‘Apostasy’ touches on Japanese untouchables

The problem with subtitles is there are things that are culturally understood that do not always translate and such is the case with the 1948 movie “Apostasy” or “Hakai” (破壊).

The movie is based on a famous book of the same name by an infamous author. The author, Shimazaki Tōson, (島崎 藤村) was born in Magome, Nagano Prefecture in 1872. After graduating from Meiji Gakuin in 1891, he went to Sendai to teach. In 1906, he published his first novel “Hakai” which has been translated into English as “The Broken Commandment.”  “Hakai” 破壊 can also be translated as “destruction.”  The novel was considered a milestone in Japanese realism.

Between the two English titles “The Broken Commandment” and “Apostasy,” you might be expecting something biblical. According to Miriam-Webster, the meaning of apostasy is “the renunciation of a religious faith” or the “abandonment of a previous loyalty.”  A synonym would be “defection.”

The movie and the novel aren’t particularly religious in nature and focus in on the burakumin (部落民). The HuluPlus blurb on the movie comments “Amidst rumors of his lower class origins that threaten his job, a school teacher pleads for freedom and equality.” That’s a bit misleading.

In Japan, the burakumin weren’t within the traditional Japanese feudal four-class system: samurai, farmer, artisan and merchant. There were people above the class system such as the emperor and his imperial household as well as the real power at the time, the shogunate. Buddhist and Shinto priests were also above the class system. The people below the class system were the Ainu and the burakumin. The burakumin were also known as the eta. Other lowly types included actors, prostitutes, courtesan, geisha and convicted criminals.

The Burakumin are a social minority who have been and are still discriminated against in Japan. These people are considered defiled because they are involved in work that carries a social stigma, usually related to death (such as executioners, undertakers, butchers and leather tanners). Consider that when watching the Japanese movie about the death penalty, the 2008 “Vacation,” or the 2008 movie about the funeral industry, “Departures” (Okuribito).

To a certain extent, Americans caused the increase in the burakumin and their rise to prominence. The first American Consul General to Japan, Townsend Harris was in residence at the Gyokusen-ji temple for almost  three years (beginning in 1856), during which time he demanded that the Japanese provide him with what he considered essentials to his diet: milk and beef.  Gyokusen-ji is a Buddhist temple in Shizuoka prefecture and today has a monument to mark where the first four-legged animal killed for human consumption. In 1931, the Tokyo butchers had the monument erected.

Cultural insensitivity in the guise of Manifest Destiny started both the beef and milk industries in Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate had collapsed for a variety of reasons including the entry of Commodore Perry. The imperial house was revived as the head of the government with the Meiji restoration in 1869. The burakumin were given equal legal status in 1871. The ban on the consumption of beef was lifted in 1871.

“Apostasy”  begins with scenes of a sunrise and someone ringing a temple bell before cutting to the credits which are written in calligraphy on pieces of patterned paper that peel away to the right. This written introduction sets up the problems of the new Meiji era constitution that while freedom, equality and respect for human rights basically abolished the feudal system of social ranking, it could not extinguish the prejudices held for centuries. The subtitles extol that the feudal system “controlled by submission and oppression” but even at this time in 1901 (Iiyama-machi in Nagano prefecture) “oppression continued to exist among the people.”

Riding a palaquin, a man hides behind screens as the two men who carry him and a runner take him to the doctor. The subtitles proclaim that the doctor won’t accept “villagers,” but what exactly does that mean? Villagers is the literal translation for the official term burakumin. Burakumin also translates as hamlet people or village people. You might be hearing “YMCA” in the back of your head, but this movie came out in 1948. The 1962 remake (with a 1988 US release) under director Kon Ichikawa would translate “Hakai” as “The Outcast.” That makes everything clearer.

Young male toughs stand barring the unseen man’s way and as the palaquin departs, children follow and throw rocks. Not everyone approves of this prejudice. Witnessing the scene, a teacher Tsuchiya 土屋銀之助  (Jookichi Uno 宇野重吉) tells his friend and fellow teacher Segawa 瀬川丑松 (Ryo Ikeda 池部良), “We are now a modern society. What just took place is unacceptable.”

The principal (東野英治郎) is from the former farming class. He has fired a man who was formerly of the samurai class five months before he’d receive his pension. “My teaching career lasted 15 years,” the old man, Kazama 風間敬之進 (菅井一郎)、laments.  “I started to wonder what I should be teaching my students. I’ve lost my way.” Segawa is staying at the home of this former samurai and he’s in love with the man’s daughter, Oshiho お志保(桂木洋子).

Segawa has ventured into the working world by keeping his oath to his father who told him to forget that he was born into the burakumin. That was the only way for Segawa to be able to live a normal life, but there are others who defiantly refuse to hide their identity and call for other hidden burakumin to come clean, demand real equality and believe in a “New Dawn of Social Awareness.”

As one of his father’s friends tells Segawa, “Your father’s last words were for you to hide your cast” because that’s the “only way to make it in the  world.” To that end, Segawa’s father “hid himself in the woods to prevent your caste from being known.” Segawa’s apostasy is not religious in nature, but puts him in conflict between his biological father and his spiritual father.

This movie draws a contrast between modern dress and traditional kimonos. The principal, his nephew and other officials all wear three-piece western suits. They seem to feel they are modern men and modern thinkers yet they have no honor and are shown to hold prejudices. Segawa, Tsuchiya and the old samurai all wear kimonos. They respect tradition up to an extent. Alliances are formed between a man of the once powerful class to one whose class was outside of the four-class system. A man from the supposedly most honored class (farmers) finally has real power, but doesn’t use it wisely.

The movie addresses the chaos caused by the Meiji Reformation, discrimination and attitudes toward modernization but remember this film was made while Japan was under the American Occupation Army. The movie’s main point of interest is in how the Japanese are addressing the problem of long held prejudices in what Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson called a youth cycle of films in their “The Japanese Film: Art and Industry.” The Occupation Army which was like the nation of origin (U.S.A.) had not quite dealt with the problem of caste systems, segregation (the Army was still segregated) and prejudice so the censorship or fear of the same might have muted this rather bland entry. It would be good to compare this 1948 movie with the 1962 movie of the same name in Japanese, but called “The Outcast” when if finally made it to the United States in 1988.

“Apostasy”  is available to stream on HuluPlus as part of the Criterion Collection.

Tōson Shimazaki (島崎 藤村 Shimazaki Tōson)


瀬川丑松 Ushimatsu Segawa: Main character. An elementary school teacher who is hiding is burakumin heritage in order to avoid prejudice. He comes into conflict with the principal of the school over management.

猪子蓮太郎 Rentaro Inoko: He is of burakumin origin, but is a lawyer and known as the lion o of the new commoner. He is a figure loved and respected by Segawa.

お志保 Oshiho: She is the daughter of Noriyuki Kazama. She is an acquaintance of Segawa and has romantic feelings for him.

風間敬之進: Kazama is from a samurai family and has just be terminated, losing his pension.

土屋銀之助: He is a close friend and co-worker of Segawa. He is against injustice and prejudice toward people.

Principal: He is an ambitious man with little sympathy for Kazama and although he proclaims to be a modern man, he still harbors prejudice against burakumin.

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