Burakumin (部落民 Literal translation: "small settlement people" ) are a Japanese social minority group. The burakumin are one of the main minority groups in Japan, along with the Ainu of Hokkaidō, the Ryukyuans of Okinawa and the residents of Korean and Chinese descent.
The burakumin are descendants of outcast communities of the feudal era, which mainly comprised those with occupations considered "tainted" with death or ritual impurity (such as executioners, undertakers, workers in slaughterhouses, butchers or tanners), and traditionally lived in their own secluded hamlets and ghettos.
They were legally liberated in 1871 with the abolition of the feudal caste system. However, this did not put a stop to social discrimination and their lower living standards, because Japanese family registration (Koseki) was fixed to ancestral home address until recently, which allowed people to deduce their Burakumin membership. The Burakumin were one of the several groups discriminated against within Japanese society.
The long history of taboos and myths of the buraku left a continuous legacy of social desolation. Since the 1980s more and more young buraku have started to organize and protest against their social misfortunes. Movements with objectives ranging from "liberation" to encouraging integration have tried over the years to put a stop to this problem.
The number of burakumin asserted to be living in modern Japan varies from source to source. A 1993 investigative report by the Japanese Government counted 4,533 dōwa chiku (同和地区 "assimilation districts" - buraku communities officially designated for assimilation projects), mostly in western Japan, comprising 298,385 households with 892,751 residents.
The size of each community ranged from under five households to over 1,000 households, with 155 households being the average size. About three quarters of settlements are in rural areas. The distribution of discriminated communities varied greatly from region to region.
The Buraku Liberation League (BLL), on the other hand, extrapolates Meiji-era figures to arrive at an estimate of nearly three million burakumin. A 1999 source indicates the presence of some 2 million burakumin, living in approximately 5,000 settlements.
Japanese government statistics show the number of residents of assimilation districts who claim buraku ancestry, whereas BLL figures are estimates of the total number of descendants of all former and current buraku residents, including current residents with no buraku ancestry.
The term 部落 buraku literally refers to a small, generally rural, commune or a hamlet. People from regions of Japan where "discriminated communities" do not exist any more (e.g., anywhere north of Tokyo) may normally refer to any hamlet as a buraku, indicating that the word's usage is not necessarily pejorative.
|Hisabetsu-buraku||被差別部落||discriminated community/hamlet||is a commonly used, politically correct term, with people from them called hisabetsu-burakumin (被差別部落民 "discriminated community (hamlet) people") or
hisabetsu buraku shusshin-sha (被差別部落出身者 "person from a discriminated community / hamlet").
|Burakumin||部落民||hamlet people||is either hamlet people per se or an abbreviation of people from discriminated community/hamlet. Very old people tend to use the word in the former meaning. Its use in the Japanese language is sometimes frowned upon, although it is by far the most commonly used term in English.|
|Mikaihō-buraku||未解放部落||unliberated communities||is a term sometimes used by human rights pressure groups and the one which has a degree of political ring to it.|
|Tokushu buraku||特殊部落||special hamlets||was used in the early 20th Century but is now considered inappropriate.|
A widely-used term for buraku settlements is dōwa chiku (同和地区 "assimilation districts"), an official term for districts designated for government and local authority assimilation projects.
The social issue surrounding "discriminated communities" is usually referred to as dōwa mondai (同和問題 "assimilation issues") or less commonly, buraku mondai (部落問題"hamlet issues").
In the feudal era, the outcast caste were called eta (穢多, literally, "an abundance of defilement" or "an abundance of filth"), a term now obviously considered derogatory.
Some burakumin refer to their own communities as "mura" (村 "villages") and themselves as "mura-no-mono" (村の者 "village people").
The word burakumin is used to describe descendants of outcast communities in feudal Japan, most of them being eta (穢多 "filthy mass") who worked in occupations relating to death, such as executioners, undertakers or leather workers. Severe social stigma was attached to these occupations, influenced by Shinto notions of kegare (穢れ "defilement").
