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Discussion Paper 1 in 2003
First published in ejcjs on 31 January 2003

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Solving Anti-Burakujūmin1 Prejudice in the 21st Century

Suggestions from 21 Buraku Residents


Alastair McLauchlan

Senior Lecturer
Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology

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1. Introduction to the Buraku Issue

Almost a decade after the Meiji Government’s 1871 Emancipation Edict (Eta Kaihō Rei) legally liberated the eta and hinin – regarded as the forerunners to today’s burakujūmin2 from their Tokugawa outcast status, a Ministry of Justice publication still described them as only marginally better than birds and animals, and among the lowest form of human beings3. A century later, their circumstances had improved so little that in its 1965 Deliberative Council Report4, the government acknowledged widespread burakujūmin poverty, prejudice, discrimination, and neglect of their civil, social and economic human rights5. Extensive funding under the government’s Special Measures Legislation (SML) since 1969 meant that during the 1970s and 1980s, buraku environmental conditions improved quickly6. However, the psychological domain of anti-burakujūmin prejudice remains a problem in Japan today and approximately one-third of all burakujūmin families report having experienced at least one incident of anti-burakujūmin prejudice or discrimination7. The closest figure we have to quantitatively measure anti-burakujūmin prejudice is that 11.8 per cent of all Japanese adults would discontinue an existing friendship if they subsequently discovered a buraku connection8, although this is an unrealistically conservative figure9.

The BKD (The Buraku Kaihō Dōmei - The Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute) is especially active in Kansai where it has a very high profile, mainly through its tactics of denunciation10, media censorship11 and its almost unilateral control of SML funding distribution. The BKD is in total conflict with the other major player in the liberation movement, the Zenkairen (All Japan Federation of Buraku Liberation) which broke away from its parent body in the 1970s because it disagreed with the BKD’s aggressive strategies of publicity and direct confrontation. The Zenkairen believes that prejudice is steadily disappearing and advocates a milder approach and both groups remain bitter enemies. Finding a solution to social prejudice founded on a mixture of old-fashioned beliefs, envy over government funding and fear of the activists’ tactics12 remains an elusive task. While mainstream detractors tend to blame buraku residents for their situation, what has been missing from the literature is how the residents themselves perceive those attitudes.

2. Research Method

During July and August 2001, I lived in a buraku community in east Osaka and conducted in-depth interviews with 21 residents to generate the raw data for this article. Interviews were conducted in Japanese by myself, all were audio-taped and lasted an average of 38 minutes. Buraku X has a population of approximately 1200 people, almost one-half of whom are so-called burakujūmin, with the remainder being mainstream Japanese, Korean and Chinese families who have shifted into the buraku in search of cheap accommodation13. The phenomenological research method which informs this paper seeks its interviewees, not by random sampling, but on the grounds that they have the necessary ‘phenomenon’. In this study, the volunteer respondents were simply required to be residing, or to have resided, in the buraku and to have personally experienced anti-burakujūmin prejudice

3. Suggested Solutions from 21 Buraku X Residents

The overall impression from my 21 interviewees in Buraku X is that there are solutions to solving anti-buraku prejudice and that only if those particular solutions, predominantly BKD strategies, are implemented, will buraku residents start to see a decline in psychological prejudice. However, this does not mean that they all agree on what the solutions are and, if some of the interviewees could be privy to what some of the others had suggested, there would be lively debate. Almost unanimously, they claimed to want a solution for the sake of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and that they think in terms of future generations is a positive sign in itself, in spite of 19 out of 21 predicting that the problem will not be solved in the next 100 years. Figure 1 sets out the main themes of what the Buraku residents I interviewed see as solutions to problem with the numbers representing the frequency of each comment during the 21 interviews.

Table 1.

3.1 Mainstream Japanese Must Visit the Buraku

Non-pressured, well rationalised contact with rejected social groups is well documented as one of the ways to ease in-group/out-group friction. The most popular solution offered during the interviews was that mainstream people need to come into the buraku areas and see the reality of the modern buraku. In other words, come and see that the area is clean, that it is not dangerous, that the residents are not “polluted” or members of the yakuza, for example. The standing invitation from the BKD is for all Japanese to use and enjoy the public facilities in the buraku, as all were built with public funds and are therefore available for all Japanese people to use14. Seventeen interviewees reiterated this invitation for my benefit, of whom twelve then explained that they would never expect those mainstream Japanese who are prejudiced to actually set foot in the buraku. Six interviewees wanted to think that the reason many mainstream Japanese people will not come into the buraku is simply because they would then realise that there is nothing there to discriminate against and they would no longer know how to justify their prejudice. [N, male 73] described these people as among the “lots of mainstream who cannot, and will not, let go of their prejudice”. [Q, male 43] runs a youth club for a neighbouring buraku and has enjoyed real success in his efforts at getting young mainstream children from nearby to join in. Many of the parents were suspicious at first, but the children have never looked back. [Q] explained that the parents are still reluctant to come and join in with the mixture of mainstream/buraku children and is fearful of how the children’s attitudes may change later, especially when it comes to marriage. [Q], [K, female, 54] and [G, male, 47] expressed typical opinions:

