Eta touchy subject.
May 5, 2009 2:25 AM   Subscribe

"When Google Earth added historical maps of Japan to its online collection last year, the search giant didn't expect a backlash..."

Some of the maps now available are woodblock print maps dating back to the Edo period and reveal the living areas of the burakumin (aka: eta), or untouchable class. Castes in Japan have long been abolished officially, but problem is that many companies still do background checks on individuals and refuse to hire the descendants of burakumin. Background checks are also sometimes done before a couple gets married, usually by the parents of the prospective bride or groom. Link to AP story.
posted by zardoz (117 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
The idea of companies doing background checks to prevent these people from working seems pretty crazy.
posted by delmoi at 3:05 AM on May 5, 2009 [7 favorites]


Says the wiki link:
Cases of continuing social discrimination are known to occur mainly in western Japan, particularly Osaka, Kyōto, Hyōgo and Hiroshima regions, where many people, especially the older generation, stereotype buraku residents (whatever their ancestry) and associate them with squalor, unemployment and criminality.
So businesses refuse to hire them. It wouldn't be surprising if that in turn resulted in a certain amount of real unemployment, squalor, and criminality. Maybe not a lot, but enough to show up in the papers and confirm people's prejudices. "See! I told you not to trust those people!"
posted by pracowity at 3:20 AM on May 5, 2009 [7 favorites]


Japan's a weird place. There, I said it. I know a lot of "only in Japan stories" are either outright fabrications or gross exaggerations, but I'm amazed at how ingrained ethnic bigotry still is in Japan these days.

Any society in which people are sufficiently insecure that they have to screen out some bogeyman ethnic group lest they get tainted by association is pretty weird to me.

Well, that and selling schoolgirls' underpants in vending machines.

Fair's fair, though: sushi's pretty tasty and I hear the Japanese have a mean sideline in consumer electronics and motor vehicles.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:24 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think this is an ethnic discrimination issue - the burakumin are ethnically identical to the rest of the Japanese population. It seems like a feudal caste classification from back when working with the dead was a stigma, and it never really wore off.

Moving is little help, because employers or parents of potential spouses can hire agencies to check for buraku ancestry through Japan's elaborate family records, which can span back over a hundred years.

"If we suspect that an applicant is a burakumin, we always do a background check to find out," she said. She agreed to discuss the practice only on condition that neither she nor her company be identified.


I wonder what kind of qualities make someone a 'suspected' burakumin. Is there still this extreme negative reaction to working with the dead, or is it instead a reaction to having relatives that used to work with the dead (until they, you know, died)?

Two weeks later, after the public comments and at least one reporter contacted Google, the old Japanese maps were suddenly changed, wiped clean of any references to the buraku villages. There was no note made of the changes, and they were seen by some as an attempt to quietly dodge the issue.

Any ideas on how they did this? Were the offending map layers removed, or just the eta label? Was it Photoshopped out?

Interesting about the Buraku Liberation League. To what extent is this seen as a problem in Japan? The outrage seems to be focused more towards the publication of the maps rather than the blatant discrimination.
posted by amicamentis at 4:01 AM on May 5, 2009


Any society in which people are sufficiently insecure that they have to screen out some bogeyman ethnic group lest they get tainted by association is pretty weird to me.

*cough*mexicanfence*cough*
posted by DU at 4:15 AM on May 5, 2009 [39 favorites]


The outrage seems to be focused more towards the publication of the maps rather than the blatant discrimination.

And from what I can tell, at least partially towards the publication of the maps without making it clear that they have to be viewed in a specific historical and cultural context, rather than the publication in itself. If it's on the Internet and is provided by Google, it has to be true &c.
posted by effbot at 4:31 AM on May 5, 2009


This is really interesting. Thanks.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 4:34 AM on May 5, 2009


Knowing that David Rumsey will be involved gives me hope that this will be handled well.
posted by honest knave at 4:34 AM on May 5, 2009


I remember reading that Abe, the Mudokon meat-packer from Abe's Oddysey, had to go from having three, to two fingers when the sequel, Abe's Exoddus, was released in Japan, apparently because of pressure from the Buraku Liberation League alleging that he was a defamatory stereotype.

So businesses refuse to hire them. It wouldn't be surprising if that in turn resulted in a certain amount of real unemployment, squalor, and criminality. Maybe not a lot, but enough to show up in the papers and confirm people's prejudices. "See! I told you not to trust those people!"

Absolutely. My understanding is that a disporportionate proportion of Yakuza have Burakumin backgrounds, which makes sense. If legal methods of gaining money and basic respect are denied to you, it's perhaps not surprising that you would resort to more illicit ones.
posted by RokkitNite at 4:50 AM on May 5, 2009


So what exactly is supposed to happen to you if you hire a burakumin? What terrible woo-woo curse makes them so much worse an employee than any less-qualified, less-experienced non-burakumin? This is dumbassery on the level of penis theft panic.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:00 AM on May 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


I remember reading that Abe, the Mudokon meat-packer from Abe's Oddysey, had to go from having three, to two fingers

The Abe's Oddysey game itself, and four to three fingers, according to Wikipedia: "Four fingers, or showing four fingers to another person, came to insinuate the other was a member of the subclass, because it had become symbolic of the meat packers who frequently had work-related accidents."
posted by effbot at 5:07 AM on May 5, 2009


Japan's a weird place. There, I said it.

Every place is a "weird" place, my friend. I'm not inclined at the moment to list some of the things I find weird about the United States, or Austria, or South Korea, or Nigeria, but, rest assured, they all have really weird aspects.

I suspect you've done little to no traveling? Haven't spent extended periods of time in "foreign" places? Well, that'd be my guess, and if you in fact have, then your comment is all the more ignorant.

And as someone mentioned above, your characterization of this burakumin oppression as "ethnic bigotry" is already completely misinformed, off-the-mark. So, you would appear to be not only speaking in easy, sweeping generalizations, but you would appear to have only half-read (if that) the links here. So, you have shown yourself, in this case at least, to be intellectually sloppy and lazy. There, I said it.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:09 AM on May 5, 2009 [10 favorites]


I'm surprised that this issue hasn't come up with maps of the Holy Land. You can see lots of 18th and 19th century maps online that depict Palestine, but that doesn't stop some Zionists from saying that Palestine never existed.
posted by jonp72 at 5:10 AM on May 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


Knowing that David Rumsey will be involved

Will be? From the AP article:

It was Rumsey who worked with Google to post the maps in its software, and who was responsible for removing the references to the buraku villages. He said he preferred to leave them untouched as historical documents, but decided to change them after the search company told him of the complaints from Tokyo. "We tend to think of maps as factual, like a satellite picture, but maps are never neutral, they always have a certain point of view," he said.
posted by effbot at 5:21 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the Wikipedia link (emphasis mine): those with occupations considered "tainted" with death or ritual impurity (such as executioners, undertakers or leather workers)

Why leather workers? I understand the stigma against butchers and those involved in the slaughter of animals, who were also apparently included in the burakumin, but I don't understand the bit about leather workers. Is it related to the skinning of the dead animal, or is anyone tied to leather unclean? What about fisherman or hunters? Are they exempt? Fish and game don't count as dying, or something?

In trying to shed some light on the whole leather thing, I came across this fascinating article, which says that anyone even associated with blood or death (e.g. midwives, surgeons) was subjected to some form of segregation, although it doesn't say that they were burakumin. It says also that burakumin were "foresworn the usual costume of the towns people," that they had to "wear a special leather patch on their clothes to denote their lowly status," and that they "had no given names and surnames; instead they were given a number (in a system used to count animals)." Today, it says, Japanese "will signal one to another (holding up four fingers in imitation of a four-legged beast) if the presence of a burakumin is suspected."

Thanks for the post, zardoz.
posted by Captain Cardanthian! at 5:21 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


The idea of companies doing background checks to prevent these people from working seems pretty crazy.

No crazier than a company doing credit checks on prospective job applicants.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:22 AM on May 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


(Although that article is 15.5 years old, so I suppose I can't actually talk about what happens today)
posted by Captain Cardanthian! at 5:26 AM on May 5, 2009


Why leather workers?

Don't know how the Japanese made leather, but in the Ottoman empire, the process involved copious amounts of dog shit. There as well the leather makers were an underclass, well outside the normal run of society. It was the last refuge of, well, refugees, whether from law or bad luck or what have you.

That said, there were those who made their fortunes by gathering the canine waste.

For more on this, check out Evliyá Efendí, Narrative of Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa (good luck finding it, though). (There's another good title, the name escapes me, I'll look for it later.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:44 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


With credit checks, I can vaguely see the logic that a guy who has a history of writing bad checks or repeatedly getting in over his head in debt might not have the best judgment.

It's a little harder when the line of reasoning starts, "Hey, this guys great grandfather buried dead people...."
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:45 AM on May 5, 2009


But Google is taking heat from rights organizations as well as the Justice Ministry in Japan.

