As the US fetes its first African-American president, Japan is still dealing with prejudice that some say has kept this country from breaking ancient taboos and installing someone from a minority group as its leader.
Nearly a decade ago, seasoned politician Hiromu Nonaka was on the verge of becoming prime minister in a heated battle with the man who now holds the post, Taro Aso.
The issue took an ugly turn when Nonaka’s roots as a burakumin, or the descendant of former outcasts, was allegedly raised by Aso, the scion of a wealthy, establishment family.
The burakumin are the descendants of people who were considered under Buddhist beliefs to be unclean — butchers, tanners, undertakers — and were separated from the general population.
Though Japan did away with its caste system several years after the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, discrimination against the burakumin remains strong, affecting employment, marriage and social interaction. Maps detailing the areas where the burakumin were once forced to live together in enclaves are still used to “out” people who don’t want their roots known.
About 900,000 people live in areas designated as buraku, mostly in western Japan.
Nonaka never hid his roots.
He was raised in a buraku farming village in the ancient capital of Kyoto, but that did not stop him from surging to top posts in the ruling party and government. Known as “the shadow premier,” the charismatic Nonaka served in the government’s No. 2 post as chief Cabinet secretary when prime Minister Yoshiro Mori quit. That made him the man most likely to succeed.
But in a back room meeting of party elders in 2001, Aso allegedly told his fellow faction members: “We are not going to let someone from the buraku become the prime minister of Japan, are we?”
For reasons that remain unclear, Nonaka pulled out of the 2001 leadership race. Aso lost. Junichiro Koizumi came to power instead.
Aso has denied making the comment.
The alleged remark was made public in a 2004 book. It was raised in Parliament in 2005, and Aso denied ever saying it. Since Aso took office in September, however, it is back in the media.
One of the people who attended the meeting, Hisaoki Kamei — now a leader of a small opposition party — said through his secretary that he recalled Aso making a remark “to that effect.”
Nonaka was not at the meeting where the alleged remark was made but has nonetheless said he would “never forgive” Aso for the comment. In a recent TV interview, he said Aso’s prime ministership was “misery” for Japan.
“A man who grew up without seeing any of the suffering of the lowly people, he never looks at the public to share their perspective,” Nonaka said of Aso.