Investigating ‘impurity’ in Tokyo’s marginalized leatherwork districts

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

Because of irrational fears of contamination, Japan’s hibakusha — the survivors of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — suffered discrimination. Try to imagine having an atom bomb dropped on you by a foreign enemy, then to have your own people turn against you. There is another group in Japan, ethnically and linguistically no different to any other Japanese, that would surely understand that predicament.

The dowa people (also known by terms such as burakumin) are descendants of an Edo Period (1603-1868) caste system that placed the eta and hinin people on the lowest rung of the social structure.

The eta, meaning “full of filth,” were typically allocated jobs involving contact with leather, but also worked as executioners, grave and ditch diggers, slaughterhouse workers, torturers, cremation workers and sewerage cleaners.

The hinin, signifying “non-humans,” were often found to be prostitutes, tinkers and traveling performers. Based on the records of people who have registered themselves as residents in dowa neighborhoods, the government estimates the remaining population to be around 1.2 million — the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) put the number at closer to 3 million.

It may be of some surprise to learn that a large amount of the rawhide produced in West Texas is shipped to Japan, where it is processed into leather. More startling for the author of “Working Skin,” was an experience he had when visiting a tannery in Tochigi Prefecture as a graduate student of anthropology from Lubbock, Texas. He discovered that most of the rawhide used at the tannery came in salted crates sent from his hometown.

“How is it that both Texan leather and a Texan anthropologist ended up at the same tannery north of Tokyo?” author Joseph Hankins asks. The synchronicity resulted in the writer abandoning a project on language use and gender in Japan for a study of dowa issues related to Japan’s leather industry, one of the most stigmatized in the country.

The aim of this book is to explore the tensions between the “making of leather and the making of a multicultural Japan.” Hankins has certainly done his fieldwork. Part of his research involved apprenticing himself for six months to a tannery in east Tokyo’s Higashi Sumida district, where he experienced firsthand the dehumanizing work undertaken by dowa.

Hurling and stacking hides, “slippery with blood and fat or with chromium,” he chronicles the risks of the work, and of coming into contact with corrosive solutions. Even though the male leather workers derive a degree of pride from the muscularity of their work and self-designation as professionals, their own skins are damaged with a toxic cocktail of neutralizing enzymes, sodium hydroxide and vitriolic acid. Symptoms range from calloused hands, stinging eyes and the absence — after only one week of exposure — of nasal hairs, due to the inhalation of powdered lime. Many of the risks get brushed under the table. On the killing floor of the tanneries, the only thing that matters is one’s ability to hold down the job and provide for family and dependents.

Over the past century there has been some blurring of dowa identity. The carpet-bombing of Japanese cities during World War II destroyed many family registers, and dispersion from dowa areas has dissolved some of the ghettoization associated with caste groups. A growing number of people whose parents have withheld knowledge of their family background are not even aware that they might be perceived as “buraku.”

The dilemma faced by many dowa is whether to conceal their identity in the hope that the association will vanish, or to take pride in it. It is easy for observers to say that if the issue is not faced squarely it will fester, but those who expose themselves run the risk of greater, immediate discrimination.

Anyone who has lived in Japan long enough will have been privy to anachronistic abnormalities in society. If cases of parents forbidding their offspring from marrying dowa are common — as are instances of companies refusing to employ minority people — less known are cases like those revealed in Hankins’ work, where employees reject candidates living in dowa neighborhoods, even if they are not caste members themselves. The reasoning behind this practice of contamination by association is difficult for non-Japanese to fathom. Hankins uses the word “inemuri,” defined as “to be present but sleeping,” to characterize the Japanese public’s inattention to human rights. Vocal denunciations of injustice are not always well received in Japan, where the tendency is to ignore the darker realities in the hope they will sink to the bottom of the social pond and stay there.

Clearly there is little rational basis for the practice of discrimination based on descent. One talks about the sins of the fathers, but the lower orders in Japan committed no crimes — they were simply assigned to their social class and allotted the most onerous of society’s tasks. Ironically, the preoccupation with purity and contamination proves to be the unhealthiest obsession of all, one counter-intuitive to the multiculturalism expounded in this finely composed and researched book.

Will common sense, sanity and basic decency prevail? Only time will tell.