1960s >> 1966 >> no-740-april-1966

It’s the same the world over

One of the favourite current themes of newspaper columnists, and of politicians, is the alleged world-beating efficiency of Japanese industry. Stories of amazing ingenuity and fantastic endurance on the part of Japanese workers are too often used to persuade British workers to speed up production and to accept new methods of working—or of being exploited.

There is, of course, another side to this picture which is less publicised than the stories of Japanese shipyards undercutting the rest of the world, and of dirt cheap transistor radios flooding the world’s markets.

A recent book by Bernard Newman— Round the World in Seventy Days—showed that some aspects of life in Japan are anything but highly mechanised and efficient.

Many Japanese towns have no, drains; their night soil is carted away to be used on the surrounding land, by people who are called Eta. (It is easy to tell when you are approaching one of these towns; the smell of the nearby countryside is enough.)

There are about three million Eta, living in some five thousand small communities. Clearing the night soil is not their only unclean occupation; they are also engaged in tannery. For a long time they lived like ancient slaves and there is a widespread belief that they originated in Indonesia. So low is their standing, such is their reputation, that the very word Eta is never mentioned in polite conversation; the well-bred Japanese who must refer to them simply holds up four fingers.

Eta have to contend with a considerable weight of discrimination. They have tried to improve their lot in the past but generally they have been content to muck along amid the night soil. They are still a class apart, although the increased industrialisation with its population drift into the towns tends to get them lost in the crowd. They are still struggling to break down the barriers against them.

Such prejudices, as we all know, are not confined to one group of people, nor to any one country. People in the West are inclined to regard the Japanese as inferior and, as Newman points out, the Japanese think that they are better than some other peoples. He records one remark, that all Korean immigrants into Japan should be sent home as quickly as possible. Where have we heard remarks like that? Southall? Paddington? If it is any consolation to the Korean, and to the Eta. it is the same the whole world over.

Jack Law