Burakumin at the end of history

Burakumin at the end of history – history of social class in Japan

Ian Neary


DURING the seventeenth century, Japan’s social order took shape in the form of a hereditary four-status order of–in descending socioethical rank–warrior-rulers (samurai), peasants, artisans, and merchants. There were restrictions on intermarriage, social interaction, and clothing. This was justified by reference to Confucian theory. The functions of the four groups were seen as symbiotic, such that together they would constitute a stable and virtuous society (Totman, 2000: 225).

Not everyone fit into this structure, including the thousands of lesser clerics who staffed Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, the shop hands and household servants and day laborers who lived on the margins of urban communities. Some day laborers were landless peasants, others came from the populations of hereditary pariahs (eta or kawata) and nonhereditary punitive outcasts (hinin). Found mainly in the Kyoto vicinity or in central Japan, these pariahs generally lived in their own communities, pursued their own professions, and were subject to their own leaders. On the edge of this pariah population were the entertainers: singers, dancers, and actors who were associated with the licensed quarters (Totman, 2000: 228-9).

Pariah communities had developed in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as leather workers (kawata) and as handlers of animal and human corpses. Local elites encouraged their development during the time of constant warfare since leather was a key item in the production of amour. With the outbreak of peace after 1601, demand for these goods declined and the communities were relocated to the margins of towns or to sites where they formed their own villages. Outside the four-class system, however, there was not much to distinguish them from artisans in towns or peasants in the countryside. But from the eighteenth century, regulations were introduced by central and local government that elaborated symbols of status distinction and enforced separation of residence and function. Different demographic trends were also present. Peasant smallholders produced families of modest size but pariah groups did not face the same pro-creative constraints. As a result the pariah population grew, despite attempts by government to restrict it. This altered power relationships between neighboring pariah/nonpariah communities, creating tension and increased status consciousness (Totman, 2000: 276).

After the Meiji restoration of 1868, the four-caste hierarchy was abandoned and much of its structure dismantled. A new peerage was created from court nobles and some former samurai, but most former samurai had to make do with the essentially hollow rank of shizoku. The rest of the mainstream population, including pariah groups, was lumped together as commoners (heimin). By 1910 former status had little meaning in the lives of most Japanese except for the former pariahs, now commonly referred to as burakumin; they faced discrimination in the developing job market, in schools, in marriage, and in myriad other ways when they interacted with the mainstream community (Totman, 2000: 300).

Burakumin became politically active from the 1890s onwards and, despite government attempts to restrain their activity, in 1922 formed the Suiheisha, or National Levelers’ Society. This group demanded the complete emancipation promised in an 1871 edict, including economic and occupational freedom, and protection of members’ human dignity. The movement remained active until the 1930s, but was finally unable to hold out against pressure from the wartime state (Totman, 2000: 389-90).

The movement revived in the 1950s as the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) and continued to confront instances of discriminatory words, deeds, and policies while demanding a comprehensive program of improvements to address the difficulties group members encountered. In the 1960s, following rapid economic growth, the state was persuaded to fund improvements to streets, schools, clinics, and housing in burakumin communities and to provide rent subsidies and other assistance to families in those communities.

The remedial action taken by government provided younger burakumin with more education, skills, and connections, and better paying jobs that enabled them to marry and settle more freely outside their communities. Government provided substantial sums of money for these improvement programs. Meerman estimates the amount spent between 1969-1993 at about $134 billion (2001: 13). The government has, however, refused to make discrimination illegal.

The BLL continues to campaign against residual discrimination but, as more and more young burakumin leave their communities, there is less support for its activism. Passing into the mainstream is still hampered by educational and economic disadvantage. It may be that as a marginal community the burakumin have been disproportionately affected by the current recession, although there is no evidence of this yet. Totman, among others, expects that improved schooling, employment, and generational change will continue to erode old prejudices, leading to a solution to the burakumin problem (2000: 532).


Thus far we have a fairly bland, uncontroversial summary of the background and current state of burakumin. Yet this account leaves many questions unasked and unanswered. Most important, note the implication that there continues to be a need for lobbying efforts but that the problem is being or has been solved. However, within Japan there is furious disagreement about how this group developed, the role it played historically in the twentieth century and before, and what its prospects are. The main aim of this paper is to summarize some aspects of that debate and suggest answers to the questions of how this group developed and how its status changed over time. In the final section I will consider the group’s condition today, its prospects for the future and whether it is or ever was a “pariah group.” First, a few words are necessary on the context to intellectual debate in the mid-twentieth century.

Japan’s defeat in World War II–or as radical Japanese would put it, the defeat of emperor-centered nationalism–created an ideological vacuum that was filled for most intellectuals by Marxism. The Japanese Communist Party (JCP), although tiny, illegal, and underground, had been one of the few groups that had refused to compromise with the war, and Marxist explanations also helped to make sense of what was happening to defeated Japan.

