EESE 9/2002

The Anti-Discrimination Fiction and Non-Fiction of Sumii Sue:
A New Perspective and Challenge to English Literatures

Sawako Taniyama (Kobe)


Sumii Sue (1902-1997), a Japanese woman writer, devoted her entire life to terminating discrimination against burakumin, Japan's former so-called "untouchable" class. Through her writing she also contributed to breaking down other barriers of inequality among people. The most prominent of her protest against discrimination against burakumin is her seven volume novel, The River with No Bridge (Hashi no Nai Kawa, 1961-1992, hence forth RB), and the first volume was translated into English in 1990 by Susan Wilkinson. Sumii's works include novels, stories for children, essays, and a personal narrative consisting of a series of transcribed dialogues with various people, including her daughter, Reiko Masuda. This personal narrative, My Life: Living, Loving, and Fighting (Waga Shogai: Ikite, Aishite, Tatakatte, 1995, Hence ML) has been translated into English and published by the Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan in 2001. That two of Sumii's books are translated into English makes it easier to discuss her views in relation to the issue of xenophobia, discrimination and inequality in a global sense. This paper will focus not only on how Sumii approaches the issue of discrimination against burakumin, women and manual workers but will also examine how she tries to solve the non-burakumins' prejudices against burakumin on an individual level and on a social structural level. Since the history of buraku discrimination is little known outside Japan, a brief historical overview is necessary before discussing her writings.

During the Tokugawa or Edo Era (1603-1867) the ruling shogunate established a strict hierarchical feudal society under which the discrimination against the people now called burakumin ("hamlet" or "village people") was decreed. Livia Monnet, in her Introduction to My Life: Living, Loving, and Fighting, writes:

The burakumin or outcasts constitute a large nonethnic minority with an estimated membership of over three million people. In the Tokugawa period (1603-1867) the outcasts, variously designated as eta, hinin, or kawaramono, were placed outside the four-class social system and lived in segregated slums and villages. They formed a heterogeneous group that included butchers, grave diggers, leather workers, beggars, prostitutes, and actors. Severe prohibitions and harsh discriminatory regulations concerning the professions, dwellings, travel, and other aspects of the lives of outcasts were issued by the mid-eighteenth century. In 1871 the Meiji government abolished the status of eta and declared them emancipated "new commoners." Suiheisha (Levelers Society) was created in 1922 with the aim of exposing all forms of discrimination against, and achieving the full emancipation of burakumin. The main tactic of the Suiheisha was denunciation (kyudan toso) which forced perpetrators of hate speech and injurious acts toward burakumin to apologize and offer compensation. The struggle against discrimination and oppression was carried on after the war by the Buraku Liberation League (Buraku Kaiho Domei). Special government and locally founded programs for the improvement of sanitation, housing, education, and professional training in designated buraku areas were implemented, and national campaigns were launched for identifying and eliminating discriminatory practices toward burakumin. (xi)

Susan Wilkinson (1990) explains how the hierarchy in the Tokugawa period established the class system in her "Translator's Introduction" in The River with No Bridge:

The eta were bound by many legal restrictions, which were enforced with increasing frequency from the middle to the end of the period. The eta were easily recognizable, as they were not allowed to dress their hair in the same way as commoners, had to use a rope instead of a sash to bind their kimonos, and were sometimes obliged to wear a patch of leather on their clothes as a badge of their defiled status. They were only permitted to marry other eta and could not live outside eta villages, not enter the service of commoners as servants. They were forbidden the privilege of sitting, eating, and smoking with commoners and of crossing the threshold of a commoner home. (x)

Tomihiko Harada (1981) emphasizes that this discrimination "was neither racial nor ethnic" and it did not "originate from religious or occupational discrimination either" (5). He continues:

Specifically, for the shogun government at that time, it was convenient to divide the society into four classes: warriors, farmers, craftsmen and merchants. This was structured into a formal system and beneath these four classes still another class was established-the outcasts. This discrimination might have been the remnant of the former outcast system in the medieval era, except for a qualitative difference. People who were discriminated against as a result of social prejudice in the medieval era were vastly different from the legally discriminated against people in the modern feudal society. The difference was the stipulation in a formal, legal manner of these outcasts people. Discrimination against Buraku was not something that came about as a result of emotions, tradition or the consciousness of people. Its origins cannot be traced to any of these. The Buraku problem was nothing more nor less than a political problem in the modern feudal era. (5-6)