Google is taking heat from the Japanese government because Japan is incredibly, horribly racist. Makes sense.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:53 AM on May 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


Is there still this extreme negative reaction to working with the dead, or is it instead a reaction to having relatives that used to work with the dead (until they, you know, died)?

Dunno about the modern reaction, but it's certainly not extreme, like in the past.

Regarding why people still discriminate against folks who don't even work with the dead, but had relatives long ago who did, I think the cause/effect is mixed together. The thought process isn't (wasn't?) so much "you work with the dead, therefore you are horrible and unclean and gross", as "you are horrible and unclean and gross, thus you work with the dead. And you work with the dead, hence you are horrible and unclean and gross." Thus, even if someone from a burakumin lineage has never even stepped into a funeral parlor, nor have their ancestors for a hundred years, it doesn't negate the "you are icky" part. So I don't think burakumin discrimination is tied to the death issue any more, as unclean work was seen as the result of being an unclean person, and not vice versa.

The outrage seems to be focused more towards the publication of the maps rather than the blatant discrimination.

The burakumin issue is a weird one. It's hard to compare to, say, the kinds of discrimination we have in the states. For example, if you completely hide a black person's ancestry, there will still be bigotry against them by folks who hate blacks, because you can't really hide the fact that they are black. Judaism is a bit easier to hide, but it involves an unfair burden on the Jewish, what with changing names, hiding religious beliefs/ceremonies, etc. For burakumin, though, the only thing there is is the past. Hide the past, and it's absolutely impossible for a person to discriminate against a specific burakumin, since there's absolutely no way to know who is or isn't one. It doesn't require the person in question to give up anything, as burakumin isn't a culture or identity, it's just an arbitrary lineage marker.

So, in this case, the outrage is focused on the publication of the maps instead of the discrimination because the burakumin groups are already fighting the discrimination itself. In this specific case, the problem isn't the discrimination (that's always a problem), but the fact that this puts an easy-to-access tool in the hands of the bigots.

"Erasing the past" is something that most folks instinctively dismiss as a bad thing, but there are specific instances where it's not so black and white. Pretending that discrimination against burakumin never occurred is clearly a bad form of erasing the past. But eliminating the evidence used to define and discriminate against individual burakumin isn't such a clearly bad way of erasing the past.

An off the cuff example: If people discriminate against the extended Adolf Hitler family tree, pretending that Hitler was an OK guy, or that the Holocaust never happened, is an absolutely horrible approach. But for Hitler relatives to change their names and pretend they aren't related to Hitler, well, that's a type of eliminating the past that has no negative repercussions I can think of, and is overall a positive for those extended family members.

(Note: I am not comparing anyone to Hitler. I'm just pointing out that there are horrible ways to erase the past, and rare cases where it's not a bad thing.)

"I don't understand the bit about leather workers. Is it related to the skinning of the dead animal, or is anyone tied to leather unclean?"

My understanding is that most of the work was done by the same folks: butchering, skinning, cleaning, and tanning. Dunno about the last step, sewing the leather into goods.
posted by Bugbread at 5:56 AM on May 5, 2009 [7 favorites]


Flapjax, if you take "weird" to mean "an cultural outlier with mores widely divergent from its neighbors" I really don't think you can argue that Japan fits that description. Some African traditions may seem weird to us, but not to most of the continent.

There is no culture nearby that is like Japan's, because of their historically unique relationship with outsiders--first they love them, then then become isolationist, then they embrace change, then they become crazy insular again--that has resulted in mutations that don't occur anywhere else or make much sense to foreigners. I don't think it's necessarily pejorative--koala bears are pretty weird too, but OMG SO CUTE.

If I was Japanese, or someone who had a stake in their culture, I would embrace the weirdness as a source of pride, even as I tried to change those aspects I found less worthy of preserving.

But anyway, derail. In this instance, there is nothing remotely unique about their caste system, it's very much the same as many other nations, from the East and West, that still harbor old prejudices and hierarchies.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:56 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


There is no culture nearby that is like Japan

Except, you know, Korea.
posted by dydecker at 6:02 AM on May 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


Well, that and selling schoolgirls' underpants in vending machines. Fair's fair, though: sushi's pretty tasty

Most. Awkward. Segue. Ever.
posted by rokusan at 6:05 AM on May 5, 2009 [9 favorites]


"Google is taking heat from the Japanese government because Japan is incredibly, horribly racist. Makes sense."

I know you were being sarcastic, but yes, yes it does. I don't know what specifically was said to Google, but I gather it was not "You are a horrible company for doing this evil, evil thing", but more like "You probably don't know, but we have this fucked up bigoted past we're trying to get rid of, and your maps are pretty effective tools for bigots. Please take them down."

Perhaps you think I'm being too charitable to the Japanese here. But let me remind you that the pressure was put on Google by burakumin groups. That is, groups whose whole existence is based on acknowledging and fighting against this bigotry.
posted by Bugbread at 6:07 AM on May 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


(And, nitpickily speaking, while Japan is racist, burakumin aren't a race. They aren't an ethnic group or cultural group, either. They're just people with a specific ancestral background.)
posted by Bugbread at 6:12 AM on May 5, 2009


Why leather workers? ... I don't understand the bit about leather workers. Is it related to the skinning of the dead animal, or is anyone tied to leather unclean?

The people making leather would've been just one step laterally from the people who butchered the cows, an obviously dirty job and I believe considered somewhat unholy; meat was not as common as it is now. Also, making leather was a intensive and nasty process, with lots of horrible smelling chemicals and materials needed to make it.
posted by zardoz at 6:18 AM on May 5, 2009


I suspect you've done little to no traveling? Haven't spent extended periods of time in "foreign" places?

Why, would it have taught me the value of not making snap judgments about people while lecturing them for making sweeping generalisations?

But since you asked, yes, I'm well travelled. And I still think Japan is a strange place. If you can find a first world country that is remotely similar, be my guest.

The description of the Burakumin as an ethnic group isn't nearly as lazy as your smug little retort would suppose. Based on ethnicity as cultural identity and shared descent, the Burakumin amply qualify as an ethnic group. Indeed, one of the platforms for the Japanese to claim that it isn't ethnic discrimination is that that they aren't a different race, as if race was directly equivalent with ethnicity.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:24 AM on May 5, 2009 [8 favorites]


As an aside, on racism in Japan (sorry to slightly derail): it's a weird situation. I've seen and heard far more racism when I lived in America (Texas and California) than I have in Japan (been here 14 years now). The big (HUGE) difference is that in Japan it's far more generational (young Americans are slightly less racist than the older generation, while in Japan it's far, far less racist), and that it's far more officially sanctified. For example, you could never have a spa/sauna in the US with a sign outside the door saying "No blacks allowed", but "No foreigners allowed" is seen from time to time in Hokkaido. Same with apartments, etc.

I'd say the amount of racism in Japan is less than in the US, but when it hits, it hits with a bigger punch, because it can happen on a corporate or official level, not just on the personal level it usually happens at in the US.
posted by Bugbread at 6:26 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Interesting post and discussion. My kneejerk reaction was "WTF, censoring historical maps to be politically correct?"—and that's still my basic feeling, but I can certainly understand the concern about tools for bigots and am glad I'm not in a position of having to make the decision.
posted by languagehat at 6:28 AM on May 5, 2009


"I still think Japan is a strange place. If you can find a first world country that is remotely similar, be my guest."

Korea's pretty similar. Not identical, of course, but there's nowhere identical the US, either.

"Based on ethnicity as cultural identity and shared descent, the Burakumin amply qualify as an ethnic group."

Except there isn't a cultural identity to the burakumin. There was, hundreds of years ago, but that's all gone. They have no special lingo, no burakumin traditions, no particular mode of dress, no distinct religious or value convictions. All they have is shared descent. It's like the descendants of left-handed people.

By the way, if any of y'all have a shitload of time, I highly recommend reading the manga "Legend of Kamui", which is ostensibly about a ninja, but is really a huge treatise on how horrible Japan used to be for farmers and burakumin. Very very depressing.
posted by Bugbread at 6:33 AM on May 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


"My kneejerk reaction was "WTF, censoring historical maps to be politically correct?"—and that's still my basic feeling, but I can certainly understand the concern about tools for bigots and am glad I'm not in a position of having to make the decision."

Yeah, it is a tough situation, and I'd say that if one has a clear, absolute, black-and-white view of the subject, it just indicates that you're not seeing the whole issue clearly. I'm in favoring of the censoring of the maps, but on a percentile scale, that just means I'm slightly over 50% in favor, not that I see it as an absolute.

