Burakumin (部落民?, "hamlet people"/"village people", "those who live in hamlets/villages") is an outcast group at the bottom of the Japanese social order that has historically been the victim of severe discrimination and ostracism. They were originally members of outcast communities in the Japanese feudal era, composed of those with occupations considered impure or tainted by death (such as executioners, undertakers, workers in slaughterhouses, butchers or tanners), which have severe social stigmas of kegare (穢れ or "defilement") attached to them. Traditionally, the Burakumin lived in their own hamlets or ghettos.


The term 部落 buraku literally refers to a small, generally rural, commune or a hamlet. People from regions of Japan where "discriminated communities" no longer exist (e.g. anywhere north of Tokyo) may refer to any hamlet as a buraku, indicating the word's use is not necessarily pejorative. Historically the term was used for an outcast community that was heavily discriminated against officially and formally.

Romaji Kanji Meaning Annotation
Hisabetsu-buraku 被差別部落 discriminated community/hamlet is a commonly used, politically correct term, with people from them called hisabetsu-burakumin (被差別部落民 "discriminated community (hamlet) people") or

hisabetsu buraku shusshin-sha (被差別部落出身者 "person from a discriminated community / hamlet").

Burakumin 部落民 hamlet people is either hamlet people per se or an abbreviation of people from discriminated community/hamlet. Very old people tend to use the word in the former meaning. Its use is sometimes frowned upon, though it is by far the most commonly used term in English.
Mikaihō-buraku 未解放部落 unliberated communities is a term sometimes used by human rights pressure groups and has a degree of political meaning to it.
Tokushu buraku 特殊部落 special hamlets was used in the early 20th Century but is now considered inappropriate.

A widely used term for buraku settlements is dōwa chiku (同和地区 "assimilation districts"), an official term for districts designated for government and local authority assimilation projects.

The social issue surrounding "discriminated communities" is usually referred to as dōwa mondai (同和問題 "assimilation issues") or less commonly, buraku mondai (部落問題"hamlet issues").

In the feudal era, the outcaste were called eta (穢多, literally, "an abundance of defilement" or "an abundance of filth"), a term now considered derogatory. Eta towns were called etamura (穢多村).

Some burakumin refer to their own communities as "mura" ( "villages") and themselves as "mura-no-mono" (村の者 "village people").

Other outcaste groups from whom Buraku may have been descended included the hinin (非人—literally "non-human"). The definition of hinin, as well as their social status and typical occupations varied over time, but typically included ex-convicts and vagrants who worked as town guards, street cleaners or entertainers.

In the 19th century the umbrella term burakumin was coined to name the eta and hinin because both classes were forced to live in separate village neighborhoods.[1]

The term burakumin does not refer to any ethnic minorities in Japan.

Historical origins

There are many theories as to how and in which era the outcaste communities came into existence. For example, it is disputed whether society started ostracizing those who worked in tainted occupations or whether those who originally dropped out of society were forced to work in tainted occupations.

According to the latter view, displaced populations during the internal wars of the Muromachi era may have been relocated and forced into low-status occupations, for example, as public sanitation workers.

The social status and typical occupations of outcaste communities have varied considerably according to region and over time. A burakumin neighborhood within metropolitan Tokyo was the last to be served by streetcar and is the site of butcher and leather shops to this day.

At the start of the Edo period (1603–1867), the social class system (more properly, a caste system, since it was based upon birth and not upon economics) was officially established as a means of designating hierarchy, and eta were placed at the lowest level, outside of the four main divisions of society. Like the rest of the population, they were bound by sumptuary laws based on the inheritance of their social class. The eta lived in segregated settlements, and were generally avoided by the rest of Japanese society. 'Eta' were never allowed to change caste, unlike the other castes who, depending on special circumstances, could move into a different class.

When dealing with members of other castes, they were expected to display signs of subservience, such as the removal of headwear. Physical contact was considered absolutely taboo and required ritual purification for the non-eta person. In an 1859 court case described by author Shimazaki Toson, a magistrate declared that "An eta is worth 1/7 of an ordinary person." They could be killed with impunity by members of the samurai caste.

Historically, eta were not liable for taxation in feudal times, including the Tokugawa period, because the taxation system was based on rice yields, which they were not permitted to possess. Some outcasts were also called kawaramono (河原者, "dried-up riverbed people") because they lived along river banks that could not be turned into rice fields.

Since the taboo status of the work they performed afforded them an effective monopoly in their trades, some succeeded economically and even occasionally obtained samurai status through marrying or the outright purchase of troubled houses, although their status as former 'eta' would have to be kept secret. Some historians point out that such exclusive rights originated in ancient times, granted by shrines, temples, kuge, or the imperial court, which held authority before the Shogunate system was established.

