Buraku Liberation News, Sep 1998 issue (No.104)

The Buraku Question

By Nobuaki Teraki,
Professor at the Momoyama Gakuin University,
Board member of the BLHRRI

In contemporary Japan, areas which are the focus of status (or caste) discrimination against buraku, [villages] are called hisabetsu buraku. This term came into use in Japan in the late 1950s and was adopted by the media and in academic circles in the 1970s. The term derived from other much earlier forms, but it had become clear that by the early 1900s its use was as a discriminatory label. So hisabetsu buraku came to be used as a pejorative noun that suggested illegality and degeneracy.

In this way the discriminatory term has functioned to prolong the discrimination and prejudice against hisabetsu buraku-min [those born in buraku areas] which extends to the present day.

Buraku, the abbreviation of hisabetsu buraku, is a Chinese character compound, which seems to have been used in ancient China. The literal meaning is a place - villages and fields -where a group of ethnically related people settle. In Japan, it was generally not used during the period from the Meiji Restoration [1868-1912] until modernization. In the present century, it has been widely used as a way of referring to a rural settlement, so that even today, in parts of the country, the word buraku refers to villages which are not hisabetsu buraku.

Today, the term dowachiku [assimilation areas] is also used as a way of referring to hisabetsu buraku. This can be traced to the name of the Dowahokokai, a buraku group formed to support the war effort in 1941. The emergence of this group was the catalyst for the adoption of dowa [assimilation] as a government term, which was then appended to a range of policies in the postwar period, including dowachiku (dowa area): dowa mondai (dowa issues); dowagyosei (dowa administration); dowataisaku (policies directed toward dowa) and dowakyoiku (dowa education) .

The word 'dowa' itself was actually coined by combining Chinese characters contained in speeches made on the occasion of the enthronement of the former Showa Emperor [Hirohito] on 28 December 1926. The reason that Buraku Liberation groups today consciously avoid using the word is in part because it stems from the name of a group which supported the war effort, and in part because it was drawn from passages which concern the tyrannical prewar emperor system.

Today the words hisabetsu buraku and dowachiku are used interchangeably; but more precisely, dowachiku refers to hisabetsu buraku which have been designated by administrative agencies as being areas to which dowa policies are directed. If we exclude the northernmost island of Hokkaido and the southernmost prefecture Okinawa, there are 6,000 such designated areas in the Japanese archipelago. People born in these areas are estimated to number about 3,000,000 (Japan's population is currently around 120 million). Of the 6,000 hisabetsu buraku areas, 4,603 had been designated as dowachiku according to the government's 1987 survey. Consequently it is generally acknowledged that there are more than 1,000 hisabetsu buraku which, for a range of reasons, remain undesignated and lie beyond the application of the government's dowa policies.

In 1969, in an effort to resolve buraku issues, the government enacted a Special Measures Law for Dowa Projects. It was based on the 1965 report commissioned from the Dowa Policy Council, established by the then Prime Minister.

The Report took the view that buraku issues were a serious constraint on the fundamental human rights guaranteed under the Japanese Constitution, and that the state was bound to resolve these issues urgently. It acknowledged that the issues related directly to Japanese citizens and called upon the Cabinet to introduce special measures legislation, with a view to changing public attitudes.

The resulting legislation provided that the national government would fund two-thirds of the cost of dowa policy activities undertaken by local government, for a period of ten years. Under the law, living conditions improved markedly in the hisabetsu buraku which were designated as dowachiku.

The Special Measures Law was then extended for a period of three years. In 1982, in light of expectations that there would be projects still outstanding, a Special Measures Law for Regional Improvement Projects was passed, with a limited validity of five years. Again, in 1987, a Special Measures Law Concerning the National Budget for Specified Regional Improvement Projects was enacted to be effective for a period of five years, then extended for another five years to 31 March 1997.

In the 30 years since these related laws have been in operation, living conditions in many of the country's dowachiku have changed significantly; we now hear ordinary people saying that buraku discrimination has all but disappeared, or that the dowa policies are now unnecessary. It is also true, however, that jealousy springing from the perception that buraku are privileged is also growing stronger.

