The Japan we know today is modern by most accounts, yet underlying discriminatory attitudes persist based on outdated views. Discrimination is especially strong against the burakumin (部落民), literally “people of the hamlet.”
Often compared to India’s untouchables, burakumin are considered dirty and impure, forced to eke out livings in under-developed areas with few chances to improve their socioeconomic circumstances. It’s a scenario that minorities all over the world have experienced. But the kicker is this — there is no genetic differentiation between burakumin and “normal” Japanese. To many Japanese, however, that doesn’t matter. Burakumin are treated as if they are lesser than Japanese, and in some cases, lesser than human.
Earlier we covered the Ainu and their centuries-long suffering from discrimination and marginalization. It’s important to remember that the Ainu are an ethnic minority in Japan, whereas the burakumin are a social minority. While both minorities face harsh stigma and suffer from similar discrimination in society, their histories and the government’s attempts at assimilation differ.
Feudal Japan’s Outcasts
The history of the burakumin is rooted far back in Japan’s past. Outcasts were identified by a few names such as eta (穢多) and hinin (非人); many preferred the term kawata (皮多) due to the majority’s association with the leather working industry. Eta translates to “abundant filth” and was reserved for the outcasts who handled human and animal corpses or waste. Hinin means “non-person,” and described criminals and vagrants.
These descriptors accurately reflected feudal attitudes towards outcasts: they were so perceived to be grimed by filth in all aspects of life to the point they were no longer recognizable as human. An extreme view, but a prevalent one that influenced public and government opinion. If your job dealt with death or anything thought of as impure by the majority, then by extension you were considered to be unclean in body, spirit, and abode, irreparably tainted. These people, forced into society’s gutters, worked in occupations considered unclean — butchers, tanners, undertakers, sanitation workers, garbage collectors, professional beggars, entertainers, and so on.
Buddhist influences and Shinto, Japan’s main indigenous religion, also strictly emphasized maintaining pure environs both inside and outside, an attitude that may have fueled people’s distaste towards those labeled burakumin and the subsequent segregation of their communities.
Outcasts forced to the bottom of the social hierarchy is an old phenomenon in many countries. Some theories suggest that in Japan the outcast class was invented to be a scapegoat for those of higher status to unload their miseries and problems on; however, policing social classes didn’t create these communities, but rather added to their number as the definition of outcast shifted with the country’s development. During the Tokugawa era (1600-1867), the shogunate issued stricter regulations controlling the formation of social classes. Japan’s strict caste system was now ordered as such: samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants, and the outcasts.
Not everyone fit into these neat categories, and spillage occurred for those occupying niche occupations, i.e. samurai servants and temple clerics. As a result, the previous outcast communities swelled in number and dwellings, igniting fiercer discrimination against them. Despite this, some buraku managed to monopolize certain industries and secure comforts generally reserved for the upper classes.
With the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the caste system was dismantled; previous restrictions that outcasts faced were officially no more in 1871, and they were given legal status. It was then that the term buraku emerged as the main label describing these ostracized members of Japanese society. Of course, streamlining into the modernizing society wasn’t easy. Years of poverty and physical ostracizing from community hubs were hard for many buraku to overcome. The granting of legal status ended up backfiring for some buraku — with their professions no longer under a monopoly exclusive to outcasts, economic opportunities decreased while discrimination continued. Communities became further segregated and were avoided. Many buraku became involved in organized crime and became yakuza. The association with the mob inspired more fear and distrust towards buraku.
The “Assimilation Problem”
There’s an old Japanese proverb often associated with the burakumin: 寝た子を起こすな (netta ko wo okosu na), meaning “Don’t wake up the sleeping child:”
The idea is that if people who are unaware remain so, then discrimination will automatically disappear on its own. This has long been advocated to describe buraku discrimination. However, in recent years, it’s the Internet that causes such repercussions. As long as someone doesn’t delete their writing on the Internet, it won’t disappear permanently. When someone writes that there’s a buraku area over there, or so-and-so is a buraku, that kind of information takes on a life of its own.
