In February I travelled to Osaka, Japan. Together with Patti Talbot, the General Council staff responsible for United Church Partnerships in Northeast Asia, we went by the “bullet” train from Tokyo to visit the Buraku Liberation Centre, a ministry of the United Church of Christ in Japan and a partner supported by The United Church of Canada. We travelled with Rob and Keiko Witmer, “retired” mission personnel. Rob now serves as principal of the Seminary for Rural Mission, also affiliated with the United Church of Christ in Japan.

Program staffperson, the Rev. Akira Kobayashi, explained to us that the Buraku Liberation Centre was established in 1981 with the mission of working to end discrimination against the “buraku” people in Japanese society. The term “buraku” means “village” or “hamlet” and refers to a segment of Japanese society descended from people who in feudal times were ostracized and forced to live in small village communities outside of the main towns. Historically, these buraku people were butchers, tanners, and undertakers — occupations associated with the dead and therefore seen as “unclean” in Japanese society. I was interested to learn that buraku people were also involved with the treatment of lepers, another outcaste group by Japanese society.

Even with the modernization of Japan, the stigma against buraku families has continued. There is nothing to distinguish such families from the rest of society except for their family ancestry. Discrimination is particularly felt in the areas of marriage and employment. Due to the family registry system existing in Japan, it has been relatively easy to determine if a person’s family came from a buraku area. Before wedding engagements were announced, the families involved would sometimes hire investigative companies to determine whether the prospective partner had any buraku heritage. Such practices are now banned under legislation, including the Buraku Discrimination Reduction Act, and this discrimination issue is now largely a taboo subject. However, lists of buraku areas and family names continue to be circulated and used.

Staff of Baruka Liberation Centre gather for a group photo with United Church visitors in a Japanese parkette, with medium-size buildings in the background and medium-size mountains in the distance. All are dressed in coats in chilly February.
Rob and Keiko Witmer, centre, with Buraku Liberation Centre colleagues with visitors from The United Church of Canada.
Credit: 
Rev. KOBAYASHI Akira, Baruka Liberation Centre

I was moved by stories in the Buraku Liberation Centre’s newsletter, Crowned with Thorns, produced in both Japanese and English. Its August 2018 issue refers to the pyramid of hate that first begins with prejudice, which then can lead to hate speech. Then hate speech escalates into hate crimes and eventually even into genocide — something the world has experienced numerous times.

The Buraku Liberation Centre works to eradicate systemic prejudice in Japanese society. The centre does education and awareness raising as well as advocacy within the church and in broader society. It produces resources, organizes seminars, and even uses theatre — an annual play at the United Church of Christ Japan’s General Assembly to address issues of discrimination and Christian response. It holds an annual conference for young people that is an opportunity to learn from and interact with buraku people. The best sharing, we were told, often happens around meal time, and the preparation and sharing of food together.

The Buraku Liberation Centre is broadening its focus to include other issues of racism and oppression in Japanese society, including the discrimination faced by the indigenous Ainu people in northern Japan, and the health and economic trauma inflicted on those affected by the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown in 2011.

In an age where many societies are growing polarized and where prejudice and discrimination are among the root causes, the work of the Buraku Liberation Centre is timely and important.

—John Durfey is member of Port Nelson United Church in Burlington, Ontario who represents The United Church of Canada on the “Inter-Board Shadan,” a mission foundation in Japan. During the same trip to Japan he also wrote a blog post on United Church partner, the Asian Rural Institute.