We want them to visit us, meet the residents and then they will change their minds. You can’t just dislike something without trying it and you can’t have an opinion about us without seeing us on our turf. [Q]

All human beings have the same blood…I want other people to come here and talk to us…put themselves in our shoes and try to imagine what it is like to be discriminated against…the old Edo caste system is still here today. [K]

We have always lived under a cloud of prejudice but I am sure that many people could change if they knew a little more about our ancestry and character. And that we feel traumatized by what we have been through… [G]

During my stay in Buraku X, I became very aware of the very restricted business hours (the proprietors later explained that this was because of the lack of outsider patronage) of the only two very small eating establishments and of what seemed like so many outside families physically avoiding walking through the buraku on their way to a Sunday festival in the neighbouring park. Mainstream Japanese families deliberately circumnavigating the buraku intensifies the frustration that buraku residents feel about being avoided, but it may be that those mainstream people feel they have reasons of their own. Perhaps they fear saying or doing the wrong thing, or perhaps they simply do not want to be bombarded by the huge number of aggressive slogans and notice-boards on every available fence and wall in Buraku X, fearing the BKD’s aggressively expressed demands for retribution against transgressors and society in general15. So while the notion of getting mainstream people into the buraku has a great deal of merit, apart from being clean, safe, and “Japanese”, the buraku may have to work towards making itself seem more welcoming and less threatening. Perhaps some of those people who avoided walking through the buraku have been harangued by outspoken residents, or perhaps they know someone who has been told to “shuttup” ([Q]’s standard response to any criticism) when expressing an unpopular opinion, or perhaps they do not yet realise that the BKD’s despised denunciation process is no longer the frightening infringement on human rights it once was. Whatever the reason, 17 of the residents I interviewed insisted that the buraku environment is now such that if mainstream Japanese would come inside the buraku and see for themselves, they may begin to feel less negatively about the residents.

3.2. Legislation and the Government’s Role

The BKD’s own Fundamental Law16 which it drafted almost 20 years ago, is regarded by 13 residents as essential to finding a solution, while a further three respondents urged anti-prejudice legislation without specifying directly the BKD’s Fundamental Law. In 1969 the government promised legislation to eradicate anti-buraku prejudice, but since then has steadfastly refused to do so. Instead, it refers activists to Article 14 of the Constitution and the International Declaration of Human Rights17. This is not unreasonable, except, as the BKD is quick to point out, such documents have no power to punish transgressors. [P, female, 53] was very quick to remind me that the government promised legislation in 1969 while [J, female, 51] was one of three who made the point that there is no “force of law” in documents like the Constitution. Typical of the rationale for legislation was [G]’s reasoning that the success of anti-discrimination laws in America could prove equally effective in Japan. [H, male, 41] and three others, while also keen to see the law, were rather more circumspect as to whether it would have the desired effect:

As a basic strategy I think it would help. I mean we have the rules of the road but people still speed and jump red lights and so on…it hasn’t stopped them so laws don’t necessarily make people do what we want. But they do set the ground rules and from that point of view, I think the Fundamental Law would be a good thing.

[K, female, 54] was also keen to have the law, but, with three others, remained aggressively resolute that “only by the activities of the BKD can we really make people change the way they think”. Several were not actually sure what sort of legislation would be best, but felt nonetheless that something was necessary, a stance typified by [C, male, 32]:

I am convinced that we do need some form of legislation …I personally believe that it doesn’t matter too much what sort of legislation it is or what it says…maybe the Fundamental Law would be the best.

Although currently (2002) musing over the format of a proposed policy to protect minority groups such as foreigners, women and “ancestors of former outcasts”, the government has no intention of introducing the Fundamental Law, for such a move would be tantamount to a surrender to the demands of a most unpopular, left-wing activist group. In tandem with seeking legislation as a solution, all but four respondents blame the government, to some extent, for their woes and, while eight of these also positively acknowledged the government’s role in improving their daily lives via the SML programme, [K] was much less affirming:

The government hasn’t willingly done much for us at all, ye know. That might sound a bit harsh, but we are still stuck with discrimination and they haven’t done anything about it.

Overall, however, there was no quarter given in their anger at the government over continued prejudice. Comments by [Q] and [B, female, 33], for example, represent those of a full 15 of the respondents who saw it in absolutely clear-cut terms:

It is clearly the government’s responsibility to get rid of the problem…but there are so many things the government claims they have to do before they could even consider our problems. [Q]

The government has no option but to get some sort of reform under way to protect the weak people in society. [B]

In terms of taking the issue further than merely what the government has done or has not done, or merely expressing the desire for some form of legislation, only [T, female, 53] actually offered a political strategy. [T] was keen to see young buraku people become better educated, work as local body politicians and eventually get into parliament where they can have some influence over legislation and how people are treated18. [F, male, 37] had also thought this issue through quite deeply and located the issue of legislation within Japan’s already very regulated society. Noting that the “power of law in Japan is considerable”, [F] felt that legislation would help the cause, if not by changing the way people behave, then at least with some form of “publicly approved punishment” for transgressors. This was a direct reference to the fact that denunciation is widely loathed by mainstream Japan and by the Japanese government and [F]’s hint at the need for something more palatable was the only comment in the interviews that carried such a meaning. It is noteworthy that, although [F]’s wife is also from the buraku, their involvement with the BKD was originally because of their child’s physical handicap rather than to fight for the buraku cause. His attitude to many issues was notably less aggressive and much more flexible than that of most of the others.

