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Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume II

Dowa Education and Reforms in Human Right Education in Japan: Access, Content, and What's Beyond

Mariko Akuzawa

The Buraku issue is one of the most important human rights issues in Japan. Although the origin of Buraku communities is still under study, it is clear that Buraku discrimination has a long history (having been institutionalized by laws adopted during the feudal age) and has shaped the Japanese psychology. Discriminatory customs continued even after the Meiji government abolished the class system and the Buraku liberation movement was established in the early 1900s. The Buraku liberation movement is one of the first anti-discrimination movements of minority groups in Japan. It is also notable that the Buraku issue is the first human rights problem that the government attempted to solve (1965 Dowa Policy Council Report; Law for Special Measures for Dowa Projects, 1969). The law has been in force for nearly 30 years now and various projects have been undertaken to correct the inequality between Buraku and other Japanese communities. It is indispensable to discuss education on the Buraku issue (officially called Dowa education) in order to lay the ground for future human rights education (HRE) programs in Japan.

Dowa Education and the Effort to Reform the Education System

The Buraku are racially the same as the rest of the Japanese populace. They are the descendants of outcasts during the feudal era. The caste system was created to control the masses around the end of the 16th century. During the Tokugawa era, change of residence and occupation, and marriage among people from different classes were strictly forbidden. Social status became hereditary. It was abolished by the Meiji government in 1871 through an "emancipation law." However, the government did not take the necessary measures to ensure equality and the law remained a mere formality.

After World War II, democratic reforms were carried out and a new constitution established during the American occupation. It was generally expected that Buraku discrimination would naturally disappear. However, long-established custom was not overcome so easily. Postwar economic reconstruction did not benefit the Buraku communities either. Discriminatory employment and business practices of the major companies prevented Buraku from working in the mainstream. Their jobs were restricted to unstable self-employment or subcontractual work.

Although everyone was poor after the war, fewer Buraku than non-Buraku children attended school. Buraku children also had to work to help their families, who could hardly pay for textbooks and school meals.

The teachers then took action. They came out of the schools and visited the communities and families of their absentee students, listening to their parents' hopes and requests. They committed themselves to the education movement hand-in-hand with the parents and the Buraku liberation movement to ensure equal rights for all children. For example, the law providing for free textbooks was promulgated in 1961, benefiting not only Buraku children but other Japanese children as well. Dowa education thus played an important role in reforming access to education for everyone. It also employed methods such as "Group Process" and Tsuzurikata1 to encourage Buraku children to review their lives critically and surmount discrimination.

Dowa education emerged from the struggle against discrimination, which campaigned against practices such as ekkyo ("going beyond the border," or not sending one's children to schools where Buraku children are enrolled). It was also necessary to educate non-Buraku children about Buraku discrimination in order to eliminate prejudice and to develop their empathy toward their Buraku friends. Education about the Buraku has thus grown popular in elementary and secondary education, especially in western Japan. Supplementary Dowa textbooks were produced. Dowa education led to reform of the school curriculum and legitimized the teaching of minority issues.

Adult Education Programs

There are two types of adult education: programs for Buraku adults who were deprived of an education when they were children (for example, adult literacy classes); and programs for non-Buraku to learn about the Buraku issue, many of which were started in early 1970s, when a new law provided for the improvement of living conditions in Buraku communities (Law for Special Measures for Dowa Projects, 1969).

People in Buraku communities, encouraged by the achievements of the liberation movement and the new law, started to question the discrimination they faced everyday. Several cases of discrimination were reported by the mass media. However, this did not mean that discriminatory incidents suddenly increased, only that more people were objecting to discrimination. They requested national and local governments to start educational programs for non-Buraku adults to promote a proper understanding of the Buraku issue. The issue is dealt with at many community centers, schools (at Parents-Teachers Association assemblies, for example), and workplaces in the form of symposiums, lectures and small-group discussions, TV and radio programs, printed materials and signboards bearing "catchwords" against discrimination. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost all possible measures have been tried.

Let me then analyze the effect of these efforts using the results of national surveys.

Results of the 1993 Surveys

In 1993, the Japanese government carried out surveys on awareness of the Buraku issue. Some 75 percent of the people surveyed are familiar with the Buraku issue and Buraku communities. The ratio is remarkably high in the Kinki region (western Japan) where Dowa education is extensive (Table 1). The means by which people first became aware of the Buraku differ depending on where they live. Fewer people in the Kinki region are informed by schools or adult education programs (which are supposed to provide bias-free information) compared to those in the Kanto (northeastern Japan) region. They tend to be informed by their families, relatives and friends (Table 2). However, it is also true that in the Kinki region, where Dowa education is widely enforced, there is remarkably better access to non-formal education programs on the Buraku issue. The Kinki region scores the highest in almost every program (Table 3).

As a result, people in the Kinki region know more about the Buraku issue: 63.5 percent knew the origin of Buraku discrimination, and 10 percent more than the national average answered, "It was created politically in feudal society" (Table 4).2 To the question, "Are you aware of the Law for Special Measures for Dowa Projects (enacted in 1969) under which various projects were conducted for the improvement of the Buraku communities?" 21 percent answered yes (Table 5). We can conclude that education programs have definitely improved the knowledge of the people about Buraku issue in this region.