Marxism was not new to Japan in 1945, nor was it adopted uncritically. During the 1920s and 1930s there had been fierce debate among rival Marxists about the nature of Japanese capitalism. The problem was how to explain its major contradiction; namely, that while there was clear evidence of industrialization, imperialism, and monopoly capitalism, there was also abundant evidence of “economic backwardness and distress in the countryside, and the persistence of apparently outmoded political institutions–the emperor system, the Privy council …–despite the introduction of Western constitutional forms associated with multi-party democracy” (Hoston, 1986: 4). The debate was complex, and most of it need not concern us here. It is sufficient to note that two schools developed. One argued that the Meiji restoration was a bourgeois democratic revolution that had swept aside the feudal elements of the previous period to create a modernized, political, economic, and social structure. The other insisted that the revolutionary events in the 1860s and 1870s amounted to an incomplete revolution that left intact, for example, the imperial institution that formed the basis of a semifeudal absolutist regime.

This was more than a theoretical debate, since it had practical consequences for revolutionary socialists. While the former position suggested that strategy should aim at socialist revolution, the latter view proposed instead the need for a two-stage affair, the first of which would be to complete the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution, which would be followed at a later stage by socialist revolution.

Thinking about Japanese history has been decisively influenced by this debate. This is especially true on the historical origins and current situation of burakumin. Prewar there was very little substantive work on the issue. Serious research really only began after 1945 and was influenced by the terms of this debate. Marxist intellectuals–nearly all historians, and certainly all those interested in the buraku issue–had to take a stand on whether discrimination and prejudice derived from remnants of feudal society that were untouched by the incomplete revolution of 1868 and thereafter, or whether they were essentially new social phenomena that directly served the interests of Japanese monopoly capitalism.

This debate also had a crucial influence on intellectual understanding of the American occupation of Japan between 1945 and 1952. Should the Americans and their reforms be welcomed since their land reform, democratization of the political structure, etc., effectively completed the task of eliminating feudalism? Or, should the focus instead be on the fact that the imperial institution was politically insignificant before 1945 and the level of development of Japanese capitalism high–a view that emphasizes continuity between the prewar and postwar periods? If the buraku groups were simply “feudal remnants” like the emperor but at the other extreme of the social structure, then they would decline in significance and ultimately disappear as the occupation’s democratic reforms worked their way through the social, political, and economic structure. This also suggested that the class position of the burakumin was almost identical with that of the working class and from an organizational perspective there was no need for a separate movement. On the other hand, those working within the tradition articulated by the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) and associated with the BLL saw it as a status issue inside contemporary capitalism where there was (and is) a very clear need for an independent movement to oppose status discrimination and promote human rights awareness.

I do not intend to dwell on the movement’s history or the debate on tactics and strategy. Instead, I want to outline some aspects of the development of ideas about buraku history since 1945. Within this, the debate about the nature of Japanese capitalism set the parameters for analysis at least until the 1970s; echoes of the debate can still be heard in contemporary discussions.

A great deal has been and continues to be written on the issue in Japan and although this might suggest less variety of opinion and approach than is the case, most can be regarded as coming from those associated either with the BLL or the JCP. This is a sensitive subject, one that is usually avoided by the mainstream media and indeed many academics. The only substantive criticism of the BLL comes from the JCP, and this includes apparently well-documented accusations of corrupt management of improvement projects to benefit financially individuals in the BLL, the BLL as an organization, or both (Terazono, 2002). There has also been more fundamental criticism of the intellectual approach taken by the BLL and those associated with it. The central section of this article will review some of the key themes in the writings of two authors whose recent work summarizes the current state of historical research in this area, one from each of these traditions: Okiura Kazuteru whose work has been produced by the BLL publishing house, and Hatanaka Toshiyuki, who is close to the JCP position.

Okiura Kazuteru and Buraku History

Okiura Kazuteru (b. 1927) entered university in the late 1940s when academic life was not only dominated by varieties of Marxist thought but also characterized by a series of polarizations: backward Japan/Asia was contrasted with advanced Europe/the “West”; community contrasted with civil society; and religious belief with scientific principle. In each of these pairs the latter was preferred. Japanese academics did not look to the experience of Asia to better understand Japanese phenomena; there was an expectation that civil society would emerge following the destruction of the emperor-centered community and that (Marxist) scientific principles could (and would) explain things better than, and without reference to, indigenous religious beliefs (Okiura, 2000: 14-5).

Okiura discusses the beginning of academic research on buraku issues in the 1940s and several key publications in the 1950s, the most important of which was “Buraku no Rekishi to Kaiho Undo'(Buraku History and the Liberation Movement) (Buraku Mondai Kenkyujo, 1955). Okiura notes that this marked a major advance over anything previously published:

* it was premised on the idea that just as Japanese history cannot be understood without reference to the emperor, neither can it be understood without reference to the pariah class;

* it traced the existence of a pariah class from the earliest period of recorded Japanese history–the seventh and eighth centuries to the early modern period, and discussed for the first time a discriminated class in the Middle Ages; (1)

* it noted the existence of research on various pariah groups in different parts of Japan;

* it focused on those groups that produced leather, noted the variety of names used for them, and, for the first time, also noted the political, economic, social, and cultural factors that led to the systematization of the early-modern outcast system;

* although unable to overcome the rough and ready class notions of prewar historical materialism, it problematized the notions of “class” and “status” for the first time in terms of the development of the productive forces and the social division of labor;

* it used archive data for the first time to demonstrate the systematization of discrimination in the period from 1688 to 1735 and the resistance of the discriminated to the restrictions on their liberty.