The pros and cons of anti-prejudice legislation are many and varied but, for as long as the government refuses to even entertain the promise it made in 1969, it has left the BKD with the upper hand. The organisation claims legality by default and remains adamant that it has no alternative but to persevere with its denunciation sessions. The government is in a most difficult situation here, because, while becoming increasingly uneasy about the denunciation process, it has never been able to respond to the BKD’s continued claims that, in the absence of legislation, they have no choice but to rely on their own direct methods.

Thirteen interviewees also mentioned the Sayama Case19 in their criticism of the government, of whom eleven saw the continuing saga of the elderly Ishikawa’s ongoing appeals as nothing less than government discrimination. All regarded the matter as a barrier to any solution, insisting that only if this particular issue is resolved can progress be made and that only by a full pardon from the government can such a resolution occur20. The residents of Buraku X have clearly taken the issue onboard, but none elaborated or tried to explain what aspects of the case they felt were so unjust21. [J], who was always direct in her dealings with me and with the public in general, makes quite an effort to bring buraku issues to people’s attention. The Sayama Case was no different:

…whenever I speak about the Sayama Case…you should see the looks on the people’s faces and they would just say “Oh that has nothing to do with us”…but the moment you mention Ishikawa, every burakumin [sic] knows what it is all about and so do they. On one occasion I stood up and yelled to a group of unreceptive school mothers “I am from the buraku, just like Ishikawa…so what about that then…I was too poor to go to school”. That spread very quickly and my kids told me that their friends were told not to invite them back to their home and so on.

[J]’s commitment, energy and confidence are admirable qualities, but she admitted that she does engender some negative reaction because of her directness when putting buraku matters before unreceptive audiences. In the end, the Sayama Case remains unresolved and, like the Fundamental Law issue, is almost unsolvable. The government cannot give in to one of the nation’s most disliked activist groups and, in turn, the latter will never abandon what for so long has been one of the most intense campaigns of its fight for equality.

3.3. Some buraku Residents Also Have To Change

One issue which was in total contrast to criticisms that “the government is to blame”, “we need new laws” and that “mainstream people are too prejudiced”, was that some fault lay with the residents of the buraku themselves and that, in order to effect social liberation and ultimate equality, they may need to look closer to home. Five interviewees expressed this opinion, although it must be stressed that seeing some measure of fault as lying with the residents of the buraku did not mean that those same interviewees were not critical of the government and of mainstream narrow-mindedness. And nor were they suggesting that the problem lay in any way with the residents. It was more that they could “help” create a better understanding. [Q]’s criticism was about family values and buraku residents’ continued acceptance of mainstream domination:

The young generation [buraku youth] neglect their parents and their grandparents…they even neglect their own kids if they get tired of being parents… the situation involves not just mainstream people. Our own people have to stop being mainstream handmaidens (abridged).

[C] was equally forthright, although, like the others, he had also levelled much of the blame at the government, mainstream attitudes and “the system” in general:

There are some things which so-called burakumin have to do to help get rid of prejudice…some of them are just plain lazy. They have got to look at themselves and say “look at me…I’m nothing…I can’t do anything…that’s why I am stuck here like this”. They have got to start looking forwards and helping create a future for themselves.

What is also significant about these three comments is that [Q], [C]and [A] (plus [B] and [F] to a lesser extent) form a small sub-group which is shown in Figure 2.

Table 2.

As Figure 2 shows, five of the younger interviewees, four of whom were educated beyond secondary school and all of whom are involved in working with buraku youth, were the only ones who volunteered the notion that some attitudes among some buraku residents need to improve in order to help the process of removing mainstream attitudes of prejudice. Among the other interviewees, none had received much education at all and even the younger ones had only made it to secondary school. Even at that stage, [B], for example, stopped attending after she found her desk pushed into the corridor after her ex-best friend had visited her in the buraku. In spite of this experience, about which she is still angry, [B] did also acknowledge that:

some buraku parents also have to change their ideas…they have to show more interest in their kids.22

[A], [Q], [B], [F] and [C], on the other hand, have put more of their energy into working with buraku youth, rather than exclusively lambasting the government and mainstream attitudes. Accordingly, they have developed a broader perspective on the issue although the ferocity with which most of the respondents criticised exclusively the government and mainstream Japanese society suggests that the comments from [A], [Q], [B], [F] and [C] might not be well received by the others. In fact, in the midst of explaining why they blame the government and why they need legislation, eleven residents emphasised quite aggressively that none of the fault lies with the buraku residents at all. So while we might feel that there is room for debate on this particular issue, neither side would see very much merit in the other’s opinion. This is somewhat ironic because, in attacking mainstream Japanese for their single-mindedness and refusal to listen (“they won’t take a blind bit of notice” [P, female, 53]), most of the residents themselves displayed a similar reluctance to engage with opposing aspects of the discourse. Only five of 21 appeared willing to entertain some amount of self-criticism, although it is worth noting that the criticism was aimed at certain aspects of some residents and most definitely not at all residents in general simply for being burakujūmin. Apart from [B], the other four self critics have been well educated and are now relatively successful in life. Their achievements have shown them that as individuals they can rise above their stereotypical buraku image and, although they have remained highly critical of mainstream prejudice and what they regard as governmental inaction, their success has at least armed them with the ability to look at the debate from more than one perspective. Even for them, however, the dilemma remains, for in spite of their relative confidence, all five also featured in the statistics of those who have mainstream friends whom they would not tell about their ancestry and of those who, apart from [B], are unwilling to challenge an action of prejudice in public. In other words, they are not as comfortable with their own buraku identity as they would like to be, even as they believe themselves to be. Such is the influence of social prejudice.

