Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Burakumin Lives Matter: The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto by Kenji Nakagami

The Cape is an object lesson in the risks associated with a minority writer exhibiting the sordid underbelly of his own culture; readers are left wondering whether the animosity it attracts is the consequence of its subordinate status, or the result of the majority choosing, for the purposes of self-preservation, to eschew a thoroughly unpleasant social environment. In other words, does the discrimination faced by minority cultures drive them to barbarity, or do their barbarous habits invite ostracism?

By the time I’d finished the three stories comprising this book, I was convinced of the latter; Japanese society is the better for keeping the burakumin at arm’s length. Violence, murder, alcoholism, hard drugs, poor impulse control, capricious sexual behavior, and a host of other socially delinquent acts may excite literary judges (the author won numerous writing awards during his short life), but the average person doesn’t want these people living next door. And as with debased Western critics, I’ll bet the Japanese judges handing out gongs to Kenji Nakagami didn’t live anywhere near the world he describes.

In her afterward, the translator notes that Nakagami “takes his readers down into the ‘unclean’ spaces of the alleyways”, a “world that most Japanese have never seen before.” Indeed. And I’m willing to wager most of them want it to stay that way. 

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