Japan – Buraku Liberation Center Celebrates 25 Years

Japan – Buraku Liberation Center Celebrates 25 Years

On Nov. 20, 2007, the Buraku Liberation Center celebrated its 25th anniversary, with the Shinanomachi Church in Tokyo serving as the venue. Since the BLC was actually founded in 1981, the celebration was a year late, but the situation in 2006 did not allow for the proper planning and execution of such an important event. With the appointment of a new BLC director as well as a new missionary in 2007, the time was right.

The Rev. Kazuhiro Tanimoto, who heads up the BLC Activities Committee, gave an inspiring message entitled “Jesus and His Crown of Thorns” during the opening worship service, and the Rev. Timothy D. Boyle was officially installed as the new BLC missionary.  Following is a translation of his message:

First, I want to express my deep gratitude for being able to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Buraku Liberation Center of the Kyodan and to thank all of you for being a part of this and for your support in working for an end to Buraku discrimination and all other forms of discrimination as well. As you all know, the Buraku Liberation Center began in an atmosphere in which discriminatory attitudes against people of buraku descent were common within the Church itself.  People of buraku background who thought that surely there would be no discrimination within the Christian Church and who gladly came were sadly disappointed to find such attitudes were really just as pervasive within the church as within the society at large. Those who began this work were compelled by their desire to present themselves to Christ as his loyal servants who worked tirelessly to rid society — as well as the church — of such discriminatory attitudes.

Their desire was not to simply be dependent on the mercy and goodwill of people in the church but to take the lead in working together in solidarity to bring about this lofty goal. Numerous brothers and sisters of the faith supported them in this goal and contributed their efforts to help get the Buraku Liberation Center up and running. The efforts of the leaders of the Kyodan were also important, and now it has been 25 years since this all came together. In thinking of these last 25 years, I can’t help but think of those who “fell in battle” while passing the torch on to us, Louis Greer, Kazuichi Imai, Bob Stieber and Heiichi Sumihi. This battle for buraku liberation is a long road, and we are still on the way. For those of us from discriminated-against buraku, our goal of complete liberation from the discriminatory past is still far away over the horizon, but we’re marching on. We want so much to quickly reach that goal, but the reality of our situation is that way is steep and difficult.

Nevertheless, one giant step we can take towards this goal has become clear in recent years, and that is the solidarity we are forging with various other groups striving to rid society of other forms of discrimination. I personally have great expectations for this networking of various other antidiscriminatory movements and look forward to further strengthening of our bonds of solidarity. This networking we are trying to forge is between various minority groups, our buraku people and those brothers and sisters who work together with us.

It is my belief that just as God led us to found the Buraku Liberation Center in the latter part of the 20th Century, he is now giving us this new goal in the 21st Century of forming this networking of anti-discrimination groups. As we grapple with what needs to be done within the framework of the work of the Buraku Liberation Center, we need to also grapple with how best to achieve this larger goal.  I myself was born into a family that lived in a discriminated-against buraku, and the discrimination I faced as I grew was indeed severe. I often resented my parents for bringing me into such a world. And I also resented the buraku village where I grew up. But as my father got involved in the buraku liberation struggle, he began to show me the how deeply meaningful it was. My father was a cow herder, but even in that occupation, there are various ranks, and at first my father was only a day laborer who took care of cows for those in the cattle business. He earned his income by leading the cattle to market, walking along beside them.

Due to my illness, I am no longer able to walk very far, but as a youngster, I had to walk long distances. As we walked along leading the cattle, we often were on the receiving end of a great deal of verbal abuse.  “Look at those cow herders! That’s a job for burakumin!” “You stink! Get away from here!” “Don’t come close!” “You don’t belong here! Go away!” Because there was so much of that kind of discrimination, practically all of the young people of the buraku would leave and go somewhere else as soon as their compulsory education was complete. These young people typically never came back to their buraku. About the only exceptions were those who were broken by failed marriages and those who came back in the form of an urn of ashes because they committed suicide due to their inability to withstand the persecution.