The burakumin were further oppressed by a mythology that developed out of their political oppression. Much of this mythology centering around the supposed uncleanness and inhumanness of buraku people. Discriminatory expressions like eta ("full of filth") and hinin ("non-human") came into being. These expression have been constantly "used with complete nonchalance and ignorance" by many otherwise well-intentioned Western scholars notes Martin Kaneko (1981: 115). They have been uncritically used by many Japanese as well. Official discrimination continued until the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). In August 1871 a national government edict brought it to an end. The edict proclaimed: "The titles of eta and hinin shall be abolished; and henceforth they shall be treated in the same manner, both in occupation and standing, as the commoners" (in Kaneko, 1981: 116). Yet de facto discrimination continued. Not only was it impossible to erase centuries of prejudice immediately but both the government and capitalists had good reason to keep buraku people down. Writes Harada (1981):

To keep the Emperor on top. Burakumin had to exist on the bottom of that [Meiji] power structure. Moreover, capitalism also made use of the Burakumin [by exploiting them as cheap labor] and this brought further poverty on Burakumin (7).

Though discrimination is illegal today against buraku people it still continues. This topic would require considerably more space than can be allotted here to be dealt with satisfactorily. Further insight into the general problem can be gained by examining Sumii's involvement in the struggle opposing discrimination against burakumin. There are two incidents which motivated Sumii to work for equality. One was witnessing the burakumin, or "new commoners" who used to live on Unebi Hill, being compelled to leave their village during the Taisho era (1912-26) because their presence was supposedly defiling for nearby the Imperial Tomb. The other incident was that Sumii realized that one should not die without having redeemed his or her dignity. She learned from buraku district children what was the hardest thing as a person who was being discriminated against had to face. She saw a movie called "Tsuzurikata Kyodai" (Brothers and a Sister Who Are Good at Writing Compositions) with some students who were from both buraku and non-buraku districts in Wakayama Prefecture. The film was about a poor family who moved back to Japan from Taiwan. She noticed that the students from buraku districts cried before the non-buraku students when they saw the scene of the younger brother Fusao dying. Wondering about the difference in timing, Sumii asked the buraku students why they cried even when Fusao was still alive. A second-year junior high school student responded:

People die once, therefore I'm not afraid of dying nor am I sad about it. What is sad is to realize under what circumstances a person dies. The younger brother does not die because of an illness. He would have been saved if he could have seen doctor. He could have been cured if he had been hospitalized. Therefore the boy was being killed by poverty, not illness. How could I not cry for his life? What else is sadder than when someone is being killed because of the discrimination of poverty? Other friends [non-buraku children] cried when Fusao died but it was too late to cry for him. If they feel for Fusao after he is dead, why can't they cry or get angry for the people who have to die from discrimination while they are alive? (My Stories for Children, Afterword, 171)

It was Sumii's husband, Inuta Shigeru, involved in a left-wing farmers' literary movement, who encouraged her at his deathbed in 1957 to work on what she believed right. Susan Wilkinson writes, "Not only was he [Inuta Shigeru] showing her [Sumii] how precious life was, but also that everybody was bound by the same inexorable law of Time. He seemed to her to be saying that if there were such a thing as fate, it was the limits set by Time alone and had nothing to do with a law that determined one's lot in life" (RB: vii-viii). Regarding her novel The River with No Bridge Vol. I (1961), Sumii writes that her contribution to the Japanese people is "to let them understand that people are equal as people and everyone has the right to live equally" (Afterward, 573-574).

