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University of California Press
Working Skin: Making Leather, Making a Multicultural Japan / Edition 1

Working Skin: Making Leather, Making a Multicultural Japan / Edition 1

by Joseph D. HankinsJoseph D. Hankins


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Since the 1980s, arguments for a multicultural Japan have gained considerable currency against an entrenched myth of national homogeneity. Working Skin enters this conversation with an ethnography of Japan’s “Buraku” people. Touted as Japan’s largest minority, the Buraku are stigmatized because of associations with labor considered unclean, such as leather and meat production. That labor, however, is vanishing from Japan: Liberalized markets have sent these jobs overseas, and changes in family and residential record-keeping have made it harder to track connections to these industries. Multiculturalism, as a project of managing difference, comes into ascendancy and relief just as the labor it struggles to represent is disappearing.

Working Skin develops this argument by exploring the interconnected work of tanners in Japan, Buraku rights activists and their South Asian allies, as well as cattle ranchers in West Texas, United Nations officials, and international NGO advocates. Moving deftly across these engagements, Joseph Hankins analyzes the global political and economic demands of the labor of multiculturalism. Written in accessible prose, this book speaks to larger theoretical debates in critical anthropology, Asian and cultural studies, and examinations of liberalism and empire, and it will appeal to audiences interested in social movements, stigmatization, and the overlapping circulation of language, politics, and capital.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283299
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/26/2014
Series: Asia Pacific Modern , #13
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Joseph D. Hankins researches the politics and productivity of labor. He is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at UC San Diego and is affiliated with the UCSD Critical Gender Studies Program and the UC Center for New Racial Studies. He was raised in Lubbock, Texas, one source of the rawhide processed in Japanese tanneries.

Read an Excerpt

Working Skin

Making Leather, Making A Multicultural Japan

By Joseph D. Hankins


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95916-3


Of Skins and Workers



In July 2005, Doudou Diène, United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on contemporary racism, officially visited Japan to examine the socioeconomic and cultural status of minority groups in Japan. Among the groups he visited on his nine-day trip were the Buraku people. Diène met with leaders of Buraku political organizations and visited Buraku neighborhoods. He was warmly welcomed with emblematic displays of Buraku ways of life: he attended a drum-making workshop, visited a tannery, and was guest of honor at a dinner that featured motsu nabe (offal stew) and local dances.

Diène's office used these visits, along with historical and contextual research, as the basis for a report later submitted to the United Nations that provided recommendations for the Japanese government as to how it might improve the situation of domestic minorities. Throughout this process—of arranging and conducting Diène's visit, of searching out contextual information, and of scripting and revising the report—Diène's offices leaned heavily on support from the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), founded in 1988 by the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) as a conduit for internationalizing the BLL's mission to eliminate discrimination. IMADR has close relations with other Japanese minority organizations and populations, but its primary constituency remains the Buraku people.

In partnership with Amnesty International Japan, IMADR handled the minutiae of Diène's visits and provided assistance with drafting, revising, and circulating his report. IMADR staff members helped establish Diène's itinerary, using their network through the BLL to set up meetings withnational and local leaders of the organization and to arrange visits to the variety of Buraku and other minority cultural events Diène attended across Japan; they also organized the interpretation between Japanese and English, and sometimes Japanese and French, for Diène's entire mission to Japan. Effectively, IMADR created and maintained the logistical and linguistic framework through which Diène was able to experience and understand the situation of minorities in Japan; conversely, it created the framework through which Japanese minority groups, including the Buraku, achieved international representation.

