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Burakumin (部落民, "hamlet/village people", "those who live in hamlets/villages") is a former untouchable group in Japan at the bottom of the traditional social hierarchy.

Burakumin were originally ethnic Japanese people with occupations seen as kegare (穢れ, "defilement") during Japan's feudal era, such as executioners, undertakers, slaughterhouse workers, butchers, or tanners. Burakumin became a hereditary status of untouchability and an unofficial caste in the Tokugawa class system during the Edo period. Burakumin were victim of severe discrimination and ostracism in Japanese society, and lived as outcasts in their own separate villages or ghettos. Burakumin status was officially abolished after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, but the descendants of burakumin have since continued to face stigmatization and discrimination in Japan.


'Burakumin' is derived from 'buraku' (部落), a Japanese term which literally refers to a small, generally rural, commune or hamlet. People from regions of Japan where "discriminated communities" no longer exist (e.g. anywhere north of Tokyo) may refer to any hamlet as a 'buraku', indicating use of the word is not necessarily pejorative.[citation needed] Historically, the term 'buraku' was used for an outcast community that was heavily discriminated against officially and formally.

Romaji Kanji Meaning Annotation
Hisabetsu-buraku 被差別部落 "Discriminated community/hamlet" 'Hisabetsu-buraku' is a commonly used, polite term, with people from them called 'hisabetsu-burakumin' (被差別部落民, "discriminated community (hamlet) people") or 'hisabetsu buraku shusshin-sha' (被差別部落出身者, "person from a discriminated community/hamlet").
Burakumin 部落民 "Hamlet people" 'Burakumin' refers either to hamlet people per se or is used as an abbreviation of people from discriminated community/hamlet. Very old people tend to use the word in the former meaning. Its use is sometimes frowned upon, though it is by far the most commonly used term in English.
Mikaihō-buraku 未解放部落 "Unliberated communities" 'Mikaihō-buraku' is a term sometimes used by human rights groups, and has a degree of political meaning to it.
Tokushu buraku 特殊部落 "Special hamlets" 'Tokushu buraku' was a term used in the early 20th century but is now considered pejorative.

A widely used term for buraku settlements is 'dōwa chiku' (同和地区, "assimilation districts"), an official term for districts designated for government and local authority assimilation projects.

The social issue surrounding "discriminated communities" is usually referred to as 'dōwa mondai' (同和問題, "assimilation issues") or, less commonly, 'buraku mondai' (部落問題, "hamlet issues").

In the feudal era, the outcaste were called 'eta' (穢多, lit. "an abundance of defilement" or "an abundance of filth"), a term now considered derogatory. Eta towns were called etamura (穢多村).

Some burakumin refer to their own communities as 'mura' (, "villages") and themselves as 'mura-no-mono' (村の者, "village people").[citation needed]

Other outcaste groups from whom buraku may have been descended included the hinin (非人, lit. "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.[citation needed]

In the 19th century, the umbrella term 'burakumin' was coined to name the eta and hinin because both classes were forced to live in separate village neighborhoods.[1]

Historical origins[edit]

The predecessors to burakumin, called kawata (かわた) or eta (穢多) formed as a distinct group some time during the Heian period, AD 794-1185. Initially, they dealt with pollution[clarification needed] but were not considered untouchable. From the Heian period through medieval period, eta were regarded as having the ability to cleanse ritual pollution, and in some portrayals were even seen as having magical powers.[2] Kawata were associated with the tanning industry and had the exclusive rights to tan hides.[3]

Hinin, meaning "non-human", was another pre-burakumin status, applying to beggars and camp followers of samurai. Their position was more mobile and they were thought to be less polluted.[4] The Tokugawa shogunate regarded beggars as hinin and allowed them to beg in designated areas. They had to work as restroom attendants, prison officers, or executioners. One famous hinin or eta is Danzaemon (弾左衛門), who was the head of eta, kawata and street performers in the Kantō region, and was given the exclusive license of tanning, candle wicks and others and made a fortune.[5]

End of the feudal era[edit]

The most famous leader of the BLL, Jiichirō Matsumoto (1887–1966), who was born a burakumin in Fukuoka prefecture. He was a statesman and called "the father of buraku liberation".[6]

The feudal caste system in Japan formally ended in 1869 with the Meiji restoration. In 1871, the newly formed Meiji government issued the Senmin Haishirei (賤民廃止令, "Edict Abolishing Ignoble Classes") decree giving outcasts equal legal status. It is currently better known as the Kaihōrei (解放令, Emancipation Edict). However, burakumin were deprived of the exclusive rights of disposal of dead bodies of horses and cattle[7][8][9] and the elimination of their economic monopolies over certain occupations actually led to a decline in their general living standards, while social discrimination simply continued.

