In my last post about The Cape, I noted that the family at the centre of the novel are Burakumin. This post will explain exactly who the Burakumin are, with the aim of illustrating the many layers of Japanese society.
Burakumin (部落民), meaning ‘hamlet people’ are a social minority making up around 2 million of the Japanese population. Since the Edo period, and continuing today, the Burakumin caste have been the subject of discrimination and prejudice.
Historically, the Burakumin were created during the feudal caste system during the Edo period (1603 – 1867) . There were four social classes in this period: the samurai at the top followed by peasants, craftsmen and finally, merchants. Outside these classes were those who did occupations which went against the dominant religious ideologies (Buddhism and Shintoism) – namely those which involved death and corpses such as butchers, tanners and undertakers. They were split into two groups: the Eta (butchers, tanners etc.) and the Hinin (executioners, street cleaners etc.) These two groups were classified as Burakumin, a name which has since stuck.
The eta, were forced to live in seperate communities or hamlets, which lead to the name Burakumin. This areas were avoided by the rest of Japanese society. The Burakumin were born into the social class, leading to no social mobility, and this issue of ancestry still plays a role in modern Japanese society.
In 1871 the caste system was abolished in the Meiji era. However, the historical stigmatisation and the importance of ancestry still continued leaving the Burakumin to face discrimination.
As Japan became more urbanised, Buraku communities were integrated within cities. However, in some parts of Japan (mainly in the West including Osaka, Hiroshima etc.) the Buraku comminities remained and discrimination against this class, which couldn’t escape the label, remained.
In 1969, the Dowa Discrimination law was in place (it ended in 2002) to tackle the issue of integration of the Buraku people into mainstream Japanese society. It was found that despite of this law, many Buraku still faced prejudice. Potential in-laws would, for example, check the ancestry of a person to judge whether or not marriage can be permitted. Employers would also carry out the checks on candidates to see if they were worthy of a job. Despite subsequent regional laws preventing private companies examining a person’s ancestry, the law hasn’t been made national. Furthermore, there’s still no law to stop the continuing discrimination, which has now moved onto the internet.
While not a race, the Buraku are a social minority and one which is invisible in Japanese society. Even the word Burakumin is taboo. There have been many attempts by Buraku people to highlight the discrimination they still face. Whilst this discrimination may not be open in public, on the internet it’s very much a different story.
Likewise, some Japanese authors attempt to promote this issue. Writers like Nakagami Kenji, who is of Burakumin origin, Sumii Sue and Shimazaki Toson. For anyone wishing to read more about the Burakumin, the website Minority Rights, has a profile along with other Japanese minorities.