The New York Times (16/1, "Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Society’s Embrace" by Norimitsu Onishi) reports: "Kyoto, Japan – For Japan, the crowning of Hiromu Nonaka as its top leader would have been as significant as America’s election of its first black president.
"Despite being the descendant of a feudal class of outcast, who are known as burakus and still face discrimination, Mr. Nonaka had dexterously occupied top posts in Japan’s government, and served as the government’s No. 2 official. The next logical step was to become prime minister. Allies urged him on.
"But not everyone inside the party was ready for a leader of buraku origin. At least one, Taro Aso, Japan’s current PM, made his views clear to his closest associates in a closed-door meeting in 2001.
"‘Are we really going to let those people take over the leadership of Japan?’ Mr. Aso asked according to Hiaoki Kamei, a politician who attended the meeting.
"Mr. Kamei said he remembered thinking at the time that ‘it was inappropriate to say such a thing.’ But he and the others in the room let the matter drop, adding, ‘we never imagined the remark would leak outside.’
"But it did – spreading rapidly among the nation’s political and buraku circles. And more recently, as Mr. Aso became PM just weeks before President-elect Barack Obama’s victory, the comment has become a touchstone for many buraku.
"How far have they come since Japan began carrying out affirmative action policies for the buraku four generations ago, mirroring the American civil rights movement? The topic remains Japan’s biggest taboo, rarely entering private conversations and virtually ignored by the media.
"The buraku – ethnically indistinguishable from other Japanese who, according to Buddhist beliefs, performed tasks considered unclean. Slaughterers, undertakers, they were called eta which means defiled mass; or hinin, nonhuman. Forced to wear telltale clothing, they were segregated in their own neighborhoods.
"The oldest buraku neighborhoods are believed to be in Kyoto, the ancient capital, and date back a millennium. That these neighborhoods survive to this day and that the outcasts’ descendants are still subject to prejudice speak to Japan’s obsession with its past.
"In Japan, every person has a family register kept in the local town halls and that, with some extrapolation, reveals ancestral birthplaces. Families and companies widely checked birthplaces to ferret out buraku among potential hires or marriage partners until a generation ago, though the practice has greatly declined, especially among the young.
"The buraku were officially liberated in 1871, just a few years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the US. But as the burakus’ living and educational standards were far below national levels, the Japanese government, under pressure from buraku liberation groups, passed a special measures law to improve conditions for the buraku in 1969. By the time the law expired in 2002, Japan had reportedly spent about $175 billion on affirmative action for the buraku."
"At her school the children began learning about discrimination against the buraku early on. Instead of hiding their roots, children were encouraged to ‘come out,’ sometimes by wearing buraku sashes, a practice that Osaka discontinued early this decade, but that survives in the countryside.
"Ms. Tanaka encountered discrimination only when she began going to high school in another ward. One time, when she was visiting a friend’s home, the grandparents invited her to stay for lunch.
"‘The atmosphere was pleasant to begin with, but then they asked me where I lived,’ she said, ‘and when I told them, the grandfather put down his chopsticks right away and went upstairs.’
"A generation ago, most buraku married other buraku. But by the 1990s, when Ms. Tanaka met her future husband, marriage to outsiders was becoming more common…. But there are problems left.
"In Osaka’s 48 buraka neighborhoods, from 10 to 1,000 householders each, welfare rates remain higher than Osaka’s average. Educational attainment still lags behind, though not by the wide margin of the past.
"By contrast, Tokyo decided against designating the buraka neighborhoods. It discreetly helped buraka households, no matter where they were. The emphasis was on assimilation. In one of the oldest buraka neighborhoods, just north of central Tokyo, nothing differentiates the landscape from other middle-class areas in the city. Now new-comers outnumber the old-timers. The old-timers, however, who all know each other, live in fear that their roots will be discovered, said a 76-year-old woman who spoke on condition that neither she nor her neighborhood be identified.
"‘Me, too, I belong to those who want to hide,’ she said."
"Mr. Nonaka is one of the rare politicians who never hid his buraku roots. In 2001, he was considered a leading contender to become president of the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party and prime minister.
"Now 83, he was born into a Buraku family from a village outside Tokyo. In 2001, he was considered a leading contender to become president of the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party and prime minister.
"On his way home at the end of World War II, he considered disappearing so that he would be considered dead, he once wrote. With the evidence of his buraku roots expunged, he was in a position to remake himself in another part of Japan, he wrote.
"Mr. Nonaka eventually entered politics, and, known for his fierce intelligence, he rose quickly. By 2001, he was in a position to aim for the prime ministership. But he made up his mind not to seek the post. While he had never hidden his roots, he feared that taking the top job would shine a harsh spotlight on them. Already, the increasing attention had hurt his wife, who was not from a buraku family, nor was his daughter.
"‘The same happened with my son-in-law. So, in that sense, I made my family suffer considerably.’
"And so, at the closed meeting in 2001, Mr. Aso made the comment about ‘those people’ in a considerably loud void, recalled Mr. Kamei, the politician. Mr. Kamei, now 69, had known Mr. Aso since their elementary school days and was one of his biggest backers.
"Mr. Aso’s comment would have stayed inside the room had a political reporter not been eaves-dropping at the door – a common practice in Japan. But because of the taboo surrounding the topic of the buraku, the comment was never widely reported.
"‘That someone like that could rise all the way to becoming prime minister says a lot about the situation in Japan now,’ said Kenichi Kadooka, 49, who is a professor of English at Ryokoku University and is from a buraku family.
"Still, Mr. Kadooka had not let his anger dim his hope for a future buraku leader of Japan."
All that is needed is the equivalent of the rubber eraser that comes with many pencils at another level of Japanese life – and now in American politicians with Mr. Obama’s electoral triumph in the US.