This article is part of the Uni Series which consists of some essays that I have been writing for my bachelor degree in Japan in East Asia studies at the University of Tokyo. I wrote this one in my first year of university for a class on Japanese sociology, and it discusses the issue of a historically discriminated group of Japanese people called the burakumin.
Racism between ethnicities within a country is a widely diffused problem. Among the endless list of issues regarding racism, we could mention the recent racial issues in Baltimore between white American and African-American or the rise of the extreme right-wing party in France which has members openly racist against Arab and African immigrants. Despite its quite homogeneous population, Japan is not a country exempted from racial discrimination. Indeed, media often report that the Zainichi, or ethnic Koreans living in Japan since the beginning of the 20th century, still face problems of integration and of understanding. But there is a special case of prejudice that may be, in its characteristics and its proportions, specific to Japan: the discrimination of the burakumin. Literally meaning “people from a hamlet,” this term stands for the 3 million people living all around Japan and having been peculiarly excluded from the society for centuries. As they are ethnically Japanese and do not present any physical difference, the issue cannot possibly be called racism, but discrimination within an ethnicity. Some may draw parallels with the Dalit — former untouchables — in India. Who are those burakumin, on what ground is based the discrimination against them, what form does it translate into and how is the future looking for them? This essay will strive to answer to all of those questions, and by doing so to give an exhaustive understanding of the burakumin mondai, the issue of the people of the hamlet in Japan.
Let us begin with a presentation of those buraku people. The number of Japanese it represents nowadays is almost impossible to know. Indeed, the government officially counted 1.841.958 burakumin in 1978, but the number is probably higher, around 3 million, because an important part of the hamlet people do not want to claim that they belong to this minority (Sabouret, 1983, 15). Furthermore, they live in hamlets of towns and cities all around Japan with the exception of the Tohoku region and Hokkaido. There are, to mention some example, important buraku hamlets in Osaka, Fukuoka or Ehime prefectures. Tokyo is a special case as about 400.000 hamlet people are said to live there but none is officially recognized as a buraku Japanese (Ibid, 17). The burakumin are thus a widely and disparately diffused minority throughout Japan. Next, we will see when and how the distinction appeared in history.
To begin with, many scholars specialized in the burakumin question totally refute the idea of them being Korean immigrants. But we will later come back on this. Adversely, the researchers agree that their origins can be traced back very far in Japanese history, before Nara period in 710 (Ibid, 39). But it is in the Middle Age that two social classes clearly started to be ostracized: the eta (sullied) and the hinin (non-human). The first ones were butchers or leather crafts[wo]men, in charge of killing animals. The second term concerns ex-convicts or vagrants (Frédéric, 2002, 93). The two categories progressively started to live as misfits, at the border of cities and town, in their hamlets. The Edo period reinforced their exclusion. Indeed, this era is marked by the strict shinokosho class system, which placed the warriors (shi) at the top of the society, then the peasants (no), followed by the crafts[wo]men (ko) and finally the merchants (sho), considered badly as they made a living without producing things but by managing money and trade. However, in this pyramid of social classes, a fifth category existed below all of them: the eta and the hinin. Considered non-humans, they had many restrictions such as how to dress, which made them recognizable in any circumstance, and thus more easily marginalizable (Sabouret, 1983, 57).
While it is understandable why criminals were despised, the question can be raised of why were the eta considered sullied? The answer is to be found in religion and beliefs. Indeed, both Buddhism and Shinto, the two major religions in Japan, condemn the act of killing animals. There is the idea in both that taking the life of any animal is a sin, and although people had to do this job, society, influenced by those beliefs, rejected and feared them (Sabouret, 1983, 90). Then after the Meiji revolution the class system was abolished in 1871, but the stigma carried by this non-human category did not vanish as easily. The current burakumin are the descendants of the eta and honin, often living in the same districts as they used to two centuries ago.
Nowadays however, the reasons of discrimination against the burakumin evolved. According to a survey in Osaka, the three main pejorative adjective used toward them are of worrying, vulgar and dirty (or impure, fuketsu in Japanese) (Okuda, 2002, 12). The first adjective may be explained through recent history. While de jure the discrimination of Edo period was abolished in 1871, de facto it was different. In 1922 the Suiheisha, a burakumin union, was founded with the aspiration to “equalize” society. To face injustice, the association sometimes used violence, which helped decreasing obvious prejudices, but in the long term also tainted people’s image of the burakumin (Sabouret, 1983, 68).
Furthermore, about their vulgarity this may relate to their (imagined) lifestyle. Kenji Nakagami is one of the rare burakumin writers. In The cape (Misaki) for which he won the prestigious Akutagawa prize, he describes the life of a very complex family, whose mother was married three times, resulting by the end of an incestuous intercourse between her son and the daughter of her second husband. However, the fact that these peculiar customs are intrinsic to burakumin is contestable. A critic justly wrote this about the book:
“Many reviews of ‘The Cape’ make a lot of the burakumin element, but I think that it would be a mistake to focus solely on this element of the story. The reality is that this sense of hopelessness (and tangled fates) is the lot of the lower-working classes in many advanced societies” (Malone, 2013).
