Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Burakumin (from the words buraku, meaning community or hamlet and min, meaning people) are not an ethnic minority, but rather a caste- or descent-based group. They therefore share with other Japanese the same language, religion, customs and physical appearances.
Descendants of outcast communities from the feudal era which tended to be associated with impure or tainted occupations stigmatized by death, such as butchers and leather workers, the Burakumin were not limited to any particular region in Japan, but tended to live in specific hamlets or villages. However, these buraku do appear to be more concentrated in the western part of the country. They were generally located in poorly drained areas or locations not well suited for human habitation. Estimates of the number of descendants vary wildly as no official figures on the Burakumin population have been produced, except for a census by the General Affairs Agency in 1985 which reported that there were 1,163,372 Burakumin and 4,594 buraku communities in Japan. The Buraku Liberation League has estimated – extrapolating from other figures in a 1993 government survey – that there are around three million Burakumin. There are still no updated official statistics of Burakumin/Buraku, but estimates range between one and three million to over six million people.
The caste system became firmly established in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867). The Burakumin were considered to be outside of the four main caste divisions of Japanese society: as social outcasts, they were subjected to a series of laws and customs which regulated their status and restricted where they might live, the type of work they could engage in, their ability to own land, and various other activities. They lived in segregated settlements and were generally avoided by the rest of Japanese society. The end of the feudal system led at the start of the Meiji era to legislation in 1871 (the ‘Emancipation Edict’) which abolished the caste system and granted equal status before the law to the Burakumin. Continuing discrimination in social and economic spheres meant that Burakumin continued to be excluded and disadvantaged by other Japanese who did not want to be in contact or ‘polluted’ by them.
The growing development and urbanization of Japan, especially in the central urban core of Honshu island, saw the integration of many Buraku communities by the 1960s. In other parts of the country – especially in the west – other communities remained, characterized by poor living conditions and infrastructure, as well as overall low educational and literacy levels of their inhabitants. The existence of these Buraku communities, still discriminated against in private employment and other areas, led the government to implement measures under the ‘Law on Special Measures for Dowa Projects’ in 1969, which were maintained until 2002. These improvements only addressed one aspect of the disadvantages facing the Burakumin, namely the poor infrastructure and housing in their communities. Only later was attention directed towards tackling the problems of discrimination which Burakumin continued to experience in areas such as private employment and even marriage.
In the latter example, potential in-laws would check a person’s background to ensure that s/he was not of Buraku background. It was only in 1976 that the Japanese government revised the Family Registration Law to prevent third parties from looking up another person’s family registry with the Ministry of Justice, from which it is possible to deduce a person’s Buraku ancestry. Private parties were, however, still able to circumvent this prohibition by consulting privately produced publications, called ‘Buraku Lists’, containing similar information, or by hiring private investigators to find the relevant data. Only in 1985 did some Japanese authorities take steps to prevent such actions which circumvented the law: authorities in Osaka Prefecture adopted an ordinance to ban private investigations into an individual’s background to determine whether he or she is a Burakumin. A number of other prefectures thereafter adopted similar legislation, although there is still no national law comprehensively banning such activities nor prohibiting more general private acts of discrimination against the Burakumin and other minorities.
Following the example of the government of Osaka Prefecture, four other prefectures had by 2006 adopted ordinances prohibiting investigations into Buraku origin. The Japanese government has over the years adopted measures to discourage such practices and other forms of discrimination by private parties against the Burakumin such as sensitization training in private enterprises with more than 100 employees to promote tolerance and acceptance.
Following the termination in 2002 of the Law on Special Measures for Dowa Projects – an initiative started in 1969 to strengthen the position of Burakumin in mainstream society – the Japanese government has paid relatively little attention to issues facing the Burakumin. There has been a chapter on Buraku issues in annual reports to the Diet under the Human Rights Promotion Law, but these have included little concrete information that could indicate the impact of government programmes to address discriminatory attitudes towards Burakumin.
In recent decades internet technology has created particular problems for Burakumin, such as an increase in derogatory and discriminatory messaging via social media as well as online attempts to identify and disclose the whereabouts of Burakumin communities. Concerns surrounding these issues have contributed to a regeneration of political momentum which in December 2016 resulted in the Diet finally adopting the Act on the Promotion of the Elimination of Buraku Discrimination. This landmark legislation asserted the government’s responsibility to combat discrimination against Burakumin through establishing consultation mechanisms, improving education and investigating instances of discrimination when they occur. Yet some critics have asserted that the law lacks teeth, as it does not actually outlaw discrimination against Burakumin, which means actions in contravention of the law cannot result in any form of penalties.
Updated April 2018
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