It did not, however:

* compare the early origins of the buraku issue to the broader issues of the development of status systems in Asia;

* provide adequate analysis of the religious ideology/ideologies that supported the status systems;

* consider the change between earliest times and the Middle Ages in the ideas of pollution on which discrimination was based;

* investigate the social structures within which discrimination occurred in the ancient Middle Ages-early modern periods or consider the key turning points;

* elaborate regional differences (Okiura, 2000: 26-9).

During this first period it was suggested that, although socioeconomic status structures changed from the Middle Ages to the early modern period, there was some, possibly substantial, continuity of outcast lineage. However, Harada Toshihiko in the mid1950s suggested that the main elements of buraku discrimination in the early modern period could not be traced back to earlier eras. The legal formation of the outcast system was created in the late seventeenth century. Others (for example, Arashiro Moriaki) regarded discriminatory attitudes toward slaves of various kinds in the ancient period as a template for later attitudes and institutions (although the systematization of discrimination did not take place until after 1640, with the launch of the seclusion policy (Okiura, 2000: 132).

From the mid- to late 1960s to the mid-1970s, the horizons of historians expanded to include comparisons of aspects of Japan’s history with that of other Asian countries. At the same time, new approaches to historical method were introduced, including perspectives derived from Gramscian notions of hegemony; structuralism; Foucault’s earlier work; and the Annalist methodology that focused on the details of historical development. In buraku history, the formation and development of pariah groups in the Middle Ages attracted particular attention. Kuroda Toshio, in two seminal articles from 1972 and 1975 (Kuroda, 1972, 1975), argued that hinin at this time were quite distinct from similar groups that appeared both before and after:

* in a narrow sense they were those excluded for some reason from the social order: beggars, prisoners, performers, lepers, eta;

* they were quite different from the pariahs of the earlier period who were a form of slave; they were alienated from the basic relations of production, excluded from ruling property relations, and did work that did not directly produce wealth–for example, washing, animal slaughter, day laboring;

* they served no master and were outside the class/status system;

* they were despised and socially excluded like the eta, some of whom worked as slaughterers, and they were regarded as unclean and placed on the boundaries of the eta class;

* they were part of a castelike structure in which the imperial court family was regarded as “superhuman” and they were regarded as “subhuman.”

Kuroda suggested that changes in land-holding arrangements, which lay behind the transition from the Middle Ages to the early modern period, not only transformed the ruling class but also fundamentally changed the nature of the status system. Some pariah groups disappeared; others were systematically included within the new system, still with pariah status but considered as part of the system rather than excluded from it (Okiura, 2000: 148-53).

These two articles generated considerable discussion among historians and several hundred papers exploring or refuting aspects contained in the two pieces were published in the 70s and 80s. Only a few of the points made will be discussed, since space constraints preclude a survey of all the responses.

Niunoya Tetsuichi (1979) suggested that at the start of the period the basic rational for this social exclusion was related to Shinto notions of pollution, caused by association with death, birth, or blood, or with crime or disease, especially transmittable diseases such as leprosy. However, as time went on it was increasingly related to a Buddhist concept of “sin,” committed either in this lifetime or a previous one. Whereas the Shinto pollution could be cleansed, the Buddhist sin could not be as easily removed and could be inherited.

From the late fifteenth to early sixteenth centuries, new land was developed and new agricultural techniques introduced, precipitating changes in the economic, political, and social structure. As more peasants farmed their own land, they sought to increase productivity by using draft animals (Okiura, 2000: 204). Meanwhile, although Buddhist ideas about respect for all sentient beings had spread, it was the case that cows and horses were kept not as sources of meat or leather but rather to farm land, provide milk, and bear more animals. The longer they lived the better, a view quite consistent with the Buddhist ideas that were developing.

There was still a need for someone to deal with the animals’ bodies when they died and even to turn their hides into leather. Those who performed these functions were often subject to restrictions on contact with mainstream others, although usually only for limited periods of time that were measured in weeks or months, depending on the seriousness of the pollution encountered. Of course, those who worked with leather full time or ate a meat-rich diet were permanently excluded from mainstream society (although we need to bear in mind the great regional variation). In the north of the main island, peasant farmers would supplement their diets with the meat from the animals and birds that they hunted, unconcerned by Buddhist prohibitions. Okiura even proposes that the origins of some communities may be found in the hunter-gatherer groups that settled rather late and that continued to be linked to “dirty work.” He suggests there might be a direct link between some of these groups and Jomon culture–that of the prehistoric period before the start of the Christian era (Okiura, 2000: 194, 206).

During the 1970s activists in the BLL adopted the “early modern political origins theory” (kinsei seiji kigenron). This theory rejected origin theories that focused on occupation or religion and placed primary emphasis on the divisive policies of the Tokugawa government. The main propositions of this view held that burakumin were (and are) alienated from the productive process. Because of this alienation, they were (and are) excluded from civil society and their presence acts as a weight within the labor market and divides the working class politically. Last, discrimination was (and is) consciously and unconsciously introduced into the minds of citizens through the power of tradition and culture (Okiura, 2000: 213-4).

