2008 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee AKIO ISHII is living proof of the true power of the pen – that if combined with Greatness of Spirit, it can challenge antiquated social norms and break down walls of discrimination and prejudice.
Akio Ishii, 68, has lived mostly on the margins of Japanese society.
Early on in life, there were probably no options for him but to stay within the confines of the buraku – enclaves of untouchables whose ancestors were discriminated against for being butchers, tanners, embalmers, and grave diggers in feudal Japan.
Even after the stigma attached to the burakumin was officially erased in 1871, shortly after the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate, they continued to be looked upon as outcasts by many Japanese even well into the 20th century.
Little is known about Ishii’s burakumin parents, his childhood, where and how he spent the two decades after he was born on September 27, 1940 in Akashi, Hyogo prefecture. What most people know is that, in his twenties, he was able to overcome this handicap and cross over to the mainstream of Japanese life where he began to make history.
From Ishii’s own narrative, we learn that he was an active in the student movement when he was studying politics and economics in Waseda University in the 1960s. His involvement in political campaigns for reforms in society and against the US military presence in Japan took their toll in his studies and he eventually dropped out of school.At 22, he joined the trade union movement at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, eventually becoming an official of a union affiliated with the left-wing Sohyo [General Council of Trade Unions/Nihon Rodo Kumiai So Hyogikai]– Japan’s largest labor federation.
In 1970, Ishii returned to his roots, and became a leading figure in the study group of the Tokyo Buraku Liberation Movement chaired by the writer and novelist Hiroshi Noma.
The movement sought to “examine the problems of discrimination” and periodically published its findings under Ishii’s supervision. “While involved in the editing of the magazine, I became aware of the propensity of the Japanese publishing world to view issues surrounding discrimination as taboo,” says Ishii. “To create a discrimination-free society, the important role taken by the publishing business cannot be underestimated. The publishing business must become a bastion for the movement to eliminate discrimination in thought and culture,” he points out.
Once more, Ishii crossed over to the mainstream by founding Akashi Shoten, a publising house he named after his coastal hometown, in June 1978. Initially focusing on the buraku issue and the plight of other minorities in Japan, Ishii began to cover human rights issues by publishing the travails of Koreans under Japanese rule and the discrimination faced by Korean migrants in Japan.
In the early ‘80s, he would turn his attention to the problems being encountered by the growing number of foreign workers entering Japan by publishing handbooks that helped them cope with the maze of bureaucratic and cultural barriers embedded in a largely homogenous society.
Among the books published by Ishii were guides on Japanese immigration and residency laws, and Japanese translations of UN documents on human rights, particularly those relating to the protection of migrant workers and their families. Ishii had no illusions about topping the bestseller lists. His aim was clear and right on target.
Akashi Shoten’s responsibility, he points out was two-fold: One was “to publish and circulate books on the issues of discrimination and human rights that other companies avoid”. And two, it sought to actively propose “alternatives society at large while human rights abuses occur daily.”
In an interview with Daily Yomiuri in 1992, Ishii was asked if his books sold well. “Yes,” but added after a pause, “I do not publish a book primarily for profit…If a book sells 400 copies annually and it sells consistently for 10 years, to me it is a success and just as satisfying as a book that sells 4,000 copies a year,” the article quotes Ishii as saying. “What’s important for the publisher is how often he can publish books of universal and permanent impact. These books are my real assets,” explains Ishii.
Akashi expanded its titles to include “everyone…who was invisible behind Japan’s curtain of respectable normality”, including Asian women enslaved as “comfort women” by the Japanese imperial army during the last war.
It took on subjects such as the exploitation of Filipino women in the Japanese entertainment industry, the physically and mentally disabled, abused children, and victims of domestic violence – all considered taboo by Japan’s major publishing houses.
Aware that discrimination and human rights abuses were not confined to Japanese society, Akashi extended its reach by publishing accounts of the struggles of untouchables and minorities in other parts of the world. “In the 21st century…(we) must create an era where the human rights of individuals are truly respected,” emphasizes Ishii.
Today, Akashi Shoten has over 2,800 titles in Japanese and English, encompassing diverse topics in history, society, law, economy, international affairs, and contemporary social issues. The range of books being published show the widening acceptance of the host of issues Ishii has embraced in the past 30 years. Its success in carving a secure niche among mainstream Japanese readers affirms Ishii’s vision of using publishing to break down barriers which have long kept the marginalized from fully realizing their potentials not only in Japan but in other countries as well.