The Burakumin: Japan's Underclass

By Lamont-Brown, Raymond | Contemporary Review, September 1993 | Go to article overview

The Burakumin: Japan's Underclass


Lamont-Brown, Raymond, Contemporary Review


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 levelling 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 stigmatised 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 foresworn 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 recognise 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. …

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