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Reviewed by:
  • Working Skin: Making Leather, Making a Multicultural Japan by Joseph D. Hankins
  • Ian Neary (bio)
Working Skin: Making Leather, Making a Multicultural Japan. By Joseph D. Hankins. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014. xxii, 277 pages. $65.00, cloth; $29.95, paper; $29.95, E-book.

It is no longer the case that most buraku communities have a connection with either the leather industry or meat production, and some historians argue that it never was, but nevertheless many Japanese and those non-Japanese who know something about buraku mondai assume there was and still is a close connection. While there has been more work published by a wide range of social scientists and historians on issues of status discrimination in Japan over the last five years, none of it has turned its attention to the leather industry. This book goes some way to filing that gap and uses a discussion of that industry as a starting point for an examination of a wide range of issues facing burakumin and policymaking in Japan in the twenty-first century, many of them previously undiscussed in the English-language material on the topic.

Joseph Hankins is a trained anthropologist who clearly originally intended to focus on language use, gender, and sexuality in Japan but ended up researching buraku mondai. Nevertheless, he makes good use of his sensitivity to language use as one of the tools for his research. He explains the intellectual background to his research project, also taking us through the times and places of his fieldwork. He spent a year and a half, 2005–7, in Tokyo as an intern with the International Movement Against Discrimination and Racism (IMADR, a UN-recognized organization that is the international face of the Buraku Liberation League [BLL]). Later he worked as an apprentice in a tanning factory in north Tokyo. He also participated in events sponsored by both the BLL and IMADR and took part in trips from Japan to India by burakumin visiting Dalits. All of this activity he describes economically, effectively, and reflexively. What is particular to his account is the way he interrogates and explicates each situation, the circumstances, and the participants he is describing within “two transitional conditions of political argument and economic practice” and within the particular context of Japan in the early twenty-first century beginning to think of itself as a “multicultural nation-state in spite of itself” (p. 240). [End Page 178]

In all of this, he is strong on description and his reflexive anthropological analysis seems to this nonanthropologist both exemplary and thought provoking. He is rather less reliable or informative, however, on some aspects of what he is describing. So, for example, although he provides a very rich description of everyday life in the Tokyo tannery where he spent six months, we do not find out very much about the state of the Japanese leather industry today or how it has fared since (say) 1945. Or perhaps what little he does give us left this reader wanting to learn more. No doubt he would respond that that is not the book he set out to write and that such questions reflect my interests, not his. Still, as the title seems to suggest that it will tell us something about leather making in Japan, it would seem not unreasonable at least to alert readers early on about what his book will not do. In a similar vein, we can only find a very brief description of the formation and evolution of Japan’s policies toward multiculturalism. Provocatively Hankins defines what he considers multiculturalism as a “form of governance,” although I was not always clear exactly what he meant by that. Again, given that it is a key word in the title of his book, we are perhaps entitled to expect a little more about the content and timing of the relevant policies.

I was also concerned by some of the errors that crept into his description of dōwa policy. On page 112 we are told that a 1965 report produced by “a BLL deliberative council” repudiated “a racial understanding of its situation.” A little later that, “The Dōwakai was tasked with...