To show the treatment of the buraku people around the time of the Russo-Japan War (1905), Sumii writes about Hatanaka family's life in a small village, called Komori in Yamato Valley. The family consists of grandmother Nui, 57, mother Fude, 33, older son Seitaro, 11, younger son Koji, 7 and father been killed in the Russo-Japan War at the age of 30, four years ago in 1905. Especially through the two brothers, Seitaro's and Koji's school life Sumii shows how prejudices and discrimination occur. How discrimination influences the relationship among the pupils of Sakata Elementary School and the teachers is poignantly brought out when Seitaro is blamed for a problem that he does not cause. Senkichi Sayama, a classmate insults Seitaro about the soldiers visiting from Nagoya having eaten the sweet potatoes offered by Seitaro's family saying, "Because those soldiers were the Nagoya regiment they did not know anything around here. If they had known that Seiyan (Nickname for Seitaro) is from Komori, they wouldn't have eaten your sweet potatoes. Those poor doomed soldiers! They finally ate "Eta's" sweet potatoes. They ate stinky, stinky eta's sweet potatoes" (51). There is another classmate, Toyota Matsuzaki, who is not from Komori but is a legitimate child offers his help to Seitaro saying "Let's get out of here" (52). Senkichi humiliates them by saying, "You two are an eta and an illegitimate child. You both are a good match because both are stinky" (52). They get into a fight. The principal punishes Seitaro and Toyota for causing a fight among the pupils saying, "You may not put the buckets down until you understand that you should not have hit Senkichi Sayama and until you show that you are truly sorry for what you have done (53). They have to stand with heavy buckets full of water in both hands for as long as they feel truly sorry for their conduct. The principal judges the conflict between buraku and non-buraku pupils' fight and blames the victims without checking what happened exactly and who and what caused the problem first.

Seitaro expresses his pain to Mr. Egawa, his ex-teacher, after being humiliated by his classmates because he is from a buraku district. "Senyan (Senkichi's nickname) always calls me, eta, eta. Other kids do too. It gives me the greatest pain to be called eta. No matter how hard I try to stop being eta, I cannot help it. Please teach me how I can stop being eta" (56). He also learns that Senkichi lied to Mr. Egawa about the cause of the fight that he got angry and hit Senkichi because Senkichi didn't want to show his opera glasses to Seitaro. Sumii emphasizes the buraku people's pain through her protagonists' own voices. When Koji is conversing with his grandfather, he thinks, "Why people like eta who are looked down so much exist in this world? I do not understand why they have to exist like this. After all my grandfather has stopped doing something about it thinking that it is his fate" (165). The question Koji asks his grandfather, "What is eta?" is the very question Sumii is asking people who want to keep disadvantaged people down.

Sumii questions why non-buraku people discriminate against buraku people and analyzes the nature of their discrimination. When showing the shocking treatment of the workers from the buraku district in the novel, Sumii writes, "Koji heard from his school friends about how people from Komori going to work in Shimana, including Kane, have been treated. According to the story, in every household in Shimana they make Komori workers use chipped teacups. They break the teacups after the workers used them. They put the daily wage on the floor and on the ground, never hand it to the workers. They don't allow the workers to come in from the front door. If they did they would immediately sprinkle the entranceway with salt to purify" (467). Koji does not accept the idea that the buraku workers deserve this kind of treatment. In the same manner, Fude resists against the meanness directed at her because she is from buraku district. When she was single she saw someone among seamstresses folding her thumb to show four fingers to her friends saying, "Fude is nice looking but, poor thing! She is this! So she cannot marry to a man from a good family" (533). Fude showed her resistance to their unfair and mean spirited statement by trimming her ten fingernails with a pair of scissors to show that she has ten fingers just as everyone else.

Sumii also approaches the problem of discrimination toward the buraku people in relation to war. Fude has lost her husband in the Russo-Japan War. "Fude thinks of the war and Emperor while thinking of her husband, Shinkichi. She understands that it is natural that a number of workers are inhumanely treated like beasts in a social system where one living person is irrationally treated as god" (533). Sumii thinks any hierarchical system, in the end, creates a class system which is not fair to anyone. In order to create a society free of discrimination, Sumii believed it important to educate children to respect each individual. She wrote stories to make them think about the causes of inequality. Her stories for children teach them not to accept the social unfairness: the class system, monarchism, and any condition which is made easier for the privileged to have a control over the weak. I will briefly discuss several of these.

"Our Father" is about a boy who was born poor and somehow succeeds in becoming rich later in his life. As a successful man he provides a wonderful house for children to visit. He helps people so that no one would suffer from poverty. In her story, "A Broken Bow" ("Kowareta Yumi") Sumii tries to say a good society is possible in which there is no war and no egotistic and greedy people. "The Twin Horses" ("Futago no Ouma") is a cautionary tale which is about how people should not be controlled by superstitions. "The Fox" ("Kitsune") tells us to be careful in accepting common prejudices. Through writing the stories for children, Sumii tries to tell the readers that everyone is equal regardless of their birth, social status or wealth.