Other outcast groups included the hinin (非人—literally "non-human") (the definition of hinin, as well as their social status and typical occupations varied over time, but typically included ex-convicts and vagrants who worked as town guards, street cleaners or entertainers. )
According to Japan, a Modern History, 2002: (cited here ),
Fundamental Shinto beliefs equated goodness and godliness with purity and cleanliness, and they further held that impurities could cling to things and persons, making them evil or sinful. But a person could become seriously contaminated by habitually killing animals or committing some hideous misdeed that ripped at the fabric of the community, such as engaging in incest or bestiality. Such persons, custom decreed, had to be cast out from the rest of society, condemned to wander from place to place, surviving as best they could by begging or by earning a few coins as itinerant singers, dancers, mimes, and acrobats.
There are many theories as to how and in which era the outcast communities came into existence. For example, it is disputed whether society started ostracizing those who worked in tainted occupations or whether those who originally dropped out of society were forced to work in tainted occupations.
According to the latter view, displaced populations during the internal wars of the Muromachi era may have been relocated and forced into low-status occupations, for example, as public sanitation workers.
The social status and typical occupations of outcast communities have varied considerably according to region and over time. A burakumin neighborhood within metropolitan Tokyo was the last to be served by streetcar and is the site of butcher and leather shops to this day.
At the start of the Edo period (1603-1867), the caste system was officially established as a means of designating social hierarchy, and eta were placed at the lowest level, outside of the four main divisions of society. Like the rest of the population, they were bound by sumptuary laws based on the inheritance of their social class. The eta lived in segregated settlements, and were generally avoided by the rest of Japanese society.
Segregation and discrimination were encouraged by the authorities as a means of government control. For example, they typically had their own temples and were not allowed to visit other religious sites. Japanese Buddhists were given posthumous religious names (戒名 kaimyo) when they were deceased; eta were often given names that included the kanji characters for beast, humble, ignoble, servant, and other derogatory expressions.
When dealing with members of other castes, they were expected to display signs of subservience, such as the removal of headwear. In an 1859 court case described by author Shimazaki Toson, a magistrate declared that "An eta is worth 1/7 of an ordinary person."
Historically, eta were not liable for taxation in feudal times, including the Tokugawa period, because the taxation system was based on rice yields, which they were not permitted to possess. Some outcasts were also called kawaramono (河原者, "dried-up riverbed people") because they lived along river banks that could not be turned into rice fields.
Since the taboo status of the work they performed afforded them an effective monopoly in their trades, some succeeded economically and even occasionally obtained samurai status through marrying or the outright purchase of troubled houses. Some historians point out that such exclusive rights originated in ancient times, granted by shrines, temples, kuge, or the imperial court, which held authority before the Shogunate system was established.
The feudal caste system in Japan ended in 1869 with the Meiji restoration. In 1871, the newly formed Meiji government issued a decree called Kaihōrei (解放令 Emancipation Edict) giving outcasts equal legal status. (This terminology is not the original, but a later revision. Originally, it was labeled Senmin Haishirei (賤民廃止令 Edict Abolishing Ignoble Classes.) However, the elimination of their economic monopolies over certain occupations actually led to a decline in their general living standards, while social discrimination simply continued. For example, the ban on consumption of meat from livestock was lifted in 1871 in order to "westernise" the country, and many former eta moved on to work in abattoirs and as butchers.
However, slow-changing social attitudes, especially in the countryside, meant that abattoirs and workers were met with hostility from local residents. Continued ostracism as well as the decline in living standards led to former eta communities turning into slum areas.
There were many terms used to indicate former outcasts, their communities or settlements at the time. Official documents at the time referred to them as kyu-eta (旧穢多 "former eta"), while the newly liberated outcasts called themselves shin-heimin (新平民"new citizens"), among other things.
The term tokushu buraku (特殊部落 "special hamlets", now considered inappropriate) started being used by officials in 1900s, leading to the meaning of the word buraku ("hamlet") coming to imply former eta villages in certain parts of Japan.
Movements to resolve the problem in the early 20th century were divided into two camps: the "assimilation" (同和 dōwa ) movement which encouraged improvements in living standards of buraku communities and integration with the mainstream Japanese society, and the "levellers" (水平社 suiheisha ) movement which concentrated on confronting and criticising alleged perpetrators of discrimination.
