Untouchables remain touchy
in pedigree-conscious Japan

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 123(9), 1 March 1984, pages 35-36

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the FEER version.

Caution -- The so-called burakumin referred to in this article do not exist.
See Buraku residents under Minorities.

A Japanese might get upset if taken for a Korean or Filipino. But if he is caleld an eta, he will reel at this "misunderstanding" of Japan. One reason is that this three-letter word, referring to the largest outcaste group of the Tokugawa period (1600-1867), is strictly taboo in Japanese mass media and academia. Some Japanese seem to go through life never learning it, while others deeply repress any incidentally acquired knowledge of it and the outcaste group it historically refers to.

Eta is the foulest pejorative in James Clavell's Shogun (1975). And all its references to eta, except for part of one scene, were censored from the first edition of the Japanese translation (1980), having been deemed inaccurate or misleading. But even this part was forced out of the second edition by residents of former outcaste communities who disputed the translator's contention that it was correct. So now no explicit mention is made of the minority group that so prominently (if somewhat imaginatively) figured in Clavell's original story, which he wrote as fiction, not history.

Edwin O. Reischauer's The Japanese (1977) devotes over half a page to the eta and the burakumin, residents of former outcaste communities, who are still being discriminated against today, despite an 1871 government order abolishing the caste system. Reischauer, a Harvard professor emeritus who was born and raised in Japan and once served as the U.S. ambassador to Tokyo, is not an expert on such problems. But his account, though third-hand and slightly flawed, is more useful than nothing. Yet Bungei Shunju, one of Japan's most distinguished publishing houses, was persuaded by burakumin groups to cut Reischauer's entire discussion of both eta and burakumin from its Japanese translation (1979), and it deleted other mentions of these two groups or rewrote them in proletarian terms.

The "unmentionable untouchables" that keep the censors so busy are often discussed in the context of Japan's ethnic and national minorities. Most burakumin, however, are neither. There are a number of speculative theories that medieval outcastes were the descendants of Korean war captives or subjugated indigenous groups. But in fact most burakumin are racially and culturally indistinguishable from other Yamato Japanese.

Koreans and other minorities who reside in buraku (former outcaste communities) may also be identified as burakumin (residents of such communities), particularly if they are married to a Japanese burakumin. And so not all burakumin have the same national origins. And buraku residents who emigrate to countries like the United States may continue to be identified as "outcastes" by non-buraku Japanese immigrants who learn of their buraku origins.

Anyone who resides in a buraku -- although most buraku are indistinguishable from surrounding neighborhoods -- is susceptible to social discrimination as outcastes, particularly in employment and marriage. The national domicile register system makes it relatively easy for private investigators to discover former addresses. Hence those who move out of a buraku and "pass" in the mainstream are pursued by the risk that their past associations with a "marked" community may be discovered by someone who would not welcome a person with such a background.

Discrimination against the burakumin is exacerbated by the high value that many non-burakumin place on social status and family pedigree. Beliefs in "genetic pollution" are so widespread that even second and third generation descendants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors may have difficulty getting married if they openly acknowledge their ancestral ties with people who were exposed to the atomic radiation, directly or through birth.

Concern with "ritual purity" is one of the most important elements of Yamato culture. When a despised visitor leaves a home or shop, the owner will throw salt around the entrance to purify the contaminated area. This ancient Shinto practice, also seen in sumo wrestling, is one of many ways in which Yamato Japanese continue to observe ablution and other rituals intended to cleanse a place or object that is thought to have been defiled by some form of pollution.

Blood and death are the traditional forms of defilement in Shinto, an indigenous animistic religion. But attitudes toward killing animals in Buddhism, an imported faith, have also tended to lower the status of people who dispose of the dead and work with animal skins -- both of which were traditional outcaste occupations.

Religious taboos alone, however, do not explain why many outcastes during the Tokugawa period were not engaged in such "polluting" work, and farmed or made bamboo products. And so some historians argue that the occupations themselves did not engender discrimination, but rather that outcastes were forced by their ascribed social status to pursue jobs that became undesirable simply because they did them. This be as it may, the early history of outcastes in Japan remains a convolution of uncertainties that Marxist historians capitalize on by reducing to a simple question of class exploitation.

Whatever view of history one adopts, the legal formalization of discrimination against outcastes during the Tokugawa period is a sufficiently clear point from which to begin an understanding of the conditions that immediately precipitated the present burakumin problem. Kojien, Japan's most widely-used and authoritative single-volume dictionary, covers the more salient aspects of this history in its definition of "eta", which translates as follows from the just-out 3rd (December 1983) edition:

Written since medieval times with Chinese characters which mean "much filth". In medieval and premodern times, one of the outcaste statuses. Eta were employed to, among other things, dispose of dead cattle and horses, and were engaged in the arrest and execution of criminals. Under the rule of the Edo [Tokugawa] government, eta -- along with hinin [non-people] -- were assigned to a status below that of warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants, and in general their places of residence and their occupations were restricted, and many participated in leatherwork. But even after they were entered on the rolls of the common people in accordance with an 1871 Cabinet Order, social discrimination continued, and at present it has still not been eradicated.

There is no mention of "burakumin", but the following definition of "buraku" is given:

An area where people, who have come to receive strong discriminatory treatment status-wise and socially, live as a group. The buraku were formed during the Edo period, and though their residents were legally liberated from their [outcaste] status in 1871, social discrimination has at present not yet been entirely eradicated. Also called "mikaiho buraku" [unliberated communities], and "hisabetsu buraku" [discriminated communities].