Even if it is not so particular to the hamlet people, the image people keep of it in Japan, even if not representative, resembles Nakagami’s novels.
Poverty still strikes many burakumin. Because social class is often transmitted from parents to children, those born in the hamlets start life disadvantaged. The secluded hamlets now transformed into poor housing areas. Zainichi that were mentioned before have mingled in some areas of Japan, like in Osaka, with burakumin (Neary, 1997, 64) as two minorities both excluded and poor often end up inhabiting the same cheap places. It is plausibly the cause of the urban myth stating that hamlet people are historically Korean. In fact, since the late 1960s many hamlets started becoming home not only of historically outcast Japanese but of simply poor people.
Finally, dirty may still encapsulate the idea of impurity like in the Edo period. If it decreased a lot nowadays, the burakumin still preferably occupy professions linked with dead animals. For example in Osaka in the 70s, 30% of the butchers were burakumin, and leather work represented 13.3% of the hamlet people’s jobs (Harada, 1974, 373). We could mention the recent movie Departures (Okuribito), which depicts the hardship for ritual morticians to be accepted by nowadays’ Japanese society. The main character, a mortician, faces the stigma of being sullied by touching death. Even though morticians are not burakumin, this movie is relevant to mention as it shows that Japanese still discriminate people whose job is linked with death for reasons of beliefs or superstitions.
Remnants from the past, violence of the first movement for improving their condition, transmitted poverty and impurity, the multiple reasons to ostracize the burakumin piled up through time to generate a national belief that one should not mingle with them. In fact, a Japanese having a negative image of them may not even have those reasons in mind, but just be conditioned to think that they represent the worst of the country. The reasons changed and evolved, but always the burakumin have been the scapegoat, the lower class barely human and always looked down upon by Japanese society.
It has been mentioned many times already that discriminations occurred against burakumin, but what are they? The main one is discrimination to find jobs. Indeed, employers are less likely, if not simply not likely at all, to take a burakumin over another candidate, because of their bad reputation. Then the larger the firm is, the higher the salary often is but also the higher prejudices against burakumin occur. Inside the firm also discrimination happen when it comes to get promoted (Sabouret, 1983, 30). Even if the candidate from a buraku does not claim its origins, big companies often hire private detectives to investigate. A scandal erupted in 1975, refered to as the chimei sōkan. This year, it was revealed that a list of the places buraku people lived had been circulating between many companies and detectives, facilitating discrimination against them (Neary, 1997, 64). The Government intervened to stop its circulation and since this enormous scandal, job discrimination has diminished, along with decrease of prejudice against hamlet people in general. However, nowadays some companies still refuse them, not because they believe them less competent but with the idea that a customer may dislike them.
A second domain of high discrimination is marriage. Just like companies, many families used to hire a detective (Sabouret, 1983, 80), although this practice is less common nowadays. Reasons for not wanting a burakumin to enter the house are diverse: bad reputation, assimilated with poverty, and so on and so forth. Then discrimination at school, in the street, in many other fields occurs. Nowadays, many burakumin are ashamed and even hiding their background. The pressure put by society on them sadly pushed many to deny their origins in order to start anew. Others, who formed the burakumin liberation league (BKD), the heir of the Suiheisha, kept denouncing discriminations and lack of help, and eventually managed to inscribe their issues on the political agenda.
In 1969 indeed, the dōwa taisaku, or measures of assimilation, was undertaken by multiple ministries. The list of measures is long and exhaustive: reconstruction of the old hamlets into social housing, public bath and guarantee of a better access to doctors, development of industries and companies that employ burakumin, financial help to obtain, for example, the HGV license, scholarships and overall better access to education, promise to organize events aiming to change the mentalities and eventually the creation of a service in the PM cabinet specialized in the coordination and application of all those measures (Sabouret, 1983, 86). All those deep measures, coupled with the rapid economic growth of Japan, effectively helped in rebuilding new housing and in assimilating the hamlet people within the society. Originally a ten year plan, the dōwa kept being renewed until 2002. However, a consequential problem of these measures was reported by the BKD: only the officially registered hamlets and its inhabitants were helped. If we go back to the numbers mentioned at the beginning of this essay, it would thus concern only 60% of the burakumin. Second problem, the conditions of the burakumin were so miserable that this set of measures and budget associated with it was not enough to bridge the gap (Ibid, 88).
Thus nowadays, the inequalities are still pronounced. 32% of the burakumin benefitting from the dōwa live with less than 2 million yens per year, against 15% on national average (Okuda, 2002, 17). The same conclusion can be drawn on access to secondary education and university, or unemployment. The situation is uncontestably improving, but it takes a lot of time and does not promise the burakumin could ever completely catch up. As developed before, discrimination in the social world is also present, and the recent economic crises did not help.
