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Friday, January 04, 2013

The myth of homogeneity in Japan and the invisibility of the‘部落民[1]burakumin’.


Figure 1: From the Japan Times, by Chris Mackenzie,  Jan 20th, 2009 (Priestly, 2009).
Since the time of the Meiji emperor and modernisation in the late nineteenth century, Japan has experienced rapid change.  Socially, the move from feudal to industrial society, including great change for the samurai class, resulted in changes for the peasants of Japan too.  Some considered that Japan became a classless society by the twentieth century with an homogenous and thoroughly ‘Japanese’ middle class (Mouer and Sugimoto, 1986). 

Certainly, for an outsider, the social breakdown of Japan can be perceived to be largely middle class and people from one place to another not dissimilar.  However, by considering the group of people known as 部落 buraku post-war, and later the more non-descript 同和地区 dowa chiku, it is possible to demonstrate that such homogeneity is not actually the situation for all Japanese people.  Scratch a little further under the surface and you can see that the Japanese are actually as varied and diverse in background as just about any national group in the twenty first century.  

It is no surprise that even the reforms of the Meiji late nineteenth century era did not result in equal human rights for all citizens of Japan.  The indigenous Ainu, and the minorities of Chinese, Korean or Brazilian background peoples are other socially discriminated groups in Japanese recent history. In this essay, though, I will illustrate the diversity of Japanese society by reference to the (originally low caste) group known as the burakumin.  This essay will consider the origins of the buraku, a range of views about this group, including an experienced ‘invisibility’, the variety of names used, current levels of discrimination, and finally a potential resolution to the problems experienced.

The origin of the buraku:  Eta’, the ‘unclean’ 
So where did this social grouping, later known as dowa mondai or burakumin, emerge from?  Who are this group and how many live in Japan?  This issue emerged from a very particular understanding of purity and impurity from times past.  (汚れ[2]) Kegare is a reference to impurity, which is caused by coming in touch with ‘death’ or ‘impure’ arts, such as leather work and eating animals.  According to Jansen (2000), the hereditary eta were the largest historic subcaste group.  They were popularly associated with death and defilement.  Occupations included slaughtering, tanning and fashioning leather, executions and disposals of corpses.  Buddhism had a role in this understanding of purity, with this notion of kegare, as pollution, or impurity.  People who had been touched by kegare were to be avoided.  This attested to the ‘un-touchability’ of certain groups within Japanese society from historic times (Amos, 2011).  Prior to the Meiji Restoration, this people group were known as eta, literally, “filthy mass”.  As time went on, they were called other names.

The Meiji restoration instigated a formally structured pattern of separate identity, including the separation of farmers and samurai, and registration of the population at the Buddhist institutions (Jansen, 2000, 122).  On August 28th, 1871, the Council of State put out an ‘Emancipation Edict’, “The titles of Eta and 非人 Hinin shall be abolished; and henceforth the people belonging to these classes shall be treated in the same manner both in occupation and social standing as the common people (平民heimin)”  (Emily Reber, 1998; Ito, 2005).   However, at the time, there were up to 21 incidents of riots, and Ito has outlined a massacre of burakumin (though they would not have been known by this name at the time) in Okayama Prefecture in 1873, two years following the proclamation (2005)[i].  

Thereafter, despite the ‘Emancipation Edict’, discrimination continued in the realms of marriage, housing, social behaviour and occupation.  An invisibility, or avoidance and corresponding taboo within Japanese society, was projected on the buraku, whilst their settlements tended to cluster at the outskirts of villages and towns. 

Post world war II, the only use of the term eta, was for anonymous decrying or persecution of the buraku groups.  Officially, the term for areas where the buraku could be found was again to change to be often called abstractly, ‘同和地区dowa chiku’ (discriminated area), or sometimes still buraku or burakuminDowa mondai, meaning ‘discrimination problem’, dispelled the old names and could be said to devalue the problem to be invisible. Dowa chiku is an idea rooted in the idea of national integration, ‘unnaming’ those seen as socially different (Amos, 2011).  

In 1965, a Deliberative Council Report acknowledged considerable discrimination, including poverty, prejudice and neglect of civil, social and economic human rights (McLaughlan, 2003). Following this in the 1970s and 1980s, conditions in buraku areas improved as a result of ‘Special Measures Legislation’, which included extensive funding. 

Current views on the buraku
Post war, the dowa mondai label served to make this problem less visible in society, and gradually the buraku[ii] or burakumin terms have been used less and less within Japan, becoming taboo in a similar way to the more slanderous eta.  Therefore, when a May 17, 1996 official report from the government on the status of buraku mondai, called for a 部落開放基本労 buraku kaihou kihon rou, or Fundamental Law for Buraku Liberation, the Japanese Communist Party and two thirds of the Liberal Democratic Party stated their opposition to this law.  Their considered reasons were the following:
‘1. There is no more discrimination
2. If a law concerning buraku discrimination is passed, discrimination will always remain.’  Others said at the time: ‘This type of law which specially entitles burakumin to reap certain government benefits antagonizes the citizens in general’ (Reber, 1998).
This contradictory statement is testament to the reasons for the continuing invisibility of this problem in Japanese society.