During the early Meiji era, many anti-Kaihōrei riots (Kaihōrei-hantai-ikki (解放令反対一揆)) happened around the country. For example, in a village in Okayama when "former eta" tried to buy alcohol, four men were killed, four men were injured and 25 houses were destroyed by commoners,[8] and in another village, 263 houses of eta were destroyed and 18 people of former eta were killed, which was part of an anti-Government riot.[10] The practice of eating meat existed even during the Edo period,[11] but the official ban on consumption of meat from livestock was lifted in 1871 in order to "Westernise" the country, and many former eta moved on to work in abattoirs and as butchers, as they were thought to be "unclean" and also experienced in the handling of dead bodies. Slow-changing social attitudes, especially in the countryside, meant that abattoirs and workers were met with hostility from local residents. Continued ostracism as well as the decline in living standards led to former eta communities turning into slum areas. Prejudice against the consumption of meat continued throughout the Meiji period; in 1872, a group of Yamabushi, who objected to the Emperor's consumption of meat, tried to enter the Tokyo Imperial Palace and four of them were killed. They claimed that gods would leave Japan because the Japanese had eaten meat.[12]

There were many terms used to indicate former outcastes, their communities or settlements at the time. Official documents at the time referred to them as 'kyu-eta' (旧穢多, "former eta"), while the newly-liberated outcasts called themselves 'shin-heimin' (新平民, "new citizens"), among other things.

Nakae Chōmin worked for the liberation of burakumin. He transferred his resident registration to buraku and denounced the discrimination against them when he ran in the election in 1890 from Osaka and won.

The term tokushu buraku (特殊部落, "special hamlets"), now considered inappropriate, started being used by officials in the 1900s, leading to the meaning of the word buraku ("hamlet") coming to imply former eta villages in certain parts of Japan.[citation needed]

Movements to resolve the problem in the early 20th century were divided into two camps: the "assimilation" (同和, dōwa) movement which encouraged improvements in living standards of buraku communities and integration with the mainstream Japanese society, and the "levelers" (水平社, suiheisha) movement which concentrated on confronting and criticising alleged perpetrators of discrimination.

Post-war situation[edit]

Although legally liberated in 1871 with the abolition of the feudal caste system, this did not put an end to social discrimination against burakumin nor improve lower living standards; until recently,[when?] Japanese family registration was fixed to ancestral home address, which allowed people to deduce their burakumin membership.

The long history of taboos and myths of the buraku left a legacy of social desolation, and since the 1980s, more and more young buraku have started to organize and protest against discrimination and casteism, alongside political activist groups. Movements with objectives ranging from liberation to encouraging integration have been tried over the years to put an end to this problem.[citation needed]


The number of burakumin asserted to be living in modern Japan varies from source to source. A 1993 report by the Japanese government counted 4,533 dōwa chiku (同和地区, assimilation districts) throughout the country. Most were located in western Japan, while none were located in Hokkaido and Tōhoku. Around three quarters of the districts are in rural areas. The size of each community ranged from under five households to over 1,000 households.[13] The Buraku Liberation League (BLL) has extrapolated Meiji-era figures to arrive at an estimate of nearly three million burakumin.[14] A 1999 source indicates the presence of some two million burakumin, living in approximately 5,000 settlements.[citation needed]

In some areas, burakumin are in a majority; per a 1997 report, they accounted for over 70 percent of all residents of Yoshikawa (now Kōnan) in Kōchi Prefecture. In Ōtō, Fukuoka Prefecture, they accounted for over 60 percent.[15] Japanese government statistics show the number of residents of assimilation districts who claim buraku ancestry, whereas BLL figures are estimates of the total number of descendants of all former and current buraku residents, including current residents with no buraku ancestry.

