Japan has a reputation of being a homogeneous, mostly harmonious society. There are few foreigners, linguistic differences are rare and on the surface class distinctions are largely absent. But, as Mike Sunda discovered, there is one, often hidden, exception: Japan’s untouchables.

In the corner of a pristine room tucked away in Tokyo’s Shibaura meat market is a table topped with a stack of crudely composed hate mail – evidence of a prejudice that dates back to medieval times.

Slaughtermen, undertakers, those working with leather and in other “unclean” professions such as sanitation have long been marginalised in Japan. That prejudice continues to this day.

“When people ask us about what sort of work we do, we hesitate over how to answer,” slaughterman Yuki Miyazaki says.

“In most cases, it’s because we don’t want our families to get hurt. If it’s us facing discrimination, we can fight against that. But if our children are discriminated against, they don’t have the power to fight back. We have to protect them.”

Feudal origins

Burakumin, meaning “hamlet people”, dates back to the feudal era. It originally referred to the segregated communities made up of labourers working in occupations that were considered impure or tainted by death, such as executioners, butchers and undertakers.

The lowest of these outcasts, known as Eta, meaning “abundance of filth”, could be killed with impunity by members of the Samurai if they had committed a crime. As recently as the mid-19th Century a magistrate is recorded as declaring that “an Eta is worth one seventh of an ordinary person”.

In the mid-1970s, a Buraku rights group discovered the existence of a 330-page handwritten list of Buraku names and community locations that was being sold secretly to employers by mail order.

Many big name Japanese firms were using the list to screen job applicants.

A government survey in 1993, listed nearly a million people living in more than 4,000 communities around the country. The Burakumin Liberation League (BLL), a rights organisation founded in 1955, puts the number of communities at around 6,000 and estimates that the total number of Burakumin is closer to three million.

In a survey last year conducted by the Tokyo government, one in 10 said that they would have reservations about their child marrying someone with Burakumin ancestry, although nearly a half of respondents said this wouldn’t bother them. Via BBC

Leave a Reply