Wed, Jan 19, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Japan's despised class still suffering from discrimination

IMPURE PROFESSIONS One man's plight reveals the country's ongoing problem with `Burakumin' -- a reviled caste due to their death-related jobs

AFP , Tokyo

After more than four decades of fighting the Japanese justice system, Kazuo Ishikawa has learned to read and is out of prison, but he still feels the shackles on his wrists.

Convicted of a sensational murder he insists he did not commit, Ishikawa has waged a battle not only against the courts that put him behind bars but against a society that left him defenseless.

Ishikawa is a Burakumin, part of Japan's untouchable caste formerly relegated to ghettos because of their "impure" professions associated with death and whose hundreds of thousands of members still struggle for full acceptance in the 21st century.

In Ishikawa's emblematic case, to prove his innocence, he had to teach himself to read and write from inside a prison cell. He is now using the skill to demand a retrial -- all he wants, he says, is an apology.

Ishikawa's saga began on the rainy afternoon of May 1, 1963, when 16-year-old Yoshie Nakada disappeared on her way home from school in the small rural town of Sayama in Saitama prefecture north of Tokyo.

That evening, her parents received a ransom letter in poorly written Japanese. It asked for ?200,000 (US$1,960) and a meeting at the stroke of midnight the following day.

The police sent out 43 officers at the assigned time. A mysterious person turned up but was not caught. Yoshie's body was found three days after the kidnapping buried near a footpath to a farm.

The crime had national reverberations. Parliament was in uproar and the national police chief, already under fire for failing to prevent the kidnapping and killing of a young boy in Tokyo a month earlier, resigned.

Ishikawa, then 24, was arrested on the morning of May 23 for theft, assault and attempted blackmail. He was interrogated and after more than a month in custody he confessed. The basis of the allegation was the ransom letter. But Ishikawa, an upkeeper of swine, could not read.

After a six-month trial, Ishikawa was handed the verdict on March 11, 1964: death. He smiled at the judge, not believing the sentence could be true.

Ishikawa now writes poems to keep the memories of his ordeal. His dream is to earn the equivalent of a high-school diploma. His other dream is to have his name cleared.

The death sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1974 on an appeal. On December 21, 1994, he was freed on bail after 31 years and seven months in jail, thanks to a long national campaign of solidarity on his plight.

Ishikawa's supporters have so far gathered 430,000 signatures demanding a retrial.

"If a judge tells me, `I'm sorry,' I can forgive everything," Ishikawa said.

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