The burakumin, Japan’s largest minority group, have been the focus of an extensive yet strikingly homogeneous body of Japanese language research. The master narrative in much of this work typically links burakumin to premodern occupational groups engaged in a number of socially polluting tasks like tanning and leatherwork. This narrative, when subjected to close scrutiny, tends to raise more questions than it answers, particularly for the historian. Is there really firm historical continuity between premodern outcaste and modern burakumin communities? Does the discrimination faced by these communities actually remain the same? Does the way burakumin frame their own experience significantly affect mainstream understandings of their plight?
Embodying Difference is the result of a decade-and-a-half-long search for answers to these questions. Based on an extensive array of original archival material, ethnographical research, and critical historiographical work, it argues that there needs to be a fundamental reconceptualization of the buraku problem for two main reasons. First, the master narrative is built on empirically and conceptually questionable foundations; and second, mainstream accounts tend to overlook the important role burakumin and other interested parties play in the construction and maintenance of the narrative. By continually drawing a straight line between premodern outcaste groups and today’s burakumin, the Japanese government, the general population, scholars, and burakumin activists tend to overlook some of the real changes that have often taken place both in who are identified as members of socially marginalized groups in Japan and how they experience that identification. Clinging to this master narrative also restricts the ways in which burakumin can productively and more inclusively identify in the present to imagine a liberated future for themselves. Amos’ attempt to rethink the boundaries of buraku history and the category of the outcaste in Japan results in a compelling study that also offers us insights on how to comparatively frame the ‘undeniably similar’ dalit question.
Timothy Amos is Assistant Professor in the Department of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore.
‘There are very few monographs in English on the problem of burakumin or outcaste identity in Japan… Timothy Amos has written a clear, readable account of the contingencies of buraku identity in Japan.’Elyssa Faison, Associate Professor of Japanese History, University of Oklahoma