Like the Jews in Europe, the African Americans and the Native Americans in the U. S. , the Dalits in India, and so many more, a heavily persecuted minority group has existed in Japan since feudal times. They are called burakumin (village people)-tainted by their association with death, the impurity of killing and being near carcasses, and leather work. They are also known as: hisabetsu buraku (discriminated communities), eta (abundant pollution or leather workers), binin (nonhuman), kokonotsu (nine-one less than ten and, therefore, imperfect). During the feudal era, burakumin were the most despised and untouchable group in Japan. To this day, they continue to struggle with the myths and hatred associated with the occupations of their ancestors.
Burakumin during the feudal era
In feudal times, burakumin gained their reputation by holding jobs that were disdained despite their necessity. They worked as gravediggers, tanners, entertainers, executioners, and undertakers. Their jobs caused them to be associated with death, impurity, and lower living standards. Discrimination came from Buddhist mores against killing and Shinto disdain of pollution. The impurity of burakumin was seen as hereditary. Society deemed them naturally evil and filled with a contagious impurity. Burakumin were a seen as an incurable social disease that would be contracted to anyone who had contact with them.
There was no refuge for the burakumin-from their identity or the cruelty it elicited. Until recently, “koseki" (family registration) tied burakumin to the addresses of the ancestors, which made it impossible for them to hide their identity or ever escape from it. Like prisoners in a camp, they were shunned into staying in their villages. Being discovered as a burakumin in regular social circles served as an acceptable reason for a marriage cancellation or being fired from a job.
Modern burakumin relationships
Modern burakumin are descendants of their outcast ancestors. There are about two million burakumin living in five thousand settlements. In 1871, they were legally liberated with the destruction of the feudal caste, but they remain social outsiders to this day. Since the 1980s, young burakumin have been protesting the social discrimination that still exists today and begging for freedom and integration.
Within burakumin communities, there are different socioeconomic levels. Upper-class burakumin (who experience less discrimination) are often at odds with lower-level burakumin (who take the brunt of social cruelty) because they see the abuse that the lower-class creates as an impediment to their own success. They do, however, take care of the lower-class. An “oyabun-kobun" (parent-child) relationship has developed between upper and lower-class burakumin. Oyabun (upper-class burakumin) often act as liaisons between burakumin and nonburakumin. Oyabun are obligated to find jobs and assignments for kobun (lower-class burakumin) who, in turn, are obligated to follow through with them successfully.
There is much progress today. In a survey, two-thirds of burakumin said that they have never experienced discrimination because of their heritage. Also, there are now intermarriages between burakumin and nonburakumin. The term “eta" (abundant pollution or leather worker) is virtually nonexistent in conversation. Since World War II, burakumin groups have been winning more and more legal cases as well. They have made notable improvements in education, bringing about anti-discrimination programs in schools, and battling prejudice. The Buraku Liberation League (although there are some questions as to its legal foundation and effectiveness) has been formed to protect the best interests of burakumin. Today, burakumin are permitted to vote and to have representatives in the Diet and local governments.
Despite their abundant advancement, however, burakumin still have not completely escaped persecution. During times of political unrest, burakumin have repeatedly been made the scapegoats. “Eta-gari" (outcast hunts) have been formed during troubling periods as a means of carrying out violent acts and venting frustration against burakumin. In addition to the strides burakumin have made towards social and political freedom, there is still a long way towards liberation for burakumin.