Japan's only human rights museum strive to survive

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Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi, Stripes Okinawa
Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi, Stripes Okinawa

Japan's only human rights museum strive to survive

by: Takahiro Takiguchi | .
Stripes Okinawa | .
published: October 22, 2013

Japan’s only human rights museum is struggling to keep its doors open after city and prefectural governments in Osaka pulled the plug on its funding. A symbol of hope for an oft-shunned minority, the quarter-century-old museum now faces extinction for what city’s mayor has called its failure to offer hope to children.

Osaka Human Rights Museum, or Liberty Osaka, has taken the lead in enlightening Japan’s public on various human rights issues through exhibits, educational activities and domestic and international networks. It was founded in 1985 as an historical archive of the Burakumin, a feudal-era caste whose descendants have been discriminated against well into modern times. It has since expanded into a comprehensive museum chronicling a wide range of domestic human rights issues for more than 1.5 million visitors to date.

The museum uses a variety of mediums such as photo and video, artifacts and static exhibits to recount stories of peoples, places and events. These permanent displays focus on the human rights struggles of Japanese minorities such as the Burakumin, Ainu, Okinawans and Korean descendants. There are also sections covering the struggles and plights of women, the homeless, disabled people, gays, atomic bomb survivors, HIV/AIDS and Hansen’s disease patients as well as victims of bullying.

Since the museum’s founding, Osaka Prefecture has funded about 70 million of its 140 million yen ($1.4 million) annual budget, while Osaka City provided about 50 million yen. However, in the face of severe fiscal distress, both governments decided to withdraw their funding for the museum last year.

Mayor Toru Hashimoto said the reason Osaka City pulled its funding is that Liberty Osaka’s exhibits were “limited to discrimination and human rights” and fail to offer children a future vision of “hopes and dreams.”  Despite 450,000 signatures on a petition opposing the withdrawal of funds, the subsidies ended in March this year.

“Although the subsidies have been terminated, we cannot close this museum because of its history and mission as Japan’s only human rights museum,” said Haruhiko Nariyama, the museum’s president. “So,  we have taken on the challenge of running the museum on our own.”

In addition to soliciting contributions, the museum cut 54 percent of its labor cost by laying off its 12 permanent employees and rehiring eight as contractors. It has also cut corners by closing on Sundays and holidays, and raising admission fees. Liberty Osaka has since managed to cut annual costs in half – all while remaining true to its mission as a human rights museum, according to its director, Takeshi Asaji.

“We are focusing on education and dissemination of information,” he said. “Recently we’ve been developing good rapport with various schools to educate children to become human rights-conscious adults.”

The museum’s visitors increased by 9,000 this year over last year and it has managed to collect about 60 million yen in contributions, enabling it to continue operating, officials said. But unfortunately, that may not be enough to keep Liberty Osaka afloat, in light of recent developments.

While Osaka Prefecture and city have no plans to resume funding, the city announced its intent to terminate the museum’s free property lease as well.

“We granted the free property lease for the museum throughout this year, and may be able to grant it for 2014 as a result of their efforts to sustain operations,” said Nobuo Imai, of Osaka City’s Human Rights Office. “However, for 2015 and after, we will ask the museum to pay 27 million yen annually for the property lease.”

The announcement has put Liberty Osaka officials on high alert.

“To cope with the additional expenses, we need to gain 8,000 more supporters who will continuously contribute 6,000 yen ($61) annually,” Nariyama said. “Currently, we are reaching out for support and contributions as well as more volunteers who can help with museum operations and public affairs.”

It is not just the museum that has a historical significant; the building that houses it does as well. It was originally built in 1872 as Sakae Elementary School, the first school built by a Burakumin community.

round this museum is one of Japan’s largest Burakumin communities whose members were mainly engaged in the leather industry during the Edo Period (1603-1867),” Asaji said. “Some of the affluent community members funded building the elementary school – Osaka’s second public school – for their own children.

