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I learned from Ms. I. what can happen when one challenges the sanctity of the traditional values so revered in Japan.

Ms. I. is a retired physics teacher from Wakayama province who spends much of her free time volunteering in civil-rights activities. When I visited her, she was busy organizing an inservice seminar for Osaka teachers on the topic of minorities in education.

She became acutely aware of the needs of minorities, she said, because her father was a doctor of common Japanese stock who had many patients living in a buraku community. The buraku are the nearly two million descendents of the feudal era's "outcast" class, which was assigned menial tasks and required to live in isolation from society. The buraku have not been able to reap the fruits of Japan's success.

Many years ago, Ms. I. and her husband taught at the same high school and served on a committee assigned to improve relations between the school and a nearby buraku community. They worked diligently at improving the lines of communication between school and buraku and helped develop a curriculum to break down the prejudices of students from the mainstream culture toward the buraku children.

At the same time, their own children were growing up. The son, who entered a national university and became an economist, married a French woman and moved to Tokyo. But the daughter one day announced that she would marry a well-educated buraku man.

The father, who had devoted so much of his energy to helping the buraku and eradicating prejudice against them, was devastated. Tradition demanded that his daughter marry someone of equal or higher social station.

He refused to give his daughter permission to marry. She defied him and continued to plan for the wedding. The night before the wedding, the enraged father tied his daughter up and refused to let her out of the house.

Ms. I. released the daughter and physically prevented her husband from interfering with the wedding.

A year later, when the daughter's child was born, the father, unable to balance his traditional beliefs with the facts of a changing world, was committed to a mental institution in Kobe.

As a beloved philosopher of the late 19th century, Yukichi Fukuzawa, once said: "Stone houses and iron bridges are easy enough to build, but men's spirits change more slowly."

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