While in many parts of the country buraku settlements, built on the site of former eta villages, ceased to exist by the 1960s because of either urban development or integration into mainstream society, in other regions many of their residents continued to suffer from slum-like housing and infrastructure, lower economic status, illiteracy, and lower general educational standards.
In 1969, the government passed the Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects to provide funding to these communities. Communities deemed to be in need of funding were designated for various Assimilation Projects (同和対策事業 dōwa taisaku jigyō), such as construction of new housing and community facilities such as health centers, libraries and swimming pools. The projects were terminated in 2002 with a total funding of an estimated 12 trillion yen over 33 years, with the living standards issue effectively resolved.
However, cases of social discrimination against residents of buraku areas is still an issue in certain regions. Outside of the Kansai region, people in general are often not even aware of the issue, and if they are, usually only as part of feudal history. Due to the taboo nature of the topic it is rarely covered by the media, and people from eastern Japan, for example, are often shocked when they learn that it is a continuing issue.
The prejudice most often manifests itself in the form of marriage discrimination, and less often, in employment. Traditionalist families have been known to check on the backgrounds of potential in-laws to identify people of buraku background. These checks are now illegal, and marriage discrimination is diminishing; Nadamoto Masahisa of the Buraku History Institute estimates that between 60 and 80% of burakumin marry a non-burakumin, whereas for people in their sixties, the rate was 10% .
Cases of continuing social discrimination are known to occur mainly in western Japan, particularly in the Osaka, Kyōto, Hyōgo and Hiroshima regions, where many people, especially the older generation, stereotype buraku residents (whatever their ancestry) and associate them with squalor, unemployment and criminality. .
According to David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro in Yakuza: The Explosive Account of Japan's Criminal Underworld (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1986), burakumin account for about 70 percent of the members of Yamaguchi-gumi, the biggest yakuza syndicate in Japan.
Mitsuhiro Suganuma, the ex-member of Public Security Intelligence Agency, testified that burakumin account for about 60 percent of the members of the entire yakuza.
In November 1975, the Osaka branch of the Buraku Liberation League was tipped off about the existence of a book called "A Comprehensive List of Buraku Area Names" (特殊部落地名総鑑 Tokushu Buraku Chimei Soukan). Investigations revealed that copies of the hand-written 330-page book were being secretly sold by an Osaka-based firm to numerous firms and individuals throughout Japan by a mail order service called Cablenet, at between ¥5,000 and ¥50,000 per copy.
The book contained a nationwide list of all the names and locations of buraku settlements (as well as the primary means of employment of their inhabitants), which could be compared against people's addresses to determine if they were buraku residents.
The preface contained the following message: "At this time, we have decided to go against public opinion and create this book [for] personnel managers grappling with employment issues, and families pained by problems with their children's marriages."
More than 200 large Japanese firms, including (according to the Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Centre of Osaka) Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Daihatsu, along with thousands of individuals purchased copies of the book.
In 1985, partially in response to the popularity of this book, and an increase in mimoto chōsa (身元調査, private investigation into one's background) the Osaka prefectural government introduced "An Ordinance to Regulate Personal Background Investigation Conducive to Buraku Discrimination".
Although the production and sale of the book has been banned, numerous copies of it are still in existence, and in 1997, an Osaka private investigation firm was the first to be charged with violation of the 1985 statute for using the text. It is likely that more of Japan's highly-lucrative private investigation market still enjoy ownership and use of the book.
As early as 1922, leaders of the Hisabetsu Buraku organized a movement, the "Levelers Association of Japan" (Suiheisha), to advance their rights. The Declaration of the Suiheisha encouraged the Burakumin to unite in resistance to discrimination, and sought to frame a positive identity for the victims of discrimination, insisting that the time had come to be "proud of being eta.
The declaration portrayed the Burakumin ancestors as "manly martyrs of industry." To submit meekly to oppression would be to insult and profane these ancestors. Despite internal divisions among anarchist, Bolshevik, and social democratic factions, and despite the Japanese government's establishment of an alternate organization Yūma movement, designed to undercut the influence of the Suiheisha, the Levelers Association remained active until the late 1930s.
After World War II, the National Committee for Burakumin Liberation was founded, changing its name to the Buraku Liberation League (Buraku Kaihou Doumei) in the 1950s. The league, with the support of the socialist and communist parties, pressured the government into making important concessions in the late 1960s and 1970s.
