• Christopher Sebastian

Japan: Why race and class are not distractions from animal rights



Some people in the mainstream animal rights movement argue that human rights issues distract from The Animals™. But those people probably don't understand how institutional injustice operates.

Just like it is impossible to divorce race from gender for black women, it is impossible to divorce class discrimination and race from the fight for animals. These circumstances do not occur in isolation.

Take, for instance, Japan.

Japan mostly enjoys a reputation for being a society free from the divisions that plague many Western countries. However, below that shiny veneer lurks a group of people who live with a centuries-old history of discrimination, a class of “untouchables” known as the Burakumin.

Among the Buraku underclass are slaughterhouse workers, people who work with leather, and others employed in supposedly unclean professions.

According to the BBC:

Burakumin, meaning "hamlet people", dates back to the feudal era. It originally referred to the segregated communities made up of labourers working in occupations that were considered impure or tainted by death.

However, Japanese people don’t have to hold Burakumin ancestry in order to face discrimination. The association between the Burakumin and slaughter workers is so strong that workers face institutional discrimination regardless of family history.

The discrimination against abattoir workers is particularly disturbing considering that Global Meat News reported in 2017 that:

Japan’s meat consumption broke new records in the 2016 fiscal year (April 2015 to March 2016) according to recent data, with projected year-on-year growth set to be the fastest in five years.

In other words, the demand for animal bodies among Japanese people is on the rise at the same time that prejudice against the very people who meet that demand is commonly perpetuated.

And it doesn’t end there. One of the effects of this discrimination is that it exacerbates mafia violence. American reporter Jake Adelstein said, “A third of yakuza [is estimated to] come from Buraku communities, drawn to the organization when other doors were closed to them.”

So once again, animal exploitation is deeply woven into the fabric of human injustices.

Nevertheless, many well-meaning allies in the mainstream animal rights community still insist on a one-size-fits-all animal philosophy. In fact, it’s sometimes fashionable among them to style slaughterhouse workers as one-dimensional antagonists instead of parts within the capitalist machinery who share culpability with the consumers who make their jobs necessary.

But this overly simplistic narrative is just one part of the mainstream community’s broader attempts to downplay the ways in which human issues interact with speciesism. Another is to ignore the significance of Western imperialism in the bigger picture.

For instance, not only did the industrial revolution place animal agriculture on a global scale, but Marta Zaraska, author of Meathooked (2016), said that the Japanese (historically vegetarian for ethical reasons, with their two main religions Shinto and Buddhism omitting meat) began associating meat-eating with European wealth around the 1860s. She also wrote:

the American occupation after the Second World War gave another powerful boost to the Japanese hunger for meat. The Japanese observed the war victors stuffing themselves with hamburgers, steaks, and bacon.

And this westernization of traditional Japanese diets persists today, with the United Nations reporting that:

between 1970 and 2005, the total amount of beef consumed within the city [of Tokyo] increased by about 160% (equal to 11.5kg per person in 2005) and 90% for pork (equal to 20.1kg per person in 2005).

Of course, culture is not an excuse to perpetuate animal exploitation (although that's another common accusation from adherents to single-issue veganism over an integrated animal rights approach). But the tendency of the mainstream community in the West to ignore culture is, at best, hegemonic. And resisting the need to address the effects of white supremacy on animal exploitation is both dishonest and a betrayal of the animals we seek to liberate.

Not only are racism and classism not distractions from animal rights, they're pivotal to understanding and dismantling speciesism.

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