Sumii not only protested against discrimination against the burakumin but also against sexism, especially in patriarchal and feudalistic farming society. In her novel Headwind (1958) Sumii depicts the protagonist, Yumi, as an independent individual rather than a submissive and frail woman married into a farmers' family just before and immediately after World War II. The family includes the grandmother, Naka, the father, Shozo, and the mother, Iku. Yumi's life becomes harder after her husband, Kenichi Matsunami is drafted and is presumably killed in action, which is later revealed to be untrue. Especially Naka and Iku begin to treat Yumi as an unnecessary existence in their family after the arrival of the official death notice. Then Shozo decides that he wants her as his mistress and seduces her. She consequently gives birth to his child, Mitsuo. Yet she does not lament over her life by blaming it on fate or bad luck; rather she tries to live positively. Later, when she has divorced Kenichi, after his return, and separated from the Matsunami family, she is given land by a couple moving to Korea and has a chance at living as an independent person. Although Yumi's tragedy is brought about because of the war, Sumii does not depict her as a victim of the circumstances or of fate. Sumii does not want to call the result of one's life fate. She says in Originating from Life (Inochi ni Hajimaru), "One may think one cannot change 'fate' because it means one was born with it. I don't think so. One can change fate by one's efforts. One can change one's fate if one really wishes to change it and to work hard to change it" (110).

Sumii thinks hierarchy breeds discrimination because when there is someone claiming to be superior, there is always someone who has to be placed in an inferior position. She writes that making an inferior class of people is an integral part of a hierarchical system's support structure--and this is why there is a social structure which discriminates against burakumin or cannot stop discrimination even by passing laws against it as was done in postwar Japan. Sumii's efforts to eradicate discrimination against burakumin, women, minorities, the poor in Japan have had an influence on world peace, she believed. She writes in her essay "Originating in Life":

To think things within the frame of a nation causes conflict. Because thinking within the frame of "nation," the idea of "self-defense" comes up. We must always think things in terms of humankind rather than "nation" or "race." (170)

1 Sumii goes on to say what we need for equality among the people in the world in her dialogue with her daughter, Masuda Reiko in her book My Life, Living, Loving, and Fighting Will we arrange a society that is in accordance with natural law, or will we strengthen the artificial structures of authority and the system of domination? Will we return to human nature, and create a society in accordance with the basic principle of human equality? I think that if we don't follow the principle of equality, we won't be able to create world peace. Sumii is one of the few Japanese who has dared to openly criticize the imperial system in Japan. Her argument is that it creates privilege and, therefore, discrimination. She writes,

The system is built on a foundation of discrimination, and that's what causes trouble. From the emperor's position, the people who are discriminated against are invisible. That is to say, he becomes unable to understand the reality. (ML: 107)

When Sumii started writing her novels, her focus was on the liberation of the oppressed in Japan. Her views expanded to include the world. "To be equal means that everyone's life is to be valued equally, all humankind's life must be treated equally important" she says in Soil is the Creator of Life (131). Her conviction is, as Wilkinson concludes in her "Translator's Introduction" to The River with No Bridge, "No one is born more than a human being. And no one is born less than a human being" (RB: xiv).

Works Cited

Buraku Kaiho Kenkyusho [Buraku Liberation Research Institute], eds. Long Suffering Brothers and Sisters, Unite! The Buraku Problem, Universal Human Rights, and Minority Problems in Various Countries. Osaka: Buraku Liberation Institute, 1981.
Sumii, Sue. Headwind [Mukaikaze]. Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1958.
Sumii, Sue. The River with No Bridge [Hashi no Nai Kawa]. Vol. I, Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1961.
Sumii, Sue. The River with No Bridge. Translated by Susan Wilkinson. Rutland and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1990.
Sumii, Sue. My Stories for Children [Watashi no Dowa]. Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1992.
Sumii, Sue. My Life: Living, Loving, and Fighting [Waga Shogai: Ikite, Aishite, Tatakatte]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1995.
Sumii, Sue. My Life: Living, Loving, and Fighting. Translated by the Ashi Translation Society. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2001.
Sumii, Sue and Wakatsuki, Toshikazu. Originating in Life [Inochi ni Hajimaru]. Tokyo: Dauwa Shobo, 1997.
Sumii, Sue. Soil Is the Creator of Life: Conversations with Sumii Sue 2 [Tsuchi wa Inochi no Hajimari: Sumii Sue Taidanshu 2]. Ed. Sawako Taniyama. Tokyo: Rodojunposha, 1997.