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In James Clavell’s celebrated 1975 novel, Shogun , the following description appears:

Jan Roper interrupted, “Wait a minute, Vinck!”

“What’s wrong, Pilot.”

“What about eters?”

“It is just that the Japanese think of them as different. They are the executioners, and work the hides and handle corpses.” (p. 870)

Elsewhere in the book the term eta ( eters ) appears, yet a fuller explanation of these people is never provided. Eta , meaning “much filth” in Japanese, is a derisive term, still used in the early twenty-first century, for the burakumin .

Burakumin (literally meaning “village people”; although there are alternative terms, burakumin and buraku will be used herein) refers to a group of ethnic Japanese, numbering approximately three million, that is discriminated against by the majority Japanese population. (The number three million may be high but is the number routinely provided by the various buraku liberation organizations. While debate continues on the actual number, if this number is at least approximately correct, then, as Herman Ooms 1996 notes, it makes the buraku people the largest Japanese minority.)

Although some in the majority Japanese population continue to believe that the buraku people are racially distinct from the majority of the Japanese people, the prevailing scholarly opinion is that the buraku people are racially indistinct from the majority Japanese and are oppressed because of specific historic occupational line-ages. Therefore, the discrimination against the buraku people is more similar to that of the Dalits in India rather than to the discrimination shown in Japan toward the Japanese Ainu.

Several scholars argue that the term racism is appropriate to use in regard to buraku discrimination as they “comprise a ‘race’ in the sociological sense of Western racism, but an ‘invisible’ (i.e., not genetic or phenotypic) one” (Ooms 1996, pp. 245–246). Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney (1987) states that the buraku people are “invisible” because there are no physical characteristics that distinguish them from other Japanese. A continuing issue for the buraku liberation movement is the question of what constitutes buraku identity, with some residents of designated buraku areas claiming ancestral lineages and others socially defined as buraku people simply by the fact of residing in such areas. Perhaps the most inclusive definition for those termed burakumin in modern Japan is that offered by Tomohiko Harada (1981): “those people who were born, brought up and living in [ b ] uraku , those who were not from [ b ] urakumin family but came to live in [ b ] uraku in the recent past and those who are living outside the [ b ] uraku but have blood relationship with [ b ] urakumin —all these are considered the [ b ] urakumin minority by the majority Japanese” (quoted in Reber 1999, p. 5).

To accentuate the complexity of identifying the burakumin , some estimates hold that more than 50 percent of the population in buraku areas are non- buraku . Additionally, even those that come from burakumin families likely have little blood connection to the original medieval families from which the lineage of discrimination is sourced. Invisibility is hard to quantify.


There is a scholarly debate as to the historical origin of buraku discrimination. During the Heian period (794–1185), the lowest in society ( senmin , as opposed to the ryomin , the good) often crafted leather saddles, harnesses, “armor,” and ceremonial drums in support of warlords ( daimyo ), and for their contribution they were generally provided with some tax relief and poor land. They were also given “unclean” tasks such as those of jailer and executioner as well as expected to be the first line of defense in case of attack.

Some scholars conjecture that this social segmentation was the beginning of what came to be the buraku designation; it was distinctly in the Tokugawa period (1603–1867), however, when the discriminatory policies and structure were established in a stratified social order (samurai, farmer, artisan, and merchant) that excluded the kawata (“leather worker,” which was a self-referential term). The majority Japanese during this period referred to kawata as eta-hinin ( hinin translating as “nonhuman), and this compound term was used as a social designation at the time. These terms, but particularly eta , are still used in Japan to pejoratively refer to the buraku people. The use of the Japanese number yottsu (four), often accompanied by holding up four fingers, is used to refer to a buraku person as an animal (having four legs).

During the Tokugawa period, prohibitions against the group included forbidding intermarriage; designating allowable places to live, often on undesirable plots of land; specifying clothing; and restricting the kawata from engaging the other classes in an equal way, including forbidding them from entering non- buraku houses, temples, and shrines (Meerman 2003). Anti- buraku discrimination thus originated in traditional occupations that were deemed “unclean” or “polluted” by the majority Japanese, such as butchery, tanning, and leatherwork. Other forms of kawata work included roadwork, stone cutting, bamboo manufactures, sweeping, subsistence farming, fish mongering, night soil and garbage disposal, cremation, and burial (Meerman 2003). In modern Japan, however, while descent from earlier groups is an operative factor, the primary determinant of buraku identity is location, as many buraku people live in designated, government-supported housing and support areas.

In 1871 the Emancipation Edict ( Eta KaihM Rei ) abolished discrimination against this subgroup, but the edict had little effect on conditions for the buraku people. The edict identified burakumin with a label meaning “new common people,” which the general public understood as referring to the same stigmatized group. The more positive appellation still segregated the group from the majority Japanese, and the burakumin were as easy to discover in lists as previously.

