Osaka Missionary Works as Spokesman for Buraku Liberation

By Brian Covert
Staff Writer

DAITO, Osaka — One of Robert Stieber’s earliest lessons in fighting Japan’s “invisible discrimination” came on his first day on the job at the Kyodan Buraku Liberation Center here seven years ago.

It was on that day, he remembers, when he told the center’s director that given the centuries-long, deeply rooted prejudices within Japan against people of
buraku social caste background, it seemed the problem would never disappear.

“We don’t say that,” the director corrected him. “It’s going to take a long time, but if you say it’s never going to disappear, then you’re giving up before you’ve started.”

It was a message that the 47-year-old Stieber has taken to heart in his role as “cooperating pastor” at the Kyodan Buraku Liberation Center, part of his ministry with Japan’s United Church of Christ.

As one of the few foreign residents in Japan, either in or outside the religious community who is devoted full-time to the cause of uplifting buraku in both the physical and spiritual senses, Stieber may well be in a position to understand more about this “taboo” social issue than the average Japanese citizen.

“I think there is a developing tendency to see the buraku liberation movement not as unique as it used to be seen,” he says, “but more in terms of part of the broader human rights wave that is going around the world now.”

It is a wave that the American-born Stieber, after 24 years in Japan, finds himself inextricably caught up in.

As one of three staff members of the Kyodan Buraku Liberation Center here, a branch office of Japan’s largest Protestant denomination, Stieber’s primary duty, especially as it applies to his faith, is to confront such prejudicial attitudes toward people of the buraku — the group labeled for centuries as the “bottom” of the Japanese social hierarchy, comparable in some ways to India’s “untouchable” caste.

Buraku Liberation League estimates that 3 million people of buraku background and 6,000 “discriminated-against buraku districts” still exist throughout Japan today. The national government places the officially recognized figures much lower at 1.8 million people and 5,000 districts.

Regardless of their numbers, what that means in everyday terms is that people comprising Japan’s largest minority group, who are otherwise no different from other Japanese citizens, face both subtle and outright discrimination on all fronts, most noticeably where background checks are the norm such as in employment and marriage.

In his capacity as cooperating pastor, Stieber is also an important contact for communicating the buraku issue to the outside world. One vehicle for doing so is the English-language newsletter “Crowned with Thorns,” which Stieber, as editor, puts together almost single-handedly amidst all his other duties. About 800 copies of the newsletter go out domestically and overseas.

“It’s hard to balance that because it only comes out three times a year,” he says. “On the one hand you want to provide information for somebody who is picking it up for the first time. On the other hand, you can’t always write the same articles. So, trying to balance it between basic information and ongoing concerns is difficult.”

Stieber’s time and efforts go mainly into buraku-related matters, but it by no means stops there. He has been known to get involved in human rights activities of various kinds, whether it be joining anti-Emperor demonstrations, working on behalf of Japanese-born Korean residents, or attending court cases in support of day laborers from Osaka’s Kamagasaki district.

The church itself is not totally free from discrimination, and Stieber has to confront anti-buraku sentiment among Japanese people of otherwise strong religious faith within his denomination as well.

“One of the reasons that the center was founded were comments by one or two pastors,” Stieber recalls. “One was a marriage-related comment. Another was a comment in general that the ‘Buraku areas used to exist but they don’t exist anymore, and I know because I live near one.’ And the pastor was using very discriminatory terminology for the buraku area. He was saying it doesn’t exist, but at the same time he was admitting that it did.”

In his own religious and secular commitments, Stieber tries to put into practice the lesson he learned years ago when he started at the center — that the real victory in any human rights battle lies in freeing the mind.

“I think we need to be realistic that something that’s been developed and is as deeply rooted in Japanese society as buraku discrimination is not going to disappear in a month or a year or two years,” he says.

“You start the liberation process by asking yourself where you stand and what you’re doing — and then find ways to ask other people to do that.”