Basically, it's one of those situations where a fucked situation results in fucked results, no matter what happens. The bigotry ends out meaning you have to pick one of two bad choices: censoring the past (bad), or helping bigots (bad). The only way you can see it as a black and white issue is if you think one, or the other, of those two choices is in no way a bad thing. If you acknowledge that both are bad, then you're just picking which bad is less bad, which is working within the grey zone.
posted by Bugbread at 6:37 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


...But for Hitler relatives to change their names and pretend they aren't related to Hitler, well, that's a type of eliminating the past that has no negative repercussions I can think of, and is overall a positive for those extended family members.

That would work great for one family, but the descendants of burakumin number in the millions. Your example is of a small number of people making a conscious choice to hide the past; buraku descendants often can't do that even if they wanted to.
posted by zardoz at 6:50 AM on May 5, 2009


Bugbread: fair enough - I wondered whether Korea would be considered first world as I wrote that.

~150 years after the Meiji Restoration, there is some cultural identity, not least in shared history, which is qualitatively different from your descendant of left hander example.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:52 AM on May 5, 2009


I don't think this is an ethnic discrimination issue - the burakumin are ethnically identical to the rest of the Japanese population.

I've seen the burakumin used as an example to show that ethnic discrimination is never really about physical differences, but about how societies label and stratify people. The Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq are ethnically indistinguishable from each other too, but that doesn't stop them from killing each other on that basis. Even in the United States, you had people who were victims of anti-black discrimination under the Jim Crow system on the basis of the "one drop" rule, but who might have had skin tones indistinguishable from most white people.
posted by jonp72 at 6:54 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


It isn't just in Japan, its an issue everywhere large populations of Japanese live.

I know a Japanese American woman, around 50. When she was a child and living in California with her family her schoolteacher was found to be Burkumin. The teacher moved away the next day, the parents would never have allowed their children into her classroom again. Presumably she tried to vanish, with a new name, into another Japanese population elsewhere in the country.

Well, that and selling schoolgirls' underpants in vending machines.

Actually those are a thing of the past. The anonymity involved produced a sharp uptick in panty thefts [1] to stock the machines. The owners didn't care where they got their stock from. At the time I was there the only place I saw panties for sale was in a porn store in Akiba, individually packed in ziplock bags with photos and bios of the women who (supposedly) sold them to the store.

[1] In Japan pretty much everyone air dries their clothes. Every apartment in Tokyo will have a microscopic balcony equipped with a clothesline. Women really hate living on the first or second floor because of the numerous panty thieves. When I lived there my university made it a point to never give women apartments on the ground floor for that reason.
posted by sotonohito at 6:54 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why, would it have taught me the value of not making snap judgments about people while lecturing them for making sweeping generalisations?

No one made a snap judgement about you. Like i said, by calling Japan "a weird place" you come off as someone with little experience in visiting foreign countries, and, like I also said, if you do have such experience, then your comment is all the more stupid. I stand by that. And though you've at least you've tacitly admitted that you were making a sweeping generalization, I wasn't "lecturing" you. I just said your comment was ignorant, which it was.

Based on ethnicity as cultural identity and shared descent, the Burakumin amply qualify as an ethnic group.

What? Now you're really talking out of your ass. You're in a hole, you should stop digging. I'm not the only one in this thread who's made the point that burakumin are not an "ethnic" group. Buy a dictionary.

If you can find a first world country that is remotely similar, be my guest.

See dydecker and bugbread's response directly above. Matter of fact, read everything he's written here. He's been in Japan even longer than I have, I believe, and he's a hella smart guy.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:56 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


jonp72: "I'm surprised that this issue hasn't come up with maps of the Holy Land. You can see lots of 18th and 19th century maps online that depict Palestine, but that doesn't stop some Zionists from saying that Palestine never existed."

Depends on what you mean by "exist".

An astronaut - I believe it was Rusty Schweickart - wrote of being in space, looking down on the Middle East, and picturing all the lines that people had drawn and re-drawn across it.

There's some land. At different times, different people have lived on it. Depending on who had more power, some of those people called the land a certain name and claimed ownership of it.

If God or the Overlords were monitoring things, I don't imagine they would be particularly impressed by arguments from either side.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:01 AM on May 5, 2009


The burakumin are descendants of outcast communities of the feudal era, which mainly comprised those with occupations considered “tainted” with death or ritual impurity (such as executioners, undertakers or leather workers), and traditionally lived in their own secluded hamlets and ghettos.

Wait, so was Lone Wolf and Cub historically inaccurate in this, too? They made the post of shogun's executioner seem like the equivalent of the Secretary of State in feudal Japan.
posted by ignignokt at 7:14 AM on May 5, 2009


This is a fascinating recent article from the New York Times about the buraku, and in particular buraku politician Hiromu Nonaka.
posted by Omission at 7:16 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Call my Japanese-American wife a self-hating Japanese if you'd like, but she believes the Japanese are among the most racist people around. This weird obsession with the Bukuramin is one bit of evidence; so is their treatment of Koreans living in Japan.

That said, 1. Nothing they do compares with the injustices of the caste system of India; 2. They are polite to a fault and very forgiving of the insensitivities of foreign visitors; 3. I am making this statement as a citizen of a country founded on genocide and slavery. (However, as a nation of immigrants, our racism seems to be easier to ameliorate than in a nation like Japan.)

I'm not a Japanaphope: I've lived there for a while and love the place and the people, but their insularity has had its negative consequences.
posted by kozad at 7:16 AM on May 5, 2009


"The Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq are ethnically indistinguishable from each other too, but that doesn't stop them from killing each other on that basis."

Very good point. I'm rethinking my position, but I still think they're not an ethnicity, but for a different reason than I said above. I'd say an ethnic identity can be defined either by culture/religion/tradition/speech/dress/etc, or by sheer self-identification. I don't know anything about the Sunnis and Shiites, but if, indeed, they are ethnically indistinguishable, I'd grant them status as an ethnicity because they self-identify as ethnicities. While I'm sure there are burakumin who self-identify as such, I get the feeling (and this is just feeling, not a researched position) that most do not. They identify themselves as being identified by others as a separate ethnicity, but I don't think most think of themselves as being an actual separate ethnicity, just a group of ethnically identical-with-the-mainstream folks who drew the short straw with family backgrounds.

"~150 years after the Meiji Restoration, there is some cultural identity, not least in shared history, which is qualitatively different from your descendant of left hander example."

Such as? The only burakumin cultural identity I know of is "we get discriminated against". I don't think that's sufficient for an ethnicity to be established.

"That would work great for one family, but the descendants of burakumin number in the millions. Your example is of a small number of people making a conscious choice to hide the past; buraku descendants often can't do that even if they wanted to."

This is exactly what this case is all about: there's no way for millions of people to individually erase their pasts, and even if they tried, they couldn't do it completely. Map erasure (or, rather, limitation of availability) is just as incomplete, but it's far, far easier to do. Neither is a perfect solution, but one is impossibly huge, and one is possibly huge. That's why, in addition to the general efforts to stop discrimination against burakumin, there are efforts to limit access to maps like this; it's far easier than trying to erase the family records of millions of individuals.

Japan certainly has a problem with the burakumin issue, but I really can't blame them for not trying. When I was a teacher in a public school, there were regular classes (once a month, I think) called dowa-kyoiku ("living in harmony education") which were focused on stopping discrimination. They covered everything (racial, disability, ethnic, sexual, etc.) but were primarily centered on eliminating burakumin discrimination.

Actually, one of the reasons I think censoring the maps may be somewhat effective is because this dowa-kyoiku worked so poorly. The teachers really tried, and their teaching materials were good, but every teacher I talked to reported that incidents of discrimination against burakumin rose dramatically when dowa-kyoiku started. My wife said the same: discrimination against burakumin at her school started when everyone learned about the existence of the problem.

As an American, I've pretty much been raised to accept, on faith, that knowledge is what helps eliminate discrimination, but my experience here has been that burakumin discrimination is far enough under the radar of everyday life that most people don't get it from their parents early in life, and ignorance actually helps curb it. Tell people about burakumin, and some of them take it as a new group to dislike.

Sure, don't teach them anything, and it will still exist, coming up, for example, when someone's parents pitch a fit because you're about to marry a person from the wrong part of town. But if the first time you hear about some group you're supposed to hate is when you're in your twenties, odds are it's far too late for it to become ingrained in your personality.
posted by Bugbread at 7:20 AM on May 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


"Call my Japanese-American wife a self-hating Japanese if you'd like, but she believes the Japanese are among the most racist people around."

This is a tough topic, because if one says "I think nationality X is the most racist", unless you're talking about your own nationality, it comes off as...racist. That said, from what I've heard, Korea is quite a bit more racist than Japan. Dunno if it's number one, of course. There are a lot of countries in this world, and I know of only a handful; I'd be amazed if it were the top of the pyramid. But I understand that it is higher up the pyramid than Japan.

