Osaka Human Rights Museum

Located in Naniwa Ward in Southern Osaka, I first encountered the Osaka Human Rights Museum (or Liberty Osaka as it is also known) in 1997 while aimlessly riding my bike at night, as I was prone to do at the time. Naniwa ward neighbors Nishinari Ward and traditionally is home to Osaka’s historically large Burakumin population. Before the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century, Japan followed a strict caste system, naming Burakumin as the lowest or “untouchable” caste. While biological and historically no different than regular Japanese people, their participation in slaughterhouse work, the leather industry and embalming segregated them from the greater Japanese population due to the nature of their occupations. As Buraku people were not allowed to integrate with the majority, they often lived in concentrated settlements throughout most areas of Japan. The caste system was abolished in 1871, but discrimination continues to this day. Although it is impossible to physically tell who is or who is not a Burakumin, persons are often suspected to be Burakumin by place of residence. This is becoming more and more difficult as people move in and out of traditionally Buraku areas. The entire issue is fortunately on the way out and will likely fade away with time. Given this tainted history of economic and societal segregation in the area, it is no accident that Naniwa ward provides home to the Osaka Human Rights Museum.

The first of it’s kind since opening in 1985, Liberty Osaka is an incredibly well arranged, multimedia introduction to the troubled history of Japan’s diverse society. The museum focuses mainly on 20th century and present day social segregation and human rights although there is a special section devoted to segregation througout Japanese history from antiquity. The first main section of the museum is devoted to the struggles for societal improvements in the prewar era, such as women’s rights, rights of education and health care, and rights to work and safe domicile. This deep, historical struggle is contrasted with the present day consumer society which takes the great advances of Japan for granted, a fact that the museum clearly wishes to hammer on to school age and high school children who visit the museum. The museum continues, exploring topics as diverse as Buraku struggles for equal treatment, the Korean minority, rights of the handicapped, the state of HIV patients in Japan, Minamata disease and, as in my previous post, the situation of the aging homeless population in Japan.

It is an excellent center and worth seeing when visiting Osaka. All of the displays are given in Japanese, but English documentation and audio tours are available. There are even older volunteer workers who will gladly assist visitors throughout the museum. A little digging reveals that the Osaka Human Rights Museum is part of a larger network of more than 25 human rights offices throughout Japan. While these offices provide support and education for equal rights and discrimination issues, Liberty Osaka is the largest formal museum. It is hard to imagine such a large center in the United States and quite interesting to me that, in conservative Japan, such a well funded and dedicated operation could even exist.

Exiting the museum is a bizarre experience. The section of Naniwa ward it occupies is a sparsely inhabited collection of high rise public housing units. In bustling Osaka, it’s odd to stand in the middle of an urban area and not see anyone walking around. Cars, apparently providing home to whoever owns them are illegally parked along the side roads, lined up in rows. It is harsh reminder of the growing numbers of poor persons in Japan; persons who were likely at one time gainfully employed but have been cast out in Japan’s economic downturn.

On a brighter note, a short walk takes one to the Ashiharabashi station on the JR line. As the area is traditionally home to Buraku leather workers, Taiko manufacturers are based here. The bus station is dedicated to Taiko, with seats in the shape of Taiko drums and sheet music and history posted for all to read. It’s worth checking out the Taiko stores while one is there. Although most were closed due to Obon, you could still peer through the windows and see the impressive displays.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

2 responses to “Osaka Human Rights Museum”

  1. Luis-Sama says :

    Hey Pete-Chan, in Europe there were cagots instead of Burakumins

  2. shane says :

    I was also quite impressed with the variety and depth of exhibits at the Osaka Human Rights Museum when I visited in May, 2009. One particular older staff member was especially helpful and answered many of my questions. I also found several books in English helpful to my research on the buraku condition. I would highly recommend this museum to anyone interested in exploring the various human rights issues in Japan.

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