End of the feudal era

The most famous leader of the BLL, Jiichirō Matsumoto (1887–1966), who was born a burakumin in Fukuoka. He was a statesman and called "the father of buraku liberation".[2]

The feudal caste system in Japan formally ended in 1869 with the Meiji restoration. In 1871, the newly formed Meiji government issued a decree called Senmin Haishirei (賤民廃止令 Edict Abolishing Ignoble Classes) giving outcasts equal legal status. It is currently better known as the Kaihōrei (解放令 Emancipation Edict). However, the elimination of their economic monopolies over certain occupations actually led to a decline in their general living standards, while social discrimination simply continued. For example, the ban on consumption of meat from livestock was lifted in 1871 in order to "westernise" the country, and many former eta moved on to work in abattoirs and as butchers.

However, slow-changing social attitudes, especially in the countryside, meant that abattoirs and workers were met with hostility from local residents. Continued ostracism as well as the decline in living standards led to former eta communities turning into slum areas.

There were many terms used to indicate former outcastes, their communities or settlements at the time. Official documents at the time referred to them as kyu-eta (旧穢多 "former eta"), while the newly liberated outcasts called themselves shin-heimin (新平民 "new citizens"), among other things.

The term tokushu buraku (特殊部落 "special hamlets", now considered inappropriate) started being used by officials in 1900s, leading to the meaning of the word buraku ("hamlet") coming to imply former eta villages in certain parts of Japan.

Movements to resolve the problem in the early 20th century were divided into two camps: the "assimilation" (同和 dōwa) movement which encouraged improvements in living standards of buraku communities and integration with the mainstream Japanese society, and the "levellers" (水平社 suiheisha) movement which concentrated on confronting and criticising alleged perpetrators of discrimination.

Post-war situation

Although legally liberated in 1871, with the abolition of the feudal caste system, this did not put an end to social discrimination against them nor their lower living standards because Japanese family registration was fixed to ancestral home address until recently, which allowed people to deduce their Burakumin membership.

The long history of taboos and myths of the buraku left a legacy of social desolation and since the 1980s, more and more young buraku have started to organize and protest against alleged social misfortunes, encouraged by political activist groups. Movements with objectives ranging from liberation to encouraging integration have been tried over the years to put an end to this problem.


The number of Burakumin asserted to be living in modern Japan varies from source to source. A 1993 investigative report by the Japanese Government counted 4,533 dōwa chiku (同和地区 "assimilation districts" - Buraku communities officially designated for assimilation projects), mostly in western Japan, comprising 298,385 households with 892,751 residents.

The size of each community ranged from under five households to over 1,000 households, with 155 households being the average size. About three quarters of settlements are in rural areas. The distribution of discriminated communities varied greatly from region to region.

According to a survey conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 2003,[3] 76% of Tokyo residents would not change their view of a close neighbor whom they discovered to be a burakumin; 4.9% of respondents, on the other hand, would actively avoid a burakumin neighbor. There is still a stigma attached to being a resident of certain areas traditionally associated with the burakumin and some lingering discrimination in matters such as marriage and employment.

The Buraku Liberation League (BLL), on the other hand, extrapolates Meiji-era figures to arrive at an estimate of nearly three million burakumin.[4] A 1999 source indicates the presence of some two million burakumin, living in approximately 5,000 settlements.

In some areas, burakumin are in a majority; they account for over 70 percent of all residents of Yoshikawa in Kōchi Prefecture. In Ōtō in Fukuoka Prefecture, they account for over 60 percent.[5]

Japanese government statistics show the number of residents of assimilation districts who claim buraku ancestry, whereas BLL figures are estimates of the total number of descendants of all former and current buraku residents, including current residents with no buraku ancestry.

Discrimination in access to services

While in many parts of the country buraku settlements, built on the site of former eta villages, ceased to exist by the 1960s because of either urban development or integration into mainstream society, in other regions many of their residents continued to suffer from slum-like housing and infrastructure, lower economic status, illiteracy, and lower general educational standards.

In 1969, the government passed the Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects to provide funding to these communities. Communities deemed to be in need of funding were designated for various Assimilation Projects (同和対策事業 dōwa taisaku jigyō), such as construction of new housing and community facilities such as health centers, libraries and swimming pools. The projects were terminated in 2002 with a total funding of an estimated 12 trillion yen over 33 years, with the living standards issue effectively resolved.