This work of creating and maintaining the relationship between organizations such as IMADR and its Buraku constituency has formative effects on all involved. Organizations such as IMADR seek to create politically solvent representations of marginalized populations in Japan. They speak in the language of rights, culture, and identity; they maintain the company of like-minded organizations, both domestic and international; and they collaborate across the boundaries of the marginalized to effect political solidarity and to combat discrimination. In so doing, they make themselves recognizable as particular kinds of political and ethical actors. On the other side of this rhetorical frame stand populations that serve as evidence in arguments about the enduring presence of social marginalization. In the Buraku situation, this includes tannery and slaughterhouse workers; it includes people who might not work in a traditionally Buraku industry but who were raised by Buraku parents or in a Buraku district; and it, at times, includes people who might not have the inclination or the tools to recognize themselves as Buraku. Even as the nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers develop and fulfill desires, aspirations, and selves in their labor, so too do the people who lead lives taken up as evidence of the Buraku minority.

Between 2005 and 2007 I spent several months working in each of these kinds of venues. I served as an intern at IMADR for a year and a half and apprenticed in a tannery for half a year. I worked the trades that I was simultaneously studying, subjecting my body and time to the demands that these workplaces foist on those they employ. One of the tasks I collaborated on at IMADR was building a website that would represent Buraku and other minority issues to international audiences. I spent my time at the factory learning how to make leather, from utterly raw and still bloody hide to a finished sheet of tanned and dyed leather. My time in each of these locations was relatively brief, and my financial and emotional support came from other locations; in no way does my experience equal a lifetime spent slinging skin or preparing reports in the name of dismantling discrimination. However, devoting myself to the production of website and leather gave me a sense of the rhythms, demands, pleasures, and challenges operative in each situation.

These venues articulate two different regimes of labor and value, each associated with a particular historical moment, a complementary political formation, and each taking on a gendered aspect. The masculinized labor of the factory floor sits against the Internet-savvy, feminized care of the liberal, multicultural office work; Fordism is set against post-Fordism; the politics of labor and unions contrasts with the politics of identity and human rights. The work of this framing happens within these boundaries, simultaneously asserting them, policing who might be feminized and who masculinized, what might count as Fordist and what might count as beyond that moment. This is a work that cuts across any neat divide between the material and the immaterial. Both the knowledge-producer, who spends most of her day seated, typing at a desk, and the tannery worker, who spends his day hefting wet hide, must use their bodies in particular ways to produce artifacts that can circulate beyond them.

The uneven coupling of these trajectories—for the production of a website is always framing the production of leather, even as it depends on it—opens a window into the formative labor of multiculturalism, into the types of people and organizations, the ethical orientations and forms of life that are required in the labor of representing stigmatized labor. It also opens a window into the staging of the aforementioned contrasts—of a Fordist moment of factory labor against a moment of liberal care—so key in the staging of Japan's modernity.

This chapter sets the scene for the remainder of the book. It is a first pass at understanding the myriad, sometimes conflicting and sometimes complementary, ways in which ethical commitments, political aims, and a system of categorizing people are achieved, sustained, and transformed in quotidian, patterned action; the ways in which obligation and choice intertwine in action; and the ways in which those dances of demand and effort circulate transnationally. These themes resonate throughout the book.

Let me invite you, then, into the skin of things.


In the summer of 2006 IMADR posted the following description of the Buraku minority group on its English website:

The Buraku Issue

Buraku people are a Japanese social minority group, ethnically and linguistically indistinguishable from other Japanese people. They face discrimination in Japan because of an association with work once considered impure, such as butchering animals or tanning leather. In particular, they often have trouble finding marriage partners or employment.

Brief Historical Context

During the Tokugawa feudal period (1603–1867), what is now called "Buraku discrimination" was officially structured in a caste system that dominated society at that time. This system formalized a division of labor that associated people with their jobs, and society was stratified into four primary castes: warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants, with a portion of the population falling outside of this basic caste structure. These outcasts held jobs that the rest of the population refused (frequently on the grounds of ritual and religious impurity) such as working in slaughterhouses, tanning leather, and performing executions. Furthermore, their social habits—their clothing, where they could walk, to whom they could speak, where they could live—were all regulated by various laws in a way that set out-castes apart from the rest of the population. Some historians trace a preceding informal version of this system, which provided a basis for treating different kinds of people differently in social settings, back to the Heian period (794–1185).