Changing titles: same discrimination
Should you mention the name burakumin today in Japan, it is quite possible that the person you meet will have little to tell you about them.  It may be that it is perceived as an embarrassing or even offensive topic (Emily Reber, 1998), in the mode of the responses to the suggested liberative law above.  Because buraku are physically indistinguishable from other Japanese citizens, and many people consider that the majority of discrimination has been removed, it is not uncommon to believe this problem would disappear completely if only people would stop talking about it.

寝た子はそのまま。Neta ko wa sono mama ‘Don’t wake a sleeping baby’
The above proverb sums up this way of thinking.  To not wake a baby, as in the above familiar Japanese saying, is to ignore and do nothing about buraku mondai and in this way to avoid any problem (Reber, 1998).  Unfortunately, this has not reduced discrimination.  Instead, a high level of misunderstanding regarding the history and identity of buraku has resulted.

Similar to the Australian experience where expectations that immigrants should ‘assimilate’ into society are common, in Japan, buraku have been expected to ‘integrate’, or forgo their own identity and become a part of greater Japanese society.  The assumption is that the buraku experience is not ‘inferior’ or ‘not good enough’, especially if their ancestry is made known.  Actually, a place where people are unable to announce their ancestry without concern for negative reactions or issues as a result, is a place where discrimination is apparent (Reber, 1998).  Integration in this context is at the cost of individual and buraku identity.  It would seem that there is a need for a reclamation of the buraku name and identity.

21st Century buraku discrimination
Discrimination continues into the twenty first century.   Buraku discrimination includes human rights violations such as slanderous graffiti, marriage discrimination and employment discrimination (Burakukaiho 2004 and Teraki and Noguchi, 2001, cited in Takuya Ito, 2005).  In 2001, McLaughlan conducted research in a buraku in Osaka, interviewing 21 residents who had experienced prejudice and discrimination.  Nineteen out of the interviewees thought that the problems of prejudice would not be solved in the following one hundred years (2003). 

In May 2003, when Uramoto Yoshifumi, researcher and activist at the Buraku Liberation League (BLL), received numerous packages in the mail marked ‘pay on delivery’, followed by dozens of handwritten postcards in Japanese, some containing threats such as: ‘For an eta, Uramoto is pretty arrogant. I’ll kill him’ (Amos, 2011).   Eventually, the protagonist of these letters and packages was caught and tried. 

The 2008 Academy Award winning, Japanese film, “Okuribito” or “Departures” (Rojiro Takita) did not explicitly name burakumin, but it is the story of an out of work young man, who, in a country town, overcomes his fear of death and works in a job which would once have been only done by buraku people.  His work as an assistant in a funeral home is considered shameful to family and friends.
 Figure 2: 
Another fascinating example of the prevalence and/or sensitivity to this discrimination emerged recently upon Google Earth’s culturally unconsidered publishing of a map in relation to buraku neighbourhoods.  Google Earth caused a furore in Japan, by posting maps to its historical online section in 2008 (see Figure 2 for an example from Osaka), sourced from the University of California, and a collector, David Rumsey.  There was a considerable backlash to Google Earth, due to the subsequent revelations of burakumin areas in Osaka and Tokyo (Huffington Post, 2-5-2009).  By identifying some areas as burakumin using the offensive term eta, Google was potentially contributing to discrimination, because people who live in a particular area of Osaka could be identified by their address as burakumin. This would potentially lead to workplace and marital discrimination, and other social ostracism.  In the end Google removed the maps.  A neighbourhood near Asakusa, for example, was identified in these maps as an ‘Eta’ village. Figure 2: A David Rumsey map, overlaid over a Google Map of Osaka (Woodblock, 1806), accessed online, 24th July, 2012.

Different views about the ‘Dowa’ or ‘Buraku’ problem?
Solutions to this level of discrimination are controversial.  The two major liberation groups have been consistently in conflict with each other.  Whilst the BKD or 部落開放同盟 buraku kohei domei, have had aggressive strategies of publicity and confrontation, the Zenkairen (All Japan Federation of Buraku Liberation) has since the 1970s preferred to avoid conflict and take a softer approach.  Whilst the BKD has frequently said that the Zenkairen does not believe in a problem, this is not actually the case.  Reber talks of the need for the two groups to be more conciliatory and to work together for the cause of the buraku.  In effect, in some cases, the government has only recognised buraku under the BKD banner and therefore other buraku people have missed out on equal participation in new initiatives.  Perhaps there is a middle road and the two groups can learn from each other.

Some would prefer the problem to disappear, but the owning of a heritage, history and identity is a braver path to the future.  How then, is it possible to reclaim the heritage of the visible buraku?