There are a number of reasons–Okiura lists eight–that suggest that this greatly oversimplifies a complex process, but by the late 1980s this theory competed with the Middle Ages social origin theory as the explanation for the cause of the problem. Apart from being easy to understand, the movement also saw that there were obvious attractions to a theory proposing that the problem was a result of ruling class policy, since this suggested that it could also be eliminated through government policy.

There is no doubt that discriminatory rules against the outcast groups were strengthened and universalized in the period between 1688 and 1735. Further, in 1778, central regulations attempted to define aspects of daily life so as to more clearly distinguish them from the peasantry or town dwellers. Central government documents usually refer to eta:hinin nado (literally “plentiful dirt”, “not people,” etc.) or eta:hinin nado no tagui (those like eta, hinin, etc.) At least until the 1720s, hinin could be reabsorbed into mainstream society, something that was not possible for eta, but after that time it became virtually impossible for hinin to escape their outcast state too. However, as Ooms notes, the discriminated eta avoided such terms and would usually refer to themselves as kawata, (written with a variety of characters but usually indicating their occupation as leather workers) (Ooms, 1996: 243-4). Regulations from the 1770s mention a “worsening of customs” and point to groups such as eta and hinin dressing like other peasants and engaging in activities inappropriate to their status (Okiura, 2000: 263). Over the next few years the law was enforced by local authorities. In Hiroshima in 1781, for example, kawata were forced to change their hairstyles to make them immediately identifiable and bans were imposed to prevent them from drinking or smoking with or in the houses of commoners (Okiura, 2000: 266-7). This suggests that prejudice that might have led people to avoid contact with their kawata neighbors was weak at this time. In some areas of Japan (Tokushima), even leather workers were not subject to formal discrimination (Okiura, 2000: 229).

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as the overall productivity of land increased and the mainstream population remained roughly stable, growing differentiation and specialization within the parameters of the four-class system could be found. In many rural communities a landlord class emerged, accompanied by an increase in the number of landless peasants, some of whom would seek work in towns and then live alongside, and therefore perhaps become regarded as, outcasts. Several kawata communities devised new products, including medicines, for sale in the developing commodity economy (Okiura, 2000: 309). Meanwhile, the various entertainers, most of them regarded as hinin, sharpened their skills and became involved in the development of what were later celebrated as distinct aspects of Japanese culture, such as kabuki and puppet theatre. Okiura points out that a history of the outcast groups in Japan is not just a litany of cruel treatment and oppression by the mainstream but one in which these nonmainstream groups have made important contributions to the development of Japanese culture (a point of pride for contemporary burakumin).

Although the BLL in the 1970s and 1980s adhered to a fairly simple early modern political origin theory to guide its activities, academic research, especially studies on local history, showed that the process of historical development was much more complex. Between the late Middle Ages through the start of the early modern period, discrimination against kawata and similar groups was varied geographically but gradually homogenized to form a national system of discrimination by the second half of the seventeenth century (and was finally tidied up in the mid-eighteenth century). But regional differences still continued (Okiura, 2000: 216, 308). Moreover, historians like Okiura have insisted that discrimination was not simply imposed by violent means but acquired, over the long term, intellectual and moral legitimacy, which was provided by religious groups. Thus, in addition to creating a legal basis for a status system in the mid-eighteenth century, it was also necessary for the state to build up control over the Buddhist sects and Shinto shrines to form a “structure of consent” such that it became difficult to tell whether discrimination came from the state, top down, or from the local community, bottom up (Okiura, 2000: 286).

From the 1980s into the 1990s, approaches to burakumin studies diversified. Research on local issues matured, and comparative studies developed–both comparative within Japan and with the role of pariah groups in Japan with those in other Asian countries–Korea, China, and India–and even premodern Europe. The dominance of Marxist method ended, although the vocabulary and style still persisted. The debate between the Middle Ages social origin thesis and early modern political origin thesis was resolved; both have been found to be too simple to account for the patterns revealed by the research that has accumulated over the last three decades. This mass of material has yet to be assimilated into a single coherent account (Okiura, 2000: 323-5).

For some, however, the problem is not the quality of the historical research but failing to realize that understanding the past does not help us to understand the present. Indeed, an excessive concern with the past may actually sustain awareness of a phenomenon whose significance is now slight. In this sense some argue that not only are we at the end of buraku history in that the problem is almost resolved, but that we have also reached a time when it is no longer useful to know about buraku history. Hatanaka’s writing is an example of this.

Hatanaka Toshiyuki and the End of Buraku History

Hatanaka Toshiyuki (b. 1952) is a generation younger than Okiura. While Okiura is (or was) closer to the political line of the BLL, which was close to the JSP, Hatanaka accepts the JCP line on this issue. He summarizes his position as follows:

Buraku discrimination is status discrimination which was

formed within the social structure of the modern emperor

system and systematically supported and re-created within

t. At the stage of its formation it was modeled on early modern

status discrimination but this was qualitatively different

to the discrimination characteristic of modern Japan. The

buraku problem is buraku discrimination and structural

social problems closely related to buraku discrimination.

Post-war the social structure which supported and re-created

this kind of discrimination was dismantled but social

problems nevertheless remain for a variety of reasons (as

remnants of the modern buraku problem) and amount to

the buraku problem, for which a resolution is now in sight

(Hatanaka, 1998: 190-1).