I too strongly considered abandoning my roots, but once I got involved in the cause of buraku liberation, together with the support of others in the struggle, and especially because of my encounter with Jesus Christ, I came to realize that attempting to escape from my buraku roots would be a cowardly act. And so I dedicated myself to the cause of buraku liberation. Then, 30 years ago, I became a Christian pastor and was called to the Omi Heian Church in Shiga Prefecture. Even within that context, however, buraku discrimination raised its ugly head. Certain members of the church expressed their desire to have me avoid involvement in buraku issues. “Pastor, we don’t want you to evangelize within the local buraku. We don’t want this to become a buraku church. So please don’t bring them into the church!”  Needless to say, I was very disappointed in this attitude within the church. But it spurred me on to dedicate myself to changing this type of attitude within the Christian Church as a whole. And so that was the beginning of my struggle within the larger church. So, there was a division within the church between those who said, “Pastor, if you are going to be involved in buraku liberation, we want you to quit this church,” and those who supported my struggle to bring liberation to the buraku. In this struggle, the voice of God came to me clearly, “Tanimoto, I want you to remain in this church and help it grow into a church that fights against discrimination.”

So for the past 30 years, I have endeavored to involve myself anywhere I could in this struggle, but as you all know, buraku discrimination is still with us. The Church is not yet the Church that God desires it to be. Also, within society, various discriminatory incidents are still rampant.  While it is true that incidents in which discriminatory remarks are made directly to members of the buraku community are much rarer than before, such actions are done more discreetly, in the form of anonymous graffiti and slanderous comments over the internet. So, as long as these forms of discriminatory attitudes are still present, the struggle must go on. The Church must stand together with those who are suffering due to such discrimination, and so we must renew our resolve to continue this struggle.

I want us to turn again to the Scripture we read earlier, focusing now on verses 17 through 19 (Mark 15). This is what is says, “They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him.”

So here, we see the abuse and insults Jesus suffered before he was crucified presented to us in graphic terms. The dictionary defines “insult” as “looking down on someone and making fun of them and abusing them.” Only someone who has personally experienced such insults can truly understand the pain and vexation that accompanies such abuse. The Son of God, who was sent into this world, experienced this abuse because of human folly and sin. That insulting abuse is described in this passage. First, they wove together thorns into a crown and pushed it down onto his head. Then they began hitting him over the head with a stick, driving those thorns in further. Then they spat on him and finally humiliated him to the fullest by nailing him to a cross. Jesus’ last hours were filled with humiliating abuse. This was the final hours of our Savior’s life were like. His appearance was the exact opposite of the handsome hero we would naturally think of our Savior being, as he was grossly disfigured and helpless.

One of the founders of the Leveler’s Association, Seiichiro Sakamoto, was quite familiar with the Bible and the image of the suffering Jesus it portrays. In the Leveler’s Association Proclamation that he helped create, we see the following words: “As a reward for skinning animals, they were stripped of their own living flesh; in return for tearing out the hearts of animals, their own warm human hearts were ripped apart.”  Here we see a clear allusion to similarities of the sufferings and humiliation of Christ and what we who grew up in the buraku likewise experienced. The image of Jesus, who was cast out into the darkness with no escape, overlaps that of the buraku people, who were spat on and despised by others. But God created in Jesus a way out of this condition, and the proclamation likewise proclaims a way out of the darkness for the buraku people. It states, “Yet, all through these cursed nightmares, their human pride ran deep in their blood. … The time has come when the victims will throw back the hot branding iron of their oppression.”

We people of the buraku, who have experienced such severe discrimination and loss of our human rights, are being called to raise our voices in protest against such discrimination and to reclaim our rights as human beings. We are being called to take the lead in doing this ourselves and not to just passively depend upon the sympathy of others to accomplish this goal.  Jesus, of his own accord, gave his life up on the cross and God raised him from the dead to provide the way for the “hot branding iron” of discrimination to be “thrown back.” The image of a weak and vulnerable Jesus is transformed into one of great power and strength. Here we see Jesus, as a victim and martyr of discrimination, being transformed by the power of God into the victor and liberator, and through him, we in the buraku are given the opportunity to follow in those same footsteps.

