Author's Youthful Hero Fights For Burakumin Rights


SUE SUMII, a noted author for more than half a century, comes close to being the Harriet Beecher Stowe of Japan. Her best-known work, a series of novels called ``The River with No Bridge,'' has helped awaken many Japanese to the deep hurt felt by people who cry for equality within their own country.

The main character, a young boy named Koji growing up in the early 20th century, innocently challenges the social inferiority imposed on him and other burakumin, the victims of discrimination based on their ancestry in Japan's feudal days.

While Mrs. Sumii's work may never reach the international popularity of Stowe's antislavery book, ``Uncle Tom's Cabin,'' Volume 1 of her series was translated into English last year, three decades after being published in Japan.

The Japanese version has sold over 5 million copies. And a second film about Koji is in production and is due out in 1992.

``I wanted to use fiction to prove that the burakumin were a creation of the emperor system,'' she says in an interview at her home outside Tokyo. ``Burakumin today understand that their status is not fate, but simply a product of a political decision by authorities. But other Japanese don't understand this. Burakumin are able to laugh at the prejudices of others.''

Although not burakumin herself, Sumii uses her own childhood skepticism of Japan's social structure to enliven her tales of Koji's many run-ins with discrimination.

At age six, in 1908, she precociously questioned the alleged divinity of the emperor after he visited her town. At age 18, she went to Tokyo to be a writer, a bold move for a Japanese woman at the time.

Her books also draw from bigotry against a burakumin community near Sumii's childhood home in the old capital of Nara. The group was forced to abandon their hillside homes in 1917 because they were too near the tomb of Japan's first emperor.

``If our schools really taught about discrimination against burakumin, it would undermine the emperor system. To honor an emperor means there must be someone to despise - the burakumin,'' she says. ``Happily, younger Japanese have less respect for the emperor. They will have less harsh feelings toward burakumin.''

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