Social discrimination

Cases of social discrimination against residents of buraku areas is still an issue in certain regions. Outside of the Kansai region, people in general are often not even aware of the issue, and if they are, usually only as part of feudal history. Due to the taboo nature of the topic it is rarely covered by the media, and people from eastern Japan, for example, are often shocked when they learn that it is a continuing issue.

The prejudice most often manifests itself in the form of marriage discrimination, and less often, in employment. Traditionalist families have been known to check on the backgrounds of potential in-laws to identify people of buraku background. These checks are now illegal, and marriage discrimination is diminishing; Nadamoto Masahisa of the Buraku History Institute estimates that between 60 and 80% of burakumin marry a non-burakumin, whereas for people born in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the rate was 10%.[6]

Cases of continuing social discrimination are known to occur mainly in western Japan, particularly in the Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, and Hiroshima regions, where many people, especially the older generation, stereotype buraku residents (whatever their ancestry) and associate them with squalor, unemployment and criminality.[7]

No discriminated-against communities were identified in the following prefectures: Hokkaido, Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Yamagata, Fukushima, Tokyo, Toyama, Ishikawa, and Okinawa.[8] Hokkaido and Okinawa have had their own separate history of discrimination of their native ethnic groups the Ainu and the Ryukyuans, respectively.

Yakuza membership

According to David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro in Yakuza: The Explosive Account of Japan's Criminal Underworld (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1986), burakumin account for about 70 percent of the members of Yamaguchi-gumi, the biggest yakuza syndicate in Japan.

Mitsuhiro Suganuma, an ex-member of the Public Security Intelligence Agency, testified that burakumin account for about 60 percent of the members of the entire yakuza.[9]

"Tokushu Buraku Chimei Sōkan" incident

In November 1975, the Osaka branch of the Buraku Liberation League was tipped off about the existence of a book called "A Comprehensive List of Buraku Area Names" (特殊部落地名総鑑 Tokushu Buraku Chimei Sōkan). Investigations revealed that copies of the hand-written 330-page book were being secretly sold by an Osaka-based firm to numerous firms and individuals throughout Japan by a mail order service called Cablenet, at between ¥5,000 and ¥50,000 per copy. The book contained a nationwide list of all the names and locations of buraku settlements (as well as the primary means of employment of their inhabitants), which could be compared against people's addresses to determine if they were buraku residents. The preface contained the following message: "At this time, we have decided to go against public opinion and create this book [for] personnel managers grappling with employment issues, and families pained by problems with their children's marriages."

More than 200 large Japanese firms, including (according to the Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Centre of Osaka) Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Daihatsu, along with thousands of individuals purchased copies of the book. In 1985, partially in response to the popularity of this book, and an increase in mimoto chōsa (身元調査, private investigation into one's background) the Osaka prefectural government introduced "An Ordinance to Regulate Personal Background Investigation Conducive to Buraku Discrimination".

Although the production and sale of the book has been banned, numerous copies of it are still in existence, and in 1997, an Osaka private investigation firm was the first to be charged with violation of the 1985 statute for using the text.

concession problems

In response to the denuclearization struggle "The reason for fear is not by birth, but because a powerful pressure group because of hanging up and condemnation. It has been said that self-purpose groups fear losing their meaning of existence by achieving their original purpose since late 1960s. "

Japanese politician, who is the secretariat head and vice chair of the Japanese Communist Party,Akira Koike also said that "the Dowa problem has already been resolved basically by residents' endeavor, continuingdunfair dowa measures itself will create new prejudice" and criticizes the clamor and clarifies that such criticism is regarded as "discrimination" is a complete wrong after Suppression of free speech by Minister Reconstruction Ryu Matsumoto concurrently serving as a vice chairperson of Buraku Liberation League .

He criticized the Matsumoto's intimidation that" Your company is over if you write my words " as the essence of the liberation alliance. [10] 's Suppression of free speech[11]

Burakumin rights movement

As early as 1922, leaders of the Hisabetsu Buraku organized a movement, the "Levelers Association of Japan" (Suiheisha), to advance their rights. The Declaration of the Suiheisha encouraged the burakumin to unite in resistance to discrimination, and sought to frame a positive identity for the victims of discrimination, insisting that the time had come to be "proud of being eta".

The declaration portrayed the burakumin ancestors as "manly martyrs of industry." To submit meekly to oppression would be to insult and profane these ancestors. Despite internal divisions among anarchist, Bolshevik, and social democratic factions, and despite the Japanese government's establishment of an alternate organization Yūma movement, designed to undercut the influence of the Suiheisha, the Levelers Association remained active until the late 1930s.