3.4. The Liberation Philosophy Matters

It would be overly naïve to suggest that the only difference between the two principal liberation activist groups is whether burakujūmin should take direct, affirmative action (BKD), or whether they should lie low and let the issue disappear of its own accord in the fullness of time (Zenkairen). The BKD has a very high profile in Buraku X and its influence was unquestionably evident as 19 interviewees referred directly to supporting the BKD’s approach (including how important it is to tell buraku children of their ancestry and with eight criticising the “neta ko o okosu na” policy of the Zenkairen by name and explaining how they were so totally opposed to it23. [L, female, 60], for example, said that the Zenkairen‘s policy was:

simply and totally wrong…the path to solving the problem is by discussing the problem, openly and accurately, not by hiding it. That’s what happened to me when I was a kid. They just thought that if they all kept quiet about it and said nothing then I wouldn’t need to know about the problem…then one day at school the teacher divided us into 2 groups. He came over to our group and said “you kids are from the buraku so have a think about prejudice against buraku people…” That memory is still clear in my mind, especially when I think back to the fact that we didn’t know what he was talking about so we couldn’t say anything.

The difficulty is that the policies of “do we tell our children?” or “don’t we tell them?” are mutually exclusive, yet both seem to have merit. What was clear was that the residents in Buraku X were overwhelmingly in agreement with telling their children, but whether this was through individual choice of a personal ethos, or part of what Upham refers to as “toeing the BKD line”24, we cannot really say, but I suspect it has its origins, at least, in the latter.

4. A Message For Mainstream Japanese

One of the questions which I put to all interviewees was “Do you have a message for mainstream Japan?” This item was included in Figure 1 but is now expanded in Figure 3.

Table 3.

4.1. We Are Denied Human Rights

Nineteen of the 64 specific replies to the “message for mainstream” question centred on the most emotive gap between buraku residents and mainstream, namely the feeling that mainstream Japanese regard buraku residents as something less than human and that anti-burakujūmin prejudice is, therefore, unworthy of inclusion within the broader portfolio of human rights. Most mainstream Japanese would obviously deny any suggestion that they regard burakujūmin as “less than human”, yet it is their continued participation in a system of social attitudes which leaves the residents feeling so excluded and powerless. But the interviewees, basing their comments on the “they must see us as less than human because we are denied human rights”, feel powerless to do anything in reply. On the human rights issue [J] and [N] were very to the point, as were nine others:

The simple reason we have so many human rights violations in Japan, not just against us but against so many people, is that Japanese have a very poor sense of human rights awareness. They don’t care about others. [J]

We are Japanese citizens. Surely our human rights need to be protected too. If human rights were a priority in Japan, anti-buraku prejudice would be quickly solved. [N]

To underline the human rights issue in the previous paragraph, seven respondents made the deliberate comment that “buraku residents are human beings”. The fact that seven interviewees stressed this point suggests that they feel as though they are regarded as non-humans, just as the original outcast groups of eta and hinin were excluded from the 4-tier social structure of Edo Japan. Two mentioned their human existence in metaphysical terms such as “we also have red blood in our veins” and “we have hearts and minds and feelings and brains”, but more common were statements such as:

why can’t they understand that we are all humans, mainstream and burakumin…yet how pitiful to be judged solely on the place we were born in. [Q]

The human/non-human debate issue has become a very emotive one. Even the most virulent mainstream detractors could never seriously level a non-human criticism and buraku residents themselves must know full well that such is the case. However, given the historic origins of their outcast status and the influence of the BKD in Buraku X, residents most certainly see their continued exclusion as an infringement of human rights.

4.2. Mainstream Japanese Are Victims Too

This comment arose in eight interviews, claiming that those who are exposed to prejudice inherit the attitude, apply it and eventually pass it on. Dōwa education25 includes BKD-scripted public education seminars aimed at informing people about Tokugawa history, the origins of eta towns and the circumstances of buraku communities today, but it is very unlikely that entrenched mainstream detractors would attend any such session and even more unlikely that, if they did, they would leave the programme with a total change of heart.