(And, no, I haven't heard this from Japanese folks, which would make the data a bit more suspect, given Japanese attitudes towards Koreans. Mostly from expats from different countries talking about the various countries they've lived in.)
posted by Bugbread at 7:25 AM on May 5, 2009


but my experience here has been that burakumin discrimination is far enough under the radar of everyday life that most people don't get it from their parents early in life, and ignorance actually helps curb it.

In my experience, lots and lots of Japanese are not actually very conscious of burakumin discrimination. Or that there is an issue. Or even that burakumin exist.

That's Tokyo though, and I didn't know too many shifty Human Resource managers or grumpy father of the brides. YMMV
posted by dydecker at 7:28 AM on May 5, 2009


Like i said, by calling Japan "a weird place" you come off as someone with little experience in visiting foreign countries

To an asshat who is obviously hypersensitive about Japan and who harbours notions of being more-travelled-than-thou, maybe.

If you think that some people in a first world country are still enforcing a 150 year old caste system to the extent that intermarriage is considered taboo isn't weird, okay then.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:33 AM on May 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


bugbread writes: As an American, I've pretty much been raised to accept, on faith, that knowledge is what helps eliminate discrimination, but my experience here has been that burakumin discrimination is far enough under the radar of everyday life that most people don't get it from their parents early in life, and ignorance actually helps curb it. Tell people about burakumin, and some of them take it as a new group to dislike.

This is a very astute point, and one which, in all likelihood, would simply not be made by anyone who hasn't spent a fairly long time in Japan, really thinking about and observing the cultural differences between Japan and the US. And doing so with a flexible mind. I hate to sound like a gushing fanboy, but, hey, bugbread, well said, man.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:36 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Any society in which people are sufficiently insecure that they have to screen out some bogeyman ethnic group lest they get tainted by association is pretty weird to me.

And you're from a country or society that doesn't do this? Where is it? I'd like to move there.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:40 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


My wife said the same: discrimination against burakumin at her school started when everyone learned about the existence of the problem.

Well, this is an interesting look at human nature, to say the least.

It would be great if any native Japanese people here could chime in and give a bit more background about this issue. For instance, are there specific psychological reasons, either spoken or assumed, why the burakumin are discriminated against? Do they believe that this death tarnish is passed down through generations and can never be removed? Are burakumin supposed to be less proficient at their jobs, or at successful marriage?

Is it similar to the 'one drop of African blood makes you black' issue mentioned above, or is there a way to escape the burakumin ancestry after so many removed generations?
posted by amicamentis at 7:47 AM on May 5, 2009


amicamentis:

I'm not Japanese, and I can't really answer your first questions, but regarding the "one drop of African blood" thing, yes, it's just like that.
posted by Bugbread at 7:55 AM on May 5, 2009


And you're from a country or society that doesn't do this?

The UK - and the people who do do it, I consider to be insecure and weird. There is, as yet, no Ginger Liberation League.

bugbread: Such as? The only burakumin cultural identity I know of is "we get discriminated against". I don't think that's sufficient for an ethnicity to be established

I see that, although I suspect that as it becomes less taboo, a more obvious burakumin cultural identity will become clearer. I'd grant that it's a looser definition of ethnicity but think that the shared cultural history and descent, sense of indentity and clear distinctions between members/non-members are sufficient, or at least are as sufficient as describing, say, Irish travellers as an ethnic group.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:56 AM on May 5, 2009


To an asshat who is obviously hypersensitive about Japan and who harbours notions of being more-travelled-than-thou, maybe.

MuffinMan, calling me an asshat really doesn't make you appear any smarter. You're really cheapening the level of discourse here, once you start throwing names at people. Bad move. And by calling me "hypersensitive about Japan", you've clearly stepped into the "snap judgement" territory you accused me of upthread. If you knew my comment history concerning Japan, you wouldn't say that. I'm far from "hypersensitive" about Japan. But I am inclined to speak my mind and try to counter the tiresome "Japan is weird" comments that are so depressingly common in Japan-related threads. And you've yet to show yourself as anything other than another "wow those Japanese are weird amirite" kneejerker in any of your comments here. I mean, the tired old underpants thing, and the snide bit about how you've heard they make good radios and cars... It's all a really cheap and easy, intellectually lazy (there, I said it again) way of dismissing an entire nation: you've essentially boiled it down to 'they're really bent and fucked up people, but they know how to slice fish'. In other words, you have no respect for them. They just aren't up to snuff with the rest of the "first world" (a stupid and increasingly meaningless term in itself, but that's another whole discussion).

At least you've dropped the "ethnic" bit you were so adamant about... you do get points for that, I guess.

Tell you what, though, as soon as people start getting dumb and calling others "asshats" and the like, I'm pretty much done with 'em. Later for you, chuck.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:59 AM on May 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


Anyone interested in this aspect of Japan's culture would probably like Departures. Hell, even if you have no interest in burakumin, it's a fantastic movie.
posted by letitrain at 8:02 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


You know...pretty much everyone of European, African, Native American, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and non-Japanese Asian ancestry will have some burakumin blood - like undertakers, butchers, leather workers...

Have we informed the Japanese that pretty much everybody except them are therefore burakumin? And that significant, but invisible, portions of their own population are burakumin?

Because I wouldn't want any of them to lay awake at night thinking about this.
posted by Xoebe at 8:06 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


flapjax: It's all a really cheap and easy, intellectually lazy (there, I said it again) way of dismissing an entire nation

Yes, well, perhaps that's the danger of mixing a more serious point with an ironic one in the same post. It means that people like you who have had an irony bypass feel entirely justified jumping in to flash their intellectual superiority credentials.

You've felt compelled to call me dumb, lazy, ignorant, unintellectual and so forth but accuse me of cheapening discourse. I'm sure you feel terribly clever and all morally superior, but it reads like a severe attack of pomposity, and deigning to "give me points" doesn't do much to change that.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:15 AM on May 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Xoebe,

Not quite. I get what you're saying, from the whole "everybody has some African blood in them" position, but remember that burakumin isn't just "anyone who has ever butchered, undertaken, or worked with leather". It is a specific group established some time during the Edo period, 1600's or later (I'm working off wikipedia there).

I have no burakumin blood, because I have no ancestors, burakumin or otherwise, born after 1600 in Japan. The same goes for pretty much everyone of non-Japanese ancestry, with of course some exceptions. Japan was basically sealed off to the outside world until the late 1800's, so we're really talking a window of, say, 150 years. I think we can confidently state that most Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, and Middle Easterners don't have any post 1850 Japanese blood at all, and while the amount of post-1850 Japanese blood may be higher in South Asians and non-Japanese Asians, it's still a small enough amount that the further smaller subsection that is burakumin is pretty much negligible.
posted by Bugbread at 8:21 AM on May 5, 2009


MuffinMan, Flapjax, relax.

Yes, MuffinMan, Japan has some pretty weird stuff. Some things present (pedo comics, bukkake, tentacle rape, etc.), some things past (panty vending machines, 汚ギャル, underwear-free restaurants). Flapjax, you have to admit that.

On the other hand, that stuff is much more interesting to discuss than the normal stuff, so it gets hyper-reported on the internet, resulting in most people outside Japan thinking that bukkake and tentacle rape are the norm. So when someone says "Japan is weird", it almost always (but not quite 100% always) just means "the image I have of all of Japan based on hyper-reporting of a tiny little slice of Japan is weird". In other words, basically "I have a distorted image of Japan". And that really sucks in a discussion. MuffinMan, you have to admit that.

So y'all got off to a bad start, but let's just reset the clock on that.

(I remember myself and another American friend laughing at "bukkake soba", which is "poured on buckwheat noodles", while a Japanese friend was a bit puzzled about what we were laughing about. We, non-Japanese, had to explain to him, born and raised and currently in Japan, what "bukkake" (the porn genre) was)
posted by Bugbread at 8:30 AM on May 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


And you're from a country or society that doesn't do this?
The UK - and the people who do do it, I consider to be insecure and weird. There is, as yet, no Ginger Liberation League.

posted by MuffinMan at 3:56 PM on May 5 [+] [!]

... do you live in the same UK I do? We are absolutely not racism-free -- in fact to the extent it's useful to talk about a 'national psyche', ours is still twisted and confused with all kinds of lingering prejudices and biases stemming from our history of warfare, imperialism and immigration, about race as well as class. "Gingerism" is a trifling schoolyard sideshow compared to that. Just because you consider racists to be "insecure and weird" doesn't mean racism isn't fairly endemic in our society, either subtle or overt.
posted by teresci at 8:37 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Burakumin leather patches on clothes become super kawai in 5...4...3...
posted by asok at 8:39 AM on May 5, 2009


Quashing the maps was the wrong thing to do. The right thing to do is to say, "Yeah, I'm burakumin, and I'm proud of my heritage. We were the hard-working backbone of Japan since the first Emperor."