Certainly, the application of dowa policies to hisabetsu buraku designated as dowachiku have, for the most part, resulted in enormous improvement in the living environment. However, in some regions where dowa projects under the new laws were implemented late, there is still considerable scope for improvements in living conditions.

On the other hand, in areas where projects were begun early, there are now problems with the confined size of the improved residential housing and facilities, and the fact that these are now aging. Furthermore, of the 6,000 or so buraku, more than 1,000 are excluded from the scope of the policy and remain depressed social environments. More recently social phenomena such as the use of graffiti and spraypainting in public places, and derogatory language about buraku, is on the increase. The development of the information society and computerized communication has also created new channels for the exercise of discrimination against buraku.

Furthermore, the Special Measures legislation, enacted since the late 1960s, has only been effective in relation to living conditions; the express provisions did not deal with discrimination in employment and education.

Consequently, the unemployment rates for those born in buraku remain much higher than the national average, and the forms of employment they do undertake tend to include a much higher proportion of day labouring and casual employment compared to the rest of the population. For example, in the Kyoto metropolitan area in 1987, the rate of day labouring among those considered as unemployed was 13.8 per cent in buraku, four times higher than the total figure for the area, 2.9 per cent. Similarly, the rate of progress of buraku people to university education remains at half the national average.

At the level of public consciousness, too, problems remain. For example, in a 1994 survey of attitudes carried out in Sakai City in Osaka revealed that 29.1 per cent of respondents opposed the idea of their own child marrying someone from a buraku.

At present we are seeing numerous reassessments of buraku history. The mainstream view of the origins of hisabetsu buraku was, until recently; that they were political creations of the period dating from the Toyotomi era to the early Edo period (end of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th century), intended to further a policy of divide and rule - the political origins theory. In recent years, suggestions that buraku originated in the late Heian Period (11th century) have also emerged - the middle ages origin theory. However, others also support a social origins theory in relation to buraku.

My own view is that the power elites of the 16th and 17th centuries used the existence of outcastes (Kawaramono) in the middle ages, who were defined on the basis of concepts of ritual contamination, added people from other social classes, and then formulated buraku for political purposes.

Until recently the image of hisabetsu buraku associated with the Edo Period has been bleak, usually depicting poverty and deprivation. Buraku residents were assumed to have been engaged in leather working and the exclusive role of handling the carcasses of dead cattle and horses.

It is now clear that their occupations were more varied. In many cases, albeit with difficulty, buraku inhabitants developed techniques and artistry in fields such as drum-making; agriculture; production of leather-soled straw sandals; stone masonry; medicine; fisheries; and entertainment. Research now suggests, for example, that based on a comparison of the agricultural sector during the middle ages, in the area around present-day Nara Prefecture, buraku were comparatively wealthier than the surrounding villages.

These examples canvass only a fraction of the current rethinking of buraku history. There are also major developments in the reevaluation of buraku history of the modern and contemporary periods.

As new research exposes the realities of buraku history, we can expect to see the road to buraku liberation becoming clearer and more certain. On the basis of the issues raised briefly here, I suggest that, first, while continuing to improve living conditions in hisabetsu buraku, we will also see the strengthening of policies directed towards eradicating employment discrimination and underwriting employment opportunities.

It will also be necessary to strengthen education policies for those people born in hisabetsu buraku as a precondition for proceeding with employment strategies. Furthermore, an authentic and effective approach to human rights education is necessary if we are to proceed with the kind of buraku liberation education (or dowa education) needed to shape a society in which marriage discrimination is eradicated.

It should be possible to resolve the problem of buraku discrimination if, while considering legal measures, there is cooperation and collaboration by administrative agencies, corporations, educators and citizens. Also, by deepening links with those in India and elsewhere who are the targets of caste discrimination, and by seeing the United Nations Convention of the Abolition of Caste (Status) Discrimination become a reality, it should be possible to liberate the many people throughout the world who suffer from buraku, caste and other kinds of discrimination on the basis of status or origin.

(This article first appeared in THE ASIA-PACIFIC MAGAZINE No. 6/7 1997)