Long Standing Discriminatory Practices in Japan
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)
Enduring legacies is a concept that often takes center stage in discussions focusing on Japan among the American academic community. The myth of a Japan transformed has already been debunked by many U.S. based scholars who have bothered to look behind the obvious social, political and military changes that took place under the U.S. occupation of Japan and into those structures, laws and special interest groups that have been omnipresent in Japanese life ever since the Meiji restoration. Well-established scholars such as John W. Dower and Andrew Gordon have done much in the way of documenting how the "reverse course" reinstalled politicians of old and retarded, in some cases prevented, the removal of oppressive and undemocratic models of government in areas affecting the day-to-day lives of normal Japanese citizens. Other Western academics such as Ian Neary and Sheldon Garon have helped the Academic community in the U.S. understand how state institutions and their policies survived until recently by blurring the distinction between the public and the private as well as the legal and the customary.#1 These experts argue that Japanese public authorities have long been involved in the private sphere. Neary traces state interference as far back as the Tokugawa regime citing H. Ooms’ work on Tokugawa Village Practice: Class Status, Power, Law who described that period as one of "martial law in peacetime" (1996, p. 325). In her work Garon demonstrates that Meiji reforms further eroded the private-public division through a series of laws such as the Uniform Civil Code of 1896 and the Peace Police Law of 1900, which subjected public interest groups to governmental supervision/guidance and eventually extended "modern" systems of pervasive governance over the general population.#2
Recently, due to activism on the part of Japanese human rights groups, more attention is being given to the plight of those who have been deprived of their private by the state for almost a century. Legislation such as the Leprosy Prevention Act (1907) and the National Eugenics Law (1940) endured post-war reforms and continued to rob tens of thousands of citizens of their fundamental human rights until just recently. The groups that I am specifically referring to are lepers and the mentally handicapped. The Leprosy Prevention Act kept lepers in isolation up until 1996, when the law was repealed only after considerable domestic and international pressure. Under the National Eugenics Law 16,520 metal patients underwent forced sterilization between 1949-1996. Theoretically this practice ended when the law was changed to the Maternal Protection Law in 1996. While these nearly century old legacies have been to a large extent undone, the impact that these cruel practices has had on the victims and their families is only beginning to be understood.
Much work also remains to be done when it comes to the Ainu, the Burakumin (Eta), children of mixed blood born out of wedlock and the ethnic Korean community in Japan. Issues of discrimination persist. It is interesting to note that the U.S. State Department (which by no means serves as a human rights standard) has been reiterating its concern about poor treatment dished out to the groups mentioned above with the same language in its annual human rights reports since 1993. The State Department has included the following statement in every one of its human rights reports on Japan for over a decade: "the Burakumin (a group historically treated as outcasts), the Ainu (Japan's indigenous people), women, and alien residents experience varying degrees of discrimination, some of it severe and of long standing."#3 By "long standing" the State Department means back as far as the Meiji restoration.
Despite persisting pleas, the Japanese government has failed to make any significant improvement in these areas, in fact some argue that things have gotten worse (see for instance statements published by the Buraku Liberation League). In recent years, the government has also neglected repeated requests from the Okinawans (another discriminated minority) to decrease the U.S. military presence on their island, which has left them economically dependent, physically vulnerable and psychologically tortured. The continuation of discriminatory laws, practices and customs against minorities and a certain majority group (i.e.: women) in Japan needs to be understood in the context of enduring structural legacies of oppression that have been in place for at least a century. A number of academics and activists have labored tirelessly to put this message across and after having spent a number of months in the U.S. it appears as though some are beginning to recognize this.
Nevertheless, the ongoing "war on terrorism" has hit the human rights community hard here in America. The U.S. Patriot Act has significantly eroded civil rights guarantees and minority groups have become targets of increased discrimination. This is also having a negative impact on human rights awareness abroad. Unfortunately, the Japanese government has recently passed a number of bills that could severely restrict civil liberties during times of "national emergency", a situation that has no clear definition (for commentary on the Foreign Armed Attack Contingency Law see Media Review #97). The touted Plan for Gender Equality 2000 has also been a disappointment. Mixed children born out of wedlock continue to face discrimination under article 2 of the Nationality Law, which potentially leaves them without any nationality whatsoever. Certainly, Japan has made positive commitments over the past decade to remove a number of discriminatory practices, however, much remains to be done.
#1 Ian Neary, "State and Civil Society in Japan", Asian Affairs, Vol. XXXIV (1), 2003, pp. 27-32. X. L. Ding, "Institutional Amphibiousness", British Journal of Political Science, 24 (3), 1994, pp. 293-318.
#2 See S. Garon, Molding Japanese Minds (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997)