Hiding your heritage never helps, because someone is bound to find out, anyway - especially when there are firms who specialize in it. What does work is to take pride in who you are and where you come from, and demand your rights as a citizen.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:39 AM on May 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Very good point, bugbread. It is interesting to see comments that speak of about how "weird" a particular nation or culture is, because that shoe can easily be worn on the other foot: there are stereotypes that abound abroad, for example, about how "weird" the United States is, and there are cultural representations of the United States based on those stereotypes that get hyper-circulated (the US is hypersexualized yet inordinately puritanical, everybody is running around with guns, etc.). A couple of comments here have touched on how "insular" Japan is, which is kind of amusing, given how recently in the United States' history that that exact adjective has been routinely applied to it.
posted by blucevalo at 8:41 AM on May 5, 2009


teresci: The original comment related to screening out people from a specific group from job or marriage opportunities by way of investigation into their heritage and background. It didn't claim that racism wasn't - in its various forms - prevalent or endemic elsewhere.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:42 AM on May 5, 2009


My experience with the UK indicates that they have had a minor little nitpicky relationship with their buddies "The Pakis". "Pakis" being anyone who is brown and perhaps maybe might have had a family member anywhere in the past 50 years who might know someone or have passed someone on the street who owned a bodega.
posted by spicynuts at 8:50 AM on May 5, 2009


My little data point: I did a semester of college in Osaka around '94, and one of my strangest experiences was taking a train into the city with a bit lot of foreigners and an equal number of Japanese friends. I knew nothing on the burakumin thing at the time, but I'll never forget an argument that erupted between a nice, friendly, wants-to-learn-English Japanese friend and a longer-in-the-tooth JET (English teacher) guy over the issue.

It was obviously not something foreigners were supposed to ask about, let alone know anything about. And in the wake of the Hanshin Earthquake that devastated Kobe, and the repercussions surrounding the poor treatment of non-Nihongjin (Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans) looking for medical aid, well, it was an awkward train ride all around.

So, thanks for this post.
posted by bardic at 8:52 AM on May 5, 2009


The burakumin prejudice is a pretty unique and difficult to understand form of racism. I mean, for someone who hates, say, blacks or Mexicans, at least that makes sense. Those groups are "other", they look different, they have different cultural identifiers, that's standard human nature "you ain't like me" tribal bullshit. The burakumin are exactly the same as any other Japanese to the point where people have to go to crazy lengths like using 19th century maps to even identify them. There was actually an underground book published in Japan around the late 70s or so called "A Definitive List of Buraku Area Names" or something like that, that listed the name of every neighborhood the authors could find that indicated burakumin ancestry. It was officially banned after protests from the Buraku Liberation League, but it still circulates and it's said that pretty much everyone in a position to hire people at large Japanese corporations either has it or knows about it. The idea of someone checking where your grandfather lived and using that as a way to discriminate against you is pretty hard to understand.
posted by DecemberBoy at 9:20 AM on May 5, 2009


In fairness, bugbread, I did preface the original comment with "I know a lot of "only in Japan stories" are either outright fabrications or gross exaggerations"!!

And don't go starting a thread about weird food names, either. It must be galling to find out the cherished confectionery of your childhood translates as hairy bum nuts or something similar.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:25 AM on May 5, 2009


Google's launch in Japan has been mishandled from day 1. First Google Streetview (which is really the exact opposite of that most basic Japanese sensibility, privacy) and now this. I think it's important to note that the community groups that are complaining about the Edo maps overlay probably self-identify as burakumin, because folks with burakumin ancestry are the only people who would live in those areas of Tokyo today.

I must say that I have a hard time even typing the word "burakumin". It's not a conversational word, and using that word in Japanese is akin to discussing scat fetishism anywhere else.

I lived in western Japan, in a small coastal city close to Kyoto (that region, most notably neighbouring Nara, is home to the most "buraku" folks in Japan). The next town over the mountains, down the coast from us was known in the region for welcoming buraku-caste folks during the Edo period, and a well-known enka singer from that town is considered to be buraku-caste. The area (over the mountains from us) is famous for beef, and livestock handling, as well as selling leather goods including shoes, is formerly an "untouchable" occupation.

Interestingly, the city of Obama is located in this same region, although I do not think Obama has any ties to buraku culture, such as it is.

Anyway, the small city where I lived is a port city, and the mafia has always had a large presence there because of that. Buraku have traditionally been accepted into the mafia, and there is a distinct "buraku" part of town called "Asahi-cho" (this is not the name of the buraku neighbourhood in the city where I lived). "Asahi-cho" is divided into two neighbourhoods - "Asahi-1" and "Asahi-2". "Asahi-1" was where the buraku folks lived. The neighbourhood runs along the river dike, and was a swamp until the 60s. It's not an affluent neighbourhood, but it's not a slum either. The town's ethnic and Korean community lives in this buraku neighbourhood - buraku and Koreans have always mixed in Japan since the colonial period.

As a foreigner, I would never have known that "Asahi-1" was a buraku neighbourhood. My wife mentioned it to me. So it was always interesting when I met folksfrom that part of town.

Me: Where do you live?
Them: In Asahi-cho.... but Asahi *2*, not Asahi *1*.

I never met anyone from Asahi-1.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:24 AM on May 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


> You've felt compelled to call me dumb, lazy, ignorant, unintellectual and so forth but accuse me of cheapening discourse. I'm sure you feel terribly clever and all morally superior, but it reads like a severe attack of pomposity, and deigning to "give me points" doesn't do much to change that.

For what it's worth, I find flapjax to be thoughtful and knowledgeable. You, on the other hand, are coming off as a jerk. You might want to recalibrate your meters. Or, of course, you can just accuse me of feeling terribly clever and all morally superior, and I can go sit in the dunce corner along with flapjax.
posted by languagehat at 11:58 AM on May 5, 2009


Thank you, KokoRyu, for the most specific and enlightening comment on the thread.

On the Japan-is-weird meme...another reason this comes up a lot is because on the surface so much seems similar to Western culture, for obvious historical reasons.

By the way, here's an interesting counterpoint to this. It has changed somewhat, now being issued centrally by Forbes (I looked this up on Wikipedia), but when I was growing up there was something called "The Little Blue Book." It was the Social Register, basically a list of all the "old money" families. They had them in about a dozen cities (NY, SF, St. Louis, Boston...). If you were in the book , it was because of your ancestry. You couldn't buy your way into this aristocracy, although you could drop out of it easily enough in a generation or so. It was, in a sense, a phone book for socialites. A Who's Who of the rich (usually) but not the nouveau riche.

Kind of the obverse of the bukuramin situation, eh?
posted by kozad at 12:34 PM on May 5, 2009


Take the thread derailing name calling shit elsewhere.
posted by euphorb at 12:40 PM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Whatever the issues raised by the burakumin controversy and the cultural prejudices it brings to light, reading some of the sweeping judgements passed from on high about Japan this, my country that - it brings to mind something about a mote in someone else's eye and a plank in one's own.

Also, if you think lolicon, guro, and tentacle porn is a weird Japanese thing, I've got some corners of the internet I'd love to show you where thousands of Western fanboys gobble that shit up.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:44 PM on May 5, 2009


Wow, so bugbread - I literally within the last 24 hours read for the first time that when the borders were closed by the Tokugawa Shogunate, not only were foreigners refused entry but Japanese who happened to be overseas at the time were refused re-entry, and I was wondering what happened to them. So are you descended from Japanese who were caught on the outside?
posted by XMLicious at 1:13 PM on May 5, 2009


For instance, are there specific psychological reasons, either spoken or assumed, why the burakumin are discriminated against?

Well, for starters, they are more likely to have relatives who are yakuza mobsters than average Japanese. About 70% of mobsters are burakumin (probably less in Tokyo), even though they account for only 2.5% of the population.

... but actually, I don't think that this is the reason. Prejudice is usually not logic-based.

I think the best explanation is through the concept of purity and the idea of not wanting to associate with anything unpure. Actually, I think it's the same mentality that keeps children from associating with the kid that is being mobbed. The same concept exists in other countries, but for some reason it appears to be worse in Japan.
I wouldn't call it "guilt by association", because guilt is a very Western concept with too many Christian undertones; "shame by association" might come closer.

On a different note, as pointed out in the articles, shoe-making and other leather-related jobs are a domain of the burakumin. Now, as it happens, it is nigh impossible to get good shoes "made in Japan" in Japan. The Japanese-made stuff is usually junk that falls apart after a few weeks. If you want to get good shoes, you have to buy foreign or very high-end Japanese shoes (I'm exaggerating a bit, but not much). One theory I heard about why Japanese shoes are so shoddy is that it is a heavily-protected industry because of well-meant attempts to better the burakumin's lot. Not sure if this is true or justs another piece of burakumin-bashing, but it does sound plausible.