However, knowledge does not always help people abandon their prejudice, as can be seen in Tables 6 and 7. To the question, "How would you react if you found out that your neighbors were Buraku?" nearly 90 percent answered, "I wouldn't care and I would preserve our close relationship." Marriage, however, is a different story. The Kinki region had the lowest number of people who answered, "I will respect the will of my child," when asked, "What would you do if your child were getting married to someone from the Buraku community?" While people in the Kinki region are well informed about the Buraku issue, their attitudes toward marriage negate the value of such knowledge.

As for opinions on teaching Buraku issues at schools and in adult education programs (Tables 8 and 9), it is surprising that the national percentage of "promote positively" responses is under 30 percent. Regarding adult education, 28.6 percent said "do it but not too much"—more than the 26.8 percent who said "promote it positively." In the Kinki region, 23.5 percent said "positively promote it" while 31.7 percent said "do it but not too much."

Reform in the Education System through Participatory Methodology

While Dowa education has helped people obtain the right knowledge about Buraku issues, many people continue to discriminate against the Buraku, and a serious backlash against Dowa education has emerged. HRE is necessary, but we need to reconsider its methodology and content.

One-way transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the learner is not enough to cultivate empathy among learners. Repetitiveness also kills students' interest in the subject. Knowledge-centered teaching does not encourage learners to solve problems, but rather fosters helplessness ("Oh it is too much for me. I would rather not think about such a serious issue.").

Teachers also try too hard to keep their classrooms discrimination-free, many of them repeatedly stressing the simple motto, "Do not discriminate others," which pressures learners to be "politically correct" rather than state their honest opinions. Teachers need new teaching methodologies to encourage learners to work for the solution of human rights problems rather than remain part of the silent majority.

It is understandable that teachers would introduce participatory methodology in their human rights courses. They are inspired by the work of vanguard educators such as John Dewey or Paulo Freire. The best teaching materials were devised first by the development educators, then by global, environment, peace and human rights educators around the world. Participatory methodology is activity-based and employs simulation, role-playing, socio-drama, discussion and various other group activities. It offers the learners para-social experience, which teaches them democratic skills such as expressing their opinions, listening to others, and discussing and solving problems cooperatively. It de-emphasizes static or content goals, and encourages focusing on the learning process. It also believes that education must be affective and should facilitate cooperative human relationships in which learning takes place. Several textbooks on participatory methodology have been translated and introduced since the late 1980s. Recently, some teachers have published textbooks based on their own experiences.

Some Criticisms on the New Methodology

It cannot be denied that the introduction of participatory methodology has reformed HRE programs in Japan. However, I also have to mention the effect of adopting the new methodology. In 1996 and 1997, I conducted a survey of local government officials in charge of HRE program for adults (Akuzawa 1997). I was astonished by their reasons for using the new methodology: "Because it is enjoyable," "We need something different (from the previous methodology)" and "Because it does not touch on the Dowa issue directly" were fairly common. Is it cynical to say that the new methodology is welcomed only because it avoids serious human rights topics or issues, and attracts people with harmless games? What I would like to emphasize is that the new methodology may become meaningless if it does not take up human rights issues and if the learning process does not include an action program for the learners to address actual problems. Teachers have to know the limitations of the new methodology and take care not to be preoccupied only with its techniques. Otherwise, it will remain a mere psychological training program rather than a methodology for social change.

Concluding Remarks

The UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) gives us a good opportunity to reconsider what we have and have not achieved in Japan. The work in Dowa education gave people access to education and placed human rights issues, especially the Buraku issue, in school curricula. However, we have paid little attention to the process of learning.

Now we are setting the stage for the reform of existing HRE programs. Process-centered, participatory methodology challenges the traditional teaching methodology which assumes that teachers possess the knowledge that students merely receive. The new teaching methodology encourages learners to be actively involved in the program and to actively tackle problems in the real world.

The new methodology, which is in its trial period, must overcome confusion and misunderstanding. Reform will take time, but I believe it is a necessary and important step toward future HRE programs that will encourage people to help build a democratic society.

End Notes

1.Tsuzurikata is the practice of making diary of daily experiences.
2. The origin of Buraku discrimination is currently being re-examined. Scholars agree that it can be traced back to pre-feudal society. Thus, the supposedly correct answer to the question in Table 4 no longer holds.


Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center. 1998. Human Rights Education in Asian Schools. Osaka: HURIGHTS OSAKA.

Akuzawa, Mariko. 1997. "Jinken Keihatsu ni Okeru 'Sankagata-gakusyu'" (Problems Posed by the Introduction of Participatory Methodology in Human Rights Education). Buraku Kaiho Kenkyu (The Bulletin of Buraku Liberation) 114.

Results of the Survey on Human Rights Awareness in 1993

Note: Kanto includes Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefectures. Kinki includes Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Wakayama Prefectures.

Table 1 Do you know that in Japan, there exist communities called Buraku and whose members suffer discrimination?

Table 1

Table 2 How did you know Buraku issue in the first place?

Table 2

Table 3 Have you ever enrolled in the following adult education programs on Buraku issue or seen the materials to learn about the issue?

Table 3

Table 3(2)

Table 4 Do you know the origin of Buraku communities?

Table 4

Table 5 Do you know the "Law for Special Measures for Dowa Projects" under which various projects were conducted for the improvement of Buraku communities?

Table 5

Table 6 How do you react if you happen to know your close neighbors are from Buraku communities?

Table 6

Table 7 What would you do if your child is getting married to someone from a Buraku community?

Table 7

Table 8 What is your opinion on teaching about Buraku issue at schools?

Table 8

Table 9 What is your opinion on teaching about Buraku issue in adult education programs?

Table 9

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