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Who Are the Burakumin?

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Actors portray the samurai Ichijo Jiro Tadanori and Notonokami Noritsune fighting, c. 1810-1820.

Woodcut print of hinin actors portraying Japanese samurai. Created by Shuntei Katsukawa (1770-1820).

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Definition:

Burakumin: A polite term for the outcasts from the four-tiered Japanese feudal social system. Burakumin literally means simply "people of the village." In this context, however, the "village" in question is the separate community of outcasts, who traditionally lived in a restricted neighborhood, a sort of ghetto. Thus, the entire modern phrase is hisabetsu burakumin - "people of the discriminated (against) community."

A buraku (singular) would be a member of one of the specific outcast groups - the eta, or "defiled ones/filthy commoners," who performed work that was considered impure in Buddhist or Shinto beliefs, and the hinin, or "non-humans," including ex-convicts, beggars, prostitutes, street-sweepers, acrobats and other entertainers. Interestingly, an ordinary commoner could also fall into the eta category through certain unclean acts, such as committing incest or having sexual relations with an animal.

Most eta, however, were born in to that status. Their families performed tasks that were so distasteful that they were considered permanently sullied - tasks such as butchering animals, preparing the dead for burial, executing condemned criminals, or tanning hides. This Japanese definition is strikingly similar to that of the dalits or untouchables in the Hindu caste tradition of India, Pakistan and Nepal.

Hinin were often born into that status as well, although it could also arise from circumstances during their lives. For example, the daughter of a farming family might take work as a prostitute in hard times, thus moving from the second-highest caste to a position completely below the four castes in a single instant.

Unlike eta, who were trapped in their caste, hinin could be adopted by a family from one of the commoner classes (farmers, artisans or merchants), and could thus join a higher status group. In other words, eta status was permanent, but hinin status was not necessarily.

History of the Burakumin

In the late sixteenth century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi implemented a rigid caste system in Japan. Subjects fell into one of the four hereditary castes - samurai, farmer, artisan, merchant - or became "degraded people" below the caste system. These degraded people were the first eta. The eta did not marry people from other status levels, and in some cases jealously guarded their privileges to perform certain types of work such as scavenging the carcasses of dead farm animals or begging in particular sections of a city. During the Tokugawa shogunate, although their social status was extremely lowly, some eta leaders became wealthy and influential thanks to their monopoly on distasteful jobs.

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the new government headed by the Meiji Emperor decided to level the social hierarchy. It abolished the four-tiered social system, and beginning in 1871, registered both eta and hinin people as "new commoners." Of course, in designating them as "new" commoners, the official records still distinguished the former outcasts from their neighbors; other kinds of commoners rioted to express their disgust at being grouped together with the outcasts. The outcasts were given the new, less derogatory name of burakumin.

More than a century after burakumin status was officially abolished, the descendants of burakumin ancestors still face discrimination and sometimes even social ostracization. Even today, people who live in areas of Tokyo or Kyoto that were once the eta ghettos can have trouble finding a job or a marriage partner because of the association with defilement.

Sources:

Chikara Abe, Impurity and Death: A Japanese Perspective, Boca Raton:Universal Publishers, 2003.

Miki Y. Ishikida, Living Together: Minority People and Disadvantaged Groups in Japan, Bloomington:iUniverse, 2005.


Pronunciation: boo-RAHK-uh-minh
Examples:
"The burakumin are the largest disadvantaged group in Japan, but they are not an ethnic minority group. Instead, they are the descendants of a socio-economic minority."
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