Incidentally, one thing I have always wondered about is this: if shoe-making is in fact dominated by burakumin, can the conclusion be drawn that if someone is in the shoe-making business in Japan then he/she is probably a burakumin? I mean, ordinary Japanese people are likely to at least suspect that you are burakumin if you are a shoe-maker, so that's probably a very large disincentive for non-burakukmin to go into that line of trade. Wonder if anyone here can answer this.

You know...pretty much everyone of European, African, Native American, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and non-Japanese Asian ancestry will have some burakumin blood - like undertakers, butchers, leather workers...

This has already been refuted, but I think that the same people who don't want their daughter to marry a burakumin will probably also have reservations against foreigners. Although they probably don't rank as high on the shame scale.
posted by sour cream at 1:15 PM on May 5, 2009


"So are you descended from Japanese who were caught on the outside?"

Huh? No, I'm a Spanish / Irish / Italian mix.
posted by Bugbread at 1:23 PM on May 5, 2009


Japan has some pretty weird stuff. Some things present (pedo comics, bukkake, tentacle rape, etc.), some things past (panty vending machines, 汚ギャル, underwear-free restaurants). Flapjax, you have to admit that.

"Weird" is not an objective category, it's a subjective category. Period. I can easily, easily, easily come up with an almost endless list of cultural artifacts and/or customs among Americans (or whomever) that the Japanese (or whomever) might find weird.

There is not a periodic table for weirdness. It's entirely culturally subjective. To say the Mormons are "weird" because they wear diapers, to say "noodling" for catfish is "weird," to say certain French folks are "weird" for liking Jerry Lewis, etc: none of it means anything. It's just cultural prejudice and perspective. Flapjax is completely right for saying the whole "OMG the Japanese are so weird" refrain is tired and intellectually lazy.
posted by ornate insect at 1:58 PM on May 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Okay, let me rephrase myself: almost everyone here on MeFi is coming from a pretty similar cultural perspective. There are big variations, of course. We have folks from all kinds of different countries. However, I would say that pedo comics, bukkake, tentacle rape, panty vending machines, etc. etc. are weird for the vast, vast majority of MeFi readers. That's what I think Flapjax needs to acknowledge. I'd also venture to guess that even Flapjax and I, who are both long term Japanese residents, would find them weird. So "Japan has some pretty weird stuff" means "for the MeFi audience, Japan has some pretty weird stuff". If this discussion were happening on Mixi or 2ch or the like, I'd be saying the same thing about America, meaning "for the Mixi audience, you have to admit that America has some pretty weird stuff".

Plus, you know, a lot of that stuff is considered pretty weird here in Japan as well. And if the average non-Japanese and the average Japanese both consider it weird, I think we can use the shorthand "it is weird" instead of the long-hand "it is weird for those who don't find it non-weird".
posted by Bugbread at 2:14 PM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can appreciate where you're coming from, bugbread. I just bristle at some of the cultural elitism that comes up with regards to Japan, even among self-described Japanophiles - Japanese things that have prevalent equivalents in Western culture get this "omg thats so CRAZY!" reaction solely because the version we're seeing here happens to be Japanese.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:23 PM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Another thing which perhaps (probably) rankled flapjax (I'm sure he's asleep right now, so I can't check) is that "Japan is weird" is often trotted out when something is being discussed that isn't really "weird Japan". If two-headed Real Dolls became a fetish in Japan, "Japan is weird" would be flippant but somewhat corresponding comment. But a caste system and resulting bigotry? That's far from unique to Japan. Which, as you say, Marisa Stole the Precious Thing, is one of the cases where "omg thats so CRAZY" comes out just because the version we're seeing here happens to be Japanese.

But, anyway, my goal was not really to defend Japan as being unweird, or to castigate it as being weird, but just to defuse the conflict between Flapjax and MuffinMan by pointing out some common ground.
posted by Bugbread at 2:29 PM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


a lot of that stuff is considered pretty weird here in Japan as well

Which kind of proves how relative it is. There's a lot of stuff everywhere that people find weird, shameful, repugnant, strangely fascinating, etc. And the elusive "weirdness factor" is entirely separate from the ethical question of whether or not a given cultural practice (cliterectomy, widow burning, polygamy) is inhuman or should/should not be sanctioned/defended.

But the relative weirdness or non-weirdness of any given cultural artifact is impossible to gage, and is entirely dependent on perspective. It's a fool's errand to pursue it as if it will yield some objective and satisfactory category called "weirdness." It's nonsensical.

The list "pedo comics, bukkake, tentacle rape, panty vending machines" seems totally arbitrary, not especially "weird," and does not impress me at all as any arbiter of anything whatsoever. Seriously. It's just instances of hybrid semi-transgressive subculture: comic books began in America, fwiw.

Is the pet rock "weird," how about Shriner cars, the Heaven's Gate cult, John Waters, Russ Meyers, monkey astronauts, hot dog eating contests, the concept of the Holy Trinity, glossolia among Pentacostal snake-handlers, "key parties," Ed Meese, the armored cars of crime-ridden Sao Paulo, Vedantic Yoga, vegetarianism, what have you? Your list seems not especially weird or even, if scrutinized, especially Japanese. Wow, the Japanese have deviant pornographic comic books. Big fucking deal: America has porn of every fetish imaginable pouring out of its ears.
posted by ornate insect at 2:40 PM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


bugbread - sorry, I misinterpreted when you said I have no burakumin blood, because I have no ancestors, burakumin or otherwise, born after 1600 in Japan to mean that you had ancestors born before 1600 in Japan.
posted by XMLicious at 3:26 PM on May 5, 2009


I just bristle at some of the cultural elitism that comes up with regards to Japan

Exactly. And this is why I never post anything about Japan on MetaFilter.

In regards to associating Japan with underwear vending machines and pedo porn (etc), somebody else already said it in this thread, but the darkest corners of the (American/Western) internets are pretty *fucked up.* Consider most of the porn that is produced in LA these days that appears on the net: there is a heavy emphasis on humiliation and degradation of women, more so than in the 80s and early 90s. And that's just scratching the surface. In the West we're not so open and honest about our fetishes, but in Japan, which, quite frankly, has a more open and pragmatic attitude towards sex, it's all out there. The stuff we in the West we try to hide is on display in Japan and ready to be consumed, and so it's easier to say "Japan is weird." Interesting mental gymnastics.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:33 PM on May 5, 2009


I'm not sure what you're trying to say, ornate insect. Or, rather, how it applies to what I'm saying. Everything you say is true. I'm not trying to say that Japan is "objectively" weirder than any other country, just that it has a higher amount of subjectively weird stuff for the average MeFite than, say, Germany or New Zealand. It's subjective, which is why I'm defining my subjects (the average MeFite). And, as I said, I would be having this exact same discussion in the opposite direction if my audience were largely Japanese folks.

It is a fool's errand to guage the weirdness of something objectively, which is why I'm not doing it.

The list "pedo comics, bukkake, tentacle rape..." is arbitrary because it is the list of examples that came of the top of my head, and because they're the really big ones in American/western attitudes towards "weird Japan". I didn't mean that those were somehow canonically and objectively the most weird things in Japan, they were just an arbitrary list of things to came to mind which I hoped flapjax could use to understand my point.

As far as the Japanese-ness: to my knowledge, pedophilia comic books sold in convenience stores is unique to Japan (and my example really should have been "pedo comics in convenience stores", not "pedo comics"). Bukkake started (as a moderately sized and easy-to-find market) in Japan, but has spread. Tentacle rape started in Japan due to the specifics of Japanese censorship guidelines. Panty vending machines, again, I've only heard of in Japan. Ogyaru was uniquely Japanese. Underwear-free restaurants with mirrored floors: again, never heard of that outside Japan.

Which of these examples do you not find Japanese? Not generalized out, mind you. If I say "Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only cities on which atom bombs were dropped", you can't say "No, lots of cities have had some sort of bomb dropped on them". The example wasn't "cities on which bombs were dropped" but "cities on which atomic bombs were dropped". If you generalize a statement, nothing is unique to anywhere.

So, yes, lots of countries have naughty comic books, facials, rape videos, indirect ways of purchasing sexual objects, people who pride themselves on not bathing, and naughty restaurants. But those weren't my examples.

And, yeah, if I were on a Japanese message board, and two people were arguing past eachother about whether it's valid to say America is weird, I might point out that the person saying it's weird is not totally without foundation, because America has things like Shriner cars, the right for the legally blind to go hunting alone with guns, etc. Because, for a Japanese audience, those would largely be weird things. Weirdness is subjective, not objective. And then I'd point out that, if the thing they were talking about were, say, Nazi skinheads, that the statement "America is weird", though subjectively true for a Japanese, wouldn't really be meaningful to the discussion, since Japan has there own xenophobe crazies.
posted by Bugbread at 3:35 PM on May 5, 2009


Japan is a bit weird though. go on admit it
posted by dydecker at 3:39 PM on May 5, 2009


"Consider most of the porn that is produced in LA these days that appears on the net: there is a heavy emphasis on humiliation and degradation of women, more so than in the 80s and early 90s."

