Outcasts of history

Ferro-concrete monuments to discrimination

By William Wetherall

A review of
Sueo Murakoshi and Yoshi Miwa (editors)
Discrimination Against Buraku, Today
(Illustrated by Charts & Tables)
[from the research results on the reality in each prefecture]
Osaka: Buraku Liberation Research Institute, 1986
10, 145 pages, softcover

A version of this article appeared as
"Outcasts of history" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 136(26), 25 June 1987 page 50

A very different version earlier appeared as
"Is There a Permanent Subclass in Japan?" in
The Japan Times, 27 December 1986, page 8

The book, like others published by the Buraku Liberation Research Institute (now called Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute), used Buraku and Burakumin throughout. FEER editors respected my wish not to capitalize buraku or burakumin in my own commentary. They also kept my bracketed remark in a citation of "Burakumin" that "the capital letter stresses something".

Later I stopped using even burakumin, since no such people exist. I also started using buraku only to designate a present-day political vestige of a former outcaste settlement. See Buraku residents under Minorities for further qualifications.

Japan, like other demographically complex countries, has many social problems which have been around for centuries and may never be solved. Discrimination against the burakumin seems to be one of them.

The burakumin are neither a racial nor an ethnic minority. Most burakumin are members of the Japan's Yamato ethnic majority. They are labelled burakumin because they are min (people) who live in buraku (communities) which were once outcaste settlements.

Burakumin are the 1 to 3 million residents of some 4,000 to 6,000 communities which were segregated until 1871, when the Japanese government officially abolished the caste system that had been defined by law since medieval times and by custom since antiquity. Their ancestors, in the days when such people were officially called eta (much filth), may have been employed in "unclean" occupations like disposal of the dead or leatherwork. Or they may have been makers of bamboo products, if not farmers or merchants without portfolio, so to speak.

All that matters today is that many burakumin must still expect to experience discrimination in employment and marriage, by companies and families which check the present and former addresses of prospective employees or in-laws against lists of former outcaste neighborhoods.

This book is the most detailed summary in English of statistics on burakumin life. Its 67 charts, 20 tables, and accompanying explanations are divided into 14 subjects: (1) the number of buraku and their distribution, (2) buraku households and population, (3) housing and living environment, (4) health, (5) living standards, (6) employment, (7) industry, (8) agriculture, (9) education, (10) elderly persons, (11) physically handicapped persons, (12) experiences of discrimination, (13) marriage discrimination, and (14) public awareness.

The numbers themselves may be accurate, but the explanations leave much to be desired. The section on education stands out as one in which the logic and language are reasonably clear.

Burakumin children are much more likely than non-burakumin children not to be enrolled in school or complete only compulsory education. Only 21.9 percent of all burakumin have graduated from high school and 3.4 percent from college, compared with 38.1 percent and 13.7 percent, respectively, of all people in Japan

But the education gap is closing. In 1963, only 30 percent of burakumin were advancing to high school compared to 66.8 percent nationwide. In 1985, these figures were respectively 87.3 percent and 94.1 percent. The rate of advancement to college was only 17.6 percent for burakumin in 1982, less than half the nationwide peak of 38.3 percent in 1978. The dropout rate for burakumin students in Osaka prefectural high schools has been about 8 percent, which is four times the 2 percent maximum for all students.

"Japan now boasts herself as a nation free of illiterates," this book observes. "However, Burakumin [the capital letter stresses something] have long suffered from illiteracy." About 16 percent of all burakumin report having "great difficulty" reading and writing. No data was presented for the general population, but a 1985 survey on scholastic achievement among students in "Dowa [integration] education promotion schools" in Osaka, revealed that students from buraku score lower than students from outside buraku, and that the gap increases with grade level.

Most chapters suffer from poor translation, incomplete analysis, or spurious reasoning. For example, no adequate explanation is given for the large discrepancies between the smaller government counts of "Buraku segregated ghettoes" and "Burakumin [Buraku people]," and the higher numbers which the compilers claim are "generally said" to exist. Perhaps they feel that refining demographic data is less important than demonstrating the pathological effects of discrimination (which they succeed in doing despite the stylistic defects).

More objective writers would have raised (ideologically suicidal) questions such as: whether the supposedly uncounted burakumin in the allegedly un-cooperative buraku, are burakumin because the buraku liberation movement regards them as such, or whether they are not burakumin because they do not wish to be so labelled in anyone's census. The demographic disparities may also reflect the differences in goals between, on the one hand, the conservative government organs which would like to solve the integration problem by doing away with the word "integration" -- and, on the other hand, the propensity to publicise a cause through hyperbole.

