Buraku discrimination today

Figures show improvement but victimhood deepens

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
"Is There a Permanent Subclass in Japan?" in
The Japan Times, 27 December 1986, page 8

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


1. Population
2. Unclear figures
3. Sickness, income, unemployment
4. Education and literacy
5. Elderly and handicapped
6. Discrimination and intermarriage
7. Public awareness
8. Victimhood dilemma

I did not, in my draft of this review, capitalize buraku or burakumin. 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. The Japan Times, apparently thinking this was the "proper" way to render these nouns, also capitalized my usage.

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.

Ignore the lapses of proletarian ideology and the vestiges of unclear translationese, and accept on faith the accuracy of the data that is objectively presented. This book then becomes an informative summary of the problems faced by Japan's Burakumin -- the residents of Japan's former outcaste communities, and those who live outside such communities who are former residents or descendants thereof.

1. Population

Buraku (literally "community, village, hamlet") liberation movement leaders have usually claimed "6,000 Buraku segregated ghettoes and 3 million Burakumin (Buraku people)" [page 2].

A special census taken by the Japanese government in March 1985, however, counted 1,998,464 people in 556,148 households in 4,594 former outcaste Buraku throughout Japan, of which 1,163,372 (58.2 percent) people and 327,362 (58.9 percent) households were considered Burakumin.

This book explains the numerical discrepancies as follows [pages 2, 4]:

In the surveys conducted by the Prime Minister's Office, Dowa districts were defined as Buraku where Dowa (integration) measures had been executed or were to be executed. Nevertheless, there are still a large number of Buraku that haven't been designated as Dowa districts. There are Buraku suffering badly from discrimination as well as from inferior conditions. Some of them have been surveyed but not benefited at all from integration measures or are yet to be surveyed.

Surveys have not been conducted in some Buraku due to opposition from local Buraku residents. There are many such Buraku in Tohoku, Kanto and Hokuriku regions.

In Tokyo, Toyama and Fukushima, on the other hand, no designation has been made while there are Buraku and branches of the Buraku Liberation League established.

2. Unclear figures

None of this is very clear.

The authors show that the number of Buraku in government surveys has varied from 4,853 in 1921 and 5,365 in 1935, to 3,545 in 1967 and 4,374 in 1975.

Buraku either exist or they do not. And if they exist, there must be some quality, if only psychological or political, which distinguishes them from other communities.

The authors differentiate between Buraku communities which were included in the census and those which were not. But they fail to hazard a figure more definite than the suspiciously rounded 6,000. Why?

Why, in the first place, are the residents of some Buraku opposed to a government head count? Do they not want the government-dispensed benefits which the authors imply they need? Or do they not trust the government to count or otherwise treat them as they would like? Or do they not wish to be regarded as Burakumin?

And what does "while there are Buraku . . . established" mean? Is this a translation problem, or is the original text equally obscure?

3. Sickness, income, unemployment

The rest of the book consists of dozens of tables, charts, and graphs of data on all aspects of Burakumin life.

Buraku households have more members (3.5) than than the national average (3.3) [page 12].

Twice as many Burakumin (23.2 percent) than people nationwide (12.6 percent) are "sickly" or "people who are ill in bed, hospitalized, very weak and who go to the hospital regularly" [page 26]. The average "disease rate" (number of people afflicted by disease per 1,000 population) among Burakumin (0.4836) is 3.5 times the national rate (0.1362) [page 32].

The income of the average Buraku household (2.438 million yen) is only 60 percent that of the average household nationwide (4.129 million yen) [page 36]. Fewer Buraku households (79.8 percent) earn their incomes compared with the national average (88.1 percent) [page 34]. Some 11.2 percent of all Buraku households life on relief allowances compared with only 1.0 percent for Japan nationwide [page 34].

Fewer Burakumin "over 15 years of age" (15 years of age or older?) are employed (60.7 percent) compared with the national employment rate (63.4 percent). More Burakumin women in Osaka prefecture are employed (52.2 percent) than women throughout the prefecture (37.6 percent). [page 46]

Only 46.5 percent of all employable Burakumin have permanent jobs compared with 64.9 percent of the national labor pool [page 49]. Only 9.9 percent of Burakumin are employed in professional, technical, or managerial jobs against 13.5 percent nationwide [page 52]. While 37.1 percent of female workers throughout Japan have white collar jobs, only 17.2 percent of Burakumin women have such jobs [page 52].

4. Education and literacy

Regarding education, 38.6 percent of the national population "aged 15 years and above" have middle (or elementary) school education, while 38.1 percent graduated from high school and 13.7 percent from college. The corresponding figures for Burakumin are 59.6 percent graduated from middle (or elementary) school, 21.9 percent from high school, and 3.4 percent from college. [page 70]

Nationwide rates of advancement to high school have risen from 66.8 percent in 1963 to 94.1 percent in 1985, compared to 30.0 percent and 87.3 percent for Burakumin [page 74]. While the gap has considerably closed, high school dropout rates remain about four times higher for Burakumin, and advancement to college is only half the national rate.

Once in college, Burakumin and non-Burakumin alike have little opportunity to study Burakumin problems, as "Nearly four out of five colleges and universities have no courses on Buraku liberation." [page 80]

"Japan now boasts herself as a nation free of illiterates. However, Burakumin have long suffered from illiteracy. Particularly among elderly Burakumin, still many people do not read or write at all or easily." [page 82]

Sixteen percent of all Burakumin have "great difficulty" and 29.7 percent have "a little difficulty" reading and writing. Corresponding national figures were not reported. [page 83]

5. Elderly and handicapped

Elderly Buraku households get by on much lower incomes than elderly households nationwide [pages 84-85]. The percentage of elderly Burakumin on relief is greater (9.75 percent vs. 1.23 percent), and the duration of their relief status seems to be longer [page 85].

