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
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.
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 !)