In March 1922, the National Levelers Association ( Zenkoku Suiheisha ) was founded as an organized effort to address the persistent discrimination against the buraku people. After being outlawed in 1937 in militarist Japan, the movement reinstituted itself in 1946 as the National Committee for Buraku Liberation (becoming the Buraku Liberation League [BLL] in 1955). The BLL has been the predominant voice for the betterment of the buraku mondai (problem) since its formation.

In 1969, through sustained political activism by the buraku organizations and their supporters, the Japanese government enacted special legislation that dramatically bettered conditions for the buraku people by greatly multiplying the amount of government funds for improving buraku housing and roads, providing scholarships, reducing taxes for buraku businesses, subsidizing rents, and other improvements. Local bodies, influenced by the BLL, often decided how this government funding was spent. The funding ended in 2003.


Japan has a long tradition of emphasizing cleanliness and purity. The philosophical basis of this tradition can be traced to the indigenous tradition of Shinto as well as Buddhism, which was imported into Japan in the mid-sixth century CE. Buddhism is often associated with purity/impurity in its opprobrium against killing and eating meat. This negative attitude was extrapolated to the handling of dead animals and their by-products.

Both Shinto and Japanese Buddhism supported the “polluted” determination of the historic buraku occupations. Shinto, with its strong emphasis on ritual pollution and taboo, helped shape the majority Japanese view that anyone who handled dead bodies, animals, or animal byproducts was unclean. The distinction with the buraku people is that they could not be made clean again from this “pollution” through purification rituals.

The Japanese Buddhists also contributed to the system of discrimination through their association with the death rituals of the Japanese. In Japan, for many centuries, Buddhism has functioned as the religion of death rituals. Traditionally, a Buddhist priest gives the deceased a death name ( kaimyo ) that the person is to carry into the next world. As William Bodiford (1996) contends, there is strong evidence of the use of prejudicial kaimyo in temple necrologies (death registries) and “off-registers” as well as on corresponding grave markers ( haka ).

The use of registries is critically important to understanding the history of oppression against the burakumin . If one were a handler of meat or dead bodies, or engaged in other polluting activities, then one would be ritually impure for a period of time. After this period, the impurity could be expunged or would no longer be operative. Yet, with the use of registries, such as the temple necrologies, the incidence of pollution associated with certain families and occupations became stigmatizing and permanent. Not only was an individual deemed as inalterably impure because of his or her actions, but so too was the family name extending across generations, even if the polluting occupation was no longer followed by the person’s heirs. Discriminatory passages in Buddhist texts may have been used to provide “doctrinal cover” for abusing the burakumin . To the credit of Japanese Buddhism, it has acknowledged this troubled past and has sought through its own offices and in cooperation with the BLL to change its views of and practices concerning the burakumin . In addition, other religious movements, such as Christianity and Tenrikyo, have reached out to the buraku community with some success.


As buraku discrimination persists into the twenty-first century, the efforts to address the changing face of prejudice will require new approaches. The primary continuing issue for the buraku people is how the end of government funding in 2003 will continue to affect their community and the notable advances they have made.

One of the controversial tactics the BLL has employed in its attempt to publicize discriminatory acts perpetuated against the buraku community is the use of denunciation ( kyudan ). Denunciation entails isolating the one guilty of a discriminatory act and then bringing this party to a meeting where he or she is publicly denounced and forced to repent the act and pledge to change his or her ways. This activity has been justified as necessary in the face of government inaction or the lack of a legal remedy, but it has also spawned questions of its legality and ethical fairness.

Attempting to broaden the movement’s efforts in the wake of the government funding cutoff, the Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute has focused its attention on human rights legislation inside Japan that calls for the systematic identification and enforcement of antidiscrimination laws not only as they would affect buraku people but also foreign residents, the physically and mentally handicapped, and others. The movement has also closely aligned itself with human rights initiatives from the United Nations and other international bodies. Similarly, there continues to be an effort to align kindred liberation groups across Asia, including such countries as India, Korea, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

This movement may result in less direct attention to education efforts specifically on the buraku situation and instead evolve into a national movement to better educate all Japanese, particularly through the school system, on human rights. The content of Japanese textbooks, which have typically either omitted burakumin or included discriminatory language against them, has provoked controversy in Japan (and East Asia) for many decades. As the buraku movement has declared, it is time for Japan to defy the axiom to not wake the sleeping baby and to stir the baby awake toward positive, sustainable change.

Certainly, the major ongoing issue for the buraku liberation effort, as with many similar human rights efforts across the globe, is how to sustain the energy and communal effort to improve the attitude of mainstream Japan toward the buraku people into the next generation, while external living conditions improve and intermarriage continues to increase.

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