Yeah, I wrote a comment and then axed it without posting, but the rise in America of irrumatio (the whole gagging thing)...The Japanese are far from cornering the "disturbing porn" market.
posted by Bugbread at 3:40 PM on May 5, 2009


The weirdest thing about Japan is the runic drone ritual thing: the guy in the convenience store will always say exactly the same thing to you no matter how many times you go in. It gets a bit Groundhog Day after a while.

I guess it's comforting.
posted by dydecker at 3:43 PM on May 5, 2009


"sorry, I misinterpreted when you said "I have no burakumin blood, because I have no ancestors, burakumin or otherwise, born after 1600 in Japan" to mean that you had ancestors born before 1600 in Japan."

Ah, no. I just meant that if your only ancestors from Japan were pre-1600, you wouldn't have any burakumin blood because there were no burakumin yet. To have "burakumin blood", you'd have to have post-1600 Japanese blood. Japan has had people since the Paleolithic, so who knows what my family tree looked like in 30,000 BC, but I know for sure that I have no Japanese ancestors post-1600.
posted by Bugbread at 3:44 PM on May 5, 2009


The weirdest thing about Japan is the runic drone ritual thing: the guy in the convenience store will always say exactly the same thing to you no matter how many times you go in. It gets a bit Groundhog Day after a while.

"Hi, welcome to Wal*Mart! Watch out for falling prices!"
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:47 PM on May 5, 2009


but the rise in America of irrumatio


That's my Scrabble word for the day. Seriously, where did you learn that word?

I dunno, the whole "Japan is weird" thing is kind of it's own meme, no? The "pornographic manga" that you always hear about being read on the train... in broad daylight... next to a little old lady! Well, I've seen that stuff on sale at the convenience store, and I've bought my fair share of skin mags at Lawson, but I've never actually seen anyone read it on the train, and I'm too shy to crack open even a Friday magazine in public, even in a sleazy coffee shop.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:51 PM on May 5, 2009


I usually get mine from Mini-stop (the spicy chicken is tastier than the karaage-kun), but I have indeed seen people reading graphic porn on the train. On the other hand, more common is the salaryman reading newspapers that have explicit photos inside. Of course, the standard way of folding newspapers on the train insures that the whole train will get possibly graphic view of whatever the guy is reading.

And weird? Try "different from what I'm used to." Weird has a shitstorm (as you may have noticed) of negative connotations. It implies that your situation, where you live, is normal, and superior. I can't even begin to think how a culture that drinks warm beer (insert other stereotype of Britain) can imagine itself to be superior.

That's just different from what I'm used to.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:21 PM on May 5, 2009


I dunno, you guys are talking like weird is a bad thing. Hell, after like 13 years here in Asia, there's still a rich deep vein of the weird to be mined, and it's all good. Like ol' Hunter said, when the going get weird, the weird turn pro.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:25 PM on May 5, 2009


Agreed --- I don't see why weird is supposed to be a negative comment. I usually take it as a compliment.

And "You're really cheapening the level of discourse here", from the one who started all the character accusations and personal attacks, is pretty amusing.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:58 PM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


And "You're really cheapening the level of discourse here", from the one who started all the character accusations and personal attacks, is pretty amusing.

Glad I could bring a little amusement into your life, there, wildcrdj. I reckon it's good to be amused. But you'll note that my comments were neither accusations nor personal attacks, but rather commentaries on what the person was SAYING. That's a very thing than different from calling someone an asshat. I called his comment ignorant. I took pains to indicate that "in this case" he was coming off as ignorant. I didn't say he was ignorant. I indicated that his characterization of this as "ethnic" discrimination was intellectually lazy: I didn't say that HE was intellectually inferior or any such. You need to read more carefully.

Seriously, can you or do you not discern any difference? Well, if not, it's not my problem. But you should probably think about it, because it's a pretty key distinction, as far as I am (and I believe, a lot of other folks around here are) concerned. I'm fine with people calling my comments ignorant or misinformed, if they then go on to illustrate for me why they think so. That's what, for me, constitutes an interesting exchange of opinions, a discussion, between/among adults. When someone calls me an asshat, that conversation has turned into something that I stop being a part of.

Aside from that, thanks to bugbread for trying to broker a treaty between me and MuffinMan, that was a fine gesture. I see bugbread and ornateinsect (both of whom I have a lot of respect for) got into a little thing there, but I personally understood what bugbread was trying to say with his little 'Japan is a bit weird' aside: he was looking for a slice of common ground in his temporary role of conciliator , and I appreciate that.

Thanks also to languagehat, for his words of support. And wildcrdj, note that languagehat, addressing MuffinMan, wrote "You, on the other hand, are coming off as a jerk." Again, that's different than saying "you are a jerk". Anyone can come off as a jerk from time to time. But L-hat had the good sense and balanced perspective to not call the guy a jerk.

Finally (I know, I know, long winded comment... sorry) this has been an interesting thread so far, I've enjoyed it! Thanks for posting, zardoz!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:03 PM on May 5, 2009


and although I think "That's a very thing than different from..." is an excellent turn of phrase, and I might use it in a song sometime, what I meant to write was, of course, "That's a very different thing than..."

Oh lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.
*dah da-da-dah da-da-daaaaaah, da-da-da-dah daaaahhh-daaaahhh....*

posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:11 PM on May 5, 2009


flapjax: my sincere apologies. You came off as a hypersensitive asshat. I retract entirely the suggestion that you are a hypersensitive asshat.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:38 AM on May 6, 2009


Is this something I'd need an eight-headed tentacle cock to understand?
posted by bardic at 12:43 AM on May 6, 2009


Fair enough, MM.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:57 AM on May 6, 2009


/shakes hands, secretly vows not to use the "a" word on the blue again.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:09 AM on May 6, 2009


Weirdos.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:41 AM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


aah, go punch yerself square in the face, ya kimchee-muncher!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:59 AM on May 6, 2009


"I see bugbread and ornateinsect (both of whom I have a lot of respect for) got into a little thing there"

Yeah, after that, we had a little friendly back-and-forth by MeMail to curb any derailing. I still disagree a very little bit, but I basically think he was 90% right, and I was only 10% right. That's what comes from commenting during a night shift.
posted by Bugbread at 6:03 AM on May 6, 2009


Of course, the low tech version of that - ANYWHERE - is an unfavorable address at the top of a resume...
posted by futureisunwritten at 8:03 AM on May 6, 2009


The idea of companies doing background checks to prevent these people from working seems pretty crazy.

is it so different from US companies doing background and credit checks and not hiring if your credit score is "too low"?
posted by misanthropicsarah at 5:33 PM on May 6, 2009


"is it so different from US companies doing background and credit checks and not hiring if your credit score is "too low"?"

Yes. Yes, it is so different.
posted by Bugbread at 7:43 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, that and selling schoolgirls' underpants in vending machines. Fair's fair, though: sushi's pretty tasty

Most. Awkward. Segue. Ever.


Especially if you knew what female body part the Japanese word for tuna (maguro) also referred to.
posted by armage at 11:15 PM on May 6, 2009


I am seriously glad I didn't see this discussion until it was over.
I'm way more prone to flipping out over the "omg Japan is so weird, amirite?" stuff than the other, slightly more sane long-term residents here.
This may even be one of the most reasonable discussions involving Japan that I've seen on mefi in quite awhile.
posted by nightchrome at 1:43 AM on May 7, 2009


This was a really interesting thread and I learned a great deal.

I do wish people weren't so quick to pounce on the "Japan is weird" meme though; I understand it can be suggestive of shallowness or ignorance, but it sure isn't necessarily so. From the time I was a small child, I've been fascinated with Japanese culture & I still find much of it plenty weird. In large part, that's probably why my fascination remains so strong.

And the idea that 'weird' is insulting is a strange one too. I'm trying to instill in my children the idea that weird is not only OK but great. If I'm in a bookstore, show me where the weird books are. If I'm going to the movies, let's go see a weird film. Not because I'm a voyeur or into cheap thrills, but because it's truly, deeply interesting.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:47 AM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I used to think weird was interesting, but then somehow my definition of "weird" changed, from "non-mainstream" to "bad and non-mainstream". So now most of the stuff I used to think was weird and interesting, I wouldn't call weird anymore. Just interesting. Doesn't mean I don't like unusual stuff, just that I don't use the word "weird" to refer to all unusual stuff, just the bad unusual stuff.

If an example makes it clearer: I used to think of noise (Merzbow, Masonna) as "weird", and I liked them. Now I think of them as "non-mainstream", and I like them.