Modern Forms of Discrimination

The Tokugawa feudal system set the grounds for how Buraku discrimination functions in modern-day Japan, but does not fully explain the current manifestations of discrimination. Those facing discrimination are not limited to descendants of Tokugawa outcastes. The original meaning of the word Buraku is "neighborhood" or "community," but it has become shorthand for tokushu buraku, or "special communities," a euphemistic designation for the neighborhoods in which descendants of outcastes have historically lived. While these neighborhoods were relatively stable during the Tokugawa period, after the Meiji Restoration (1868), populations became more mobile, with events such as earthquakes, wars, and economic growth leading, over the next century, to the massive relocation of people throughout Japan. As a result, people who were not descendants of outcasts moved into neighborhoods formerly designated as outcast, and boundaries of these neighborhoods shifted. Despite these changes, these Buraku neighborhoods are still known, tracked formally in governmental registers and informally in daily conversations that people have about their own neighborhoods and hometowns.

Present-day Buraku discrimination is primarily based on whether a person lives in a Buraku neighborhood, or whether her or his parents are from such a neighborhood. This means that it is possible for people with no connection to the Tokugawa outcaste status to be labeled as Buraku and face anti-Buraku discrimination. It is even possible for a family to unknowingly move into an historically Buraku neighborhood and, unbeknownst to them, become Buraku. The stigmatized category of Buraku, which is based first and foremost on an individual's family lineage and occupation, has come also to depend on one's family address.

The largest Buraku political organization, the Buraku Liberation League (BLL), estimates that there are over 3 million Buraku people nation-wide. The BLL produces annual reports that track the hundreds of cases of discrimination that happen throughout Japan every year, cases which include harassment and refusal of marriage or employment. The political movement's efforts have resulted in great improvements in the quality of life in Buraku neighborhoods, the elimination of physical violence against Buraku people, and a continuing reduction in other forms of discrimination as well. However, anti-Buraku prejudice is still prevalent throughout the country, and discrimination remains a key issue.

This description frames Buraku issues for IMADR's Internet readership, with the hope that it might have explanatory traction beyond the boundaries of Japan. It is but one page of a larger website overhaul that IMADR conducted while I interned there, but a key page on that website. This is the point, in English, where IMADR hopes to make Buraku issues—the contemporary situation and historical underpinnings—legible and gripping for an audience potentially global in scope.

IMADR was founded in 1988 with precisely this mission: to internationalize the Buraku mandate of eliminating discrimination. It was formed with support both from the BLL and the then-named Buraku Liberation Research Institute (now Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute, or BLHRRI), under the direction of Mushakoji Kinhide, a well-known scholar and activist. IMADR's formation marked a change in strategy within the Buraku political movement, heralding the institutionalization of a broad focus on human rights issues, both within Japan and internationally. In its broadest articulation, IMADR's primary three goals are to eliminate discrimination and racism worldwide; to forge international solidarity among minority groups; and to advance the international human rights system across the globe. Other leftist groups in Japan during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s had critiqued the BLL for its almost exclusive focus on Buraku issues and its relative neglect of international human rights mechanisms. IMADR's founding was aimed in part at addressing these critiques. Over the year and a half that I interned with IMADR, the six-member staff of its Tokyo office, all women except for the secretary general and me, addressed issues that cut across minority experiences in Japan and worked hard to forge ties among minorities that extended beyond the boundaries of the state. This they did with regular contact and discussion with the BLL leadership.