Several points should be noted in this set of definitions. First, the emphasis that is placed on the discontinuity between the early modern and modern: for Hatanaka, the kawata village does not become the buraku community. Status discrimination is and was entirely a product of the contemporary social structure, and just as the social structure of Japan in 1800, 1930, and 2000 was quite different, so, too, was the nature of status discrimination. Second, the problems encountered by burakumin in the twentieth century have only in part been caused by discrimination. Conversely, ending discrimination will not completely resolve their problems. Third, the modern emperor system–which was a central part of the structure that supported and recreated buraku discrimination–was dismantled by the United States occupation. Hatanaka accepts that there was some delay in the full implementation of the reforms in the 1950s and that discrimination was used by reactionary ruling class policies. Yet, while a solution to the buraku problem was not possible under the Meiji constitution, the postwar constitution has been more effectively implemented and its central ideas internalized so that the situation of the buraku will improve to the extent that their problems are resolved.

Hatanaka questions why analysis of the issue always starts with a discussion of “historical origins.” If we accept that we are dealing not with a racial or ethnic issue but with a social construct dependent on contemporary society, it is mistaken to assume an automatic link between the social function of a pariah community in two distinct epochs even if a “blood link” can be proved. Nor are we dealing with a difference like gender or disability, where there is some kind of objective criterion that transcends the particular social structure. In the case of Japan’s pariah groups, there is little, perhaps nothing, that is not the product of the social context. His position on the buraku problem is:

* that the problem is not “racial” but one that is a product of the social system;

* unlike the prewar or postwar period (that is, up to the 1970s), the issue is in the process of being resolved;

* the problem is not one of buraku liberation but liberation from the concept of buraku (Hatanaka, 1998: 19).

Hatanaka argues that in an important sense buraku history did not exist before the nineteenth century because buraku discrimination, as we know it, did not exist (although kawata undoubtedly did). He draws a parallel with the samurai. There may be some connection by lineage between the samurai class of the eighteenth, the nobility of the late nineteenth, and perhaps even some sectors of the ruling elite of the late twentieth century, but they have a different historical existence and we would not expect to be able to explain any aspect of their social or political role in the latter period through a better understanding of the former (Hatanaka, 1998: 207-8).

Standard accounts in school texts and similar volumes, following the early modern political origin theory espoused by the BLL in the 1960s and 1970s, seem to suggest that outcast groups were “made” in the early seventeenth century and that only their descendants form the buraku communities we know today. Thus, while everyone rightly rejects the “racial origin” theories, most of the popular histories resemble “racial” explanations in the way they suggest a high degree of continuity across the years. Hatanaka also contests the attempt by Okiura and others to find “glory and creativity” in the history of the outcast communities because it subscribes to the same false logic that explains low status to current buraku inhabitants as the result of the low status of their ancestors. Whether an individual takes pride in his ancestors or not is a matter for that individual; it should not be an objective of historians or sociologists (Hatanaka, 1998: 103-8).

How does Hatanaka define burakumin? Following Inoue Kiyoshi, he suggests that occupation, place of residence, and lineage were the defining features of kawata (1950: 6). Occupation no longer explains very much and even in the early modern period relatively few kawata could make a living from the leather trade; most made some or all of their livelihood from farming. Lineage explains little because it does not tell us how or why different societies treat these groups as outsiders. Simple facts about residence do not tell us very much anymore either. We know that–although the pattern varies greatly–in the early 1990s on average only 41.4 percent of those living in areas defined by the local government as buraku were linear descendants of prewar burakumin, let alone pre-twentieth-century kawata, with the range going from 2.7 percent to 97.7 percent (Somucho, 1995: 3). Moreover, some suggest that if a burakumin is anyone who had one grandparent who was a burakumin, the population could be as high as 10 million (Hatanaka, 1998: 75). Perhaps simple awareness of buraku identity is sufficient: I am a burakumin if I and others think I am. This affects my perception of myself and my social relations because there are obstacles to my activities that are outside my control and prevent me exercising free choice in the job and marriage markets. Burakumin, of course, are not the only individuals to face discrimination or such difficulties. The challenge for society is to create an environment in which barriers are eliminated and differences can be overcome. However, while it is reasonably clear what these difficulties are in the case of women or the disabled, it is not obvious what the differences are between burakumin and mainstream Japanese that have to be transcended or what (more) society or state can do. This approach argues that although we cannot choose our parents or birthplace, we can choose not to be fettered by them; and while not hiding the possibility that we might be labeled burakumin, we could positively reject it: I am not a burakumin if I say I am not. I might even recognize that my father was a burakumin but claim that I am not. Indeed, Hatanaka suggests we need to encourage such “positive rejection” (Hatanaka, 1998: 87-94).

Hatanaka is especially critical of a policy adopted by a small private university that created a special entry system for applicants from minority groups: burakumin, Koreans resident in Japan, Ainu, Okinawans. He objects to this, at least for burakumin, since it requires third-party certification of a social status that has no objective existence outside the particular social situation. One condition of solving the buraku problem, he argues, would be for buraku identity to become meaningless. His objection to such special entry schemes, however well intended, is that they make visible something that is becoming less so (Hatanaka, 1998: 76-82).