Reclaiming a buraku heritage  Figure 3
It is the taiko drums of Japan (Figure 1 and 3) that suggest this path to the future.  Recently, Japan’s taiko drums have come to symbolise more than a rallying call to the Japanese to be patriotic.  They have come, in themselves, in some parts of Japan, to represent this (sometimes) proud minority, the burakumin.  This is, of course, because the making of the taiko drums is a leather work, which is a work undertaken by the burakumin peoples.  Japan’s famous taiko drums, made with leather, were originally, of course, made by the lower caste group, the burakumin, or eta, those who had to deal with animal skins and dead animal parts.    Today, the Naniwa buraku community in Osaka celebrates its history by an avenue lined with showcases of leather production and taiko drums, as well as seats shaped like taiko.  The road leads to the Osaka Human Rights Museum, where the human rights struggle, which the buraku community has participated in, is celebrated (Ian Priestly, 2009).  Also, positively, the physical environment of many buraku areas, including apartments and schools have been improved considerably, benefitting from special funds from the government. 

The buraku liberation league has supported attempts to reclaim the name, buraku, although its cause was not helped early this century when one of its main leaders was linked to ヤクザ yakuza gangster[3] corruption (Johnston, 2006).  Still, the buraku name is certainly more visible in Osaka.

The Future
Whilst the Meiji restoration made moves to deal with the discrimination problem, outlawing in name a general class of people, other names emerged and the discrimination problem evolved and changed over time.  Strongly held views on kegare, or impurity have remained strong in the 21st century and taboos about the buraku people have continued to reverberate into discrimination.  The goal of the Buraku Liberation League in particular, has been to restore a sense of pride amongst the burakumin, that their history is actually of importance and that staying silent (and shameful) about it is not the only response.  It is to be hoped that the buraku people and groups can develop a sense of unity in this reclamation of visibility in Japanese society, transcending history.  A sense of pride for the buraku people is shown by the avenue of taiko drum, a belief in human rights and a shared consciousness with other oppressed minorities around the world.  Rather than simply disappearing, perhaps the buraku will come to represent Japan’s new future.


      Amos, Timothy D., (2011), Embodying difference: The making of Burakumin in Modern Japan, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.

      De Vos, George, William O Wetherall and Kaye Stearman, (1983), Japan’s Minorities: Burakumin, Koreans, Ainu and Okinawans, 3rd Edition, London, Minorities Rights Group.

      Goto, Masaru, Portraits of Japan’s Outcaste People,, accessed, 31st July, 2012, includes downloadable pdf file.

      Huffington Post, (2nd May, 2009), ‘Old Japanese maps on google’, accessed online 24th July, 2012.
      Ito, Takuya, (October 31st, 2005), ‘Cooperativeness and Buraku Discrimination.’     Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, Discussion Paper 5,

      Jansen, Marius, (2000), The Making of Modern Japan, London, Harvard University Press.

      Johnston, Eric, (2006), ‘Activist’s arrest lays bare yakuza’s ties with burakumin’, Japan Times online,, accessed 17th August, 2012.

      McLaughlan, Alastair, (January 31, 2003) ‘Solving Anti-Burakujumin Prejudice in the 21st Century: suggestions from 21 Buraku Residents’, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese studies, Discussion Paper 1,

Mouer, Ross, and Yoshio Sugimoto, (1986) Images of Japanese Society: A Study on the Structure of Social Reality. London and New York, Kegan Paul International.

      Priestley, Ian (January 20, 2009), ‘Breaking the silence on burakumin’, Japan Times Online, accessed 13th July, 2012.

      Reber, Emily A.S., (1998), ‘Buraku mondai in Japan: Historical and Modern Perspectives and Directions for the Future: From the perspective of an American Researcher’, Dowa Mondai Kenkyuu: 20 (45-62), Osaka, Osaka City University.

      Rumsey, David, ‘Japanese Historical Maps’, (2002), accessed 31st July, 2012, University of California.



[1] On first introduction of a Japanese word, for the purposes of this essay, I have included Japanese Kanji, as this is a useful reference point for those who have Japanese/and to some extent Chinese proficiency. Because many of these words are taboo as I have mentioned, it is not possible to input the phonetic reading into a Japanese keyboard and automatically produce the Kanji, rather you need to input the kanji one at a time.
[2] There are two possible kanji for the same reading.
[3] However, many slanderous links have been made to yakuza over the years, and a quick scan of internet sources pulls these up, which are very often unverified.  Eg., accessed, 18th August, 2012.

[i] They made the captured Burakumin prostrate themselves and write letters of apology. They persistently chased the Burakumin who tried to escape to a nearby mountain. When they found the Burakumin on the mountain, they killed them with bamboo spears and pushed a woman, who was carrying a baby on her back, off the mountain. Eighteen people were killed, and thirteen people were injured, 263 houses were burnt down, and 51 houses were destroyed in the riot. From a social psychological perspective, such a crowd is called an 'aggressive mob' (Abe 1977: 128-151). When the farmers started rioting, they sent letters to other farmers who did not participate in the riot. This was a forceful demand for 'cooperativeness'. Under these circumstances, can the discriminators still assert that is the Burakumin who are 'dreadful', that 'the Burakumin attack in a group', or that 'the Burakumin are unpredictable people'? In fact, the dreadful people are not the Burakumin themselves but the people who project their shadow onto the Burakumin. (Ito, 2005)
[ii] Buraku was an administrative term for a ‘neighbourhood’,  which came to be a reference to areas of low-caste groups post-war.

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