(the 20th extraordinary story …)


In 1993 a research school of the Australian National University organised a competition for writers to submit their personal or fictional impressions of Japan. One result was a collection of stories and anecdotes, entitled Encounters with Japan, and sub-titled 20 Extraordinary Stories.

One of my stories, Drawing the Line, was selected for the collection and the book's publication was negotiated with HarperCollins in Sydney. The first edition was published in 1994, going to a second printing with fairly successful sales.

A Japanese translation was then negotiated with Simul Press, a Tokyo-based publishing and translation company. Their version was released in 1995 with the title Watashi ga deatta Nippon (I encountered Japan) and showing on its inside cover the cover-page image of the original Australian edition, including its sub-title.

Only nineteen stories were included in the translation.

The reason? In the missing story (mine) one of the characters reveals his hidden background to an Australian colleague, as being from the burakumin or 'untouchable' class in Japan - a topic which is customarily suppressed from public discussion.

Until 1945, Japanese society was stratified into classes. Such classes originated during the centuries of shogun (military clan dictatorship) rule up to the mid-19th century and the nation's opening up to the West at the time of the Meiji era. Classes ranged from the samurai down to the lowly merchant classes. Outside all of these were the buraku people who were totally excluded.

This exclusion had arisen due to their family involvement in animal slaughter as meat-eating became more popular among merchants and other townspeople. This taste for meat prevailed over earlier Buddhist objections to killing and meat consumption.

This distinction was reinforced and manipulated by the class system, in particular by the growing merchant class which suffered a low status in the samurai-dominated society and needed another group or grade beneath it.



This prejudice and exclusion came to extend from slaughter and butchering trades to people involved with handling hides and skins, leather, and any work relating to animal product use, however indirect.

The burakumin, as they were called, had no recourse. Their villages became separate ghettos and the term buraku actually refers to such 'untouchable village-locations'. This stigma was not mitigated by the modernising Meiji era or its constitution from the 1860s (largely maintained 'till Japan's defeat in 1945). 


The Allied-imposed post-War constitution after 1945 abolished official forms of class in Japan, but not the marginalisation of the burakumin. They continue to be discriminated against, with family-line investigators often employed to check the forebears of a prospective spouse. A common Japanese response to this issue (particularly from those raised before 1945) is to ignore or deny its existence.

The situation has become increasingly sensitive too, with the recent emergence of an "untouchables defence league" based in Osaka - which has become outspoken and aggressive against any media slight or insult to these people and their villages or localities.


Reasons given by the executives of Simul Press for my story's suppression were their concern "to avoid defaming or offending buraku communities in Japan", although the story did not do so. Simul Press has done significant work in recent years to bring other Australian writing to a Japanese readership. But whether it was justified in its decision to suppress this story, or rather just lending support to a silent censorship of the burakumin issue, remains a moot point.


(footnote – I was paid a royalty fee by Simul Press on the Japanese edition - for the non-publication of my story !)

[ adapted from an article in "Australian Author" volume 20, no. 1 – Autumn 1997] ................................................................... copyright - G D Bolton