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The shadow of Meiji-era discrimination lingers in modern Japan

Japanese society struggles with its feudal past while aspiring for a more open, classless, and egalitarian future
People take part in a Black Lives Matter protest march in central Tokyo on June 14, 2020. Discrimination in Japan today is often subtle yet insidious, affecting opportunities for employment, marriage, and social integration for certain groups.

People take part in a Black Lives Matter protest march in central Tokyo on June 14, 2020. Discrimination in Japan today is often subtle yet insidious, affecting opportunities for employment, marriage, and social integration for certain groups. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 08, 2024 03:23 AM GMT
Updated: May 02, 2024 06:42 AM GMT

In a recent incident that has sparked considerable debate and criticism within Japan, Governor Heita Kawakatsu of Shizuoka Prefecture announced his resignation following a controversial remark.

During an address to newly inducted civil servants, he drew a blunt distinction between the intelligence of these individuals and those engaged in professions such as vegetable selling, cattle farming, and manufacturing.

His comment, "Everyone here is a brainy and intelligent person, unlike those who sell vegetables, take care of cows or create things," not only led to public outrage but also served as a reminder of the deep-seated class structure that persists in Japanese society.

This episode is emblematic of a broader issue that plagues Japan's political landscape: the dominance of a ruling class that is largely hereditary.

The remnants of the samurai elite, who transitioned into bureaucratic roles during the Meiji era, continue to wield significant influence. This ruling class sees itself as the inheritor of the samurai legacy, embodying a distinct superiority over those in non-bureaucratic professions.

The incident involving Governor Kawakatsu is not an isolated one but a reflection of the entrenched attitudes that permeate Japan's political and social fabric. Despite the modernization and democratization efforts that have transformed many aspects of Japanese society, the shadow of the past, particularly the class system institutionalized during the Meiji Restoration, still looms large.

"The influence of the samurai was rechanneled into the burgeoning bureaucracy of the modern Japanese state"

The Meiji Restoration, which began in 1868, was a period of rapid modernization and Westernization. It also marked the formal abolition of the samurai class. However, rather than dissipating, the influence of the samurai was rechanneled into the burgeoning bureaucracy of the modern Japanese state.

This transformation created a new elite class that has maintained its grip on power through hereditary succes

.sion and a network of connections that span the political, bureaucratic, and business spheres.

This historical backdrop is crucial for understanding the current landscape of Japanese politics, which remain dominated by individuals and families with long-standing ties to the pre-Meiji and Meiji-era ruling classes.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been in power for the majority of the post-war period, is symbolic of this trend, with many of its leading figures coming from families with generations of political involvement.

The phenomenon is not confined to the political arena; it extends into various sectors, including business and academia, reinforcing a class structure that privileges a small elite at the expense of broader societal participation and mobility.

Take the Burakumin as another example. The minority group in Japan has faced systemic discrimination that stretches back centuries, rooted in their association with certain occupations deemed impure or tainted according to feudal Japanese purity laws.

Historically, this group was involved in professions such as butchery, tanning, and undertaking — jobs that were considered essential yet spiritually defiling, placing those who performed them in the lowest echelons of the social hierarchy.

Despite the official abolition of the caste system in the late 19th century during the Meiji Restoration, the shadow of discrimination against the Burakumin lingers in contemporary Japan, manifesting in social, economic, and even spatial segregation.

"The backlash against Kawakatsu's remarks reflects a societal pushback against these outdated notions of class superiority"

This enduring prejudice is not only a testament to the resilience of outdated class structures but also highlights how deeply ingrained societal attitudes can outlive the formal policies meant to dismantle them.

Discrimination against the Burakumin today is often subtle yet insidious, affecting their opportunities for employment, marriage, and social integration.

One of the most pervasive forms of this discrimination is associated with the practice of "buraku koseki," where family registries, or koseki, which document lineage and address histories, can be used to trace an individual's background back to historically discriminated communities.

Despite advancements in civil rights and the efforts of various advocacy groups, the stigma associated with these areas persists, perpetuated by enduring stereotypes and prejudices.

Governor Kawakatsu's comments inadvertently shed light on the persistence of these class-based attitudes. By implying a hierarchy of intelligence and value based on profession, he touched on a sensitive aspect of Japanese society's struggle with its feudal past and the ongoing challenges of creating a more open, classless, and egalitarian future.

The backlash against Kawakatsu's remarks reflects a societal pushback against these outdated notions of class superiority. It signifies a growing awareness and rejection of the entrenched disparities that have long characterized Japanese society.

However, this incident also highlights the challenges that lie ahead in dismantling these deeply rooted structures.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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