Thus, it is Jesus who is the pioneer of the buraku liberation movement and indeed the liberator of all humanity. Jesus is still leading the way for the liberation of the burakumin as well as the rest of humanity. When we consider what Jesus did for us through his suffering by wearing that crown of thorns and dying on the cross, and then through his victory in the resurrection, we can see that this indeed is the true starting point for buraku liberation. Let us give thanks to God that Jesus has gone on before us to prepare the way of liberation, and let us follow him in his liberating footsteps. I pray that we who work through the ministry of the Buraku Liberation Center will follow the leading of the Lord and that this 25th anniversary of the founding of the Buraku Liberation Center will be a new starting point from which to strive after that goal.

Following the worship service, the Rev. Tomiju Endo gave an interesting lecture on how he came to know about buraku discrimination, particularly as it related to the described in numerous previous issues of CWT. Following is a condensed translation of his presentation. After giving some background information of how he had been totally unaware of the significance of this trial and the buraku discrimination in general, he described his first encounter with the “Sayama Incident.”

I was standing in front of the Urawa District Court when I heard helmeted youths crying out, “Release Ishikawa Kazuo!” I asked the policeman standing there what that was all about, and he told me, “It’s the Sayama Jiken (Incident).” Now, I had no idea what the “Sayama Jiken” was, and so I went to the library to do some research. I found out that buraku discrimination was at the root of this issue.  That really surprised me, as I had thought buraku discrimination was something out of ancient Japan and irrelevant to today. In the opening worship service, Rev. Tanimoto shared his own experience of the severe discrimination he faced as a child, but I was totally unaware that such people existed in modern Japan. I had read Shimazaki Toson’s famous book, “Hakai” (The English translation is entitled “The Broken Commandment” and is published by the University of Tokyo Press), and so I knew about that sort of class discrimination in old Japan, but I had thought that was just something of the past. At the next meeting of pastors in the Saitama sub-district (where Sayama is located), I asked my fellow pastors about it. Very few of them knew anything about it, but a couple that did told me on the side, “Endo, it would be better that you not to get involved with that.” Needless to say, I was rather shocked, and this peeked my interest all the more. Looking back at it now, I suppose there is one aspect in which they were right, in the sense that life would have been “easier” for me to have simply ignored the problem. But I was determined to look into this issue, and I found a book published by the Buraku Research Center in Tokyo entitled, “The Buraku Issue.”

In the course of reading this book, I discovered that there was a support organization for Kazuo Ishikawa, and so I immediately contacted them and got everything they had on the issue. Even though I lived in Saitama and did my ministry there, I had been ignorant of this reality right in my own neighborhood. “As someone doing ministry in Saitama, how could I not know about this issue?” I thought. This was shortly after the first trial, when the judge, Takeo Uchida, pronounced the death sentence on Ishikawa. (Ishikawa had been tricked into signing a confession (see the previous issue of CWT for details), and had been led to believe from the “plea bargaining” that he would be freed in 10 years.) So it was at this time that Ishikawa began protesting and reaching out for support. Thus, I realized that this was a really important issue that I needed to be involved with and to help spread the word as widely as possible. So I got involved in the Kazuo Ishikawa Support Organization and spent a great deal of time researching the issue and publicizing it everyway I could, including passing out fliers to the public at railway stations, etc. As I was so involved in the issue, I was encouraged to go to the Tokyo High Court to witness the proceedings before Judge Terao. When I arrived and saw all of the “Crown of Thorns” flags and banners in the crowd outside, my first thought was, “Wow, look at how many church related people are here!” (laughter, as the “Crown of Thorns” flag is the symbol of the secular Buraku Liberation League) One thing I remember well about the proceedings was when Judge Terao stated that he had been diligently studying about the buraku issue, everyone thought that was an encouraging sign. I thought that surely Ishikawa was soon going to be a free man.

