Burakumin (部落民 hamlet people/village people) are a Japanese minority group who have faced discrimination in Japan. The Burakumin, although one of the main minority groups in Japan, are racially and ethnically identical to other members of this country. Most historians trace the creation of a rigid outcaste class back to the early eighteenth century, when the Toku-gawa government issued a number of edicts defining outcaste status and listing rules to regulate outcaste dress code and freedom of movement, going so far as to cover what style of house they could live in (no windows facing the street). Some scholars claim more ancient origins tracing outcaste communities to the 14th –15th century, these conflicts notwithstanding, Ian Neary* traces a development over time in the formation of outcaste identity: “ whereas before 1600 the emphasis was on occupation afterwards it was on bloodline”. Although they were legally liberated in 1871, with the abolition of the feudal caste system, this did nothing to put a stop to social discrimination or lower standard of living.
Todays Burakumin are descendants of these feudal era outcaste communities, whose occupations would have mainly comprised of work considered unpure, tainted with death or ritual impurity (such as executioners, undertakers, workers in slaughterhouses, butchers or tanners) and traditionally lived in their own secluded hamlets and ghettos. This isolation, added to the long history of taboos and myths concerning the buraku, has left a legacy of social desolation. In the early 1970s the Japanese government who could no longer ignore the widening gap in the living standards between the prosperous middle classes and the outcaste community, began to throw loads of money at the problem, bulldozing the old housing and replacing with concrete prefab buildings. Since the 1980s more and more young buraku have started to organize and protest against their plight, with movements whose objectives range from "liberation" to integration with the aim of ending this situation.
* “Burakumin in contemporary Japan” Japan’s minorities, ed.Michael Weiner (London, Routledge, 1977)
The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto, contains three early tales of Kenji Nakagami set in and about the Burakumin community, a segment of society he was familiar with, being a member of the baruku himself. In these stories he reveals a section of Japanese society that most will never wander through, the alleyways and “unclean” spaces, recording the dialect of the labourer, the uneducated manual workers & leather workers. By using the local idiom of the outcaste, he created a prose style that captures all the nuances and richness found there.
Kenji Nakagami won the Akutagawa Prize in 1975 for The Cape, becoming the first author born in the post-war period to win this prize. The Cape tells the story of a tough burakumin family, gathering together to hold a memorial service for the first husband of the matriarch. Akiyuki, the son of a women who although married twice, but never to his father grows up in a world of half-siblings. One of these is Ikuo, a half brother who engages in violent against Akiyuki and his mother after she remarries and moves in with her new husband. Ikuo commits suicide when Akiyuki is twelve. We learn all of this as the memorial service is being organised and yet the shadow of violence is never far from Akiyuki and its spectre raises its head once more as Akiyuki’s in-law murders Furuichi (his own brother in law). All of this isolates Akiyuki even more and in search of answers to who he is, he turns to his natural father, which merely piles confusion upon confusion.
The second tale, House on Fire, is a study of an ordinary man, constantly ambushed by his own rage, endlessly reliving the memory of his father’s acts of violence. This story is framed around the illegitimate son of an arsonist, who hears that his father is in a hospital bed, his body shattered in a motorbike crash. This tale moves back and forth in time, between different characters and perspectives. The uniting force between father and son is violence, the one clear memory that the son has is of his father fighting another man at a school fair, this act seems to define for the son ideals of sexuality and manhood. This legacy follows the son into adulthood, although now, his own violent impulses shows themselves in the petty and sordid acts of bullying committed against his tired wife or in the destruction of inanimate objects. This tale plays out the drama of identity, as the protagonist tries to piece the shards of his life, sifting through what is memory and myth, caught in this riddle the son ends up alienating all.
The third tale in this collection is Red Hair, and possibly the most straight forward of these tales. Kozo, a construction worker picks up a red headed women at a bus stop, what follows is a tale of sexual excess as Kozo & this unknown insatiable redhead explore each others bodies, punctuated only by the other bodily needs and Kozo’s job. This account of sexual obsession is raw, it burns off the page with a brute force and a passion that could light up a major city and yet?Within its twenty four pages, this book hints at a lot more, insinuations that this mysterious women has a dark past, carries a lot of emotional baggage, then there’s the screams each morning from a neighbour who’s addicted to amphetamines and wakes them up with her cries.
These three tales are dark and foreboding, the people involved live lives, not of quiet despair, their pain is writ large. The tragedies could be picked out of any line up, the usual suspects of alcoholism, murder, rape and suicide, of people bound by a fickle constraint. The stories, like the characters go nowhere, confined within the limitations of their world, leaving you with no egress, no key to why - just endless questions. Kenji Nakagami doesn’t detail the disease but shows the symptoms of a life where discrimination isn’t that awful thing that happens to someone else, but is the entirety of ones existence.