Consistent with these ideas and directly opposed to the BLL’s political origin theory is the national reconciliation theory, which has three basic premises:

1) The character of the buraku issue changed between pre- and postwar Japan because the postwar reforms swept aside the absolutist emperor system and semifeudal relations; this eradicated the foundation for buraku discrimination in post war society.

2) The realization that discrimination is in the process of disappearing.

3) The resolution of the buraku issue is now in sight as the democratization of Japan continues (Hatanaka, 1998: 176-7, quoting Mahara, 1992).

This is very close to Hatanaka’s position as summarized earlier. Hatanaka’s discussion of the “end of buraku history” thus has three dimensions:

1) There is no meaningful sense in which buraku history existed before the mid-nineteenth century because the buraku did not exist. There were, of course, deprived social groups, pariah groups even, that faced institutional discrimination, but the social context was quite different.

2) To explain and understand the issues and problems that face burakumin today, the earliest we need to go back is the 1960s, just possibly 1945; there is nothing to learn from earlier history.

3) Buraku history is now almost over. There is no reason why the status or group should continue to exist and we should beware of creating structures that, while intended to help eradicate, in fact sustain the problem.

Toward a Solution?

What would a solution to the buraku problem look like? We can summarize the rival views in table 1.

These views are not radically divergent. In a sense the differences are just a question of emphasis. Neither side would argue that these conditions have been achieved, although each side would disagree about how close they are and what is necessary to create this state of affairs. Okiura and those in his camp argue that discrimination continues to exist–perhaps not as explicitly as before but nevertheless still deeply affecting the life prospects of many, if not most burakumin. Meanwhile, Hatanaka and his supporters assert vigorously that buraku discrimination is no longer a serious issue and that where buraku individuals do encounter social problems, not all of the differences between buraku and non-buraku families or communities can be explained by discrimination. For example, there may be low expectations for educational performance in buraku families but they are shared by all families where there have been generations earning low incomes, not all of whom will be buraku. To cite a different example: some have expressed concerns that a “digital divide” may be emerging as evidence accumulates that there are fewer PCs in buraku than in non-buraku households, but this may simply be related to the average age of household members, which tends to be higher in buraku communities (Terazono, 2002: 210).

The Deliberative Council for Buraku Assimilation produced an influential report in 1965, which described a vicious circle of discrimination that restricted life chances; this resulted in people living in impoverished conditions whose images reinforced the prejudices that justified discrimination (Prime Minister’s Office, 1965). A massive investment program that began in 1969 aimed to interrupt and where possible reverse this cycle of despair. Is there any evidence of success?

Substantial data exist generated by a major survey carried out by the government in 1993 (Somucho, 1995). The survey has a range of statistics showing that, although conditions had improved compared to the fairly recent past, significant differences still could be found between burakumin performance and the national averages. For example, reliance on “livelihood security” (welfare payments) was less in 1993 than in 1975 among burakumin (52 percent compared with 76 percent), but it remained well above the national average (7.1 percent) and was almost twice as high as that of non-burakumin living in the same ward (28.2 percent) (Somucho, 1995: 4). While the national average for those working in enterprises with over 300 workers (where workers are likely to receive higher pay and enjoy better working conditions and greater job security) was 23.3 percent, the overall average for burakumin was only 10.6 percent (although it was higher for workers in their 20s, suggesting perhaps a decline in discrimination) (Somucho, 1995: 20). More than 70 percent of people age 60 and over had married within the buraku community, compared with less than 25 percent of those in their 20s (Somucho, 1995: 12). Moreover, in a survey of the mainstream community completed at the same time, only 5 percent reported that they would oppose their child’s marriage to someone they knew to be a burakumin (Somucho, 1995: 31). Does this suggest that the problem is still deeply rooted or moving toward a solution?

The increase in exogamy (often regarded as indicating the highest degree of social acceptance)–over 70 percent of people ages 24 to 29 in Osaka buraku had marriage partners from outside the buraku community–and reports of a reduction of opposition to marriage with burakumin might indicate a decline in prejudice. Such evidence on changing attitudes needs to be assessed with care as most people will know what is the “right” answer to the question and it may be that they would not necessarily act accordingly if faced with a real situation. Anecdotal evidence from private detective agencies that are often employed to check out a fiance(e)’s background suggests that many more than 5 percent of parents are prepared to pay substantial sums to make sure their offspring do not bring a burakumin into the family.

As for the data on employment, education performance, and the like, we are limited in that we only have information on the performance of around I million burakumin who remain in buraku communities. We know that at least as many, possibly as many as 1.8 million, live in the wider society and we have no data about them or their children. As Meerman concludes, “it is impossible to gauge the progress to parity of the majority of the buraku minority (as measured by income or other marker of socio-economic status)” (Meerman, 2002: 15). We might want to speculate on the impact of almost 10 years of slow to no economic growth and high levels of unemployment on the buraku community. Would a survey carried out today find a deterioration in living standards? Even if it did, it would tell us nothing about those who no longer live in buraku communities.