One concession was the passing of the Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects, which provided financial aid for the discriminated communities. Also, in 1976, legislation was put in place which banned third parties from looking up another person's family registry (koseki).
This traditional system of registry, kept for all Japanese by the Ministry of Justice since the 19th century, would reveal an individual's buraku ancestry if consulted. Under the new legislation, these records could now be consulted only in legal cases, making it more difficult to identify or discriminate against members of the group.
Even into the early 1990s, however, discussion of the 'liberation' of these discriminated communities, or even their existence, was taboo in public discussion. In the 1960s the Sayama Incident (狭山事件), which involved the murder conviction of a member of the discriminated communities based on circumstantial evidence (which is generally given little weight vs. physical evidence in Japanese courts), focused public attention on the problems of the group.
In the 1980s some educators and local governments, particularly in areas with relatively large hisabetsu buraku populations, began special education programs which they hoped would encourage greater educational and economic success for young members of the group and decrease the discrimination they faced.
"Human Rights Promotion Centers" (人権啓発センター) have been set up across the country by prefectural governments and local authorities; these, in addition to promoting burakumin rights, campaign on behalf of a wide range of groups such as women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, foreign residents and released prisoners.
(The term "human rights" (人権 jinken) usually has a different meaning in Japan than it does in the English speaking world. Where in English the term is most often used in reference to protecting people against violations by, for example, the criminal justice system or an oppressive regime, in Japan it is most often used in reference to equality and discrimination issues.)
The Buraku Liberation League is considered one of the most militant among burakumin's rights groups. The BLL is known for its fierce "denunciation and explanation sessions", where alleged perpetrators of discriminatory actions or speech are summoned for a public hearing before a panel of activists.
Early sessions were marked by occasions of violence and kidnapping, and several BLL activists have been arrested for such acts. The legality of these sessions is still disputed, but to this date the authorities have mostly turned a blind eye to them except in the more extreme cases.
In 1990, Karel van Wolferen's criticism of the BLL in his much-acclaimed book The Enigma of Japanese Power prompted the BLL to demand the publisher halt publication of the Japanese translation of the book. Van Wolferen condemned this as an international scandal.
The other major buraku activist group is the National Buraku Liberation Alliance (全国部落解放運動連合会 zenkoku buraku kaihō undō rengōkai, or Zenkairen), affiliated to the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). It was formed in 1979 by BLL activists who were either purged from the organization or abandoned it in the late 1960s due to, among other things, their opposition to the decision that subsidies to the burakumin should be limited to the BLL members only. Not all burakumin were BLL members and not all residents of the areas targeted for subsidies were historically descendent from the out-caste.
The Zenkairen often came head-to-head with the BLL, accusing them of chauvinism. The bickering between the two organisations boiled over in 1974 when a clash between teachers belonging to a JCP-affiliated union and BLL activists at a high school in Yoka, rural Hyōgo Prefecture, put 29 in hospital.
In 1988, the BLL formed the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR). The BLL sought for the IMADR to be recognized as a United Nations Non-Government Organization, but in 1991, the Zenkairen informed the United Nations about the alleged human rights violations committed by the BLL in the course of their 'denunciation sessions' held with accused 'discriminators'.
However, when suspected cases of discrimination were uncovered, the Zenkairen often conducted denunciation sessions as fierce as those of the BLL. Nonetheless, the IMADR was designated a UN human rights NGO in March 1993.
On 3 March 2004, the Zenkairen announced that "the buraku issue has basically been resolved" and formally disbanded. On 4 March 2004 they launched a new organisation called "National Confederation of Human Rights Movements in The Community" (全国地域人権運動総連合 'Zenkoku Chiiki Jinken Undou Sourengou') or Zenkoku Jinken Ren.
While nearly all Japanese Buddhist sects have discriminated against the burakumin, the case of the Jōdo Shinshu Honganji Sect is a particularly bitter and ironic one. The original philosophy of the sect, as propounded by its founder Shinran, was anti-discriminatory, rejecting the need to keep the traditional Buddhist precepts or to carry out the purification rituals of indigenous Japanese religion. As such, butchers, fishermen and so on, who had all been discriminated against by the older sects, were welcomed into the Jodo Shinshu.
