Minister backs cause for justice

American man of the cloth takes up plight of Japan's outcasts


Most people turning 60 begin to think about slowing down or fertilizing the greener pasturelands of retirement.

Not Timothy Boyle.

Having spent two decades in Kanto, he uprooted himself and his family earlier this year and took up the challenge of moving to Kansai to revitalize the work of Osaka’s Buraku Liberation Center.

Boyle is an American minister with the United Methodist Church, which operates in Japan under the umbrella of the United Church in Japan (Nihon Kirisuto Kyodan).

He started out in Arizona as a physics major, but spent time at the East-West Center in Hawaii learning Japanese as part of his junior year in college. He then chose to study meteorology in Florida. The Vietnam draft put a stop to that.

Later, he attended Fuller Theological Seminary in the U.S. “There was no grand crisis or anything. Just a gradual awakening as to what I wanted to do with my life.”

Coming to Japan initially as a short-term missionary, Boyle found himself in Tsukuba. Soon he was not only running UMC’s community center but also supervising the Japanese chapter of Reasons to Believe, an international and interdenominational science-faith think tank headquartered in California.

He wrote a book in Japanese, “Bible Stories Hidden in Chinese Characters” (1994), with an English version released in 2001. Authored pamphlets in Japanese on Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And on an expat community level edited the Alien Times: Tsukuba’s original English newsletter.

Perfectly happy where he was, he took the job in Osaka because the subject was critical enough to validate the change. With his two children nearly grown up, there was only his Japanese wife to consult, and she said yes.

“Buraku means hamlet or village,” he explains in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Station, hot (literally) off the bullet train from Kobe for a meeting of the Japan Chapter of the international Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“Burakumin refers to discriminated-against hamlet or village people. They are tribal, not ethnically, but in the sense that they are social outcasts. There are an estimated 3 million in Japan and 6,000 buraku communities.”

BLC is not to be confused with the Buraku Liberation League and various politically motivated organizations. The center was founded in 1981 in response to the Japanese Church not welcoming buraku members and so reinforcing prejudice.

“Japanese staff worked with Robert Stieber until his death in 1999. They had been requesting a replacement since then. With most buraku groups operating in isolation, there was the need for an overview. Also there’s been considerable international interest since the Sayama Case.”

This refers to a female high school student found murdered in 1963 near a buraku community in Sayama, north of Tokyo. Police arrested Kazuo Ishikawa (of burakumin descent) and allegedly forced him to confess. As a result, Ishikawa served 32 years hard labor. Released on probation in 1994, he continues to campaign vigorously for a third retrial.

Boyle recalls how he made himself familiar with the incident, going to the site and doing fieldwork.

“Accused simply because his ancestors slaughtered animals, he was an easy target for the police to close the case. I was always outraged but of course there was a lot I didn’t know. Now I can see how easy it was for an outcast group to develop.”

He thinks it terrible that being of buraku descent is still seen in a negative light, even today. “Japanese may give lip service to tolerance, but if their child wants to marry someone of buraku ancestry, there’s a sharp knee-jerk reaction. Also private companies play it safe in terms of hiring, afraid of negative reactions from customers.”

Boyle has written a brief history of burakumin, and it’s on his Tsukuba blog, Tsukublog. But only because the Web site for the center is still in the process of being designed.

While some of the research is his own, most of his observations are based on a Japanese textbook, “Kore de Wakatta! Buraku no Rekishi (Now I understand it! Buraku History)” by Uesugi Satoshi, a lecturer at Kansaki University in Osaka.

As Boyle writes: “The key to understanding any form of religiously sanctioned class discrimination is defilement — what makes a person polluted and unclean.”

Historically, the purification of the polluted was central to maintaining a stable society.

“Take the Japanese word for weather, tenki, made up of two characters, “he says. “Ten can be read as heaven, ki as feelings. So the feelings of the gods.

In the animist mind-set, the gods must be placated in order to achieve good weather. This means offering rituals and incantations that remove any defiling cause of offense.”

In ancient Japanese society, defilement (kegare) focused on death and blood. Even childbirth — a happy event — was polluting as it involved bleeding.

Discrimination had its beginnings in Kyoto in the 10th century. Those who could not pay high taxes became marginalized and ended up doing 3-D jobs: dirty, difficult and dangerous. One involved the disposal of dead bodies. Those who were pressed into service as kiyome (purifiers) became even more defiled.

The kiyome separated into two groups: hinin (literally, nonhuman) and eta (defilement abundant). Hinin came to handle the dead. Eta, the killing of animals and the tanning of skins.

Neither group could move from where its ancestors had lived. Their children had no way out at all. As for society, it tolerated their existence (because their labor was critical) as long as they kept their proper distance.

“The relationship between Christianity and the hinin and eta is especially interesting. Christianity had little impact on eta, but a high percentage of hinin became kirishitan (Catholic converts 400 years ago) and were murdered in the Tokugawa clampdown against foreign influence.

“I learned many things. That it became mandatory to discriminate against social outcasts in the 18th century. That eta were forced by law to wear leather patches for identification.”

The abandonment of this feudal social system is known as kaiho-rei — or the emancipation edict, or proclamation. But as Boyle reveals, “it turned out to be a repealing of the class system only, with no roots in human rights and justice. So a kind of unspoken discrimination continues, just as it does against freed slaves in the U.S.”

From the late 1800s to the 1930s, many hinin (and eta) emigrated to the U.S., Brazil and Peru. “No records of their former status exist, of course; no one was going to admit to being an outcast. But certainly a large percentage left Japan. Government policy toward the colonization of Hokkaido was more controlled, with less than 10 percent of eta allowed entry.”

The government position today is to support buraku in the hope that eventually they will melt into the mainstream and the problem will disappear. But Boyle believes this will be impossible while people are able to check back through family registers.

Buraku organizations remain divided, between those who prefer assimilation, and those who want a more open and radical approach.

Boyle put BLC’s faith in education, discussion, and an apology such as the Ainu recently received.

“I’d also like to see a major revision of the shoseki family register system in Japan, so that there is no record of so-called polluted bloodlines. I think this would help a lot.”

Buraku Liberation Center: (072) 875-8470; Tsukublog:; Web site: