Japan’s untouchables

[A version of this article was first published in Kansai Scene magazine, 2002]


In Japan there is a minority people who have been outcasts for more than 200 years, yet they remain little-known in the rest of the world. KS contributing writer Brett Hetherington spoke with *Kohei, of the Buraku Liberation Organisation in Kyoto to report on how burakumin lives are today.

Who are the buraku?

While the word buraku can be literally translated as “area people” or “district people” this only hints at their separation from Japanese society. The topic of the buraku is rarely discussed in public. Also called dowa, or more politely eta, they are racially the same as other Japnese people but were given a different status under a Tokugawar-era decision to formailise the social classes that existed at that time.

The original buraku-min worked in trades like leather craft and meat handling. Partly due to Buddhist superstition about dead animals, these were generally thought to be unclean activities, both physically and spiritually tainted. These days many buraku find work in construction, or in more desperate times, prostitution.

To this day, family bloodlines still class a person as buraku and burakumin are identifiable by their family names and their addresses in buraku parts of town. These areas are often situated next to railways stations: Kyoto city and Sonobe in the west of Kyoto prefecture are just two examples.

What kinds of discrimination do buraku face?

According to Kohei, the biggest problems facing buraku today are in the area of marriage. “If you’re from outside a buraku family and you wed and become part of one, your cousins say, “We’re now all contaminated!

“In addition, the original registries of marriages used to be with temples,” he explains. “They were free to give out any information to the public and the authorities have continued doing this.”

This means that the problem that buraku people often have is that the records of their histories are easily available to anyone who wants to check-up on the background of a possible marriage partner. The information is regularly used this way to discriminate.

Kohei also seems discrimination in employment. “There have been some improvements in bigger companies who have been educated on this issue somewhat, and would be worried about their image being damaged by claims that they exclude buraku from working with them,” he said. “Smaller businesses though are still lagging behind in this matter.”

Another issue that confronts them daily is anti-buraku graffiti. It is typically written in public toilets but might also appear in more obvious places. A large, multi-paneled photographic display showing examples of this was put up regularly in Kyoto’s main Sanjo subway station, turning it from what Kohei calls a secretive subject into “an educational service.”

The movement that he works for also attempts to get publicity in other ways, while trying to “pin responsibility on those who do the acts of discrimination,” he said.

The deeper motivations of those who scrawl a message of prejudice on a wall are something he’s not so sure about. “Possibly this is one way o let out stress and there is jealousy against the attention that burakumin are starting to get,” he suggested. “Improvements in some conditions are being made, especially in this part of Japan since changes to various laws in 1969.”

 The Future

One of the improvements that Kohei has seen that gives him hope is in housing. “There are not so many slums left, so it is not such a big problem now because it’s easier to move out of a buraku area,” he stated.

“One change to the law…that has helped is that a job applicant only needs to provide their current address and the prefecture of their birth. Previously, they had to give full details of their last five residences, which made investigating someone’s background a lot easier.”

I asked Kohei about whether there were many burakumin active in the political system. “Certainly,” he answered. “There are individuals in government positions who are both ‘open and closed’ about their family lineage. Some candidates are identified as buraku. But they don’t just talk about buraku issues; rather they work on many things.”

Buraku Pride

Kohei was clear that being proud of one’s background as a buraku made little sense. He tightened his lips and asked me why anyone should have such a feeling. “The distinction between buraku and others is a baseless one,” he said flatly.

“I’m surprised at Japenese people because we all look the same, after all. In the case of Koreans, their passports are different and the black people in America have different-coloured skins. Ours is a difference which has been created.”

He told me that most buraku don’t introduce themselves as buraku except when they have a particular reason such as giving education talks to raise awareness of buraku issues.

It is likely that discrimination against this minority will continue in Japan, especially given that prejudice is often stronger in parts of the world where economic times are tight. The habit of mind of seeing buraku as a separate class is just one form of categorization that is a fundamental part of Japan.

(* Real name withheld by request)


According to burakumin organization publicity, one instance of the legal system working against their cause is the Sayama case. The buraku man, Kazuo Ishikawa was charged with the 1963 kidnapping and murder of a girl in Saitama prefecture after heavy public pressure on the police to find the person responsible.

At the first trial Ishikawa pleaded guilty on both counts but soon after claimed that his confession was strongly coerced from him in and was combined with police threats to arrest his brother. On appeal, he reversed his plea, insisting he was completely innocent, but was only freed on probation after 32 years of hard labour in prison.

UPDATE: The campaign for his third appeal and re-trial continues. By 2007 over one million signatures were collected in an attempt to finally get justice for Ishikawa.

KENJI NAKAGAMI: Tales of Burakumin Life

Author of the internationally-praised collection The Cape and other stories from the Japanesse Ghetto, Kenji Nakagami is a writer whose work opens up a side of Japan usually well-hidden from the foreign eye.

He once said that his gutsy, earthy style “pisses on language” in order to make it it new again. His work presents Japanese lives in a world apart from the typical ‘cultural’ fare of colourful festivals or ‘exotic’ temples.

In his writings about the burakumin he often wades into the darker aspects of human nature. In possibly his most famous story titled The Cape, there are striking passages where he explores the dull, animalistic mind of a simpleton. There is little in literature that does this in such a penetrating way.

Credit must be given also to the brilliant and subtle translation work of Eve Zimmerman, who has made the gruff grunts and mumbles of Nakagami’s characters comprehensible to the non-Japanese reader.


A recent study by the United Nations Human Rights Commission concluded that the burakumin are still significantly disadvantaged. It draws similarities between the buraku and the members of the lower castes in India, where social discrimination is based on decent and occupation.

This report states that “particularly harmful [to burakumin] is the use of derogatory terms in speech and writing.” The figures estimated by the UN subcommittee are that there are around 3 million burakumin in Japan, almost three times more than the official Japanese statistic.

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