So while criticism of mainstream prejudice was, as one might expect, one of the most prevalent issues throughout the interviews, eight residents blamed greater Japanese society, in particular mainstream parents who sow the seeds of prejudice, themselves having also been exposed to the same cycle one generation earlier. [B, female, 33] and [A, male, 21] saw the vicious cycle as:

[often] people don’t even realise what they are doing and saying…and they certainly don’t understand the effect they have on other people. How can they…all they are doing is what society has taught them to do. So many Japanese people say and even believe that the problem has been solved, simply because the buraku areas have been rebuilt. If they have been misinformed, either deliberately or by accident, can we really blame them? [B]

If mainstream parents pass things on, even very delicately and sometimes unaware, can we really blame their children for taking the same attitude? Those children then become parents and so the cycle goes. They are all victims of the system. [A]

However, those who saw mainstream derogators as partial victims themselves were no less determined in their desire to see people change the way they think and behave as the key to solving anti-burakujūmin prejudice. Among the younger interviewees, [F] and [A] join [B], [Q] and [C] in displaying the greatest understanding that the problem is often forced upon the transgressors, thereby making themselves victims. Once again, the less accusatory ideology which was so dominant in all other interviews had a more subtle tangent as well. [F], [B], [C], [Q] and four others again expressed their less hard-nosed approach to the issue by identifying just what it is that they regard as “the system”, namely Japan’s well documented propensity for in-group/out-group delineation.

4.3. Japan’s Traditional Social Hierarchy Prevents Attitude Change

The concept of groupism and in-group/out-group ideology is one of the psychological issues which keep Japanese society stratified and non-integrated. In the 21st century, the number of international marriages and the influx of foreigners into Japan make something of a mockery of many Japanese people’s adherence to their “Japanese race” philosophy and to the government’s rigid enforcement of nationality by jus sanguis (by blood) rather than jus locus (by place of birth). The BKD maintains its vigorous criticism of the imperial family system as the most insidious aspect of Japan’s vertical hierarchy, claiming that for as long as there is a social pyramid with a privileged head at the top, there must also be an equally underprivileged group at the bottom, in this case the buraku residents. [G] explained it in these terms:

If there is the society which concentrates itself around the Emperor, then the Emperor’s society will continue. If there is a society of aristocrats, then there is also the society of us very ordinary labourers down at the bottom with our very ordinary wishes. But only when we all start eating the same rice, does the ice begin to melt and the logic of togetherness start to spread.

[A] and [Q] were typical and equally clear:

The old 4-tiered caste system which started in Tokugawa led to today’s system. Japanese people must abandon the old idea of judging everybody...it’s one of our worst characteristics…we divide everything up between what is supposedly good and supposedly bad and that is what prejudice is all about…mainstream people are good, buraku people are bad. [Q]

Japanese people have this obsession about not being individuals…they feel that they have to fit in with the group, in line with social or parental expectation. Parents tell their kids who they must or must not marry…but they have to start looking outside of group pressure…judge others on their conscience, not on the group ethos. [A]

[C] felt that, although he was a confident young man and had, in many ways, grown beyond feeling offended at comments and hand gestures aimed at insulting buraku residents, he still regarded the buraku as sanctuary from those incidents:

at least inside the buraku I am the same as everybody else because we are all so-called burakumin. Nobody here judges me as better or worse than they are, except by my own merits and defects. So a bad type in the buraku is rightly judged as a bad character because of what he does, not because of where he was born. That’s the only division in here that matters.26

In all, eleven interviewees referred to the lack of individuality that Japanese people feel and how that pressure of belonging is what often drives the Japanese psyche, rather than applying objective criteria which judge each person as an individual. This makes prejudice difficult to control. [Q]’s explanation of the judging process was among the most poignant of all the comments:

Japanese young people can go to a good school, study hard, join a good company and make enormous progress. The mother understands this progression and tells her kids every day “study hard, study hard”. That’s what all parents hope for and strive for so the “good school…good university…good job” idea becomes their main thought. Unfortunately, there is no such connection for our children from the buraku. It makes no difference what school or university they go to because it is always mainstream people, who can’t judge others purely on their merits as individuals, who make the final decisions.

There is a sense in what many told me about their loathing of being judged because of their buraku address that some residents would actually have no objection to being judged “buraku residents” if the status ceased to involve any negative connotation. If it were no different from describing someone else as “living in area ABC” or “born in area DEF”, for example, and if the current judgemental process ceased to apply, the problem could quickly be so much less as to almost not matter. What a short step it could be from there to a final solution.

4.4. Learn About Us

Eleven residents felt that one important barrier to removing anti-buraku prejudice was that so much of what protagonists are told and subsequently believe and transmit is simply based on false information. I was repeatedly told that if “neutral” mainstream citizens would learn the truth, that would be a major step forward. [Q] was appropriately realistic, but also optimistic enough, to hope that if the combined activities of all buraku people and their groups could “change one person out of every ten, then that is something.” A number made the point that my research was the only such project they could remember and five interviewees hoped to see some tangible result from the research,

The BKD claims that one of the reasons people are so uninformed is that the school curricula have never dealt with the issue. Specialist texts on Tokugawa history and society mention only the shi-nō-kō-sho four tiers of the caste system, almost inevitably with no reference at all to the outcaste groups of eta and hinin. Texts on Meiji history make no mention of the Emancipation Edict nor of the buraku nor their residents and general social studies texts today still offer no more than a passing reference to the existence of outcasts who once existed, making no reference to the situation in the buraku today. The BKD’s insistence on human rights programmes in schools is largely only in operation in schools which service a buraku community27. The BKD and other groups have written their own texts and introduced “Dōwa Day” when buraku leaders and parents visit the local school and talk about prejudice and discrimination. This process does cause friction on both sides, as [Q] explained:

I visited one of the other schools which is not near a buraku community and I simply was not allowed to do any of the things I wanted. I guess if you want to introduce an education platform in the schools it seems as though it has to be only those schools with buraku areas near them…so although people now say dōwa rather than buraku, it’s not that they are understanding anything, it’s just that they think they are kidding us by using the correct word. Within the framework of dōwa education is education about anti-buraku prejudice and they don’t like mentioning that. They just say it’s our problem and our fault. The problem of unenlightenment is so deep that it includes people who you think are on your side. [Q]

[Q] also raised the issue of mainstream people pretending to have seen the light, but who are really just making a superficial appearance of having done so:

And these buraku people who think they have to do all they can to make mainstream people happy so that in the end they get told “yes I know we opposed your marriage but you have given us this beautiful grandchild and you really are a fantastic son-in-law”. I hate those comments because they are meaningless words which have no element of honesty about them.

What we are left with from the issue of “learn about us” is that the barriers are not just on one side. Many mainstream people are reluctant to give up their time to attend seminars and the like on issues which they believe, often quite genuinely, no longer exist. On the other hand, fear of becoming bogged down on issues which they feel, rightly or wrongly, they are not allowed to debate freely may also be forcing some mainstream people to pretend they understand and others to make no comment at all.

5. Conclusions

In this paper I have analysed the respondents’ opinions about what they feel needs to happen in order to begin solving the problem of anti-buraku prejudice. Because Buraku X is “BKD territory”, it is hardly surprising that so many of the 21 respondents were very much in support of that organisation and so opposed to the alternative approach by the Zenkairen. The number of references throughout the interviews to “mainstream people don’t know the truth about us…they won’t listen…they pretend to listen…they walk away…they hate us because of all the wrong reasons” and so on suggests, however, that there is something which has not quite gelled in the BKD’s information campaign.

The main theme of this paper has been that mainstream society and the government of Japan somehow do not understand the circumstances and experiences of buraku residents, a scenario which begs the question “why don’t they understand?” Or, do they understand but will not comment, and if that is the case, “why won’t they comment?” Getting people to change their minds about psychological issues like prejudice is a most difficult task and, while such a change may be seen as the first step towards changing this style of thinking, in fact it is not. The first step is actually clearing the pathway between opposing opinions in order to allow stifled debate to re-emerge.

In the meantime, uninformed mainstream Japanese continue to hide behind old-fashioned prejudices, some even willing to forego friendships and family relationships in order to preserve whatever it is they still believe is so special about being Japanese, or so contemptible about the people who live in a buraku. If they feel they have no right to question the issues which the activists put in front of them, one can hardly be surprised by their reluctance to engage with the issues and their tardiness to change opinions which have been in vogue for centuries and with which they have grown up.

On the other hand, buraku residents, empowered by the BKD’s activities and reputation, enjoy the protection of its influence but lament that they are not understood. Social prejudice is a psychological process and such psychological inclination does not change by itself. Rather, it needs a corridor of debate along which the plusses and minuses can be hammered out and various “give and take” factors established so that new understandings may eventually begin to emerge. The power of legislation, when applied rationally rather than vindictively, can help establish the foundation that such debate is socially desirable and appropriate. This is the crucial stage, for only when those new understandings have emerged on both sides can covert prejudice give way to a style of thinking which is objective and based on tangible evidence, rather than on old-fashioned ignorance, on both sides. Many mainstream Japanese do have to revisit how they feel about buraku residents, an approach which is now 150 years overdue. However, not only is any such change of mainstream attitudes a most difficult process28, but only five of my interviewees were in any way prepared to accept that buraku residents can also help by looking more objectively at the issues. Therefore, it is unhelpful for either side to stand resolute and claim that the other is exclusively to blame for the current stalemate.

Public credibility for any activist group is also essential and the BKD needs to look at its most dogmatic ideologies and re-evaluate them as helpful or destructive towards eradicating anti-buraku prejudice. Furthermore, people like [J], who almost delights in pushing her buraku resident’s status in front of people in what seems a mischievous, if not antagonistic, manner, might also think about how else they might make their point without alienating those around them. When I suggested to [J] that some people might take offence at her approach, she again dismissed my suggestion with a wave of her hand and said “why would I care about that...they have to learn”. In the end, it is impossible to tell what the solution is and, indeed, it is highly improbable that there is actually only “one” solution. But the residents of Buraku X remain unmoved in their criticism of what they see as governmental inactivity and mainstream dogma based on ignorance and, in their eyes, changing those phenomena is the first step.


1. The word buraku literally means small village but for many Japanese, the immediate connotation of buraku is of a despised community of Tokugawa outcast descendants. The word’s association with discriminated buraku communities means that it is seldom used today in its original meaning, around the Kansai area where the greatest numbers of buraku communities are found. Residents of buraku communities are generally referred to as burakumin (people of the buraku) although they regard the title as insulting, discriminatory and separatist. In 1997, the BKD coined the term burakujūmin (buraku residents) in an attempt to convince the public that many residents have no such ancestry and that there is no logic in discriminating against people simply because they live in a certain neighbourhood.