There is sufficient ambiguity in this data for both sides to continue to make their case. JCP supporters and government agencies argue that most differences are disappearing or can be explained by factors other than simple discrimination. Tomonaga Kenzo and his colleagues in the BLL’s research institute suggest, however, that this and similar data indicate significant differences still exist in living standards and life expectations within the discriminated buraku communities that justify the continuation of projects specially targeted at them.

The programs that began as a ten-year plan in 1969 were extended for periods of three to five years until they finally came to an end in March 2002, at least at the national level. The section of the prime minister’s office in charge of this program said it concluded the programs because major changes had been brought about in conditions within and surrounding the buraku communities; because of the massive projects implemented so far; because continuing the programs would not necessarily result in eliminating discrimination; and because, given the rate of population movement, it is difficult to implement schemes that target only burakumin (Terazono, 2002: 208).

Critics of the BLL would add that continuing programs that benefit only burakumin has a negative impact because it causes many, especially the urban poor who do not have access to these programs, to feel that it is now they who are discriminated against. The danger is that continuing “special projects” will only harden remaining prejudice. Any community improvement programs launched in the future should, they say, be open to all those who could benefit from them. Moreover, their formulation and their implementation should be transparent. This criticism is sometimes taken further to accuse the BLL and its leaders of having benefited organizationally and personally from the movement’s close involvement in the administration of the improvement projects. These allegations of corrupt practice are difficult to assess. The documentation seems convincing enough but one wonders whether the activities described involve any greater malfeasance than in the myriad other public works projects being implemented at any time in Japan (or anywhere else for that matter) (Terazono, 2002).

The end of the special projects marks an important challenge for the BLL. It has taken part in the administration of many of the projects to ensure, it says, that funds are used in the most effective way for the benefit of burakumin. Critics argue that it has used this position to monopolize and direct the flow of funds in the direction of its members. A survey of its membership in Osaka suggests that as many as 70 percent joined in order to ensure access to housing, grants, or other resources. Some local projects continue. Osaka prefecture had a budget for fiscal year 2000-2003 of [yen] 2230 million (approximately $18.5 million) for 30 projects to which burakumin will have privileged access (Terazono, 2002: 217). However, the “pie” is now smaller and we can expect a drop in support for the BLL as the material rewards of membership become less. The JCP, of course, is convinced that this would not be a bad outcome, since it regards the BLL as responsible for maintaining an awareness of differences between burakumin and the mainstream when its material basis has ceased to exist. To which the BLL responds that there continues to be a need to promote human rights protection for the sake of its members, burakumin and all other residents of Japan.

We might finally consider the significance of open secret that a senior member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, mentioned as a possible prime minister, is of buraku origin. Yet this has seldom been mentioned in either his Japanese- or English-language profiles. Should we regard this as evidence that barriers to advancement for burakumin are growing weaker all the time? Or should we be more impressed by the fact that it remains difficult to discuss a person’s background openly to the extent that I too feel unable to mention him by name?


Standard histories of Japan, including the exhaustive six-volume Cambridge History of Japan, have largely ignored the buraku issue. The last three volumes of the History, which cover the period from 1550 to the mid-twentieth century, contain just four references to burakumin and their predecessors (Hall et al., 1988, 1989, 1991). More recent work, such as the history produced by Totman (2000) that was quoted extensively earlier, provides better coverage. Moreover, there is now a substantial body of academic work in English. Nagahara (1979), Ooms (1996), and Groemer (2001) have written about the premodern history of the problem. In addition to the pioneering work of DeVos and Wagatsuma (1972) that first published in the 1960s, there is work by Upham (1987, 1993), Neary (1989, 1997), and more recently McLauchlan (2000) and Su-Lan Reber (1999) on developments within buraku communities in the twentieth century and the impact of government policy. There are even more specialized works that consider the images of discrimination in Japanese literature, such as those published by Dodd (1996), Andersson (2001), and Fowler (2000).

Nevertheless, there is little appreciation outside Japan of the huge amount of work in Japanese. Ooms notes that historians have produced a “monumental body of research about the Tokugawa history of today’s burakumin” (1996: 6). As we have seen, a substantial amount of research about the earlier period has also been undertaken; scholars from all branches of the social sciences have worked on facets of the buraku problem. Naturally, there is no unanimity among these scholars and this article has tried to indicate some aspects of the major disagreements.

But are burakumin a pariah group? Although they have been marginalized by those in power and were regarded as less than human, it would be wrong to see them as an ethnic group and there is little of their language or culture that they do not also share with the rest of the population of Japan. To use a slightly different term, they cannot even be regarded as an “encompassed community” with a shared collective identity or lifestyle. There is evidence that they faced, and maybe still face, structural disadvantages in the employment and marriage–disadvantages equivalent perhaps to those encountered by the disabled or Koreans resident in Japan. But do they therefore need or deserve special rights or other formal assistance to enable them to exercise equal citizenship? As we have seen, considerable debate continues about this. From the evidence reviewed in this article, we can suggest two tentative conclusions. First, if there had been a time in the twentieth century or earlier that burakumin might have been regarded as a “pariah minority,” they no longer are. Second, although substantial disagreement exists among Japanese researchers about the background to the issues, there is also some common ground. Even if they disagree about, whether burakumin are at the end of their history, there is agreement that they should be.