According to a survey conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 2003, 76% of Tokyo residents would not change their view of a close neighbor whom they discovered to be a burakumin; 4.9% of respondents, on the other hand, would actively avoid a burakumin neighbor. There is still a stigma attached to being a resident of certain areas traditionally associated with the burakumin, and some lingering discrimination in matters such as marriage and employment.[16]

Discrimination in access to services[edit]

While in many parts of the country buraku settlements, built on the site of former eta villages, ceased to exist by the 1960s because of either urban development or integration into mainstream society, in other regions many of their residents continued to suffer from slum-like housing and infrastructure, lower economic status, illiteracy, and lower general educational standards.[citation needed]

In 1969, the government passed the Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects (同和対策事業特別措置法, dōwa taisaku jigyō tokubetsu sochihō)[17] to provide funding to these communities. Communities deemed to be in need of funding were designated for various Assimilation Projects (同和対策事業, dōwa taisaku jigyō [ja]), such as construction of new housing and community facilities such as health centers, libraries and swimming pools. The projects were terminated in 2002 with a total funding of an estimated 12 trillion yen over 33 years.[citation needed]

Social discrimination[edit]

Cases of social discrimination against residents of buraku areas are still an issue in certain regions. Outside of the Kansai region, people in general are often not aware of the issues faced by those of buraku ancestry, and if they are, this awareness may only be awareness of the history of feudal Japan. Due to the taboo nature of the topic, it is rarely covered by the media.[citation needed]

Prejudice against buraku most often manifests itself in the form of marriage discrimination and, less often, in employment. 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% of burakumin marry a non-burakumin, whereas for people born in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the rate was 10%.[18]

Cases of continuing social discrimination are known to occur mainly in western Japan, particularly in the Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, and Hiroshima regions, where many people, especially the older generation, stereotype buraku residents (whatever their ancestry) and associate them with squalor, unemployment and criminality.[19]

No discriminated-against communities were identified in the following prefectures: Hokkaido, Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Yamagata, Fukushima, Tokyo, Toyama, Ishikawa, and Okinawa.[20] Hokkaido and Okinawa have had their own separate history of discrimination of their native ethnic groups the Ainu and the Ryukyuans, respectively.

Yakuza membership[edit]

According to David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro in Yakuza: The Explosive Account of Japan's Criminal Underworld (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1986), burakumin account for about 70% of the members of Yamaguchi-gumi, the biggest yakuza syndicate in Japan.

Mitsuhiro Suganuma, an ex-member of the Public Security Intelligence Agency, testified that burakumin account for about 60% of the members of the entire yakuza.[21]

Tokushu Buraku Chimei Sōkan incident[edit]

In November 1975, the Osaka branch of the Buraku Liberation League was tipped off about the existence of a book called "A Comprehensive List of Buraku Area Names" (特殊部落地名総鑑, Tokushu Buraku Chimei Sōkan). Investigations revealed that copies of the hand-written 330-page book were being secretly sold by an Osaka-based firm to numerous firms and individuals throughout Japan by a mail order service called Cablenet, at between ¥5,000 and ¥50,000 per copy. The book contained a nationwide list of all the names and locations of buraku settlements (as well as the primary means of employment of their inhabitants), which could be compared against people's addresses to determine if they were buraku residents. The preface contained the following message: "At this time, we have decided to go against public opinion and create this book [for] personnel managers grappling with employment issues, and families pained by problems with their children's marriages."[citation needed]

More than 200 large Japanese firms, including (according to the Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute of Osaka) Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Daihatsu, along with thousands of individuals purchased copies of the book. In 1985, partially in response to the popularity of this book, and an increase in mimoto chōsa (身元調査, private investigation into one's background) the Osaka prefectural government introduced "An Ordinance to Regulate Personal Background Investigation Conducive to Buraku Discrimination".[citation needed]

Although the production and sale of the book has been banned, numerous copies of it are still in existence, and in 1997, an Osaka private investigation firm was the first to be charged with violation of the 1985 statute for using the text.[citation needed]

Nonaka incident[edit]

Hiromu Nonaka

In 2001, future Prime Minister of Japan Tarō Asō, along with Hiromu Nonaka, was among the LDP's chief candidates to succeed Yoshirō Mori as prime minister of Japan. During a meeting of LDP leaders at which Nonaka was not present, Asō reportedly told the assembled group, "We are not going to let someone from the buraku become the prime minister, are we?"[22] Nonaka subsequently withdrew as a candidate. Asō's comment about Nonaka's heritage was revealed in 2005. Asō denied that he had made the statement, but Hisaoki Kamei, who was present at the 2001 meeting, stated in January 2009 that he had heard Asō say something "to that effect".[22]

Hashimoto incident[edit]

