Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 9 (Summer 1997): Innovative Human Rights Strategies in East Asia: Articles: Seeking to End Discrimination Through Dowa Education

Jun 5, 1997

Japan has been called a nation with an economic surplus and a human rights deficit. In a variety of international forums, including the United Nations, Japan has been criticized for the second-class status it often ascribes to non-Japanese, the forced assimilation of the indigenous Ainu minority, gender inequality, and abusive treatment of people in mental institutions. Japan’s human rights record is at its worst in behavior toward the Buraku people (Burakumin), the largest minority group in Japan and descendants of members of the lowest caste in Japan’s feudal Edo system (1608-1887). Discrimination against the Burakumin, which has persisted even though the Emancipation Edict of 1871 formally discontinued feudal ranks, is a legacy of Japan’s centuries-old caste system and cultural proclivity to favor mainstream Japanese insiders over minorities, foreigners, and other marginalized populations.

To counter this discrimination, the main organization seeking equal treatment for the Burakumin, the Buraku Liberation League (BLL), has for the past forty years engaged in “enlightenment” initiatives, among them Dowa (liberation) education, aimed at persuading those who discriminate to stop voluntarily. Although now a term appropriated by the Buraku movement, Dowa education was first conceived by the Japanese government in the 1940s to promote harmony between non-Buraku and Buraku soldiers in the Japanese army.

Today, Dowa education takes two forms: education to empower Burakumin and education to eliminate prejudice against them. Education is both formal and informal. Formal Dowa education aims at improving Buraku children’s academic skills and correcting non-Buraku children’s prejudiced perceptions of minorities by increasing the coverage of Buraku-related issues in teaching materials. With the support of the BLL, many local boards of education have devised official guidelines on Dowa education and wide-ranging programs for children in primary schools. For instance, Osaka Prefectural and City Boards of Education have published and distributed to all schools a supplementary textbook on Dowa education called Ningen (“Human Beings”), which includes poems, songs, short stories, and articles to introduce children to the topic of human rights and the problem of discrimination against the Burakumin, Koreans in Japan, women, disabled persons, and so forth. Dowa education emphasizes the vital importance of “learning from the lived reality of Buraku,” rather than the perceptions of this reality held by privileged educators who cannot properly understand the plight of the marginalized Burakumin. Moreover, it teaches that human rights are in accord with Asian values.

Informal Dowa education takes place out of schools but still within institutional settings, and consists of awareness-raising meetings in public halls and community centers to promote a culture of human rights, workshops to develop adult literacy, media programs featuring Buraku and other minority speakers and issues, community development plans designed by a team of Buraku and non-Buraku representatives, and community centers dedicated to Buraku and other minority issues. The Buraku liberation movement, with funding from the Osaka prefectural and municipal governments, was instrumental in setting up various research organizations: the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center, the Human Rights Museum, and the Buraku Liberation Research Institute.

As a teacher at a junior high school in Osaka where about 20 percent of the students came from the Buraku community, I used to witness firsthand the prejudice against Burakumin and their struggle to change such perceptions. Now, after decades of Dowa education carried out both in the school and in the community, under the sanction of national and local governments, and as a result of the Buraku movement’s own awareness-raising efforts, prejudice against Buraku is declining. The Buraku agenda has been successfully incorporated into school curricula, especially in western Japan where the Buraku Liberation Movement has been strongest. Since the 1970s, many municipalities have set up guidelines for Dowa education, instituted Dowa teacher training programs, and assigned additional teachers to schools enrolling Buraku children. An increasing number of Buraku children are attending the top Japanese universities and making their way into leadership positions that would have been unthinkable for them a couple of decades ago.

In the last decade, Dowa educators have realized the strategic importance of networking with other human rights education initiatives and with other marginalized populations, both domestically and globally. The Buraku are now engaged in a dialogue with educators and NGOs committed to multicultural education, gender equality, and development education, which aims to increase awareness by children and adults of the structural inequality between economically developed and developing countries.

Dowa educators are now developing strategies based on a conception of human rights education that incorporates: education as a human right — providing equal educational opportunities and quality education; education about human rights — improving awareness of the significance and implications of human rights; education for human rights — developing intellectual and social skills necessary for active citizenship; and education through human rights — creating democratic learning environments. Moreover, the Dowa education movement has been negotiating with the Japanese government to formulate a national action program for human rights education, which would make Japan one of the few countries in the world to take substantive steps towards implementing the plan of action for the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education.

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