Definition of Burakumin

The Burakumin (another term is eta)are the outcast society of Japan, shunned even to this day. The term means literally "hamlet people", referring to the fact that they traditionally lived on the edges of towns, rather than in the towns themselves.

This group of people is similar to the untouchable class in India. These are people who are looked upon with contempt. For example, if a person plans to marry someone and finds out that one of their ancestors was a Burakumin, then the marriage will be canceled. The term eta is written with two ideograms which mean "much impurity" or "much dirt." Another term used to describe this group is hisabetsu buraku, or "discriminated communities."

One term of contempt for these people is kokonotsu, (nine), not ten, which makes them imperfect, something less than human. Non-burakumin Japanese see the burakumin as inherently morally defective.

The eta are concentrated in a few areas of Japan, namely in parts of Kyushu, the coasts of the Inland Sea, Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto.

There are around 2,000,000 outcasts in 5,000 settlements. Dimensions of Japanese Society: Gender, Margins and Mainstream, 1999.

Origins of discrimination against burakumin.

Discrimination against these people came about because of Buddhist prohibitions against killing and Shinto concepts of pollution, along with governmental efforts at controlling the population. The people were originally discriminated against because they were butchers, leather workers, grave-diggers, tanners, executioners and, at least in some cases, entertainers.

From the book Japan: A Modern History, 2002:

"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."

The "impurity" of these people was considered to be spreadable to other people (much as a disease is spread). The people were classified as eta ("pollution in abundance"), binin ("nonhuman"), or Eta ("leather workers").

In addition, the "condition" was considered to be hereditary. The eta were not even allowed to leave the communities of their birth.

The binin included beggars, street performers, people were were "economically marginal" and people who had committed crimes and had forfeited their commoner status as a result.

The Ainu, the original inhabitants of Japan, sometimes fall under the burakumin umbrella along with prisoners of war, clandestine immigrants, Koreans, Filipinos and others like them.

The Ainu are ethnically, physically and culturally different than the Japanese majority. They are the native inhabitants of Japan; the people who are referred to as "Japanese" are actually the "Yamato Japanese". Some people accept the Ainu as being "primitive Japanese". Their genetic stock includes southeast Asian, Siberian and northeast Asian peoples. There are around 25,000 Ainu left, but not many of them are pure-blooded.

(They are also not Caucasians as some people have been led to believe. They are descended from the Jomon people who arrived before the Yayoi immigrants who became the Yamato Japanese, the Jomon forebearers coming to Japan about 15,000 years ago, the Yayoi immigrants entering around 300 BCE.)

The Meiji regime required the Ainu to worship at Shinto shrines, take Japanese names, have their children learn the Japanese language at school and to adopt Japanese clothing and hairstyles.

In the 1930 the Ainu Society was formed to lobby for the Ainu.

The burakumin is estimated to number about 2% of the Japanese population or roughly 2 million people (actual figures run from 1 million to 3 million).

During the Tokugawa era various restrictions developed in relation to the burakumin. "They had to wear certain types of clothing and display identification marks. Marriage with ordinary people' was prohibited. They were also banned from using the same shrines or temples as ordinary people and had to have their own." Dimensions of Japanese Society: Gender, Margins and Mainstream, 1999 They could not live outside their designated areas, could not eat, sit or smoke in the company of commoners, could not serve as servants of commoners, could not wear wooden shoes and could not enter a commoner's home. Law and Social Change in Postwar Japan, 1987

Laws and Associations

In 1871 a law was passed (The Emancipation Edict of 1871) which was supposed to emancipate this group of people but it was a law without any teeth and could not make any progress against centuries of prejudice.

In actuality, it helped identify burakumin even easier as they were officially classified as "new commoners" in family registries kept at the towns, etc, people were born in. Thus, someone could consult the official records and easily see who was and who was not burakumin.

A movement called the Leveller's Association of Japan in 1922 tried to bring the problem of how the eta were treated to the attention of the nation. The problem was that the militarists, who were gaining more and more power in the nation, were suspicious of this action and thought that the people involved were linked to Communism, so nothing got done at that time.

After the end of World War II the National Committee for Burakumin Liberation was founded but changed its name to the Burakumin Liberation League in 1955.. The league was joined by socialist and communist parties and pressured the Japanese government into making concessions in the late 1960's which included a Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects which provided financial aid to burakumin communities. Family registers from the 19th century were closed except for special legal cases, supposedly making it harder to investigate a person's background when being considered as a possible marriage prospect.

As the U.S. has found out with its attempt to end racial prejudice, just eliminating restrictive laws and regulations does not bring social acceptability or social justice to a group of oppressed people. Some Burakumin have tried to move out of their ghettos or isolated areas and "blend" into society in general, but education, employment and marriage inquiries into a person's background always present the threat that their Burakumin status will be revealed.

Such a situation, of course, tends to be self-fulfilling as the burakumin are unable to get good education and good jobs and thus are effectively kept in their lower-class status. About 5% of the burakumin are on welfare, which is seven times the national average.

One of the methods used to counter prejudice is "thorough denunciation", "...which entails forceful extraction of an apology from those who have been seen as guilty of discrimination. The method has been widely criticized in recent times for its excesses, which sometimes tray into physical or other forms of intimidation of key figures such as politicians, writers, and publishers." Dimensions of Japanese Society: Gender, Margins and Mainstream, 1999" The process is also sometimes referred to as "denunciation struggle."

The Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects was passed in 1969, supposedly to help with the burakumin, but as with many Japanese laws it was really just words on paper and with no actual mandates behind it.

Some Improvement

Still, there has been some improvement. According to the book Japan in the 21st Century: Environment, Economy, and Society (2005):

"Yet Japan is also remarkable for the progress it has made. Today almost two-thirds of the burakumin say in opinion polls that they have never encountered discrimination. About 75 percent of them now marry nonburakumin. The E-word - eta, or much filth', the traditional word for burakumin-has been banished from discourse, so that virtually no Japanese ever use it.

Still, discrimination does continue to exist with the burakumin being used as symbolic scapegoats in Japanese society.

March 5, 2007; 'Buraku' vow to end misconduct

The Buraku Liberation League agreed at a two-day national assembly in Tokyo ending Sunday that the group, which tackles discrimination against descendants of the feudal outcast class, should promote organizational reforms following a series of scandals.

The organization will establish an advisory committee Monday bringing in outside academics to debate how the group should be run after former senior members in Osaka and Nara were accused of misconduct, including embezzlement.

Modified from Japan Times Online.

Other information on burakumin

The Comparative Method in Sociology Journal article by Stephen Thomas; Sociology, Vol. 36, 2002

Japan Moves Slowly to Combat Discrimination: Ethnic Koreans Face Routine Bias Newspaper article by Takehiko Nomura; The Washington Times, October 25, 1996

The 'Problem' of Foreign Workers in Contemporary Japan Journal article by John Lie; Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Vol. 26, 1994

The Creation of "Strangers" and Punishment in Japan Journal article by Lill Scherdin; Social Justice, Vol. 21, 1994

Multiethnic Japan and the Monoethnic Myth Journal article by Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu; MELUS, Vol. 18, 1993

Teaching and Learning in Japanese Elementary Schools: a Context for Understanding Journal article by Nancy Sato; PJE. Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 68, 1993

The burakumin: Japan's underclass Contemporary Review, Sept, 1993

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