Of Osaka Prefecture elderly Burakumin "over 65" 33.1 percent never went to school compared with only 1.8 percent for older people in the prefecture. [page 86]

Nationwide, 32 percent of all elderly persons have completed secondary or higher educations against only 6.4 percent for elderly Burakumin.

The physical handicap rate for all Buraku is 32.03 per 1,000 population against 23.79 nationwide. [page 88]

The primary cause of handicaps for both Burakumin and non-Burakumin is "diseases in general." But 10.4 percent of all physical handicaps among Burakumin, compared to only 3.5 percent nationally, are attributed to "birth defects", while twice as many Burakumin handicaps than nationwide (19.1 vs. 9.0 percent) are results of "work injury". [page 90]

6. Discrimination and intermarriage

Of all Burakumin aged 15 and older 61.3 percent have experienced discrimination, most commonly in the vicinity of Buraku (32.1 percent), at time of marriage of others (22.5 percent), at school (20.8 percent), or at place of work or at time of job recruitment (18.2 percent). Those reporting not having experienced any discrimination total 22.3 percent, while 16.4 percent did not know whether they had ever been discriminated against. [pages 94-95]

Intermarriage between Burakumin and non-Burakumin seems to be increasing.

A 1984 survey of 17,373 Buraku couples showed that only 4.6 percent of all couples who had married "before 1925" consisted of one partner of Buraku origin and one partner of non-Buraku origin. The mixed-marriage rate increased for each five-year group to 49.4 percent for 1975-1979 couples, and 54.8 percent for couples married in or after 1980. [page 99]

All couples reporting discriminatory experiences related to their marriage totaled 32.4 percent, against 45.9 percent who reported having never experienced any discrimination. Those reporting that their marriages were opposed but that they did not know if the opposition was due to discrimination, totaled 12.5 percent, while 9.2 percent did not know if they had ever experienced discrimination. [page 105]

The generational differences are interesting. Forty percent of the couples married in or before 1925 reported discriminatory experiences. This figure dropped to 22.0 percent for 1935-1944 couples, and then it climbed to a high of 37.1 percent for couples married in or after 1980. [page 105]

The authors attributed this increase in discrimination to the rise in intermarriages. But some of the increase might be the result of a greater sensitivity toward discrimination acquired through education, that is, a greater inculcated propensity to interpret and label treatment toward oneself as discriminatory.

The sex of the Buraku partner seems to be a factor in some kinds of discrimination. 37.1 percent of all mixed couples in which the wife was of Buraku origin still face opposition to their marriage, compared to 27.1 percent of the couples where the husband was of Buraku origin. [page 106]

The authors did not attempt to explain this difference, but one can speculate that the families of the non-Buraku husbands may be more resentful that their son has married "out" as it were.

7. Public awareness

No nationwide survey on public recognition has yet been conducted. But various prefectural surveys have been carried out in recent years.

More than 90 percent of the (unreported number of) people surveyed in 13 prefectures were aware of discrimination against Burakumin. Over half had learned of "the Buraku problem" before age 15. [page 108]

More people reported becoming aware of the problem in the 6-12 age range than in the 12-15 age range. The authors cite this as evidence which they think debunks the idea that Buraku discrimination will go away if ignored. [page 108]

The basis for this claim is not clear.

The 6-12 year-old group spans 6 years (elementary school?), the 12-15 year-old group only 3 years (middle school?). While these groups are not clearly defined, there seems to be no significant difference between them when considering their different spans. If anything, awareness is most likely to come between ages 12-15. Progressively fewer people first became aware of Buraku discrimination when 15-18 (high school?) or 18-20 years old. [page 109]

8. Victimhood dilemma

All such figures prove is that people are most likely to learn about the Buraku problem before completing their compulsory education. The "Don't wake the sleeping baby" question [page 108] remains unanswered.

This, of course, is the dilemma of the Buraku problem. As people who claim to be Burakumin become more willing to wear the political badges of victims who seek special treatment in social policy and law, the more likely that Burakumin identity will become indelible.

Murakoshi claims that "the Burakumin was (sic) introduced incorrectly as a different race" in Japan's Invisible Race (University of California press, 1967, "revised" 1972) edited by anthropologists George De Vos and the late Hiroshi Wagatsuma. [page iii]

This is a total misreading of the book, which only attempts to show that Burakumin experience and react to discrimination much as do other social (especially caste and racial) minorities. Even "invisible" is not to be taken literally.

The De Vos and Wagatsuma book, as an edited publication of mixed scholarly standards, is not without problems. But however sinful it has become in the eyes of proletarian-spirited Buraku problem researchers, it offers rich universal insights into the psychocultural dynamics of debilitating discriminatory experiences.

The volume under review, and the other Buraku problem studies published in English and distributed through the Liberation Publishing House, merely supplement, update, and verify what De Vos and Wagatsuma (and other non-Marxist scholars) have observed.

A race or not even metaphorically, the Burakumin are figuratively invisible only in the eyes of those who would ignore them. In the title of their 1977 book (Buraku Liberation Institute, Osaka), Roger Yoshino and Murakoshi called them The Invisible Visible Minority.

Like the Hibakusha, another pseudo- or quasi-ethnic group, the Burakumin are an increasingly visible and permanent social minority. They will be around as long as they insist on building ferro-concrete community centers and other monuments to their existence. Or as long as some non-Burakumin are possessed by irrational needs to discriminate against them.