japan's outcasts -- 9/3/14

Today's selection -- from Japan: A Short History by Mikiso Hane. During Japan's Tokugawa era (roughly 1600 to 1867), roughly 380,000 of the twenty million Japanese were considered "base people" or outcasts (burakumin). Recent estimates of the burakumin population range as high as three million, and remnants of this prejudice remain today:

"There were groups of people who were treated as outcastes. The Tokugawa rulers classified the common people into 'good people' and 'base people.' The majority of the commoners belonged to the former category but about 380,000 fell into the latter group. There were two categories of the 'base people:' the 'non-humans' (hinin) and the 'extremely unclean' (eta). (Today they are identified as burakumin or hamlet people.) Before the Tokugawa era the two groups were not sharply differentiated but distinctions came to be made on the basis of occupational and social functions. Itinerant entertainers, beggars, prostitutes, and social offenders were classified as hinin. In some instances they could leave the status of 'base people' and become 'good people.'

"The 'unclean' people were classified as outcastes by birth. The origin of this class is unclear but certain occupations were regarded as defiling such as slaughtering animals, butchering, and tanning. A person could be discriminated against because of ancestral racial or social differences, and certain diseases or abnormalities. ...

"They were harshly discriminated against, not only in terms of occupation but living areas, attire (they could not wear wooden clogs or cotton clothing), social conduct (like the peasants who had to kneel when they encountered the samurai, the 'base people' had to 'bow and scrape' before the 'good people'), and they were forbidden to intermarry with members of other classes. A contemporary burakumin said of his Tokugawa ancestors: 'They were not allowed to wear any footwear ... They could use only straw ropes as belts, and only straws to tie their hair. They were forbidden to leave their hamlet from sunset to sunrise ... They were not allowed to associate with other people. When it was necessary to see others they had to get on their hands and knees before they could speak.' They were also forbidden to enter the grounds of non-outcaste shrines and temples.

Burakumin in the 19th century

"This kind of discrimination in occupation, place of residence, marriages, and social relations continued into the post-Tokugawa era and virtually to the present. The Bakufu ignored them in official population surveys, and did not include their communities in official maps. In the late Tokugawa era when an eta was killed trying to enter a shrine an Edo magistrate held that, 'the life of the eta is worth about one-seventh the life of a townsman. Unless seven eta have been killed, we cannot punish a single townsman.' ...

"In the Taisho years (1912-1926), ... the Tokugawa classification of these people as 'unclean' (eta) and 'non-humans' was legally ended but under the Meiji legal system they were classified as 'new commoners' and legal, social, political, and economic discrimination continued. Their dwellings were confined to ghettoes and even here the government intervened and violated their rights. In 1919 the government forced the entire burakumin community to move because it overlooked an area where the mythical Emperor Jimmu's tomb was presumed to be located. In 1922 the authorities burned down a burakumin hamlet, claiming it was a nest of criminals, but the real reason was its location which was near the railroad where the train transporting imperial family members was scheduled to pass. As in the feudal years burakumin were treated in a humiliating and degrading fashion. They were denied access to decent jobs and restricted to menial work. Thus they remained impoverished as a class well into the twentieth century. Intercaste marriages were virtually non-existent. They were discriminated against by curators of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. In 1859 when a young burakumin tried to enter a Shinto shrine he was beaten to death. They were subject to the military draft but they could never rise above the rank of private.

"Children were influenced by their parents' biased views so burakumin school children consistently faced discrimination from school mates. One woman recalled, 'I cannot forget the discrimination I underwent in school. Often other children would tell me, "Go away, you stink," or they would say, "That girl is from that village," and would not include me in whatever they were doing.' Another woman related, 'When I went to school I was forced to sit in the last row of the classroom all by myself ... On the first day, on the way home, a boy ran after me and told me, "Hey there, starting tomorrow you can't come to school ... If you come to school, the school will get polluted." Then he threw rocks at me. This happened many times.' ...

"[In contemporary Japan] job discrimination results in burakumin families having lower incomes than the national average, and the Buraku Liberation League continues to receive reports of discrimination. In October 1991 a high school girl committed suicide because her plan to marry her fiance, a burakumin, was opposed by those around her. A burakumin educator visiting the United States in 1991 explained: 'We face discrimination at work, in school and in marriage ... We are ten times more likely to be on welfare than the general population ... As a people we have been vilified, shunned and segregated.' In 1997 there were about two to three million burakumin."


Mikiso Hane


Japan: A Short History (Short Histories)


Oneworld Publications


Copyright 2000 by Mikiso Hane


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