IMADR maintains both an international secretariat, which coordinates activities with partner organizations across the globe, and a Japan Committee, which focuses on issues within Japan. Both of these organizations are managed by the same permanent office staff and share the same headquarter space in the Tokyo office. During my fieldwork with IMADR, six office staff members, one intern, and a host of irregular and regular volunteers would help with such activities as mailings. In addition to its Tokyo office, IMADR also maintains an office and a staff member in Geneva and then titularly maintains offices and connections in North America, South Asia, Central America, and Europe, though this last set of offices receives only the most minimal funds needed for paired-down mailings and has no devoted office space. In addition to the permanent staff, there is also a governing board of directors, headed by Nimalka Fernando, a prominent lawyer and activist from Sri Lanka, which consists of the leaders of the BLL, BLHRRI, one representative from Nigeria, another from Nepal, and six European and United Nations–based dignitaries, including Theo van Boven. This board of directors meets once a year to talk about long-term strategic planning; the office staff, in contrast, works daily to enact these larger plans and to appear accountable to them.

The internationalist aspiration of IMADR, both of utilizing and refining international human rights mechanisms and of strengthening connections among minority groups across the globe, has gained momentum since the mid-1990s. There have been more trips to Geneva to work with UN special rapporteurs on racism and related forms of discrimination, more visits by international activists to domestic minority communities and organizations, and more trips to such places as India to conduct research into the United Nations' newly established category "Discrimination Based on Work and Descent," under which fall Japanese Buraku and South Asian Dalits. IMADR coordinates all of these activities, serving as a bureaucratic, economic, and linguistic conduit between international and domestic actors. All IMADR officers are proficient in English as well as Japanese, some have a command of other languages, and the organization actively recruits multilingual and frequently non-Japanese individuals as its interns to assist in negotiating its role as conduit to the international community.

I served an extended term as an IMADR intern, working with the organization from September 2005 through the early spring of 2007. I spent three days a week working in IMADR's Tokyo office, translating documents among Japanese, English, and occasionally Spanish and French, interpreting for Anglophone visitors, and accompanying IMADR and BLL officers on their trips to Osaka, Geneva, and Okinawa. As had interns prior to me and as would interns after me, I also attended to more bureaucratic tasks: the maintenance of membership lists and mailing labels, the organization of incoming mail from other NGOs, and the taking of minutes at organizational meetings. One task unique to my internship, however, was revamping the organization's English website.

In 2002 the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights formally recognized "Discrimination Based on Work and Descent." The addition of a new category of discrimination was the result of years of lobbying on the part of IMADR, BLL, BLHRRI, and partner Dalit organizations to have the United Nations create a formal structure of recognition for caste-based discrimination issues. Since then, IMADR has been particularly engaged in increasing its visibility, an engagement further strengthened by Diène's mission to Japan. With these changes, IMADR devoted more time and money to the development of its web presence, in Japanese and English alike. It looked for someone bilingual to coordinate this process and in 2005 hired a communications officer, part of whose job would be to direct the expansion and revision of the website. I entered IMADR as an intern one month after Malaya began her job. Two years prior, she and I had been classmates and friends at Stanford's Japanese language school in Yokohama, a school for academics and professionals whose work would require the regular use of Japanese. Malaya, who had a master's degree in international relations, with a focus on human rights, from Columbia University, had been working with a fairtrade NGO in Tokyo since we finished language school. Prior to that she had worked as an interpreter with Peace Boat, a global NGO based in Japan that fostered international connections as a means of promoting peace, human rights, and sustainable development.


Excerpted from Working Skin by Joseph D. Hankins. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface: Hailing from Texas

Introduction: The Labor of Multiculturalism

Part One
Recognizing Buraku Difference
1 • Of Skins and Workers: Producing the Buraku
2 • “Ushimatsu Left for Texas”: Passing the Buraku

Part Two
Choice and Obligation in Contemporary Buraku Politics
3 • Locating the Buraku: A Political Ecology of Pollution
4 • A Sleeping Public: Buraku Politics and the Cultivation of Human Rights

Part Three
International Standards and the Possibilities of Solidarity
5 • Demanding a Standard: Buraku Politics on a Global Stage
6 • Wounded Futures: Prospects of Transnational Solidarity

Conclusion: The Disciplines of Multiculturalism
Epilogue: Texas to Japan, and Back


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