Writer Yoshihiro Uehara's book, "Nihon no roji o tabi suru" (Traveling Japan's Alleys), in which he traced the history of "buraku" (discriminated hamlets) in Aomori Prefecture in the north to Okinawa Prefecture in the south has been chosen as the recipient of this year's Oya Soichi Nonfiction Prize.
Uehara's joy was palpable through his matter-of-fact comment: "I'm so happy that the result of my research in the field has received such a great prize."
"Roji," or alleys, as Uehara calls Japan's discriminated hamlets which were inhabited by people and descendants of those considered to be outcastes in Japan's feudal era, was a term that was first employed by the late writer Kenji Nakagami. Uehara says that he employs this term in the book instead of the more commonly used "buraku" because he wants to inherit and build on Nakagami's achievements.
Uehara, who himself is an "alley" native, based his award-winning book on 13 years of research and reporting. The book has gained recognition for its incorporation of the author's fascination with his roots into a travelogue format without the accusatory tone of a whistle-blowing indictment.
"I, myself, have been involved not only in the buraku liberation movement, but also in work on behalf of disabled persons and the homeless," Uehara said. "But in this book, I chose purposely to take a wider perspective than that of activism, and decided I would just write what I have seen with honesty."
Of the four books nominated for the Oya Prize, two focused on buraku. Few nonfiction books covering the topic -- long considered taboo and rarely confronted head-on -- had attracted wide attention in the past. Uehara now thinks the situation is changing.
"I think (the fact that two of the nominated books were about buraku) is more striking and significant than the fact that I won. For someone who has been involved in the issue for 20 years, it feels like we're now living in a completely different age. That such works are now gaining recognition is a sign of great progress."
Uehara's journey is ongoing; he just finished looking into "alleys" in Mie Prefecture. "I want young people to read (the book). And I hope that it can serve as a catalyst also for those people who are not from buraku to think about the nature of their hometowns."
「路地」とは、作家の中上健次が被差別部落を言い表した言葉だ。これを使うのは「中上さんの業績を引き継ぎ、さらに深化させたい」という思いか ら。自身も路地の出身である。受賞作は、１３年間の取材に基づく。告発調ではなくさわやかに、出自へのこだわりを紀行文的なスタイルに溶け込ませたことが 評価された。
今回の大宅賞は、候補４作中２作が被差別部落をテーマとしていた。正面から語られることが少なく、この領域のノンフィクション作品は注目されにく かっただけに、「私の受賞より印象的で、すごいこと。２０年間、この問題にかかわってきた人間にとっては隔世の感がある。こうした作品が評価されるように なったのは大きな進歩だと思う」。