This proverb usually comes up in context with the phrase dowa mondai (同和どうわ問題もんだい), or “assimilation problem.” In short, dowa mondai refers to bias and discriminatory practices towards the estimated 3 million burakumin struggling in social, economic, and educational spheres. Yet to the Buraku Liberation League (BLL), the true makeup of dowa mondai is the fact that the government refuses to openly address buraku discrimination as a problem. Sure, they’ve issued policies to improve buraku infrastructure, education, and economic opportunities, but to the BLL, that’s not enough to actively combat the outdated beliefs entrenched in Japan’s consciousness. There’s little public outreach being done on the government’s part. And it’s still considered a taboo to discuss the buraku in the media.
The Yoka Incident and the “Burakumin Name Guide”
Anti-discrimination laws established to protect the buraku haven’t deterred people from stigmatizing them. Occasionally, this stigmatization has led to outbreaks of violence.
In 1974, after a student at a nearby high school accused of belonging to the buraku class killed herself, a group of students at Yoka High School（八鹿高校）in Hyougo Prefecture demanded the right to form a Burakumin Liberation Committee. When the teachers rebuffed their request, the students started a hunger strike. Their teachers not only ignored them; they left school in rank and file for a group retreat at a local onsen.
On their way back from the hot springs, members of the Burakumin Liberation League confronted the teachers over their treatment of the students. The BLL members ended up hauling 48 teachers into the school, where they confined and beat them over the course of 13 hours.
Despite being a provocation against years of discrimination and callous treatment toward the burakumin, the Yoka High School incident became a flash point for increasing suspicion and hatred of this discriminated class. Even Japan’s Communist Party, rising in defense of the teachers, denounced the BLL, labeling it a “lynch mob.”
Not long after, in 1975, the Buraku Liberation League got word of the circulation of a particular book in Osaka. This 330-page book, the Buraku Chimei Sōkan(部落地名総鑑), contained detailed lists of buraku names, occupations, and settlements across Japan based off censuses conducted earlier in the century. Anyone in possession of the directory, like an employer or over-protective mother, could cross-check a person’s name to find out whether they hailed from a buraku area. The Yoka incident was used to show how “dangerous” the burakumin were, and to justify the book’s publication.
It’s likely that the source of this information was actual official Japanese records. This kind of information is kept in detailed records in the koseki (戸籍), Japan’s family registry system. When the government began compiling family records in 1872, officials made sure to easily designate the former outcasts and their settlements. Today, access to a person’s koseki is supposed to be limited, but with the right resources, anyone can see and distribute copies of a koseki.
Despite rigorous attempts by the BLL to cease publication and ban the book’s circulation, the directory still exists, thanks in part to the Internet. In 2015, hundreds of angry and hateful letters were mailed to buraku families in Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto. Clearly the sender had access to a list of some kind in order to send these letters. A similar incident occurred in 2004, alarming and traumatizing those of buraku descent.
Just this March, authorities were alerted to the purchase of three copies of the directory online in Saga Prefecture. No matter how hard the BLL tries to purge the book from existence, it’s unlikely they will ever completely erase the book off of the Internet.
Japan hasn’t been immune to the fake news phenomenon either. At the 3rd BLL convention, one of their goals for 2019 is to ask local authorities to delete fake news spreading misinformation about buraku online.
Marriage discrimination (結婚差別; kekkon sabetsu) and employment discrimination (就職差別; shuushoku sabetsu) remain two of the greatest hurdles burakumin face today. Many who grew up in buraku areas moved away to avoid the stigma. Mothers targeted by the hate mail in 2015 were at a loss how to explain the discrimination to their children. People married to burakumin voice their own experiences of being discriminated against.
The descendants of the feudal burakumin still struggle to escape the fringes of Japanese society. They have been associated with dilapidation and ruin more than with fellow humans. This is the lens through which the public views the burakumin, one that’s lasted far too long, and one that is slow to change. While there’s no easy solution to the dowa mondai, the younger burakumin generation is starting to take the reins on dismantling Japan’s ancient preconceptions about burakumin. Letting the sleeping child be won’t solve anything for the burakumin — perhaps the next generation will be the ones to wake the child up for the good of the burakumin.
Martin, Alex. “Embracing a buraku heritage: Examining changing attitudes toward a social minority.” The Japan Times, Feb 16, 2019.
Neary, Ian. “Burakumin in contemporary Japan.” Japan’s minorities: The illusion of homogeneity (1997): 50-78.