The chapter on industry presents a good example of the ambivalent and contradictory attitudes that buraku emancipators have towards discrimination. "Buraku businesses tend to be located in close proximity, creating a clear pattern of business distribution among different Buraku communities. Tanning, secondary processing, making of sandals, slippers, bamboo crafts, meat processing, disassembly of cars, production of renewed resources and other Buraku businesses have made some Buraku famous."

Jargon and all, this may be true. And it may also be true that "The pre-modern aspects and small-scale operations of Buraku businesses come from historical discrimination about Burakumin." But for unstated ideological reasons, the book states: "The businesses cited about are all socially indispensable, and we need to protect them against the entry of big capital." And perhaps the "liberation" of beef imports.

The major drawback of this book is that it does not give a clear introduction to what the integration problem has been and is. The question is asked but not really answered in one of the appendixes, which shows instead that even buraku liberators can be racists.

The dilemma of the buraku problem is that, as people who claim to be burakumin become willing to wear the political badges of victims who seek special attention in social policy and law, the more likely that burakumin identity and its stigma will remain indelible.

In this sense, the burakumin are like the hibakusha, or A-bomb survivors and their descendants. Both groups can be called pseudo- or quasi-ethnic minorities which experience discrimination, especially in marriage, as do most real ethnic minorities, because of beliefs that they are socially or genetically inferior. Both groups are also becoming increasing permanent minorities as the social movements which support their causes widen.

Some burakumin and hibakusha would just as soon do without all the fanfare. But they will get attention as long as their leaders continue to build ferro-concrete community centres and other monuments to their existence. Or as long as some non-burakumin and non-hibakusha are possessed by irrational needs to discriminate against those they regard as outcasts of history or war.


Far Eastern Economic Review, in Hong Kong, received the following letter from Buraku Liberation Research Institute, in Osaka, dated 1 August 1987.

Dear Sirs,

We appreciate that you carried a review article on Discrimination Against Buraku, Today, our publication, in the June 25 issue of Far Eastern Economic Review to invite attention to the buraku discrimination problem.

It is often difficult, however, for people outside Japan to correctly understand the nature of this problem because it originated in the status discrimination system institutionalized in the feudal period and is not based on racial, linguistic, religious or other differences. The review article appears to be affected by this difficulty.

We cannot help but to raise some questions about its content. In the hope that we will receive a response from the author Mr. Wetherall, we briefly lay out four issues in the following pages. This correspondence, we believe, will help people in the world to better understand the buraku discrimination problem in Japan.

The letter was signed by BLRI's secretary-general, and attached, as promised, were two-and-a-half single-spaced pages of commentary organized under five headings. The letter and commentary are polite. BLRI is the research arm of Buraku Liberation League. But BLRI it is also BLL's media watchdog and PR organ. So BLRI's secretary-general writes a lot of letters intended to "help" people everywhere "better understand" the buraku discrimination problem.

The reference to "people outside Japan" reflects a widespread attitude toward the ability of "foreigners" to understand Japan. Ironically, most of BLRI's publications are written in Japanese for "people inside Japan" who are also assumed to know little or nothing, or to be misinformed, about buraku problems.

Tellingly, the content on the English and Japanese sections of BLRI's website (see Buraku residents under Japan on the Minorities menu) is significantly different -- again reflecting the notion that "people outside Japan" may not have the ability to understand the kinds of explanations aimed at people inside the country.

Here I will cite and comment on the main points of BLRI's commentary. The five headings are as they were written. The citations, too, are as they were written, except that I have corrected the misspelling of my name and a couple of other minor spelling and grammar mistakes. I have also corrected a misprint in the original article, which BLRI had caught and marked with a "sic" in its commentary.

1. On the purpose of the publication

Mr. Wetherall writes; "The major drawback of this book is that it does not give a clear introduction to what the integration problem has been and is." This critique seems to be asking for something the book was not really designed for.

The commentary goes on to list five other BLRI publications, all in English, then states that "Mr. Wetherall is kindly advised to refer to these other books for further information if he needs an historical and introductory portrayal."

In fact, all five publications were already in my library. Also in my library were dozens of books in Japanese, many of the published by BLRI, including the original of the statistical report which had been summarized in the book I reviewed. BLRI seems to have missed the implication of my remark that "Most chapters suffer from poor translation."

In any case, none of the books BLRI advised I read addressed the critical questions I raised in my article. Most were written to inspire readers to support BLL's efforts to politically organize and dominate designated buraku communities as cells in its proletarian "liberation" movement.

BLRI is BLL's research arm. So of course its letter did not recommend that I read books, including some published by non-BLL buraku organizations, which criticize BLL's attempts to impose its own version of buraku history and problems on the world.

Nor did the letter explain why a summary of statistics entitled Discrimination Against Buraku, Today should not be expected to begin with decent, non-ideological overview of the complexities of the so-called "Buraku problem".

