The Buraku - "Untouchables" of Japan

Japan's 'Untouchables' still face discrimination

This print from the 1860s shows an outcast actor playing a samurai.
Outcast actor from the 1860s playing a samurai.  Library of Congress Prints and Photos.

During the Tokugawa Shogunate's rule in Japan, the samurai class sat atop a four-tier social structure. Below them were farmers and fishermen, artisans, and merchants. Some people, however, were lower than the lowest of merchants; they were considered less than human, even.

Although they were genetically and culturally indistinguishable from other people in Japan, the buraku was forced to live in segregated neighborhoods, and could not mingle with any of the higher classes of people. The buraku was universally looked down upon, and their children were denied an education.

The reason? Their jobs were those designated as "unclean" by Buddhist and Shinto standards - they worked as butchers, tanners, and executioners. Their jobs were tainted by their association with death. Another type of outcast, the hinin or "sub-human," worked as prostitutes, actors, or geisha.

History of Burakumin

Orthodox Shinto and Buddhism consider contact with death unclean. Therefore those in occupations where they are involved in slaughtering or processing meat are avoided. These occupations were considered lowly for many centuries, and impoverished or dislocated people may have been more likely to turn to them. They formed their own villages separated from those who would shun them.

The feudal laws of Tokugawa period, starting in 1603, codified these divisions. Buraku could not move out of their untouchable status to join one of the other four castes. While there was social mobility for others, they had no such privilege. When interacting with others, burakumin had to show subservience and could not have any physical contact with those of the four castes. They were literally untouchables.

After the Meiji Restoration, the Senmin Haishirei edict abolished the ignoble classes and gave the outcasts equal legal status. The ban on meat from livestock resulted in an opening of slaughterhouse and butcher occupations to the burakumin. However, the social stigma and discrimination continued.

Descent from the burakumin could be deduced from ancestral villages and neighborhoods where the burakumin lived, even if individuals dispersed. Meanwhile, those who moved to those neighborhoods or professions could themselves be identified as burakumin even without ancestors from those villages.

Continued Discrimination Against the Burakumin

The plight of the buraku is not just a part of history. Discrimination is faced by descendants of buraku even today. Buraku families still live in segregated neighborhoods in some Japanese cities. While it is not legal, lists circulate identifying burakumin, and they are discriminated against in hiring and in arranging marriages.

Numbers of burakumin range from an official tally of around one million to over three million as assessed by the Buraku Liberation League.

Denied social mobility, some join the yakuza, or organized crime syndicates, where it is a meritocracy. Approximately 60 percent of yakuza members are from burakumin backgrounds. Nowadays, however, a civil rights movement is having some success in improving the lives of modern-day buraku families.

It is disheartening that even in an ethnically homogenous society, people will still find a way to create an outcast group for everyone else to look down upon.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Buraku - "Untouchables" of Japan." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). The Buraku - "Untouchables" of Japan. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Buraku - "Untouchables" of Japan." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).