2. Kitaguchi (1999) Chapter 5.

3. 1880. Cited in Neary (1989) 47.

4. In 1959, the government finally introduced legislation to set up the 1961 Deliberative Council. This culminated in the Deliberative Council Report of 1965 and finally the series of Special Measures Legislation (SML) starting in 1969. SML generated 13,880 billion yen between 1969 and 1993 for the improvement of buraku areas and education. The total series of SML included the Law on Special Measures for Dōwa Projects (1969 plus extensions), the Law on Special Measures for Regional Improvements (1982 plus extensions), the Law on Budgetary Measures Concerning Projects for Dōwa Regional Improvements (1987) and the Covenant on Dōwa Materials for Schools (1994).

5. Buraku Liberation Research Institute (1994) 28-31.

6. The SML funding officially ended in April 202.

7. Buraku Kaihō Kenkyūjo (1991) 112-113. Over half of my respondents reported experiences of opposition to marriage, two had been humiliated by school teachers and one had even been kidnapped. Others had had friendships abruptly terminated while three reported offensive comments. During my stay in Buraku X, I witnessed anti-buraku graffiti on the toilets in the park bordering the buraku. The graffiti referred to buraku residents as eta filth and animals. See also McLauchlan (2002) and McLauchlan (2000b).

8. Buraku Kaihō Kenkyūjo (1996).

9. McLauchlan (2002) 84-120.

10. Where the BKD can identify the transgressors in what it deems to be discriminatory behaviour, the accused are required to appear before a public tribunal held on BKD premises. Early sessions were hallmarked by violence and kidnapping, although today’s sessions are far less intimidating. Be that as it may, many people claim the sessions still violate individual human rights and there is no doubt that they are still very frightening for the parties appearing. The government is unhappy with the process but the BKD vows to continue them until the government introduces specific anti-discrimination legislation. The BKD holds about 50 sessions per year.

11. Some companies may practice ‘self-censorship’ but I would argue that this is only a variation of the same theme. Van Wolferen’s experiences over publishing the Japanese version of his book The Enigma of Japanese Power, and my own experiences with Japanese publishing houses who claimed that “the issue is too delicate for us to handle” suggest that the BKD’s censorship role is extant.

12. See Mclauchlan, 2002:84-120.

13. This information was provided during one of my fieldwork interviews with several BKD officials, including the Secretary-General, Suehiro Kitaguchi. The higher than normal representation of non-Japanese residents in Buraku X reflects the profile of the BKD there and its willingness to accommodate, even to encourage, outsiders into the community. The government’s 1993 survey of all buraku districts found that overall, almost 50% of buraku residents had no historic or recent buraku connection (based on numbers who were receiving dōwa assistance under the Special Measures funding), having shifted in from mainstream society. So-called ‘non-burakujūmin’ inside buraku neighbourhoods also include substantial numbers who deny any burakujūmin association. See Sōmuchō in Reference List.

14. Rent in Buraku X is approximately 50% of the going rate for east Osaka and school fees and associated expenses are all provided for. Facilities in the community include a pre-school facility, swimming pool, youth club, job search service, library, human rights centre, health centre, problem solving counseling and a retirement home. The facilities, probably unmatched anywhere else in Osaka, were all built with government money and the BKD frequently invites non-buraku residents to enjoy the facilities whenever they wish, although the retirement home (where I lived during my fieldwork!) remains for the exclusive use of Buraku X residents. However, very few outsiders take up the invitation and even the health centre, which is built immediately next to, but deliberately NOT on, buraku land, is so poorly patronized by mainstream residents that it is in danger of closing.

15. The BKD’s high profile in Buraku X includes numerous signs and posters demanding an end to discrimination and aggressively promoting retribution against those who transgress. Although outside the brief of this paper, I also spoke to 36 neighbouring mainstream residents and attempted to engage them in my research. Notwithstanding the well-documented Japanese propensity to avoid direct statements, especially to strangers, none of the residents would comment in any way on the research. All just nodded or muttered “is that right?’ or “are you?” Most live very close to the buraku so it is impossible that they are unaware of the issues. Some may have anti-buraku attitudes and some may have simply not wished to comment to an unknown foreigner, but what is significant is that not one offered any hint of encouragement or support.

16. Japan has 13 Fundamental Laws such as the Fundamental Law for Education. A fundamental law does not provide specific offence/punishment strategies, but acts as a platform whence further specific legislation can be launched. The BKD’s draft demands that the government take measures to eradicate prejudice, that it conducts regular surveys and that its introduces specific anti-prejudice legislation.

17. See McLauchlan (2001) 178-201 for a detailed examination of the government’s approach to the problem since 1871.

18. I discovered one burakujūmin Diet member and wrote to him prior to my fieldwork. No reply was ever received. Furthermore, Kitaguchi explained that there are several others in the Japanese parliament who have never allowed their buraku origins to be made public.

19. Ishikawa was a buraku resident in Sayama who was arrested and accused of the murder of mainstream girl almost 40 years ago. He has always maintained his innocence and the case has become a cause celebre for the BKD.

