Identifying the Burakumin

The Burakumin are a disadvantaged social group in Japan. The word burakumin literally translates as ‘people of the hamlet,’ describing the people living at the outskirts of towns and villages. However this 19th century term is just a substitute for the harsher realities of what the Burakumin are: outcasts.

The root of discrimination lies in the main religious beliefs of the Japanese: Buddhism and Shinto. Buddhist principals of non-violence shun killing, and the Shinto concept of pollution equates goodness with purity. Impurities are believed to cling onto people, making them evil. The Burakumin were a class of people engaged in activities that went against these teachings. They worked as butchers, leather workers, grave-diggers, cheap entertainers and executioners. Hence they were considered as impure, immoral and even dirty.

While there is no record for the exact origins of the concept, organized discrimination can be traced back to the 17th century, during the Edo period. It was during this time that the social status system was established. At the top of the hierarchy came the warriors (the samurai), followed by artists, merchants and peasants. On the other extreme were the outcasts the Eta (extreme filth) and Hinin (non-human). The Eta took up jobs no one else was willing to perform, rather their only source of livelihood was to take up jobs no one else was prepared to perform. This in turn exposed them to even more discrimination. The Burakumin are said to have evolved from this social system. The Burakumin status is hereditary, much like the caste system in India, leaving a whole section of society open to discrimination simply because they have been born into it.

While several edicts and laws have been issued and formed over the years to end the discrimination against the Burakumin, so ingrained is the stigma of their alleged inferior status, the bias continues even today. The Burakumin themselves have been working to erase this bias. They first became politically active in 1890s. However it was only in 1922 that they gained some momentum with the formation of the National Levelers Association. Unfortunately for the Buraku people the movement was halted by the advent of World War II.

The Buraku liberation movement got back on track post the war, and eventually evolved into the Buraku Liberation League (BLL). This organization works for the upliftment of the Buraku community and fights for their rights as equal citizens.

Despite government initiatives, the Buraku people continue to live a life of neglect and inequality: they live in abysmal conditions, and suffer high rates of unemployment and illiteracy. The fact of the matter is that as long as the social stigma persists, the Burakumin will have to continue their fight for equality.