But as you all know, the sentence that was handed down was life imprisonment without parole. Why was such an unfair verdict reached? In his explanation, the judge said that Ishikawa had shown “great repentance” of his actions, but as we all know, he had done no such thing and instead had been protesting his innocence from the beginning. But that was ignored and his forced “confession” was portrayed as evidence of his guilt and repentant spirit. After that trial, Ishikawa decided to change his defense team from those associated with the “Kazuo Ishikawa Support Organization” to a new group of lawyers who were working with the Buraku Liberation League. The net result of all of this was that the movement switched over from a focus on this one individual and the overturning of his sentence to a more general approach. Ishikawa’s name was no longer given prominence, and that actually bothered me a lot. Naoto Nakata, one of the lawyers in the movement who often came to Saitama to give seminars, also emphasized that since Ishikawa was still in prison, we should continue to focus on him and his rights, but it was deemed more pragmatic to take the focus off one individual and instead make the effort more general. It was just at that time, however, that the Kyodan set up its “Task Force on the Buraku Discrimination Issue,” which was headed up by Kazuichi Imai (who later became the first director of the BLC). He came to visit me and ask for my cooperation. At the time, I was thinking in terms of putting my energies into the movement to collect signatures from the public to demand a fair trial. While I realize that my thinking at the time was somewhat problematic by today’s standards, I was of the opinion that when it comes to appealing to the public, explaining buraku discrimination is so difficult that it would get in the way of collecting signatures. Imai didn’t make a big deal of it then and  simply said that a variety of approaches would be helpful to the movement. And so I agreed that if I didn’t need to drop my involvement in the “Kazuo Ishikawa Support Organization,” I’d be happy to join that committee as well.

One thing I began to be cognizant of as I participated in that committee was the great gap between learning about an issue like buraku discrimination by simply reading books and actually meeting with the people and listening to their stories. One of the main functions of that committee was to help develop Kyodan personnel who were really attuned to the issues, and one thing we did was to always make field trips to discriminated-against buraku, etc. to get firsthand experience. I became more and more convinced of the importance of this hands-on approach as well as that of becoming more cognizant of our failure as a church to reach out to these people. These people, who had suffered for so long under the       oppression of Japanese society, had been crying out to us,but we had ignored them. I thought to myself, “How can our seminaries not prepare our ministers to deal with this issue and simply tell them to go evangelize?”

I had come to the realization that deep within the Japanese psyche is this underlying substructure that has allowed such discriminatory attitudes to continue unabated, and unfortunately, becoming a Christian did not automatically remove this. Thus, we ended up with a truncated gospel that did not bring liberation in the full sense of the word. When it comes to the problem of sin, there is, of course, that aspect of personal sin that our traditional evangelism addressed, but there is also the issue of societal sin that allows those within that society to continue to discriminate without feeling conscious of that sin. It was this point that was really brought home to me through my involvement with this task force. How could we truly be evangelizing with the whole gospel if we were not even conscious of this societal aspect of sin? We in the Church could easily feel sympathy for such people, and, for instance, if we heard something like Rev. Tanimoto described in his message earlier, we would feel a sense of pity — a patronizing attitude that he often says drives him up the wall. Actually, it was my interaction with Kazuichi Imai that really drove this point home to me. He always interacted with me in a kind, easygoing manner, but sometimes during a meeting where the issue was being discussed, he could become extremely angry. At first, I was rather shocked, thinking he was unstable or something, but I soon realized that this was his strong reaction to those who were so insensitive to the problem and who needed a sharp rebuke to get their attention. After Imai’s death (in April 1984), the BLC put out a book on his life and work in which there is a reference concerning Imai’s frustration with the stance of the “National Christian Council in Japan,” an organization of representatives from various churches and organizations including the Kyodan. They took the position that since the Kyodan as involved in this issue, they didn’t need to be, and so there was no NCC representative on the committee — in spite of frequent requests to get involved. This passive stance of “Let others deal with it” was what he hated the ost.

One thing I learned from him was that righteous indignation at discriminatory and insensitive attitudes was really the flip side of love. It was because of his deep love and concern for all human beings that he showed his anger at their sin. In other words, we need to love others enough to show our anger at their actions when it is called for. I believe that Jesus himself showed that perfect anger that comes from perfect love, and this is a message we all need to take to  heart. Do we love others enough to be able to express anger when they need to wake up to what they are doing? In closing, I want to encourage the BLC to continue its ministry within the churches and to put emphasis on going into the various districts and local churches to educate our people. I pray that we can get representatives from every district to serve on the committee, and I would suggest that training the committee members through taking them on field trips is really important. When it comes to the BLC and its organizational structure, while the ideal I envision is a prophetic independence that can speak to the Church as a whole, I also realize that the organizational realities tend to stifle that voice. Nevertheless, that is my wish for the BLC — namely that it will not only be a beacon of hope to those oppressed by discrimination and a prophetic voice speaking to society in their behalf, but also be able to direct that prophetic voice to the Church as well.