“It symbolizes the hopes and dreams of a minority that faced discrimination (in feudal Japan’s caste system),” Asaji added. “When a new school was built elsewhere in 1985, it was aptly decided to preserve the building in the form of this museum.”

To support the Osaka Human Rights Museum with an annual 6,000 yen ($61) contribution (in Japanese), visit www.liberty.or.jp

Burakumin: Japan's unseen minority

To the outsider, Japan may look remarkably homogeneous with most of its 124 million people sharing the same features, language and customs. However, the country is not without minorities, including a kind of invisible minority known as the Burakumin.

Burakumin, which literally means “village people,” are an “invisible” minority because it is not their appearance or ethnicity that sets them apart but, historically, their class. According to the advocacy group Buraku Liberation League, a Burakumin is “a person who lives, or whose family used to live, in one of the communities that was formed and discriminated against during the pre-modern-era caste system as a result of profession and place of residence.”

The origin of Burakumin goes back to the late Heian Period (794-1185) when Japanese society was stratified according to professions and trades. Influenced by Buddhist taboos against killing certain animals for food, and Shinto tradition that considered blood unclean, people – and their families – whose trades dealt with animal bodies, such as leather tanning in the case of Burakumin, were once despised as outcasts.

When Japan’s feudal class system was established, the government ratified this practice, placing the Burakumin outside of the class system altogether as the “Eta” (literally, “full of filth”). Descendants of these people, along with another group called the “Hinin,” or “non-humans,” who were transient low-class entertainers, shamans and beggars, make up today’s Burakumin.

There are now approximately 1.24 million Burakumin, or 1 percent of Japan’s population, most of which live in some 4,500 government-recognized Burakumin villages. Most are in western Japan, especially Fukuoka, Ehime, Hyogo and Osaka prefectures where their feudal-era industries where once centered, according to Takeshi Asaji, a Burakumin and director of Osaka Human Rights Museum.

“The Burakumin should have been liberated when the Meiji government (abolished the caste system) in 1871 and began promoting human rights to relieve their burden. However, the Burakumin continue to suffer discrimination today,” Asaji said. “A lot of them continue to live in ghetto-like communities, and many are still relegated to unskilled and poorly paid occupations.

“Also, identification as a Burakumin has often been sufficient reason to prevent or void marriage and employment,” Asaji said. “In a society like Japan’s, which regards honor and class as most important, a person’s pedigree and the origin of their family is a very sensitive issue.”

According to Nobuo Imai of Osaka City’s Human Rights Office, his city has alleviated the problem by implementing “Dowa” social integration measures which were completed in 2002 that upgraded buildings, paved roads and funded utilities in poorer Burakumin neighborhoods. The city now treats all communities the same, he said.

Imai admits, however, that the city’s Human Rights Enlightenment Consulting Center continues to do brisk business. He added that 162 of the 9,594 cases the center handled in 2012 were Burakumin related. Most were related to malicious graffiti and other anonymous notices as well as accusations, outings or nefarious investigations related to individuals’ or communities’ alleged Burakumin backgrounds.

According to Asaji, discriminatory practices against Burakumin have become less prevalent these days as more people learn about the issue. He notes that about 60 percent of Burakumin who were married in the past 10 years wedded non-burakumin – up from 3 percent 90 years ago.

“This proves that that the number of people who don’t discriminate against Burakumin has increased” he said. But the Human Rights Museum director added there is still plenty of educating to be done, and it is not only about the Burakumin. Other groups in Japan, such as atomic bomb survivors, Hansen’s disease patients and bullying victims, are also no strangers to discrimination.

“The problem lies in our mindset. So, we should not just focus on liberating the Burakumin or eliminating their minority status; … if we do that we are only laying the blame for the issue on the Burakumin,” Asaji said. “The most important thing is for us to have a proper understanding and be conscious of human rights. We need to respect everyone’s way of life and beliefs – both their rights as individuals as well as their diversity.”

takiguchi.takahiro@stripes.com