Burakumin in ( Japanese: “hamlet people”) also called eta (“an abundance of defilement”), or “untouchable,” is an outcaste Japanese minority group at the bottom of the traditional Japanese social system. The Japanese term eta is highly pejorative, but prejudice has tended even to tarnish the otherwise neutral term burakumin itself.
No physical characteristics distinguish burakumin, unlike other main minority groups, from the majority population. They were originally members of outcast communities in the Shinto and Buddhist era, composed of those with occupations considered impure or tainted by death (such as executioners, undertakers, workers in slaughterhouses, butchers or tanners), which have severe social stigmas of kegare (“defilement”) attached to them. Other outcast groups from whom buraku may have been descended included the hinin (“non-human”). The definition of hinin, as well as their social status and typical occupations varied over time, but typically included ex-convicts and vagrants who worked as town guards, street cleaners or entertainers.
At the start of the Edo period (1603–1867), the social class system was officially established as a means of designating hierarchy, and eta were placed at the lowest level, outside of the four main divisions of society. Like the rest of the population, they were bound by sumptuary laws based on the inheritance of their social class. The eta lived in segregated settlements, and were generally avoided by the rest of Japanese society.
Since the taboo status of the work they performed afforded them an effective monopoly in their trades, some succeeded economically and even occasionally obtained samurai status through marrying or the outright purchase of troubled houses.
Traditionally, the burakumin lived in their own hamlets or ghettos. Although the class was officially abolished in 1871 (under the Emancipation Act of the Meiji period), vast numbers of burakumin continue to live in ghetto-like communities throughout Japan. Although legally liberated in 1871, with the abolition of the feudal caste system, this did not put an end to social discrimination against them nor their lower living standards because Japanese family registration was fixed to ancestral home address until recently, which allowed people to deduce their Burakumin membership.
Many burakumin are still relegated to unskilled and poorly paid occupations. Identification as a burakumin is often sufficient to prevent or void participation in a marriage, a contract, or employment in any non-burakumin occupation. No official census exists, but about 6,000 segregated communities of burakumin contain a total population variously estimated at between 1,000,000 and 3,000,000.
According to David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro in Yakuza: The Explosive Account of Japan’s Criminal Underworld (1986), burakumin account for about 70 percent of the members of Yamaguchi-gumi, the biggest yakuza syndicate in Japan. Mitsuhiro Suganuma, the ex-member of Public Security Intelligence Agency, testified that burakumin account for about 60 percent of the members of the entire yakuza.
Not until the 20th century did groups of burakumin begin organizing for their cause; in 1922 a national organization, Suiheisha (Organization of Levelers), was created, and it engaged in various school boycotts, tax revolts, and other protests until its disbandment in 1941. After World War II, in 1946, a more militant and politically active organization was formed: the Buraku Kaihō Zenkoku Iinkai (All-Japan Committee for Buraku Liberation), which in 1955 was renamed Buraku Kaihō Dōmei (Buraku Liberation League). Its leftist orientation, however, alienated more conservative burakumin leaders. Thus in 1960 a rival national organization, Dōwakai (Society for Integration), was founded; it came to be led by Liberal Democratic politicians, some of whom were elected to the national Diet. A third organization, the Zenkoku Buraku Kaihō Undō (All-Japan Buraku Liberation Movement), was formed in 1976.