story of the "emancipatory moment” of the outcasts in Meiji Japan (1868-1912) at a colloquium sponsored by the UCLA Center for Japanese Studies on Oct. 31. The Burakumin were granted commoner status in the Emancipation Edict of 1871, the culmination of a campaign spearheaded by Ôe Taku*, a prominent citizen. It was Ôe who formally proposed that the outcast status of the Burakumin be abolished.

However, this story of liberation has no fairy-tale ending, and the emancipator's motives were perhaps not as altruistic as he made out, according to Botsman.

Ôe, born to a lower-class samurai family, devoted himself to the cause of the emperor and the restoration movement of the 1860s. He was active in politics and business, including a stint as a railway magnate in colonial Korea. He eventually was appointed as a judge in the Kobe area court, a "treaty port” where foreigners were beginning to set up consulates and trade.

In a 1919 speech, Ôe said that his interest in the outcasts' cause had been sparked during a stroll when he stumbled on Furonodani, a village under the general authority of the Kobe area. Ôe said he had been touched by the poverty of the people and noticed they were mostly flower sellers, a "beautiful door-to-door trade” that they alone were allowed to pursue. He found out, he said, that their monopoly on the trade stemmed from loyalty to the great fourteenth-century imperial general Kusunoki Masashige.

According to legend, in the early Tokugawa period (seventeenth century), a great daimyo lord, Mitsukuni of Mito, happened across the grave of Kusunoki, who had died trying to reassert the power of the Imperial throne. The general's grave was nondescript and sat in a lonely paddy field. Yet each morning without fail, Mitsukuni noticed, fresh incense burned and fresh flowers had been laid there. He wondered who could be responsible. Soon he found that the people of Furonodani were the ones loyally tending to this grave centuries after the great general's death. In recognition of their loyal service, Mitsukuni granted them the exclusive privilege of selling flowers in the region.

'Leather Was King'

Although his later account made it seem that the villagers who touched Ôe were all flower-sellers, they were in fact mostly makers of leather. Botsman showed this with evidence from population registers. The Burakumin had the dirty job of skinning and tanning the carcasses of cows that they were responsible for collecting.

Was Ôe simply mistaken? Although there were many Burakumin flower-sellers, about six times as many of them were leather workers. It seems that Ôe focused on one aspect of their livelihood in order to win them sympathy, Botsman said. A story involving "beautiful flowers, Mito Mitsukuni, and then, to top it all off, the greatest military hero of the imperial past, Kusunoki Masashige, seems just a little bit too good to be true."

Botsman also pointed out that Ôe grew up near a village of these eta, or outcasts, and had hired them to clear some of his land. Clearly, he had been exposed to these people before. Where he worked in the Kobe region, the Burakumin were practically on his office's doorstep, according to Botsman.

Furonodani was located very close to the burgeoning port area of Kobe, where westerners were officially allowed to set up shop. While demand for beef was growing, leather had always been used to make sandals that were popular in Japan. Even more important in the Meiji era were leather boots, straps, and belts for the westernizing army. "Leather was king,” Botsman said.

Slaughtering cows and manufacturing leather was a dirty job that only the outcasts could do, but there were not enough of them. The industry needed more hands, as Ôe was well aware. He worked in the local courthouse and had significant responsibility over the new "treaty port."

Botsman concluded that Ôe invented much of his flowery appeal for reform in order to bolster the industry. By raising people who had their hands in the leather and slaughtering business to the status of others, he hoped to remove its stigma. As long as people shunned the industry, labor and investment would be difficult to attract.

In his 1919 speech Ôe vouched for the Burakumin to a council charged with doing something about the "Burakumin problem." Though formally emancipated 50 years prior, the Burakumin were still a disadvantaged social group, potentially ripe for revolution against their imperial government. Japanese officials may have worried about this after witnessing a socialist revolution in Russia. Botsman said Ôe intended to help them again in order to prevent such an uprising.

According to Botsman, then, development of the leather industry and subversion of revolution were, in turn, motives behind Ôe's championing of the Burakumin's cause.

* Following Japanese custom, names will be presented last name first.

Published: Wednesday, November 09, 2005