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

A rally some months ago at Tokyo's Meiji Park of representatives of Japan's three million |non-people', known as the burakumin brought to the international press the plight of a little known oriental repressed group. Still today, although they have full legal equality under the Japanese constitution, the burakumin are hedged in with barriers against any |occupational advancement' and social participation'.

For centuries the burakumin ("village people'), inhabitants of the Tokushu Buraku (special communities), have been discriminated against in Japan. Today there are still those who refer to them as the eta (full of filth), and consider them, as Professor George A. De Vos of the University of California said (in 1971), |as ritually polluting as any of the lowly outcast groups of India'. Their treatment defied the Emancipation Edict of 1871 (which removed all social disabilities of birth) and still contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the UN on 10th December 1948 (Articles 1-2); Japan became a member of the UN in 1956.

In feudal Japan a class system was evolved in which there were four rank tiers below the Tenno Heika (emperor) and the daimyo (feudal lords); they were the samurai (warrior-administrators), the nofu (farmers), the jukurenko (skilled artisans) and the shonin (merchants). Beneath them were the hinin (non-people, a sub-class of whores, beggars, actors and various itinerants), the kakibe (peasants in |degrading occupations' like aviculture) and kujome (street cleaners and so on) all generally defined as senmin (lowly folk). Below these groups were the burakumin.

Some historians note that a portion of the burakumin of ancient times were likely to have been tribesmen defeated in war and who were forced into menial tasks often as slaves. It is interesting to note that during World War 11 the Allied prisoners of war were thought of as hinin by prison camp commanders who meted out cruel slave conditions to the |sub-humans' in their care. The leveling of the classes following the Meiji Revolution (1868) officially made the burakumin into Shinheimin (|New Citizens'); no implementation of that status has ever been effected.

So, today's burakumin, 2.5 per cent of Japan's population, are descendants of the leather workers, animal slaughterers, executioners and grave diggers, who were stigmatized by their trade. All debarred from normal social intercourse because of Buddhist strictures which said all who killed (and ate meat) were impure. Even those associated with blood and death (i.e. midwives, surgeons) were subjected to some form of segregation.

This segregation led to specific areas of the feudal castle-towns being developed for outcasts throughout Japan. Yet, contemporary maps of the country did not show these areas. The special settlements were referred to as Hashi-no-muko-no-hito (|People beyond the Bridge'). And the inhabitants therein were forsworn the usual costume of the towns people. Burakumin had to wear a special leather patch on their clothes to denote their lowly status.

Marriage with |members of the ordinary population' was forbidden, and anyone touching a burakumin had to be ritually cleansed by a Buddhist priest. The burakumin had their own temples for worship. Burakumin had no given names and surnames; instead they were given a number (in a system used to count animals). They were prohibited from smoking, eating or drinking anywhere near the person or house of a non- burakumin.

These days inhabitants of rural burakumin communities work alongside their fellows, but with formality and politeness, although in cities -- if the ordinary Japanese recognize their existence at all -- the burakumin would be looked upon as uneducated degenerates of a violent capacity. Occupational discrimination is still widespread in Japan and wages for burakumin would be 8-10 per cent lower than for non- burakumin.

It is said that a large proportion of Japan's major industrial companies have files detailing every burakumin within the ghettos of their area. Thus, when local recruitment drives are conducted the burakumin can then be identified amongst applicants and not offered interviews or jobs. Often a Japanese will signal one to another (holding up four fingers in imitation of a four-legged beast) if the presence of a burakumin is suspected.

The portrait of an average burakumin might be something like this. He would be likely to be unemployed, or working in a low paid job, maybe on a piece-rate controlled by the yakusa (Japanese mafia). He would be likely to be illiterate in a society which claims a 98 per cent literacy rate. He will live in an overcrowded slum environment on a poverty level far below average subsistency. Yet, physically the burakumin are indistinguishable from other Japanese. This is why parents -- usually through a nakodo (marriage go-between) -- will employ a private detective to examine the family tree of an intended in-law.

The burakumin should not be confused, of course, with another of Japan's society scapegoats, the sanka, or gypsy people. The sanka have no written language, and speak a tongue quite different from Japanese. This sturdy Mongoloid-type people are itinerant mountain folk.