2. On the counts of buraku ghettoes and burakumin

Mr. Wetherall maintains; "Perhaps they feel that refining demographic data is less important than demonstrating the pathological effects of discrimination." This is a wrong perception. Available statistical data that is official and scientific has to be precisely presented. We have repeatedly asked the government to conduct nation-wide surveys to obtain such data. But 'the conservative governmental organs which would like to solve the integration problem by doing away with the word "integration"' [citing my review] keep ignoring us.

 . . .

"6,000 buraku ghettoes and three million burakumin" [citing any number of its own publications" is indeed symbolic. We do not, however, deliberately overcalculate the numbers. There are obviously many buraku ghettoes and burakumin that have been neglected and underserved officially. When Mr. Wetherall refers to "the propensity to publicise a cause through hyperbole" [citing my review] . . . We seriously question the validity of his perception of buraku discrimination.

 . . .

There are [undesignated] buraku people who oppose official dowa designation that qualifies their area to receive integration measures because they do not want to be intervened. Nevertheless, whether or not the community is dowa-designated and burakumin try to keep their origin unknown, there is no denying the objective existence of buraku and burakumin as so perceived in the eyes of non-burakumin.

The claim that the actual figures are as many as 6,000 buraku with over 3 million people is not merely symbolic. For the better part of a century, during which the official counts have been roughly 4,000 and 1,000,000, the insistence that another 2,000,000 burakumin are hiding away in another 2,000 buraku has been a pillar of "buraku liberation" propaganda.

Japan has a finite number of villages, towns, and cities. The country is crawling with professional and amateur historians who know the background of every locality. One has to assume that BLRI, given its deep interests in illuminating the history of buraku discrimination, knows exactly what areas in precisely what municipalities used to be inhabited by outcastes. So what is stopping them offering more precise, more credible counts of the "potential" numbers of "unliberated buraku" and "discriminated against" buraku residents?

Take a certain neighborhood in XYZ village, town, or city that is known to have been an outcaste settlement at the time of the 1871 emancipation edict. And say someone from BLL urges the present inhabitants to join BLL and gain designation as a "dowa chiiku" (integration area).

But the inhabitants say no. That was long ago. No one here cares about those things anymore.

Well, isn't that the end of it? If people are free not to be "intervened" by BLL-style community politics, or to otherwise consider themselves victims and seek special entitlements, what gives BLL/BLRI the right to count them -- even symbolically?

3. On buraku industries

We oppose the entry of big capital and the liberalization of beef imports because the government takes no effective measures to protect small-scale buraku businesses. Such protective measures hardly exist in Japan compared to those employed in Europe and the US.

I was a bit surprised by this frank implication, in a letter to an international weekly news magazine no less, that the opposition to the "liberalization of beef imports" was partly due to BLL lobbying. While I have not made a study of beef-liberalization politics, I know of no official -- politician or bureaucrat -- who has admitted admit, for public record, that part of the "beef problem" was the "buraku problem". Though journalists know the two are linked, local news reports are not in the habit of pointing this out.

The "big capital" remark reflects more than BLL's ideological "proletarian" interests. BLL covets funds from the government to improve facilities in designated buraku and keep itself in power. Naturally it opposes "capital" that would threaten its economic footing in buraku it politically dominates.

What all this comes down to is "riken" or "interests" -- in this case, the perpetuation of what used to be outcaste monopolies. When the caste system was abolished in 1871, the samurai lost their hereditary privileges and entitlements along with their status. Did not eta -- from the moment they were emancipated from their outcaste status, i.e., from the moment they ceased being eta -- also lose their right to dominate their hereditary industries? Apparently not.

In the 1980s, BLL was still closely affiliated with what was then the Japanese Socialist Party. In the 1960s and 1970s, BLL's Japanese Communist Party members broke away from the group and formed their own organization -- National Federation of Buraku Liberation Movements (Zenkoku Buraku Kaiho Undo Rengokai, abbreviated "Zenkairen") -- partly because BLL hardliners were not sufficiently interested in "class struggle".

BLL was bent on politicizing "unliberated buraku" more in terms of "discrimination" than in terms of "poverty". BLL was pushing for laws that would benefit "unliberated buraku" as a vestige of a historical minority, rather than for legislation that addressed the needs of a more general economic underclass.

In fact, in 1988, the year my FEER article appeared, BLL and BLRI, and a few other organizations, founded the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), which immediately applied to the United Nations for NGO status. Zenkairen twice successfully petitioned the UN to deny IMADR such status on the grounds that BLL was not a practitioner of the UN principle of freedom of expression.

Only after BLL cleaned up its public image did IMADR finally gain NGO status. What the IMADR story really tells us, though, is the extent to which BLL views "solidarity" as a matter of linking up with other organizations that represent "caste" minorities (such as in India) and indigenous, ethnic, and national minorities (such as Ainu and Koreans in Japan). IMADR now has an office in Geneva, but the organization is run from its original office in BLL's Matsumoto Jiichiro Memorial Hall in Roppongi in Tokyo.

