The caste system may have developed as early as the eighth century AD. The Japanese population was divided into two groups according to Shinto concepts of purity. Shinto concepts equated goodness and godliness with purity and cleanliness. Shinto held that impurities could cling to people, making them evil or sinful.
Komin (“acceptable citizens”) or ryomin (“good citizens”) were engaged in agriculture. They belonged to the state and had a duty to pay tax in labour and in kind. The other group was called shiyumin (privately owned people) or senmin (“despised citizens”) because of their non-agricultural and unproductive occupations.
Kan Takayuki suggests that senmin were seen as religious people possessing a special talent which enabled them to interact with the mystical world. Some senmin were also called hafurinotami because they performed hafuri ritual duties. Because of these special powers, senmin could have been a political threat to the Japanese Emperor, a living god and the master Shinto-priest who was supposed to have the same mystical powers.
The symbolic power of the purity of the Emperor was enhanced by degrading the senmin class. The Emperor was in the highest position and the senmin were at the lowest in a kind of bipolar religious status. In order to enhance the Emperor’s religious power, senmin were placed under the direct control of the Emperor or some other powerful clans.
This discriminatory structure of society was strengthened when Buddhism penetrated Japan. Taboos on meat-eating, animal slaughter and leather-making became generalized and were extrapolated to concerns about the impurity of handling meat and eventually with handling dead humans as well. Consequently, anyone who engaged in related activities was, by definition, impure and to be avoided. Pollution could be caused by contact with the bodies of dead animals, and thus came to be associated with leather work.
Gradually the Shinto concepts of imi (taboo) and kegare (pollution) became linked to the Buddhist prohibition on taking any life. First proclamations which outlawed the eating of flesh of certain animals occurred in AD 676. The Edo period (1603 – 1868) Discrimination based upon Buddhist religious concepts was firmly implanted in the Japanese mentality during the Edo period (Edo jidai).
Below the Tenno Heika (emperor) and the daimyo (feudal lord) there was the samurai (warrior- administrator), the nofu (farmer), the jukurenko (skilled artisan) and the shonin (merchant). All those people had “acceptable” occupations. Below them, senmin practised “unacceptable” and “despised” occupations, “tainted” with ritual impurity, involving special mystical powers, linked to magicians or shamans. They had their own temples and were not allowed to visit other religious sites.
During this period, senmin were divided into two groups, eta and hinin. Eta (“full of filth” – they were also given derogatory names such as beast, humble, ignoble, servant) was an inherited status, passed on to one’s children. Marriage was permitted, but only with a fellow eta. Hinin (“non-human”) became a status imposed as a punishment for:
1. running away from your village;
2. petty theft by youths under the age of 15;
3. participating in failed double suicides;
4. running illegal gambling games, etc.
Hinin, being “non-people,” could not legally marry. By the same logic, the status could not be inherited: officially, they had no children.
Atsutane Hirata (1776–1842), a Shinto reformer, argued that the inherent impurity of the burakumin necessitated their separateness. In 1859, a magistrate in a court case declared that “An eta is worth 1/7 of an ordinary person.” When dealing with members of other castes, senmin were expected to display signs of submission, such as the removal of headwear for hinin.
Senmin were animal slaughterers, butchers and leather-makers, disposers of corpses (executioners,
undertakers, grave-diggers). They were priests of various folk beliefs, medicine men or shamans, travelling actors, monkey-handlers, beggars, etc.
The Meiji restoration and the Emancipation Edict (1871) In 1871, the Meiji government issued the Emancipation Edict, putting an end to the feudal system in Japan. Originally, the edict was called “Senmin Haishirei” (“Edict Abolishing Ignoble Classes”). Peasants protested against this Edict. They refused to be placed in the same rank as buraku people and demanded the retraction of the Edict. Rioting peasants entered and burnt buraku villages, resulting in the deaths of many residents.
However, the elimination of the burakumin economic monopolies over certain occupations actually led to a decline in their living standards, while social discrimination simply continued. For example, the ban on consumption of meat from livestock was lifted in 1871 in order to “westernise” the country, and many former eta simply moved on to work in abattoirs. But many non-burakumin joined the leather industry, so burakumin lost their jobs and had to survive as day-labourers on construction sites. They worked for very low wages and many burakumin women were driven to prostitution. In Imperial Japan, senmin became a “reserve army of labour” within the new capitalist system.
During that period, the first attempt to tackle discrimination was initiated by Nakae Chomin, the “Rousseau of the East”. Elected to Parliament in 1890 on a platform demanding an end to discrimination against burakumin, he and his Movement for Liberty and the Rights of People suffered political harassment by the Government. Chomin was forced to resign within a few months.
Japan remained an imperialist power, ruled by an oligarchy of wealthy noblemen and a military caste which led Japan into a series of colonial wars. Democracy and human rights were trampled underfoot. In 1917, all the 200 households of the burakumin village of Unebiyama in Nara Prefecture were forced to relocate because the village overlooked the tomb of the (fictitious) first Emperor of Japan. In 1922, the Motogahama village of burakumin was burnt down by police because the Imperial train carrying the then Prince Hirohito was due to pass nearby.
That same year, 1922, leaders of the “Hisabetsu Buraku” set up the “Levellers’ Association of Japan” (Suiheisha), to advance their rights. Despite internal divisions among anarchist, Bolshevik, and Social Democratic factions, and despite the Japanese government’s establishment of an alternate organization, the Yuma movement, designed to undermine the Levellers’ Association, Suiheisha remained active until the late 1930s.
After the Second World War
Imperial Japan collapsed in 1945 with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. A new constitution was adopted in 1946 and many social changes occurred:
a) Emperor Hirohito was no longer a living god. He was the symbol of the State and the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power (1946 Constitution – article 1).
b) All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin. (article 14)
c) Because of the mass destruction of cities, a lot of buraku settlements, built on the site of former eta villages, ceased to exist, due to urban reconstruction.
d) Unfortunately, some buraku communities continued to suffer from slum-like housing and infrastructure, and lower economic status, illiteracy, and lower general educational standards amongst residents. A burakumin neighborhood within metropolitan Tokyo was the last to be served by streetcar and is the site of butcher and leather shops to this day.
The prejudice is most commonly seen in marriage and employment discrimination. Japanese family registration (koseki) was fixed to ancestral home address until recently. In certain areas of Japan, there is still a stigma attached to being a resident of such areas, Traditionalist families have been known to check on the backgrounds of potential in-laws to identify people of buraku background. These checks are now illegal, and marriage discrimination is diminishing; Nadamoto Masahisa of the Buraku History Institute estimates that between 60 and 80 per cent of burakumin marry a non-burakumin, whereas for people in their sixties, the rate was only 10 per cent.
Cases of continuing social discrimination are known to occur mainly in western Japan, particularly the Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima regions, where many people, especially the older generation, stereotype buraku residents and associate them with unemployment and criminality. This social context has forced many burakumin to attempt “passing” for mainstream Japanese. Burakumin who are caught trying to “pass” are severely punished. The punishment is often in the form of social ostracism experienced in the workplace and through discriminatory graffiti in public places.