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Reviewed by:
  • Working Skin: Making Leather, Making a Multicultural Japan by Joseph D. Hankins
  • Daniel Botsman
Working Skin: Making Leather, Making a Multicultural Japan. By Joseph D. Hankins. University of California Press, 2014. 304 pages. Hardcover $85.00/ £70.95; softcover $29.95/ £22.95.

What are the implications of "globalization" for social justice movements around the world? One way to read Joseph Hankins's rich and thoughtful study of the shifting landscape of Buraku politics in contemporary Japan is as an extended response to this question. Hankins's interest in Buraku issues was initially sparked (at least in part) by the discovery of one of those personally inflected strands of global connection that feel so emblematic of our current moment. Invited to participate in a field trip to a tannery in Tochigi as an anthropology graduate student, Hankins was taken aback when the manager of the facility began making small talk with him about his hometown of Lubbock, Texas. As it turned out, most of the rawhide processed in the [End Page 344] facility came from Lubbock, and a group of the tannery's employees had visited a few years earlier.

Tanning, and leatherwork more generally, have of course long been associated with Buraku communities in Japan, and one of the central concerns of Hankins's study is precisely the relationship between labor and identity. As part of his exploration of this issue, Hankins himself spent six months working at a tannery in the Higashi Sumida district of Tokyo, a major center for leather production since the 1890s. There he developed an intimate understanding of the physically demanding and chemically saturated work of making leather. Even before working at the tannery, however, he sought to understand the nature of the work that goes into supporting and sustaining the Buraku political movement: in the mid-2000s, he conducted a year and a half of fieldwork in the offices of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), an NGO closely affiliated with the Buraku Liberation League (BLL). The contrasts Hankins draws between the two workplaces (blue collar/white collar, masculine/feminine) are stark, and yet, as the book also demonstrates, the challenges faced by the people who work in these different spaces remain closely interrelated.

The landmark achievement of the BLL and its political allies in the postwar era was the enactment of the 1969 Special Measures Law (SML). In the decades after its introduction, the SML ensured that large amounts of government funding were earmarked for improving basic living conditions in Buraku neighborhoods and, in some areas including Tokyo, for supporting traditional Buraku industries such as tanning. By the 1990s, however, the need for this law was increasingly called into question. The gap in housing conditions and access to public facilities that had once separated many in Buraku communities from their non-Buraku neighbors had narrowed significantly. Although the BLL was able to secure two extensions, the law was eventually allowed to expire in 2002. In addition to ending the flow of public funds into Buraku communities, the mainstream political consensus that "special measures" to address Buraku concerns are no longer necessary has also had other significant consequences. Though Japan's bureaucrats once felt compelled to protect the domestic leather industry from international competition, in the first decade of the twenty-first century they have increasingly acquiesced to the dictates of the World Trade Organization. They have also accepted the need for increasingly strict environmental standards that threaten the viability of domestic tanneries. In the case of Tokyo, a 2007 ordinance imposing tougher standards for the filtration of water used in the industrial tanning process has had a particularly dramatic impact. According to Hankins, within just eighteen months of the ordinance, seven of the seventeen tanneries that had previously operated in Higashi Sumida had closed, with prospects for all but three of the remainder uncertain (p. 99). As Hankins notes, an association with pollution of various kinds has long plagued Buraku communities, and he is clearly sensitive to the ways in which the "greening" of Tokyo may now be contributing to processes of social exclusion with much deeper histories. [End Page 345]

He also suggests, however...