Tōru Hashimoto, a lawyer, former governor of Osaka Prefecture, former mayor of Ōsaka City and the founder of the political party Nippon Ishin no Kai, was the subject of an article in 2012 published in the magazine Shukan Asahi [ja], entitled "Hashishita, his true nature" (ハシシタ・奴の本性), which claimed his father to be burakumin and his relatives members of the yakuza. The article further elaborated that Hashimoto was eccentric and dangerous based on his "blood". Hashimoto, who was the mayor of Ōsaka at that time, excluded the newspaper The Asahi Shimbun, the wholly-owned subsidiary company of the magazine's publisher, from a press conference and demanded an explanation from the publisher.[23] Hashimoto later sued the publisher and the writer Shinichi Sano [ja] for defamation.[24][25] The Buraku Liberation League, who did not support his policies, also remonstrated.[26] The publisher had a third party examine the incident and apologized.[27] The president of the publisher, Hideo Kotoku [ja], resigned to take responsibility.[28]

Burakumin rights movement[edit]

As early as 1922, leaders of the Hisabetsu Buraku organized a movement, the "Levelers Association of Japan" (Suiheisha), to advance their rights. The Declaration of the Suiheisha encouraged the burakumin to unite in resistance to discrimination, and sought to frame a positive identity for the victims of discrimination, insisting that the time had come to be "proud of being eta". The declaration portrayed the burakumin ancestors as "manly martyrs of industry" and argued that to submit meekly to oppression would be to insult and profane these ancestors. Despite internal divisions among anarchist, Bolshevik, and social democratic factions, and despite the Japanese government's establishment of an alternate organization, the Yūma movement, designed to undercut the influence of the Suiheisha, the Levelers Association remained active until the late 1930s.[citation needed]

After World War II, the National Committee for Burakumin Liberation was founded, changing its name to the Buraku Liberation League (Buraku Kaihō Dōmei) in the 1950s. The league, with the support of the socialist and communist parties, pressured the government into making important concessions in the late 1960s and 1970s.

In the 1960s, the Sayama Incident focused public attention on the problems of the group. The incident involved the murder conviction of a member of the discriminated communities based on circumstantial evidence, which is generally given little weight vs. physical evidence in Japanese courts.

One concession was the passing of the Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects, which provided financial aid for the discriminated communities. In 1976, legislation was also put in place banning third parties from looking up another person's family registry.[citation needed] This traditional system of registry, kept for all Japanese by the Ministry of Justice since the 19th century, would reveal an individual's buraku ancestry if consulted. Under the new legislation, these records could now be consulted only in legal cases, making it more difficult to identify or discriminate against members of the group.

In the 1980s, some educators and local governments, particularly in areas with relatively large hisabetsu buraku populations, began special education programs which they hoped would encourage greater educational and economic success for young members of the group and decrease the discrimination they faced.[29] Branches of burakumin rights groups exist today in all parts of Japan except for Hokkaidō and Okinawa.

"Human Rights Promotion Centers" (人権啓発センター) have been set up across the country by prefectural governments and local authorities; these, in addition to promoting burakumin rights, campaign on behalf of a wide range of groups such as women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, foreign residents and released prisoners.[citation needed] Even into the early 1990s, however, discussion of the 'liberation' of these discriminated communities, or even their existence, was taboo in public discussion.

Buraku Liberation League and the Zenkairen[edit]

The Buraku Liberation League is considered one of the most militant among burakumin's rights groups. The BLL is known for its fierce "denunciation and explanation sessions", where alleged perpetrators of discriminatory actions or speech are summoned for a public hearing before a panel of activists.[citation needed]

Early sessions were marked by occasions of violence and kidnapping, and several BLL activists have been arrested for such acts. The legality of these sessions is still disputed, but to this date the authorities have mostly turned a blind eye to them except in the more extreme cases.[30][31][32]

In 1990, Karel van Wolferen's criticism of the BLL in his much-acclaimed book The Enigma of Japanese Power prompted the BLL to demand the publisher halt publication of the Japanese translation of the book.[citation needed] Van Wolferen condemned this as an international scandal.[citation needed]

The other major buraku activist group is the National Buraku Liberation Alliance (全国部落解放運動連合会, Zenkoku Buraku Kaihō Undō Rengōkai) (or Zenkairen, affiliated to the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). It was formed in 1979[33] by BLL activists who were either purged from the organization or abandoned it in the late 1960s, due to, among other things, their opposition to the decision that subsidies to the burakumin should be limited to the BLL members only. Not all burakumin were BLL members, and not all residents of the areas targeted for subsidies were historically descended from the out-caste.[34]

