Yesterday, a list of naughty words that can be entered in Pokemon: Black and White surfaced. Some of the words might be easy for Westerners to understand why they are considered offensive. Other words, less so.
Like with most languages, Japanese has an array of colorful terms for bodily functions and genitalia. That doesn't mean that these words are necessarily profane, but off-color. Take the word "kuso" ("shit" or "crap"). It can be said on Japanese television bleep-free. "Oppai" (boobs) is also fairly harmless. Obviously, there are exceptions: The words for female private parts, however, are more likely to raise eyebrows than words for the male anatomy.
The words in Japanese that many find incredibly objectionable are derogatory terms for handicapped people. While Japan is often criticized by other countries for women's rights or xenophobia, the country is ahead in many regards to how it treats handicapped individuals. The sidewalks have grooved bumps for blind people and crosswalks emit noises when it is safe to cross. Local civic centers give classes so that people can better understand what the handicapped go through on a daily basis.
Granted, nothing is perfect, and there is still a long ways to go. But for a long time, Japanese society shunned the handicapped — some even refused to be seen with handicapped family members. The country has become more sensitive to derogatory terms regarding handicapped people. This seems to be why slurs directed at handicapped individuals are apparently blocked in Pokemon: Black and White.
Some of the words that make many Japanese most uncomfortable were included in the Black and White list. Those words are related to the Japanese feudal caste system. There is a preconceived notion — especially outside Japan — that all Japanese people are a homogeneous group, that everyone in the country is middle class, that everyone is created equal. There is a Japanese monolith.
That is just not true. There are minority groups, like Chinese-Japanese and Korean-Japanese. In the past, those with Chinese or Korean ancestry have taken Japanese surnames in order to assimilate. It's said that the Japanese kanji for gold (金, or "kin") is often used by Korean-Japanese with the last name "Kim". This is not true of everyone, however. A Korean-Japanese friend of mine was born in Japan, does not speak Korean, does not have 金 in his last name, has never visited Korea, but is considered "Korean" under Japanese law. Like me, he carries around a foreigner identification card, but unlike me, he has spent his entire life here. He wants to naturalize, but is having difficulties.
One of the country's minority groups, the burakumin ("hamlet people"), is connected with Japan's now abolished caste system. The burakumin were the bottom of the totem pole during the Edo Era. Burakumin worked as tanners, butchers, grave-diggers and executioners and thus, were viewed as dirty. Burakumin were thought to be hereditary and "not human".
(A friend from Osaka University, who wrote a dissertation on this, once told me that today many burakumin now work in landscaping. There is a stereotype that they are in organized crime.)
There are apparently over 1 million burakumin in Japan, the Japan Times reports. Some estimates put the number at 3 million. The topic of burakumin does not appear much in the Japanese media and generally makes folks here highly uncomfortable.
In the past, some Japanese companies have even had maps that note where burakumin live and refused to hire applicants from the area. The country's family registry system makes it easy to track one's hometown. Marriages were even canceled if either the bride or groom was found to be burakumin.
Things have apparently improved with burakumin marrying non-burakumin and encountering less discrimination than in the past. Large companies apparently no longer track things like this during the hiring process, and more burakumin are marrying non-burakumin.
Yet, "Buraku" (部落, the area where burakumin traditionally lived) is apparently blocked by Pokemon: Black and White, but "burakumin" is supposedly not. Neither is "eta" — another slur for them — and a word that is fading from common usage. Both of those words carry more baggage than many of the other words the game blocks.
In Japanese, Pokemon: Black and White is written as ポケットモンスターブラック・ホワイト (Poketto Monsutaa: Burakku Howaito). "Burakku" might be a color, but "buraku" much more.