After World War II, the National Committee for Burakumin Liberation was founded, changing its name to the Buraku Liberation League (Buraku Kaihō Dōmei) in the 1950s. The league, with the support of the socialist and communist parties, pressured the government into making important concessions in the late 1960s and 1970s.

In the 1960s the Sayama Incident (狭山事件), which involved the murder conviction of a member of the discriminated communities based on circumstantial evidence (which is generally given little weight vs. physical evidence in Japanese courts), focused public attention on the problems of the group.

One concession was the passing of the Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects, which provided financial aid for the discriminated communities. Also, in 1976, legislation was put in place which banned third parties from looking up another person's family registry (koseki).

This traditional system of registry, kept for all Japanese by the Ministry of Justice since the 19th century, would reveal an individual's buraku ancestry if consulted. Under the new legislation, these records could now be consulted only in legal cases, making it more difficult to identify or discriminate against members of the group.

In the 1980s some educators and local governments, particularly in areas with relatively large hisabetsu buraku populations, began special education programs which they hoped would encourage greater educational and economic success for young members of the group and decrease the discrimination they faced. Branches of burakumin rights groups exist today in all parts of Japan except for Hokkaidō and Okinawa.

"Human Rights Promotion Centers" (人権啓発センター) have been set up across the country by prefectural governments and local authorities; these, in addition to promoting burakumin rights, campaign on behalf of a wide range of groups such as women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, foreign residents and released prisoners.

Even into the early 1990s, however, discussion of the 'liberation' of these discriminated communities, or even their existence, was taboo in public discussion.

Buraku Liberation League and the Zenkairen

The Buraku Liberation League is considered one of the most militant among burakumin's rights groups. The BLL is known for its fierce "denunciation and explanation sessions", where alleged perpetrators of discriminatory actions or speech are summoned for a public hearing before a panel of activists.

Early sessions were marked by occasions of violence and kidnapping, and several BLL activists have been arrested for such acts. The legality of these sessions is still disputed, but to this date the authorities have mostly turned a blind eye to them except in the more extreme cases.[12][13][14]

In 1990, Karel van Wolferen's criticism of the BLL in his much-acclaimed book The Enigma of Japanese Power prompted the BLL to demand the publisher halt publication of the Japanese translation of the book. Van Wolferen condemned this as an international scandal.

The other major buraku activist group is the National Buraku Liberation Alliance (全国部落解放運動連合会 Zenkoku Buraku Kaihō Undō Rengōkai, or Zenkairen), affiliated to the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). It was formed in 1979[15] by BLL activists who were either purged from the organization or abandoned it in the late 1960s due to, among other things, their opposition to the decision that subsidies to the burakumin should be limited to the BLL members only. Not all burakumin were BLL members and not all residents of the areas targeted for subsidies were historically descendent from the out-caste.[16]

The Zenkairen often came head-to-head with the BLL, accusing them of chauvinism. The bickering between the two organisations boiled over in 1974 when a clash between teachers belonging to a JCP-affiliated union and BLL activists at a high school in Yoka, rural Hyōgo Prefecture, put 29 in hospital.

In 1988, the BLL formed the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR). The BLL sought for the IMADR to be recognized as a United Nations Non-Government Organization, but in 1991, the Zenkairen informed the United Nations about the alleged human rights violations committed by the BLL in the course of their 'denunciation sessions' held with accused 'discriminators'.[16][17]

According to a BLL-funded think tank, when suspected cases of discrimination were uncovered, the Zenkairen often conducted denunciation sessions as fierce as those of the BLL. Nonetheless, the IMADR was designated a UN human rights NGO in March 1993.[18]

On 3 March 2004, the Zenkairen announced that "the buraku issue has basically been resolved" and formally disbanded. On 4 March 2004 they launched a new organisation called "National Confederation of Human Rights Movements in The Community" (全国地域人権運動総連合 'Zenkoku Chiiki Jinken Undō Sōrengō') or Zenkoku Jinken Ren.[19][20]

Religious discrimination

According to BLL sources, nearly all Japanese Buddhist sects have discriminated against the burakumin. Zenkairen disputes this.

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism was the original supporter of lower castes. The side-effect of this liberating philosophy, however, was that it led to a series of anti-feudal rebellions, known as the Ikkō-ikki revolts, which seriously threatened the religious and political status-quo. Accordingly, the political powers engineered a situation whereby the Jōdo Shinshū split into two competing branches, the Shinshu Otani-ha and the Honganji-ha. This had the consequence that the sects moved increasingly away from their anti-feudal position towards a feudal one.