Today Kiryu and Kobe are main areas for the burakumin ghettos. Kiryu City, lies some forty miles north of Tokyo and contains some ninety burakumin slum units. Kobe has around sixty burakumin ghettos. There has also been a remarkable concentration of burakumin along the south coast of Kochi Prefecture, where they work in agriculture and fishery industries. Burakumin who live outside the ghettos still take steps to disguise their home addresses from fellow workers, pupils or acquaintances. They would |take the long way home' or |double back' to avoid pursuit, and more elaborate precautions are made the higher up the social ladder a burakumin has climbed. This becomes more difficult as the local police keep a register of local inhabitants and check on households twice a year. Any burakumin who has social pretensions would still have to give up such occupations (however successful) as shoe-making or meat processing.

Political movements have arisen in Japan from time to time to encourage burakumin to face their outcast origins and break out of their segregation. Historically the first organized resistance began in 1872; this was local and disorganized. By 1903 the Dai Nippon Doho Yuwa Kai (Greater Japan Fraternal Conciliation Society) had evolved to uplift |the outcasts through self-improvement in morals, manners and sanitation'. In 1922 the militant movement Suihei-Sha Undo (Levellers Association) was established to secure the abolition of discrimination. Their public symbol was social martyrdom and a credo of Buddhist precepts and Christian Socialism.

Amongst the denizens of the early jiyuminken (freedom and popular rights) groups there were few politicians who espoused the case of the outcasts. One exception was Tsuyoshi Inukai, leader of the Kokuminto party who cultivated their electoral support, much to the surprise of his fellow politicians. During the late 1920s when Marxism began to develop in Japan, the burakumin resistance movement developed into a triad of ideologies. There were the |anarchist' groups, the |communist' and the |revisionist' cadres each jockeying for hegemony. By the 1930s members of these groups were allying themselves with (radical) trade unions, workers associations and fanatical leftists. The red flag now flew with the burakumin accepted symbol of the |crown and thorns'. The rise of the militarists in Japan during this period, too, drove these groups underground. Suihei-Sha also went clandestine but by 1940 they were vowing loyalty to Emperor Hirohito and the war machine.

Following the war the outcasts came together to form the Kahio Domei (Buraku Liberation League: BLL). The organization still bears the mark of its original Marxist orientation and remains the main thrusting group for the outcast's militant activity. The right is represented by the Dowakai (Integrationalist League). The latter does have |upper status outcast' members in the various rightist political parties in modern Japan.

In the election for the reorganized Japanese Diet (parliament) of 1947 several burakumin were elected to the House of Representatives and the House of Councilors. The most prominent was Jiichiro Matsumoto, the first burakumin to ever have an audience with the emperor in the imperial palace. In due time the post-war US Occupation land tenure reforms were to work in the favor of the burakumin who now owned farmland they had worked for decades. Nevertheless, the outcasts retain an anti-American stance. Both the BLL and the Integrationalist League still press for slum clearance and the upgrading of the status of outcasts. Local pressure groups have made notable inroads since the 1960s. Burakumin, however, remain skeptical about the political will in Japan for much to be done to improve their lot. And apart from uttering sympathy when pressed the Buddhist authorities and other religious leaders show a marked reluctance to be involved in the amelioration of outcast conditions.

With the burakumin the Japanese have evolved their own variety of racism, not based on physical/color differences but on caste impurity. Both Professor George De Vos and Hiroshi Wagatsuma in Japan's Invisible Race (1967), showed Japan's racism to be sexually based. They defined Japanese racism as |a deep-seated, psychologically primitive, vaguely conceptualized fear or contamination and loss of purity as a result of possible inbreeding'. Racism is still practiced, too, against the Koreans, whose country was annexed by Japan in 1910.

The Japanese remain blinkered about the existence and the plight of the outcasts. And, curiously, there are still many Japanese jisho (dictionaries) which do not list the term burakumin. It is also a word proscribed (largely by gentleman's agreement) in the media, and is one which is never used in government publications or by civil servants and politicians. Indeed some Japanese would deny that burakumin exist. Yet in the history of world racism, there are those who aver that the plight of the burakumin is far worse than anything existing in any other country.

The recent change of government in Japan -- after a 38 year rule by the Liberal Democratic Party -- has produced a broad alliance of opposition parties which will rule Japan parliamentary in coalition. Because of the coalition's somewhat vulnerable majority it is unlikely that the switching of political power will alter the position of the burakumin. There is still no political will to reform their plight and Prime Minister Morihito Hozokawa is still cagey about cabinet plans. He said recently that he |does not want to offend members' and any change in the status of burakumin would be |offensive' to many Japanese and a political hot potato.

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