Another factor that lengthens their acceptation is the socially undertook process of neta ko wo okosuna. Literally meaning “do not wake up the sleeping child,” this metaphor suggests that if no one talks of an issue, then the issue will eventually vanish. However, this reasoning contains flaws. By not explaining why discrimination occurs and why it should change, people forget the reasons but keep discriminating because it is the norm. We saw indeed that the reasons are diverse and people may not even be aware of half of them. With this policy, if only a small minority discriminates, then the high majority, by not refuting them, hamper the social assimilation of the burakumin. For the hamlet people also, many do not want their past to be simply forgotten as if nothing ever happened. A counter-process named the “dōwa education” aims at explaining to children why one must not discriminate burakumin (Minoru and Hirasawa, 2015).
Facing these discouraging inequalities that do not fade away, the reactions of the burakumin are mixed. Many preferred, when the opportunity came, getting rid of their ties with the buraku. Using or not the governmental aid, many indeed managed their way through meritocracy. But not every person of the hamlets can aspire to do so as many do not have the money or competences to improve their conditions. Others, such as BKD members, argue against the simple dilution of burakumin within Japanese society. In 1985 the Osaka Human Right Museum was founded thanks to the league at the spot of a former hamlet (Larson, 2010). The museum explains the history of the buraku and its people, emphasizing the importance of equality and respect of dignity. Rallying the burakumin on the same cause is a hard task because of their non-territorial share (contrarily to Ainu or Okinawan people) and the different motivations driving them. Discussions nowadays are thus not only toward economic and social equality, but also about what collective memory should be kept of the people of the hamlet. Should they be considered as owning a particular culture, or as a minority, a cast?
By way of conclusion, the burakumin are a minority within Japan that faced many prejudices through time. The Meiji liberation promise to liberate them, but this promise was materialized only a century later through deep measures of leveling, the dōwa. Nowadays, the hamlets (buraku) or at least those recognized as such, are renewed in appearance and in inhabitants. Indeed, since the 1960 the conditions of living become incontestably better and the hamlet gradually opened to host many poor minorities of Japan. However, discrimination is still deeply anchored nowadays in the private and public spheres, remains from mixed religious, social, economic and historical reasons. Slowly, the burakumin are dispersing among their peers. A process of assimilation, undertaken by the government and approved by a part of the burakumin is currently occurring. The other part calls for recognition of their history and promise to keep it in the national history. If one day the distinction of inequalities between the descendants of the eta and hinin and the rest of the Japanese people will hopefully not be relevant anymore, what remains to be seen in the future is what history will be kept of the long-lasting lowest class of Japan: the burakumin.
 A popular belief even said that the burakumin are a lost Jewish tribe from Israel, which is absolutely wrong (Neary, 1997, 53). This urban myth shows however that issue of discrimination against burakumin in Japan can be put in parallel with anti-Semitism in the West.
 A critic that could be made to Jean-François Sabouret, mentioned several times in this essay, is that he focuses too much on religion as the central factor of discrimination lasting through history. In fact, it was a reproach often made to French or European anthropologists in the 1980s as they understood religion as a, if not the leading factor of societies. If it works for a long period of time in the West, new researchers argue that it is not that accurate to apply it to Japan.
 Later in the essay is explained the “do not wake up the sleeping child” policy. The fact that nowadays discrimination to find jobs is not caused by direct discrimination, but the concern that customers may discriminate and thus cause less profits shows this policy will not work. Indeed, only if a minority of person directly discriminate the burakumin, which the policy will hardly erase completely, then the employers, considering them as lost clients, will keep discriminating the hamlet people as well.
 The burakumin indeed do not have any shared joint territory or common gene pool, which makes it difficult to link them all. Can we indeed talk of a common culture, when the regional culture (like Kansai or Kantō culture) might be stronger? The feeling of belonging to a burakumin heritage therefore legitimately differs from one person to another.
Frédéric, L. (2002). Japan Encyclopedia. Harvard University Press Reference Library. Belknap. 93.
Harada, T. (1974). Hisabetsu buraku no rekishi, Tokyo: Asahi (eds).
Larson, P. (2010). “Osaka Human Rights Museum.” Available: peterslarson.com/2010/08/26/osaka-human-rights-museum/. Last accessed 11 July 2015.
Malone, T. (2013). “‘The Cape’ by Kenji Nakagami (Review).” Tony’s Reading List Blog. Accessible: tonysreadinglist.blogspot.jp/2013/04/the-cape-by-kenji-nakagami-review.html. Last accessed: 11 July 2015
Minoru, M. and Hirasawa, Y. (2015). “DOWA Education and Human Rights.” Available: hurights.or.jp/archives/human_rights_education_in_asian_schools/section2/1998/03/dowa-education-and-human-rights.html. Last accessed 11 July 2015.
Nakagami, K. (2008). The Cape: and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto. Translation by Eve Zimmerman. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press.
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Okuda, H. (2002). “Jinken no takarajima” bouken: 2000 nen buraku mondai chousa 10 no haken,” Osaka, Kaihou Shuppansha.
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Takita, Y. (2008). Departures. Movie. Tokyo: TBS Pictures.