restricted access Embodying Difference: The Making of Burakumin in Modern Japan (review)
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Embodying Difference: The Making of Burakumin in Modern Japan. By Timothy D. Amos. University of Hawai'i Press, 2011. 320 pages. Hardcover $66.00; softcover $33.00.

It is difficult to understand, and to explain, the nature of the buraku problem: Do we use the term "buraku," or do we say "dowa"? Does a "buraku problem" really still exist? And is it a "problem" or an "issue"? The Japanese government's stance appears to be that after thirty-three years of Dowa Policy Projects (1969-2002), the state has done everything it can and all that remains is for the Japanese people themselves to sort out any matters that remain.

There is essentially no distinction equivalent to race, gender, or disability that can be used to identify or define burakumin, and as a result most attempts by social scientists or historians to describe the buraku situation have been written as if such a distinction existed. For example, George DeVos and Hiroshi Wagatsuma characterized burakumin as an "invisible race" in their pioneering study titled Japan's Invisible Race: Caste in Culture and Personality (University of California Press, 1966). However, since DeVos and Wagatsuma, and indeed even before, social scientists have been pointing out that the identities of all minorities—despite seemingly "obvious" differences—are socially constructed, and from a historical perspective are continually in the process of being reconstituted. On the one hand, there is general agreement about the lack of discernible differences between "mainstream" Japanese and burakumin (in contrast to [End Page 187] the undeniable differences that exist between men and women or between those of different races). But on the other, most accounts of the buraku "problem" assume that one can connect premodern outcast groups—sometimes going as far back as the Heian period—with those in contemporary Japan who actually or potentially face discrimination—again, as if buraku identity were something more than a socially constituted identity.

In Embodying Difference, Timothy Amos argues that this is misguided and that we need a "fundamental re-conception of the buraku problem," first, because what he terms the "master narrative" is "built on empirically and conceptually questionable foundations" and second, because "mainstream accounts tend to overlook the very important role burakumin and other interested parties play in the construction and maintenance of the narrative" (p. 5). He sets out to deconstruct the narrative that presents burakumin "unambiguously as people who objectively exist in the world and re-instate a strong element of ambiguity." On one level the book is concerned with the "conceptual fragility of the ideas upon which buraku history is based" (p. 10), but Amos also suggests that "eta, hinin, and burakumin should, in fact, be treated as discursive labels embedded in historical narratives which are concurrently functions of power relations within contemporary institutional settings" (p. 24).

Amos first presents a detailed buraku history both at the national level and also through the example of two former outcast areas in eastern and western Japan, highlighting specific empirical and conceptual problems that emerged while he was doing archival work on the 1871 Emancipation Edict. Next, through an examination of early modern outcast groups, he addresses the issue of buraku discrimination, noting that an assumption of uniform and continuous discrimination is untenable, "as is the idea that members of these groups were universally of low social status" (p. 26).

Chapter 4 discusses the radical changes that occurred from the Meiji era to the 1930s, contrasting the discursive and material transformation of these "former outcast communities." The outcome of this process was that despite their complex history, some burakumin identify themselves as a well-defined group of marginalized subjects rooted in a premodern past. Chapter 5 covers the postwar emergence of a "human rights culture" within the buraku liberation movement, focusing on the permanent exhibition at the Osaka Human Rights Museum. The final chapter argues for changing the way we view history so that we relate to the victims of social violence, without engaging in or accepting the logic of the perpetrator of the discriminating act.

Amos is also interested in the uniqueness of the buraku problem, and he attempts a comparison of the burakumin with the Dalit...