IMADR is BLL's international front. It facilitates BLL's agenda regarding buraku issues in Japan, from its position that "buraku residents" constitute a "minority" to its campaign to persuade the Supreme Court to reverse its decision in the Sayama Case.

BLL advocates that "buraku residents" and even "former buraku residents" be regarded as a "descent minority" under the International Convention for Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). BLL maintains that discrimination in marriage is a major problem for buraku-related people, but denies that "discriminated buraku" are unusually endogamous. It also, of course, denies that descendants of yesteryear's outcastes constitute a racial or ethnic minority.

4. On the attention that burakumin get

Mr. Wetherall comments on social policies and laws that the liberation movement calls for to eliminate discrimination and on efforts to improve housing and other physical conditions in the following terms: "burakumin identity and its stigma will remain indelible"; "[burakumin] are becoming increasingly permanent minorities": "they will get attention as long as their leaders continue to build community centers and other monuments." We wonder if underlying these comments is a wrong view for the solution to the buraku discrimination problem one that has been deep-seated in Japan traditionally, based on the belief 'time will solve the problem if we don't raise issues and keep quiet'.

 . . .

The special attention-stigma is, therefore, not the inherent "dilemma of the buraku problem" but is to be discussed in the sphere of movement policy and leadership.

The point I attempted to made seems to have lost on BLRI. Of course conditions in impoverished communities need to be improved. And of course such improvements should benefit everyone.

The problem is that some buraku have been improved to the point that they have better facilities than surrounding neighborhoods. And some of the facilities are under the spell of BLL, has a vested interest in keeping its ideological fingers in the pie.

In principle, there are no "outcastes" in Japan. In principle, no person can be differentiated from another person on the basis of ancestry or other connection with yesteryear's outcastes. Yet BLL wishes to continue differentiate "buraku" from other neighborhoods, and present and even former "buraku residents" from other people.

True eradication of discrimination means elimination of all forms of differentiation -- but this would mean the end of BLL. For BLL survives only to the extent it can keep the torch of buraku victimhood burning.

Of course all this is "to be discussed in the sphere of movement policy and leadership" -- but I have not heard of contingencies for disbanding BLL. The organization does not appear to be planning to phase itself out. It is not withdrawing from communities where it has arguably accomplished its mission. It is not "liberating" buraku of its own political control.

This is the dilemma -- the double bind -- that will not go away until BLL admits that continued differentiation in the form of its own political movement and control, and its call for special laws, is the best way to assure continued discrimination.

5. Conclusion

Mr. Wetherall's critique of our book is based on his mistaken perception of the purpose of its publication. Furthermore, his analytic framework seems to be lacking in correct understanding of the nature of buraku discrimination.

This conclusion, like the cover letter, is mostly boilerplate reaction to anyone who disagrees with BLL's political goals. I have always written about "discrimination" with total sympathy for individuals who are differentiated and treated differently on account of their perceived real or imagined "race" or "sex" or "status" or whatever.

My objections have always been with the arguments and other means by which movement organizations combat discrimination.

For the record, the copy of the BLRI letter I received from FEER had been routed to my immediate editors from the magazine's managing editor. It bore their names and the comment "Interesting! Should send to Wetherall for [unreadable]" over his initial.

I do not have any other correspondence relating to BLRI's letter in my files. I recall writing a fairly short, printable rebuttal, assuming that FEER might want to run short version of BLRI's letter along with my reply. I assume my rebuttal was forwarded to BLRI. However, nothing was ever published, and I heard nothing more about the correspondence from my editors.

I have no idea whether anyone at BLRI saw my longer review in The Japan Times. If they did, apparently they saw no reason to send the paper a letter, for such a letter would have been brought to my attention.

Twenty years have passed since my reviews of Discrimination Against Buraku, Today. More recent statistical reports show even more improvements in the lives of buraku residents. Part of this improvement is due to the efforts of BLL and other organizations that advocate on behalf of buraku residents.

Yet I feel that "buraku" residents today would be even better off if their communities had been improved together with "non-buraku" communities, in accordance with community renewal and development policies that did not differentiate between "buraku" and "non-buraku".

Special measures perpetuate discrimination because they perpetuate differentiation.

The BLRI letter cited "affirmative action" in an example of special measures in the United States. Yet even then, in the late 1980s, affirmative action practices in college admissions and hiring were being increasing viewed as stigmatizing and divisive. They were also being seen as encouraging expectations of and dependency on special treatment, rather than achievement.

Also by then, the term "reverse discrimination" had made its way from the United States to Japan, where it was being applied to situations in which some "disadvantaged buraku" were actually better off than surrounding mainstream communities.

William Wetherall
7 February 2006