One-third of Japan's over three-thousand cities, towns, and villages have areas that are officially called dowa chiiku (areas to be integrated), and some municipalities have more than one buraku. A special government census taken in 1975 -- one of seven conducted since 1921 -- found 4,374 buraku in 1,040 municipalities in 34 of Japan's 47 prefectures. More than 1.1 million [1,119,278] people were considered dowa kankei (integration related), a euphemism for burakumin. This means that at least 1.0 percent of the national population at the time consisted of people who were nominally susceptible to discrimination as outcastes.

The 1975 count was down one-third from the 1.5 percent figure computed in 1921, and lower than the 1.3 percent figure for 1958. But this is no assurance that the burakumin are "passing away" into the general population, for the government surveys have been criticized for being notoriously inconsistent. Buraku liberation groups claim a population of around 3 million, in as many as six-thousand buraku, while most academics and journalists compromise at about 2 million, or nearly 2 percent of the national population.

About half of Japan's burakumin are concentrated in the seven western Kansai prefectures, where they average nearly three-percent of the prefectural populations (Osaka 1.8 percent, Kyoto 2.2 percent, Hyogo 3.1 percent, Wakayama 4.4 percent, Nara 5.8 percent). In the six eastern Kanto prefectures centering on Tokyo, however, they accounted for only 0.3 percent of the general population. But Tokyo itself, and a number of northern and southern prefectures like Hokkaido and Okinawa, did not report whether they had any formerly segregated communities.

The higher densities of burakumin in the Kansai area, the womb of old Japan, are compounded by large numbers of permanently residing Koreans, who constituted 2.0 percent and 1.7 percent of the populations of Osaka and Kyoto in 1975. The combined populations of burakumin (social) and Korean (ethnic) outcastes in these two prefectures are therefore about four percent, which does not include other minorities.

Such figures cast out any notion that Japan is a homogeneous country. And protests against all forms of discrimination, expressed by minorities in the media and the courts, also cast doubt on the view that Japan is a particularly harmonious society.

According to University of California at Berkeley anthropologist George De Vos, the karma of discrimination against burakumin is transmitted from one generation to the next. The descendants of the "oppressors" inherit a burden of unfaced guilt that most non-buraku Japanese expiate by denying the existence of a caste problem, while the parents of the "victims" bequeath to their children a debilitation of the human spirit that manifests in the form of higher rates of illiteracy, delinquency, unemployment, and welfare -- all patterns associated with racial castes like blacks in the United States.

People who live in buraku have difficultly getting jobs in the mainstream. Since 1970, nearly a dozen buraku place-name lists have surfaced in the personnel departments of some of Japan's major companies and banks. Some were based on lists published during the 1930s by the government in conjunction with official reports on buraku problems. The lists have been used to screen the present and past addresses of applicants and their relatives to identify those with buraku backgrounds, and frustrate their dreams of escape from the fetters of a legally proscribed but socially indelible status. The government has scolded employers caught with such lists, but those exposed are thought to be only the tip of a huge iceberg.

A strong tendency toward endogamy (reinforced mainly by non-buraku Japanese objections to "intercaste" marriages), and social passing (moving into the "mainstream" while trying to cover all tracks that lead back to one's origins in the buraku), help set the stage for suicide, especially among young women rejected in marriage. Many cases are reported, most of them involving engagements that have ended when the man's family learned that the woman had buraku ties of which she herself may not even have been aware.

But in March 1983, the Osaka District Court served warning that such discrimination will not be tolerated. The decision ordered a man and his parents to pay his former fiancee 5 million yen (US$20,000) in damages for breaking a ten-year relationship that entailed several postponements of marriage because of parental objection to her alleged burakumin status.

In the midst of such slow but steady progress on the social front, national spending on buraku development projects -- including housing, schools, and community centers, but also "integration enlightenment" programs intended to spread understanding of discrimination problems -- averaged more than 50 billion yen (about US$200 million) per year during the 1970s. In some "integration areas" the amount of spending has led to charges of "reverse discrimination" by non-burakumin who have found themselves at the short end of urban improvement budgets. But burakumin groups, arguing that their communities still need special attention, succeeded in getting the 1969 Law on Special Measures for Integration Policy Activities, which would have expired in 1979, extended to 1982, and again to 1987.

A second deliberation council, appointed by the Prime Minister's Office, has succeeded the first, which managed the special measures law through 1982. Renamed without the keyword dowa (integration), and chaired by respected urban sociologist Eiichi Isomura, it is chartered to come up with a fundamental human rights law that serves the interests of non-burakumin minorities as well, hopefully by the time the present law expires. But no one is very optimistic.

Meanwhile, the editors of Mainichi Shimbun, one of Japan's leading national dailies, are recovering from a recent (September 1983) "impeachment" [denouncement] by burakumin groups who criticized the appearance of the word hinin (non-person) in a letter from a reader, and then militantly objected when the paper's public apology replaced the "outcaste" word with hi-ningen-teki (un-human-like). But the context had nothing to do with social minorities like burakumin, much less the physically and mentally handicapped.

Had Alex Haley written Roots under similarly irrational standards of censorship, he could not have used "nigger" -- even in realistic dialog. The Japanese have a proverb for this: kusai mono ni wa futa o shiro -- literally "put a lid on smelly things", but meaning "out of sight, out of mind".

In sharp contrast with this ostrich-like mentality, an almost "ethnic" pride is taken in the ferro-concrete flats that are gradually rising in place of the unsanitary wooded hovels that have characterized the economically more depressed buraku. Thus it may be a few more generations before Japan's "invisible race" becomes truly invisible.