The vast majority of books, in English or Japanese, that mention the burakumin at all typically define them as the descendants of the eta and hinin outcastes of early modern Japan, who still suffer from discrimination today due to the tenacity of Japanese prejudice against them. Timothy Amos’s book offers provocative, insightful, and convincing arguments against this simplistic identification. Amos draws intellectual inspiration for this endeavor from the fruits of recent Japanese scholarship by researchers such [End Page 457] as Hatanaka Toshiyuki, Hirota Masaki, Imanishi Hajime, and Kurokawa Midori, who have problematized the image of buraku history produced during the postwar heyday of the buraku liberation movement. Like them, Amos sees the communities euphemistically referred to as “buraku” and the marginalization that people from them face as a distinctly modern phenomenon. Moreover, he reveals how this modern discursive construct has been maintained and further promoted by some of the very people to whom it applies, through an exploration of the ways in which the idea of outcaste roots has been deployed within the identity politics of the buraku liberation movement.
His project is ambitious: whereas most scholars writing on the subject limit themselves to discussing buraku history within a specific and familiar time frame (pre-Meiji, 1868 to 1945, or postwar), Amos explores the nature of buraku identity through all of these, beginning with the construction of outcaste status groups in the early modern period. In contrast to the common view of the eta and hinin as homogeneous outcaste groups, Amos highlights the varieties of outcaste status, the often amorphous nature of their relationship to other status groups, and the considerable autonomy and economic privilege they enjoyed in exchange for being placed within a cordon sanitaire—Amos’s concept of choice for discussing the shifting patterns of marginalization—due to prejudices against certain occupations based upon religious notions of purity and defilement. His exploration of the position of the so-called “eta chief” (eta-gashira) Danzaemon is particularly interesting for what it reveals about the management of outcaste status within the wider realm of Tokugawa statecraft.
While certain continuities can be traced, Amos emphasizes the differences between these early modern outcastes and the modern burakumin in terms of the kinds of people referred to by each term and the reasons for the cordon sanitaire deployed around them. In regard to people, the turmoil of the bakumatsu era and the early years after the Meiji Restoration led to significant migration into and out of traditional outcaste areas. In the years following the 1871 abolition of outcaste status, many of these nonoutcaste migrants and their descendants came to be maligned as “new commoners” simply because of their place of residence. Amos also notes the appearance of modern buraku communities in the early Meiji period: urban and rural slums with no historical connection to early modern outcaste communities. Thus, while it may be possible to trace the lineage of specific individuals back to early modern outcaste families, or to find communities identified as buraku areas today that stand on the sites of pre-Meiji pariah districts, the claim that modern buraku communities and their residents in general are connected to pre-Meiji pariah groups is empirically untenable.
But the arrival of modernity brought more than just the social turmoil that led to residential hybridity in old outcaste areas and the appearance of [End Page 458] new ones. The arrival of Western discourses of “race, nation, and capital,” to borrow Amos’s description, redefined the qualities that needed to be quarantined from the rest of society behind the cordon sanitaire, as the Meiji state sought to redefine the Japanese as a modern, civilized, and wealthy nation possessing a peerless ethnic homogeneity centered upon an ancient and sacrosanct imperial line. Groups that exhibited qualities anathema to this ideal image were rapidly marginalized through a discourse that envisioned these qualities as intrinsic to whom they were, as the state and civil society alike discursively purged “Japan” of poverty, disease...