Later the state also forced all people to belong to a specific Buddhist school according to the formula:

the imperial family is in Tendai, the peerage is in Shingon, the nobility is in Jōdo (Honen's followers), the Samurai is in Zen, the beggar is in Nichiren, and Shin Buddhists (Shinran's followers) are at the bottom.[21]

In consequence the Honganji, which under Rennyo's leadership had defiantly accepted the derogatory label of 'the dirty sect' (see Rennyo's letters known as the Ofumi/Gobunsho) now began to discriminate against its own burakumin members as it jostled for political and social status.

In 1922, when the National Levelers' Association (Zenkoku-suiheisha) was founded in Kyoto, Mankichi Saiko, a founder of the movement and Jodo Shinshu priest, said:

We shouldn't disgrace our ancestors and violate humanity by our harsh words and terrible actions. We, who know how cold the human world is, and how to take care of humanity, can seek and rejoice from the bottom of our hearts in the warmth and light of human life.[22]

After many petitions from the BLL, in 1969 the Honganji changed its opinion on the burakumin issue. Zenkairen, which split from the BLL in 1968, regrets this decision.

Religious discrimination against the burakumin was not recognized until the BLL's criticism sessions became widespread. For example, in 1979 the Director-General of the Sōtō Sect of Buddhism made a speech at the "3rd World Conference on Religion and Peace" claiming that there was no discrimination against burakumin in Japan.

Notable burakumin

Cultural references

In High and Low (Japanese title 天国と地獄 Tengoku to jigoku, literally "Heaven and Hell"),[27] a movie adapted in 1963 from Ed McBain's King's Ransom, Akira Kurosawa made a political statement by having the main character work as a shoe industry executive who rose from humble origins as a simple leather worker, clearly implying (to Japanese audiences) his burakumin status.

The plight of the burakumin has also been presented in Hashi no nai kawa[28] (橋のない川 "The River With No Bridge") a novel by Sue Sumii (住井すゑ), which received several film adaptations, in 1969, 1970 and 1992. The title refers to the fact that areas in which burakumin lived were often separated by a river, but bridges to cross were rarely constructed.

In the 1975 novel Shōgun by James Clavell, the crew of a European ship is housed in an eta village because of their uncleanliness and bad manners. The pilot of the ship, after being educated in the ways of the Japanese Samurai class, comes to detest them as well.

Author Lian Hearn depicts a fictional feudal country highly similar to that of Japan's own history in the three-book series Tales of the Otori (2003–2004). The series depicts a caste system wherein "untouchables" live outside of mainstream society. The protagonist develops a friendship with one such outcast, a tanner who lives and works with other tanners in riverside settlements.

In the House M.D episode "Son of Coma Guy", House mentions wanting to become a doctor because of meeting a burakumin, a janitor in the hospital House had to bring a friend to as a teenager. The janitor turned out to be the only one who could diagnose the infection killing House's friend. Although the man was disliked because of his job and social status, the other doctors would still defer to him because he was "always right", thus inspiring House (who is constantly rude and abrasive) to value knowledge over social graces.

In Laura Joh Rowland's Sano Ichiro series, burakumin (naturally still referred to by the Feudal name "eta") appear regularly. Sometimes they are criminals, and other times merely unseen witnesses. In The Concubine's Tattoo, Sano speaks with the chief of a small burakumin community named Danzaemon and notes that the man has a regal bearing about him despite his status. He even thinks to himself, "But for the misfortune of his birth, what a fine daimyo he might have made! It was a blasphemous thought, but Sano could more easily imagine Danzaemon commanding an army than Tokugawa Tsunayoshi."

In the book Rising Sun, Michael Crichton depicts a character (Theresa Asakuma) who is a burakumin descendant. Along the storyline, bits and pieces of history of this people are described to the reader.

In Cloud of Sparrows, by the Japanese-American writer, Takashi Matsuoka, and later in its sequel The Autumn Bridge, burakumin are often mentioned by the old name 'eta'. They are described as filthy beggars, more animal than human, and their life has no apparent value to the samurai, a fact that baffles the Christian missionaries visiting Japan in the novels.

The award winning 2008 Japanese movie Okuribito (Departures), features the main character Daigo who becomes a professional embalmer. Despite Daigo having no mentioned ancestral background, the film portrays a sense of strong lingering discrimination for the work. As such he tries to hide his new profession from everyone, including his wife, who becomes disgusted and leaves him when she learns the truth.

See also

Discrimination in Japan:



Main text originally from Library of Congress, Country Studies. Religious Discrimination and Jodo shinshu Honganji sections adapted from Shindharmanet and BLHRRI.Org.


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External links

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