Table 1: Policy Positions of the JCP and BLL


Differences between buraku and Real conditions of discrimination

neighbors in living environment, disappear, including inferior

employment, education, and physical environment, educational

other concerns are corrected. and employment abilities.

A condition is created so that “Psychological discrimination”

society does not accept disappears in marriage and employ-

unscientific knowledge of the ment.

buraku question and prejudiced


In the course of struggling Human rights and democracy

against the discrimination of the become realities.

buraku, the historical

backwardness in the buraku

people’s living standards and

habits is overcome.

In society, free communication is An actual situation is realized in

developed, as is reconciliation which even if buraku remain and

with solidarity. truth about a burakumin’s identity

is known, no one will discriminate.

Adapted from Su-Lan Reber (1999: 347).


(1) In this article I will use the following Japanese conventions to refer to broad periods of Japanese history: 670-1250 Ancient Period (kodai), 1250-1590 Middle Ages (chusei), 1590-1868 Early Modern (kinsei), and 1868- Modern (gendai).


Andersson, Rene. Burakumin and Shimazaki Toson’s Hakai: Images of Discrimination in Modern Japanese Literature. Lund: Lund University. 2002.

Buraku Mondai Kenkyujo, ed. Buraku Rekishi to Buraku Kaiho Undo (Buraku History and Buraku Liberation Movement) Kyoto: Buraku Mondai Kenkyujo, 1955.

DeVos, George, and Wagatsuma Hiroshi. Japan’s Invisible Race. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Dodd, Stephen. “Japan’s Private Parts.” Japan Forum 8:1 (1996): 3-11.

Fowler, Edward. “The Buraku in Modern Japanese Literature: Texts and Contexts.” Journal of Japanese Studies 26:1 (2000): 1-39.

Groemer, Gerald. “The Creation of an Edo Outcaste Order.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 27:2 (2001): 263-293.

Hall, John W., Marius B. Jansen, Kanai Madoka, and Denis Twitchett, eds. Cambridge History of Japan. Vols. 4-6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, 1989, 1991.

Hatanaka Toshiyuki. “Burakushi” no Owari (The End of Buraku History). Kyoto: Kamogawa Shuppan, 1998.

Hoston, Germaine A. Marxism and the Crisis of Development in Prewar Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Inoue Kiyoshi. “Buraku Kaihoron to Burakushi no Kadai” (“Buraku Liberation Theory and Themes in Buraku History”). Buraku Mondai 18 (Oct. 1950): 1-10.

Kuroda Toshio. “Chusei no Mibunsei to Hisen Gainen” (“The Middle Ages Status System and the Concept of Low Class”). Buraku Mondai 33 (May 1972). Later published with some revisions in Nihon Chusei no Kokka to Shukyo (State and Religion in Japan’s Middle Ages). Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1975: 377-90.

Mahara Tetsuo. Buraku Kaiho Undo no Nanajunen (Seventy Years of the Buraku Liberation Movement). Kyoto: Shin Nihon Shinsho, 1992.

McLauchlan, Alastair. “The Current Circumstances of Japan’s Burakumin.” New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 2:1 (2000): 120-144.

Meerman, Jacob. “The Mobility of Japan’s Burakumin.” Unpublished ms., 2002.

Nagahara Keiji. “The Medieval Origins of the Eta-Hinin.” Journal of Japanese Studies 5:2 (1979): 385-403.

Neary, Ian. Political Protest and Social Control in Pre-War Japan. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.

–. “Burakumin in Contemporary Japan.” Japan’s Minorities. Ed. M. Weiner. London: Routledge, 1997.

Niunoya Tetsuichi. “Kebiishi to Kiyome” (Police and Purification). Historia 87 (1979): 57-78.

Okiura Kazuteru. “Burakushi” Ronso o Yomitoku (Reinterpreting the Debate on Buraku History). Osaka: Kaiho Shuppansha, 2000.

Ooms, Herman. Tokugawa Village Practice: Class, Status, Power, Law. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.

Prime Minister’s Office. Dowa Taisaku Shingikai Toshin (Report of the Deliberative Council for Buraku Assimilation). Tokyo: Prime Minister’s Office, August 1965.

Somucho. Heisei Gonendo Dowachiku Jittai Haakuto Chosakekka no Gaiyo (Outline of the Results of the 1993 Survey to Assess Conditions in the Dowa Areas). Tokyo: Somuchokanbo Chiiki Kaizen Taisakushitsu, 1995.

Su-Lan Reber, Emily. “Buraku Mondai in Japan.” Harvard Human Rights Journal 12 (Spring 1999): 297-359.

Terazono Atsushi, Ichinomiya Yoshinari, and Gruupu K21. Dowa Riken and Shinso (The Truth about Dowa Vested Interests). Tokyo: Takarajimasha, 2002.

Totman, Conrad. A History of Japan. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Upham, Frank. Law and Social Change in Postwar Japan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

–. “Unplaced Persons and Movements for Place.” Postwar Japan as History. Ed. Andrew Gordon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Ian Neary has recently published The State and Politics in Japan (2002) and Human Rights in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan (2002). He is currently working on a biography of Matsumoto Jiichiro.

COPYRIGHT 2003 New School for Social Research

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group