Burakumin of Japan

Alternative name: eta (derogatory historical term)
Location: Kinki, 40%; other areas around Inland Sea
Population: 2-3 million
% of population: 1.6%-2.5%
Religion: various
Language: Japanese

The Burakumin are the largest minority group in Japan today but to a large extent they are physically the least visible. They are ethnically, culturally and linguistically similar to the majority Japanese population but they have been distinguished from them by their origins in the lowest castes of traditional Japanese society. Although Japan has since that time been transformed from a hierarchical, feudal society into one of the world’s richest and most powerful industrial nations, many former prejudices against the Burakumin have persisted and they remain a discriminated minority group.

The Burakumin are descended from the two lowest castes of Japanese feudal society: the “hinin” and the “eta”. The “hinin” formed a heterogenous group of people who had left the four-tiered class system of “acceptable” castes, namely samurai or warrior administrators, farmers, artisans and merchants. The hinin might have been beggars, prostitutes, itinerant entertainers, mediums and diviners, religious wanderers or fugitives from justice. Others had been officially reduced to hinin status as a punishment for certain offences against the penal code. The eta performed tasks which were considered ritually polluting, such as animal slaughter and disposal of the dead. From 1600 AD, outcaste status became firmly established and eta were required to wear special clothing which made them instantly recognizable. Anyone who performed tasks connected with death was traditionally considered to be intrinsically subhuman and in Western Japan, where 80% of Burakumin live, historical myths about the inferiority and “unjapaneseness” of eta are still current and, although there is no appreciable physical difference between the majority Japanese population and Burakumin, the latter were generally felt to be racially inferior. Both hinin and eta, but particularly the latter, were forbidden to intermarry with members of the “acceptable” castes.

In 1871, the new Meiji government passed the Emancipation Edict which officially abolished discrimination against hinin and eta. In 1903, the Greater Japan Fraternal Conciliation Society was formed with the aim of raising the status and conditions of the Burakumin. Other more militant organizations such as the Suiheisha (Levellers’ Association) were formed after World War I, and after 1930 the movement took a clear leftist turn and established links with other workers’ movements and with the Communist Party. As Japan moved towards World War II under militarist leadership, these trends were curbed and the movement was forced underground; however, members of the leftist movements regrouped after the war to form the Buraku Kaiho Domei (Buraku Liberation League). In the immediate postwar period, ten Burakumin were elected to either the House of Councillors or the House of Representatives, including one Buraku leader, Matsumoto Jiichiro, who was then further elected to the position of Vice-President of the House of Councillors, although he was later removed by the American military authorities at the instigation of Japanese conservatives.

The Kaiho Domei has pressed strongly for slum clearance, nurseries, clinics and welfare legislation amongst other things. It has proved more effective in its campaigns than any other agency, including the federal government. Another organization, the Dowakai (Integration Association), is a fairly moderate and conservative organization whose members tend to be upper-status Burakumin who seek self-improvement by appealing to the sympathies of the Liberal Democratic Party. Another group, allied to the Communist Party, is the Zenkoku Buraku Kaiho Undo Rengokai (National Buraku Liberation Movement Federation). Although government attempts at tackling the problems of the Burakumin have proved largely ineffective, actions taken by local government have produced noticeable results in the field of urban redevelopment and education. The delinquency rate in Burakumin ghettos is often higher than other areas, truancy is higher and employment levels are markedly lower. Since there are no physical features to distinguish them from majority Japanese, some Burakumin who have entered major colleges and universities have tried to conceal their low status.

During the 1970s and 1980s, there was further progress in the move towards equality with the majority Japanese. Over 270 billion yen is spent annually on jobs, housing, education and health programmes in Dowa programmes; when viewed against the changes occurring nationwide, however, these improvements are on a small scale, and funding of such projects is decreasing. However, the programmes — under another name — have been continued and externally there is little to distinguish a Buraku neighbourhood from a similar non-Buraku area. The Burakumin remain disadvantaged in most areas and many are unemployed — for example in 1980 in some districts unemployment was 30-50% as compared with the national average of 2.2%. Most large large firms require prospective employees to provide evidence of good, i.e non-Burakumin, birth before engaging them, as do many banks, schools and universities, and lists of Buraku addresses have circulated in large companies.

The Kaiho Domei continues to campaign on behalf of the Burakumin and has branches throughout Japan. But despite its successes, progress remains slow in the face of age-old prejudices. The Buraku have been active in fighting for human rights for other minority groups in Japan and internationally, and the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) was formed in 1988 to express some of these concerns. They have actively lobbied for Japan to accede to the Convention on the Elimination of All Racial Discrimination.