Jeff Bayliss’ “On the Margins of Empire: Buraku and Korean Identity in Prewar and Wartime Japan”

First a few disclaimers. Jeff Bayliss is a personal friend of mine. Unlike Jeff, I am not a trained historian, although I did do my undergraduate studies in Japanese History. I’m not going to review his scholarship, because I’m not qualified to do so.  I do want say why his book is worth reading and to briefly mention why books like his are so important for us.

Basically this is an account of the evolving (dare we say modernizing) of discrimination against burakumin and Koreans in the early to mid-20th Century.  What the book shows is that discrimination can run on parallel paths, can often intersect, and can have vastly different results based upon the reaction and parallel development of the group being discriminated against.  The rationale for discrimination can be couched in historical myth, be updated with “scientific discovery,” then be folded into national security interest.  The rationale can be strange and contradictory.

The book flips between the majority’s actions and reactions and further switches between the buraku and the Korean communities’ actions and reactions.  The final chapter deals with the direct interactions between the two groups, which is a complicated mix of occasional cooperation, mutual distrust, and prejudice (on both sides).  Spanning the early 20th Century, the book has the opportunity to demonstrate how peace and war affect the rhetoric of discrimination and the resulting change in relative statuses of the underprivileged groups.  Additionally, we should remember that one group is ethnically Japanese and the other is not (although thought to be related), and how this plays into the equation is another interesting trend to follow.

One ironic point that the book mentions is Japan’s fight against racial discrimination during the period after World War I.  This criticism was directed in great part against the United States.  While this is outside the scope of the book, we should remember that this was a time when US racism was blatant, sometimes violent, and racial discrimination was commonly accepted.  Japan’s motivation was to protect the Japanese immigrants who lived under these conditions (read my ancestors).  This contradiction didn’t go unnoticed within the country and was used to criticize official discriminatory policies and actions.

Personally, I found the book fascinating.  As a Japanese history major, the decades of the early Meiji period through the end of the Pacific War are hectic, dangerous, and exciting.  The speed with which the country modernized, not only in terms of science, technology, business, and politics, but also intellectually and philosophically, was breakneck.  The dangers of this are all too apparent–leaders can make what appear to be minor progressive policy decisions that can have massive repercussions especially when it is something the general population cannot fully accept.  The abolition of pariah status for the buraku would appear to be an example.  And removing this older discrimination allowed for others to enter traditional buraku industries and eventually edge the burakumin out, sinking them into greater poverty.

I know a lot of people (even people in my family) find history boring, but I truly find it fascinating.  Far from being flat propaganda (and there is that), history that digs even a little deeper reveals a world that is complicated, messy, contradictory, sometimes violent, and often drunk.  People are in full color, because they are real.  They have contradictions, their mistakes have unforeseen consequences, their lives follow no conceivable plot.  In some ways, I enjoy history more because the stories are nuanced in a way that you can’t always get away with in fiction.  There are just too many moving parts.

Jeff writes a good book on discrimination.  It’s not a social theory, but a story with real people and real consequences.  Because of that, it has a great chance to make an impression upon the reader and stick.  It’s not dry stuff, but it is difficult.  And maybe reading a story about real discrimination in another country in another time (that really isn’t so distant from us) can shed some light into our place and our time.  Unless you’re Japanese and reading this in Japan.  In which case, I’ll have to think of a book for you.

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