So don't fall into the trap of assuming that if a person disparages something as "weird", it means they're only into populist, conformist things. They could just be using the word a little differently than you.
posted by Bugbread at 10:53 AM on May 7, 2009


bugbread writes: I used to think weird was interesting, but then somehow my definition of "weird" changed, from "non-mainstream" to "bad and non-mainstream".

So don't fall into the trap of assuming that if a person disparages something as "weird", it means they're only into populist, conformist things.


I'm of the same mind. A lot of the music I've liked/made/been involved in over the years has been seen or described as "weird" or "off-beat" or "quirky", and I've grown tired of these terms: they don't really speak to my perception, or my reality. So someone who only listens to Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles thinks that improvised music, for example, or free jazz or noise is weird? And calls it weird? Fine. But I'm way past that. I don't think Elliott Sharp's music is weird, I don't think Xennakis' music is weird. As far as I'm concerned, it's only "weird" according to people with unadventurous ears. People who are incurious. People unwilling to venture outside their cozy aural comfort zones. But Burmese music is not weird. Fox News is fucking weird.

wildcrdj writes: "I don't see why weird is supposed to be a negative comment."

stinkycheese writes: "And the idea that 'weird' is insulting is a strange one too."

Yeah, y'all, uh, I'm fully aware that many folks use the word "weird" as a positive. Like (going back to music) weird as in "mondo" or whatever. Of course I know that, I wasn't born yesterday. So, the word "weird" has to be judged in the context of its use, no? Like, the other words AROUND it? Like the overall TONE of the comment? I took issue with the "Japan is weird" comment way upthread because it was clearly a negative weird. He wasn't suggesting an "interesting" weird. This wasn't a thread about Japanese comic books or zany Japanese TV shows, this was a thread about systematized, institutionalized discrimination against a certain segment of society. Neither a good thing, nor a phenomenon that is by any means unique to Japan. But (as is so common in Japan-related threads) the commenter (as if on cue) says: "Japan is weird". So, are you telling me that you interpreted his use of the word as something positive?

And let me be clear, I'm not rehashing the specifics of MuffinMan's comments in order to point a finger at him anew or restart an argument for which we've already buried the hatchet, but simply to illustrate my point about all this "weird" business.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:45 PM on May 7, 2009


So someone who only listens to Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles thinks that improvised music, for example, or free jazz or noise is weird? And calls it weird? Fine. But I'm way past that. I don't think Elliott Sharp's music is weird, I don't think Xennakis' music is weird. As far as I'm concerned, it's only "weird" according to people with unadventurous ears.

I yi yi.

Look, I like lots of 'weird music'. I'm "way past" free jazz and noise too, OK? Once again, you're taking a word someone else is using and assuming all this baggage where none necessarily exists. I can listen to Albert Ayler say, & describe it as meditative or stirring or whatever, but if someone else calls it 'weird', that's OK, I understand where they're coming from & I'm not going to assume they have "unadventurous ears". WTF?

If Masami Akita heard some bluegrass (I'm just making this all up right this second), he might regard it as weird, he might not. So what? Weird is not a black box where all the bad stuff goes. I basically think of weird as meaning 'not boring like the other 99%' of whatever it is we're talking about.

Like I said, I've been interested in Japanese culture for decades & still find much of it - negative and positive - to be startlingly different from the cultural norms of my own upbringing or what I think of as normal (and normal does not necessarily mean good). Familiarity hasn't changed this.

I've known about, for instance, Japanese tea ceremonies for a long time - and yes, I'm fully aware that many cultures have their own tea ceremonies - but that doesn't change the fact that it's strange to me. I've read about it & I think I understand the rationale behind much of the ritual - it's still weird. I've loved Asian cinema for something like 15 years and I still keep coming back to it because there's still lots of fresh surprises there, still lots of weird stuff.

It really seems like you have some issue with the concept of A finding B weird, & you're reading a whole bunch of stuff into A's mindset & motivations for using the word. I respectfully suggest that what is true for you may not be true for others, and further that there's nothing wrong with that.

Of course I know that, I wasn't born yesterday. So, the word "weird" has to be judged in the context of its use, no? Like, the other words AROUND it? Like the overall TONE of the comment? I took issue with the "Japan is weird" comment way upthread because it was clearly a negative weird. He wasn't suggesting an "interesting" weird.

I'd think he'd have a better grasp on what he meant than you would. And when people say "Japan is weird", I would basically take that to mean: I am shocked by this thing I am hearing about from Japan, which is different than what I am used to.
posted by stinkycheese at 6:23 PM on May 7, 2009


It's not even just about familiarity. I was sitting by some flowers today & thought, boy, flowers are sure weird when you think about it. Nothing new about flowers, they're strange even if they're omnipresent (in the spring and summer).
posted by stinkycheese at 6:28 PM on May 7, 2009


Great, stinkycheese, that's all great. I'm glad you like weird music, I'm glad about all of that. And you think flowers are weird? Okay, man, so, for you flowers are weird. It's all good. But I'm not talking about your taste, I wasn't assuming anything about your personal taste. I'm talking about words and how they're used. How we are to assign meaning to them, based on their usage in context. So, let me just ask again: are you telling me that you interpreted his use of the word weird, in the comment I'm referring to, as something positive?

And when people say "Japan is weird", I would basically take that to mean: I am shocked by this thing I am hearing about from Japan, which is different than what I am used to.

That'd be fine, except that (and perhaps you haven't noticed) Japan gets so much more of this than any other country. It's a meme. "India is weird" is not a meme. "The US is weird" is not a meme. The easy, blanket dismissal of Japan as "weird", no matter whether we're talking culture, societal practices, entertainment, art, whatever... it's pretty much always there, and it gets tiresome. It doesn't do anything to further anyone's understanding, or to make anyone want to look deeper, or think about what they even mean by "weird" really. But, as someone who thinks flowers are weird, I'm beginning to think that point wouldn't really matter to you. I mean, if virtually everything is "weird", in fact the word doesn't really hold much of a specific meaning.. If everything is weird, well, is there a "normal"? Or a "not weird"?

I'd think he'd have a better grasp on what he meant than you would

Taken to its logical conclusion, this implies that there is no need to interpret people's meanings, and to discuss them, and to try to reach better understanding. We can all just make our little statements, and no need to enter into conversations, since none of us can know what another really means. And by the way, no need for you to reply to this part of the comment, since, of course, I have a better grasp on what I mean than you possibly could. ;-)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:07 PM on May 7, 2009


So, let me just ask again: are you telling me that you interpreted his use of the word weird, in the comment I'm referring to, as something positive?

Let's look at that original comment.

Japan's a weird place. There, I said it. I know a lot of "only in Japan stories" are either outright fabrications or gross exaggerations, but I'm amazed at how ingrained ethnic bigotry still is in Japan these days.

Nope, not a positive comment. Not surprising since the context is one of bigotry, after all. One might also note that MuffinMan acknowledges from the outset that "Japan is weird" is a) a meme; and b) not perceived as a positive meme. He even acknowledges the reasons why it's not a positive meme.

Any society in which people are sufficiently insecure that they have to screen out some bogeyman ethnic group lest they get tainted by association is pretty weird to me.

Here he's emphasizing that this weirdness is not intrinsic to Japan, but that it's based on, again, the bigotry which is the subject of the post. And this comment is almost identical to the first one in the thread (which has 7 favourites as I write this).

It doesn't do anything to further anyone's understanding, or to make anyone want to look deeper, or think about what they even mean by "weird" really. But, as someone who thinks flowers are weird, I'm beginning to think that point wouldn't really matter to you.

By flowers, I guess I was trying to allude to weird=strange/interesting (which is often what's in front of us every day) vs. weird=foreign/other. One is a judgement and a rejection, the other is IMO very often exactly the sort of thing to further understanding or make me want to look deeper, actually (I can only speak for myself). Weird can be a jumping off point for investigation or even immersion in something.

No doubt in the case of Japan there are innumerable examples of the later (particularly on the internet) but that shouldn't discount the former.

In any case, this hill of beans is making me feel kinda ill in the belly. I think I'm going to step away from the table.
posted by stinkycheese at 12:51 AM on May 8, 2009


Thanks for your comment stinkycheese.

And yeah, I hear ya, ill in the belly. I think we can all agree on what that means.

Then again, I wouldn't know exactly what it means to you... ;-)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:13 AM on May 8, 2009


Well this conversation got weird quite fast.
posted by nightchrome at 1:33 AM on May 8, 2009


"When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?"
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:40 AM on May 8, 2009


Hey, stav! There you are again! I'm cracking a beer in your honor, man!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:44 AM on May 8, 2009


And, in honour of the burgeoning summer, I'm Fridaying with soju soda water and fresh raspberry juice! Cheers!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:55 AM on May 8, 2009


and your honour, too, of course, my good man.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:56 AM on May 8, 2009


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