As the United States welcomes its first African-American president, Japan is still struggling with prejudices that are preventing it from breaking ancient taboos and installing a minority as its leader, some say.
Nearly a decade ago, seasoned politician Hiromu Nonaka was on the verge of becoming prime minister in a heated battle with the man who now holds the post, Taro Aso.
The issue took an ugly turn when Nonaka’s roots as a “burakumin,” or a descendant of former outcasts, was allegedly raised by Aso, the scion of a wealthy, establishment family.
The burakumin are the descendants of people who were considered under Buddhist beliefs to be unclean — butchers, tanners, undertakers — and separated from the general population.
Though Japan officially did away with its caste system several years after the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, discrimination against the burakumin remains strong, affecting everything from their employment to their marriage prospects and social interaction.
Maps detailing the areas where the burakumin were once forced to live together in enclaves are still used to “out” people who don’t want their roots known.
About 900,000 people live in areas designated as “buraku,” mostly in western Japan.
Nonaka never hid his roots.
He was raised in a buraku farming village in the ancient capital of Kyoto, but that did not stop him from surging to top posts in the ruling party and government. Known as “the shadow premier,” the charismatic Nonaka served in the government’s No. 2 post as chief Cabinet secretary when Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori quit. That made him the man most likely to succeed.
But in a back room meeting of party elders in 2001, Aso allegedly told his fellow faction members: “We are not going to let someone from the buraku become the prime minister of Japan, are we?”
For reasons that remain unclear, Nonaka pulled out of the 2001 leadership race. Aso lost. Junichiro Koizumi came to power instead.
Aso has denied making the comment. But it has come back repeatedly to haunt him.
The alleged remark was made public in a 2004 book. It was raised in the Diet in 2005, and Aso denied ever saying it. Since Aso took office in September, however, it is back in the media spotlight.
One of the people who attended the meeting, Hisaoki Kamei — now a leader of a small opposition party — told The Associated Press through his secretary that he recalled Aso making a remark “to that effect.”
Kamei declined to elaborate, adding he did not plan to push Aso over the issue because it would be like beating a dead horse.
Nonaka was not at the meeting where the alleged remark was made but has nonetheless said he would “never forgive” Aso for the comment. In a recent TV interview, he said Aso’s prime ministership is “misery” for Japan.
“A man who grew up without seeing any of the suffering of the lowly people, he never looks at the public to share their perspective,” Nonaka said of Aso.
No one picked up the phone in Nonaka’s office, so he could not be reached for comment.
Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University in Tokyo, said prejudice against burakumin likely still exists in politics, which is dominated by second- or third-generation lawmakers from blue blood families.
Iwai said Nonaka was also likely a target of bitter envy in the ruling party, because he quickly climbed to top posts in the ruling party and government, though he said Nonaka’s decline was due to his back room deals — which Koizumi opposed.
Iwai said the allegations of Aso’s comment didn’t generate much outrage because many people share such views, or are afraid of questioning them.
“Everybody is staying away from the issue, and not even taking it up as a scandal, because the topic is still a major taboo in this country,” he said.
In recent years, however, a growing number of people from the former buraku have achieved success in academics, businesses and politics, including several who have been elected to the Diet. Japan has spent nearly ¥15 trillion ($170 billion) on affirmative action programs for the buraku since 1969, according to government figures.
So the door to the prime ministership may not be completely shut, Iwai said.
“You never know,” Iwai said. “Prejudice against them has softened to the extent it is hardly felt, at least in Tokyo.”