The side-effect of this liberating philosophy, however, was that it led to a series of anti-feudal rebellions, known as the Ikkō-ikki revolts, which seriously threatened the religious and political status-quo. Accordingly the political powers engineered a situation whereby the Jodo Shinshu split into two competing branches, the Shinshu Otani-ha and the Honganji-ha. This had the consequence that the sects moved increasingly away from their anti-feudal position towards a feudal one.
Later the state also forced all people to belong to a specific Buddhist school according to the formula:
In consequence the Honganji, which under Rennyo's leadership had defiantly accepted the derogatory label of 'the dirty sect' (see Rennyo's letters known as the Ofumi / Gobunsho) now began to discriminate against its own burakumin members as it jostled for political and social status.
In 1922, when the National Levelers' Association (Zenkoku-suiheisha) was founded in Kyoto, Mankichi Saiko, a founder of the movement and Jodo Shinshu priest, said:
We shouldn't disgrace our ancestors and violate humanity by our harsh words and terrible actions. We, who know how cold the human world is, and how to take care of humanity, can seek and rejoice from the bottom of our hearts in the warmth and light of human life.—
Finally in 1969 the Honganji began to recognise its mistreatment of burakumin and appears to be beginning to address the problem..
The fact of religious discrimination against the burakumin was commonly denied until the late twentieth century. For example, in 1979 the Director-General of the Soto Sect of Buddhism made a speech at the "3rd World Conference on Religion and Peace" claiming that there was no longer any discrimination against burakumin in Japan..
In High and Low (Japanese title 天国と地獄 Tengoku to jigoku, literally "Heaven and Hell") , a movie adapted in 1963 from Ed McBain's King's Ransom, Akira Kurosawa made a political statement by having the main character work as a shoe industry executive who rose from humble origins as a simple leather worker, clearly implying (to Japanese audiences) his burakumin status. The story has him selflessly sacrifice his fortune in order to save his driver's son, perhaps to show that burakumin are as heroic as anyone else.
The plight of the burakumin has also been presented in Hashi no nai kawa  (橋のない川 "The River With No Bridge") a novel by Sue Sumii (住井 すゑ), which received several film adaptations, in 1969, 1970 and 1992. The title refers to the fact that areas in which burakumin lived were often separated by a river, but bridges to cross were rarely constructed.
Author Lian Hearn depicts a fictional feudal country highly similar to that of Japan's own history in the three-book series Tales of the Otori (2003-2004). The series depicts a caste system wherein "untouchables" live outside of mainstream society. The protagonist develops a friendship with one such outcast, a tanner who lives and works with other tanners in riverside settlements.
In the House episode "Son of Coma Guy", the title character (House) is asked to explain why he decided to become a physician. He recalls a burakumin doctor whom he mistook for a janitor, until he watched the Japanese medical staff consult him when no one else knew how to help a patient, because he was right. It is implied that House believes his antisocial behaviour likewise makes him an "untouchable" who must nevertheless be respected for his skills, not his status or public regard.
In Laura Joh Rowland's 'Sano Ichiro' series, burakumin (naturally still referred to by the Feudal name 'eta') appear regularly. Sometimes they are criminals, and other times merely unseen witnesses. In The Concubine's Tattoo, Sano speaks with the chief of a small burakumin community named Danzaemon and notes that the man has a regal bearing about him despite his status. He even thinks to himself, "But for the misfortune of his birth, what a fine daimyo he might have made! It was a blasphemous thought, but Sano could more easily imagine Danzaemon commanding an army than Tokugawa Tsunayoshi."
In the book Rising Sun, Michael Crichton depicts a character (Theresa Asakuma) who is a burakumin descendant. Along the storyline, bits and pieces of history of this people are described to the reader.
In Cloud of Sparrows, by the Japanese-American writer, Takashi Matsuoka, and later in its sequel The Autumn Bridge, burakumin are often mentioned by the old name 'eta'. They are described as filthy beggars, more animal than human, and their life has no apparent value to the samurai, a fact that baffles the Christian missionaries visiting Japan in the novels.