The Zenkairen often came head-to-head with the BLL, accusing them of chauvinism. The conflict between the two organizations boiled over in 1974 when a clash between teachers belonging to a JCP-affiliated union and BLL activists at a high school in Yoka, rural Hyōgo Prefecture, put 29 in hospital.[citation needed]

In 1988, the BLL formed the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR). The BLL sought for the IMADR to be recognized as a United Nations Non-Government Organization, but in 1991, the Zenkairen informed the United Nations about the alleged human rights violations committed by the BLL in the course of their 'denunciation sessions' held with accused 'discriminators'.[34][35][better source needed]

According to a BLL-funded think tank, when suspected cases of discrimination were uncovered, the Zenkairen often conducted denunciation sessions as fierce as those of the BLL. Nonetheless, the IMADR was designated a UN human rights NGO in March 1993.[36]

On 3 March 2004, the Zenkairen announced that "the buraku issue has basically been resolved" and formally disbanded. On 4 March 2004, they launched a new organization called the "National Confederation of Human Rights Movements in The Community" (全国地域人権運動総連合, Zenkoku Chiiki Jinken Undō Sōrengō') or Zenkoku Jinken Ren.[37][38]

Religious discrimination[edit]

According to BLL sources, nearly all Japanese Buddhist sects have discriminated against the burakumin.[citation needed] Zenkairen disputes this.

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism was the original supporter of lower castes. The side-effect of this liberating philosophy, however, was that it led to a series of anti-feudal rebellions, known as the Ikkō-ikki revolts, which seriously threatened the religious and political status-quo. Accordingly, the political powers engineered a situation whereby the Jōdo Shinshū split into two competing branches, the Shinshu Otani-ha and the Honganji-ha. This had the consequence that the sects moved increasingly away from their anti-feudal position towards a feudal one.

Later the state also forced all people to belong to a specific Buddhist school according to the formula:

the imperial family is in Tendai, the peerage is in Shingon, the nobility is in Jōdo (Honen's followers), the Samurai is in Zen, the beggar is in Nichiren, and Shin Buddhists (Shinran's followers) are at the bottom.[39][full citation needed]

In consequence the Honganji, which under Rennyo's leadership had defiantly accepted the derogatory label of 'the dirty sect' (see Rennyo's letters known as the Ofumi/Gobunsho) now began to discriminate against its own burakumin members as it jostled for political and social status.[citation needed]

In 1922, when the National Levelers' Association (Zenkoku-suiheisha) was founded in Kyoto, Mankichi Saiko, a founder of the movement and Jodo Shinshu priest, said:

We shouldn't disgrace our ancestors and violate humanity by our harsh words and terrible actions. We, who know how cold the human world is, and how to take care of humanity, can seek and rejoice from the bottom of our hearts in the warmth and light of human life.[40]

After many petitions from the BLL, in 1969 the Honganji changed its opinion on the burakumin issue.[citation needed] Zenkairen, which split from the BLL in 1968, regrets this decision.[citation needed]

Religious discrimination against the burakumin was not recognized until the BLL's criticism sessions became widespread. For example, in 1979 the Director-General of the Sōtō Sect of Buddhism made a speech at the "3rd World Conference on Religion and Peace" claiming that there was no discrimination against burakumin in Japan.[41]

Notable burakumin[edit]

See also[edit]

Discrimination in Japan[edit]



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  37. ^ "Zenkoku Buraku Kaihou Undou Rengkai" (National Buraku Liberation Alliance) (2004), "Zenkairen Dai 34 Kai Teiki Taikai Ni Tuite" ('About the Zenkairen 34th Regular Meeting), available at http://www.geocities.jp/zenkairen21/01-5.html Archived 2008-12-23 at the Wayback Machine [26 February 2008].
  38. ^ 全国地域人権運動総連合. Retrieved 2019-07-29.
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  41. ^ Tsutsui, Kiyoteru (3 August 2018). Rights Make Might: Global Human Rights and Minority Social Movements in Japan. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190853129.
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Main text originally from Library of Congress, Country Studies. 'Religious Discrimination' and 'Jodo shinshu Honganji' sections adapted from Shindharmanet and BLHRRI.Org.

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  • Amos, Timothy. "Binding Burakumin: Marxist historiography and the narration of difference in Japan." Japanese Studies 27.2 (2007): 155–171.
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  • Neary, Ian. "Burakumin in contemporary Japan," in Japan's Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity, Michael Weiner, ed.
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External links[edit]