20. While I was living in Buraku X, the final stages of the latest Sayama appeal were underway, which may have prompted so many respondents to mention the issue. Ishikawa was released from prison several years ago, but on one occasion during my stay, the residents held a community meeting with banners calling Ishikawa’s murder conviction “the government’s commitment to anti-buraku discrimination” and demanding nothing less than a total pardon.

21. The United Nations has asked the government to release all of its documents pertaining to the Sayama Case but the government refuses to do so.

22. I regularly observed a group of young teenagers in Buraku X who seemed aimless and totally disinterested in any positive aspect of their lives. One was frequently prostrate and under the influence of some substance. My gatekeepers took action but described them as the “sad and often inevitable result of social alienation and subsequent poor parenting”.

23. Neta ko o okosu na literally means “don’t wake a sleeping baby” although my own translation is “let sleeping dogs lie”. The expression is the BKD’s own critical evaluation of the Zenkairen’s non-aggressive approach to eradicating prejudice.

24. Upham (1987) 39-87.

25. Dōwa is the government’s official term for describing buraku issues (See McLauchlan 2002 for a full explanation of how the term came about and of all the other words coined to describe the residents of buraku areas since the Meiji Restoration).

26. [C] was one of the small number who, while critical of mainstream Japanese who will not allow buraku residents to integrate, was also very clear about the role that some residents themselves have to play in changing their own attitudes and behaviour.

27. While there are no longer “buraku schools”, those schools which have buraku areas in their catchment areas receive extra funding and lower teacher/pupil ratios. These are the schools which many mainstream parents will still try to avoid by sending their children to a school which does not have any buraku communities within its catchment area.

28. Allport (1954) 22.


Allport, G.W. The Nature of Prejudice. First published by Addison-Wesley (1954). Current edition published in New York by Anchor-Doubleday Books, 1958.

Buraku Liberation Research Institute. The Literary Work and Discrimination in Japan. Ōaska: Buraku Liberation Research Institute, 1990.

Buraku Kaihō Kenkyūjo.

1995 nen: Ichinenkan no Buraku Kaihō Shimbun. Ōsaka: Edited by the Buraku Liberation Research Institute, 1999.

Kyō no Buraku Sabetsu. Kakuchi no Jittai Chōsa Kekka yori. (3rd Edition), Ōsaka, Buraku Kaihō Kenkyūjo. (Introductory Edition published 5 Feb 1986, 1st Edition published 10 Feb 1988, 2nd Edition published 1 October 1991) 1996.

Dōwa Education: Educational Challenge Towards a Discrimination-free Japan. Ōsaka: Edited by the Buraku Liberation Research Institute, 1995.

Kyō no Buraku Sabetsu: Kakuchi no Jittai Chōsa Kekka Yori. (2nd Edition), Ōsaka: Buraku Kaihō Kenkyūjo. (Introductory Edition published 5 Feb 1986,1st Edition published 10 Feb 1988) 1991.

The Reality of Discrimination in Japan. Osaka: Edited by the Buraku Liberation Research Institute, 1994.

McLauchlan, A.

(2002) “Mainstream Japanese Attitudes Towards Japan’s Burakujūmin: A Range of Social, Psychological, Economic and Historical Factors Continue to Exclude These Descendants of the Tokugawa Outcasts.” New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 4:1 (June 2002): 84-120.

(2001) “Japanese Authorities and the Buraku Issue: Was it really 130 Years of “Conniving?” In Asian Nationalism in an Age of Globalization, edited by Starrs, R, 178-201. Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library, 2001.

(2000a) “Current Difficulties for Researchers…Potential difficulties for Japan’s Buraku People.” Buraku Kaihō Shimbun 116 (September 2000): Buraku Kaihō Kenkyūsho, 306.

(2000b) "The Current Circumstances of the Burakumin: Are Japan’s Economic Woes About to Reverse 25 years of Progress?” NZ Journal of East Asian Studies 2,1 (2000):120-144.

(1999) “Introduction.” In An Introduction to the Buraku Issue: Questions and Answers, Kitaguchi, S. 1-39. Folkestone, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999.

Neary, I. Political Protest and Social Control in Pre-war Japan: The origins of Buraku Liberation. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Sōmuchō Report. Heisei Gonendo Dōwachiku Jittai Haakutō Chōsa Kekka no Gaiyō. (Outline of the Results of the 1993 Surveys to Assess Conditions in Dōwa Areas). Tōkyō. Sōmuchōkan Kanbō Chiiki Kaizen Taisakushitsu, 1995.

Upham, F.K. Law and Social Change in Postwar Japan. Harvard University Press, 1987.

About the author

Alastair McLauchlan is Senior Lecturer at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology in New Zealand. He has recently completed his PhD thesis based on fieldwork conducted while he resided in an Osaka buraku community with an active BKD presence. His major work on the buraku  issue was writing an introduction for, and translating, Professor Suehiro Kutaguchi's work An Introduction to the The Buraku Issue: Questions and Answers (Curzon, 1999). He also holds a Masters degree in education (with distinction), a BA (Hons) in Japanese, a BA in French and a Diploma in Teaching.

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Copyright: Alastair McLauchlan
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