- In 1978, Ishii founded Akashi Shoten, a publishing company determined to be “a bastion for the movement to eliminate discrimination in thought and culture.”
- Ishii published books and other materials about the plight of Koreans living in Japan, where they were discriminated against in housing, employment and marriage.
- He published a Human Rights Handbook for Foreigners in Japan in Urdu, Vietnamese, Persian, and fifteen other languages, to guide migrants through Japan’s vexing laws and procedures and to steer them to services and support groups.
- Many of Akashi Shoten’s books have introduced Japanese readers to human rights issues outside Japan, including the caste system in India and the struggles of other oppressed groups around the world.
- The RMAF Board of Trustees recognizes “his principled career as a publisher, placing discrimination, human rights, and other difficult subjects squarely in Japan’s public discourse.”
Behind Japan’s famous facade of social harmony and homogeneity lie complicated realities. Often hidden from view are troubling elements of the country’s social life involving stigmatized communities such as the burakumin and minority ethnic groups like the Ainu or the many Koreans, Filipinos, and other foreigners living in Japan today. Also hidden, and often denied, are troubling accounts of Japan’s past role as an imperial power. Discrimination, exploitation, predatory colonialism, war crimes: these subjects are taboo, especially in print. Akio Ishii thinks it should be otherwise. As head of Akashi Shoten, a publishing house, he is exposing the underside of Japan’s smooth social surface and bringing difficult subjects to light.
In premodern times, the buraku were social outcastes and reviled as dirty. Despite official emancipation over a century ago, this stigma lingered. Ishii himself experienced it as a boy. He was five years old when the end of World War II ushered in Japan’s postimperial era. As a politicized youth in the 1960s, he agitated against injustices in Japanese society and also opposed the renewal of Japan’s security ties with the United States. In the 1970s, he joined a study group dedicated to eliminating discrimination against the buraku and became editor of its magazine. This led to Akashi Shoten in 1978, a publishing company of his own. Ishii determined to build his company as “a bastion for the movement to eliminate discrimination in thought and culture.”
At first, Ishii concentrated on the buraku issue itself and on other beleaguered Japanese minorities. But he soon expanded to other human rights issues. Koreans had been colonized by Japan and compelled into forced labor during World War II. Ishii published accounts of this brutal episode and also of the plight of Koreans living in Japan, where they were discriminated against in housing, employment, and marriage. Similar forms of discrimination faced a new wave of foreign workers who flocked to Japan in the 1990s. Ishii exposed their dilemma to readers in a stream of new books. He published a Human Rights Handbook for Foreigners in Japan in Urdu, Vietnamese, Persian, and fifteen other languages, to guide migrants through Japan’s vexing laws and procedures and to steer them to services and support groups. In a similar spirit, Ishii published a book in Japanese on the 1990 United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which Japan declined to ratify.
Over time, Ishii’s books drew attention to the “comfort women” of World War II; to Filipino women trapped in Japan’s exploitative entertainment industry; to the physically and mentally disabled, abused children, and victims of domestic violence-to everyone, in fact, who was invisible behind Japan’s curtain of respectable normality. Ishii also published books that countered right-wing efforts to exaggerate the beneficial influence of Japanese colonialism, to cover up Japan’s war crimes, and to depict its former military leaders as heroes.
In recent years, many of Akashi Shoten’s books have introduced Japanese readers to human rights issues outside Japan, including the caste system in India and the struggles of other oppressed groups around the world. In the twenty-first century, says Ishii, “We must create an era where the human rights of individuals are truly respected.”
Ishii is not a public figure but his influence is large. Some 2,800 Akashi Shoten books are in print. They sell well among intellectuals, scholars, university students, and civil society activists. Ishii is content. What is important for a publisher, he says, is “how often he can publish books of universal and permanent impact. These books,” he says, “are my real assets.”
In electing Akio Ishii to receive the 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board of trustees recognizes his principled career as a publisher, placing discrimination, human rights, and other difficult subjects squarely in Japan’s public discourse.
The Honorable Chief Justice, Chairman and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow Awardees and dear friends.
It is a great honor for me to have been selected as recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award this year. I really wonder if one like me deserves such a prestigious award. I would like to express my gratitude to the Foundation’s Trustees.
2008 is a commemorative year for my publishing company, Akashi Shoten, for it is the 30th anniversary since its founding. Since then, we have published over 3,000 books on human rights and other social issues. I understand the Foundation is presenting me this award in recognition of the importance of the books we have published. For this I am truly honored and express my heartfelt thanks.
I was born in 1940, one year before Japan surged ahead into the Pacific War. I was just five years old in 1945 when Japan surrendered, and my childhood overlaps with the years when Japan was rebuilding itself as a war-torn country. Catching a glimpse of the horrors of war, I remember wondering where in the world Japan was headed. Because of these childhood experiences, one of my main themes in life has been to rid ourselves of war and to build a society filled with happiness.
Another life theme based on my childhood experiences is that of overcoming prejudices found in Japanese society, prejudice directed towards the burakumin, one of Japan’s cultural minorities, which has continued for over the last 400 years, and prejudice towards Korean residents rooted in Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea. I have again and again asked myself, why does such prejudice persist?
In 1960 when the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty was signed, I was a college student. All over Japan citizens and students took to the streets against the strengthening of Japan-U.S. military ties. I actively participated in this anti-war student movement and the social movement to eliminate discrimination. Based on my involvement in the peace, labor and the buraku liberation movements, I founded Akashi Shoten in 1978 as a publisher of books on human rights in Japan and the world over. Our first publications focused on the buraku liberation movement. Then our books moved to a wider range of human rights issues including discrimination within Japan, and then on to social problems found in other parts of Asia. From about fifteen years ago, as if guided by our authors and publications, I began to travel extensively throughout Asia to get a firsthand look at poverty and the real situation of “development” happening all over Asia. I visited people living in garbage dump slums and those suffering under a severe caste system. Through our books we have been able to expose the suffering of many people; at the same time, these books introduce the strength of so many who have overcome great hardships with courage and enthusiasm. We have been careful not only to publish books which focus on suffering and poverty, but also to introduce the rich and diverse societies and cultures found throughout Asia. Through the publishing business, it is our great hope that we can help our Japanese readership to overcome its belittling of our Asian neighbors.
As a foster parent for an abused child, I have also researched and published books dealing with child abuse and child welfare. Something I learned through my recent publications concerning children is that they cannot choose their parents. My personal experiences, my involvement in social movements and the things I have learned through publishing books have all brought me to this realization. For this reason, we now provide assistance to a shelter in Japan for abused children. This is one of our company’s contributions to society. We have also recently published books on the present state of child prostitution in Asia in the hope that by making people aware of this reality we can help bring about change.
Through the medium of print I hope I can continue to contribute towards creating societies and a world free of discrimination and war. This award is encouragement for me and my colleagues to continue in our efforts to publish good books.