Buraku Liberation News March 1999 No.107

The Burakumin : The Complicity of Japanese Buddhism in Oppression and an Opportunity for Liberation (first part)

Leslie D. Alldritt,
Associate Professor
Northland College, U.S.A.


In James Clavell's book Shogun, the following description appears: "Jan Roper interrupted, "Wait a minute, Vinck! What's wrong, Pilot ? What about eters?" "It is just that the Japanese think of them as different. They're the executioners, and work the hides and handle corpses."1 Elsewhere in this well-known novel the term "eta" appears yet a fuller explanation of these people is never provided.

The "eta" or now more appropriately called burakumin -- literally, "village people" -- are an oppressed class within Japan. As noted by DeVos 2, the burakumin are Japan's "invisible race." Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, the Vilas Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, states that the burakumin are 'invisible' due to the fact that there are no physical characteristics that distinguish them from other Japanese.3 However, there have been and continue to exist arguments that the burakumin are racially distinct from the majority of the Japanese people.4

The burakumin have also been referred to as the eta-hinin, a term that is still in use today. The word eta can be translated as "much or very polluted/unclean" and the word hinin simply means "non-person." Thus this group within Japan has been determined to have no identity by the majority Japanese, no genuine personhood, and therefore, not surprisingly, oppression and mistreatment have historically been their lot. Despite a betterment of their situation -- primarily due to legislation -- the burakumin continue to be considered disparagingly in the Japanese public consciousness and subjected to discrimination.

For the purposes of this publication, the focus of my discussion will be to analyze two questions: "What are some elements of Japanese Buddhist complicity in discrimination against the Burakumin?" and, importantly, "What are some of the measures being taken today by Japanese religions to address this history of discrimination?" The concluding section of this article will proffer a few thoughts toward extending the liberative goals of the buraku people.

The Religiosity of the Burakumin 5

John Donoghue, in his study of the burakumin entitled, Pariah Persistence in Changing Japan,6 includes a section which describes the religious views of the inhabitants of a buraku section of the city of Toyoda in Northern Japan. Within Shin-machi ("New City"), the name of the buraku section in which he was working, Donoghue noted that,

The more educated and socially sophisticated persons in Shin-machi stressed the fact that the Buraku people were very religious. They pointed out that everyone in the community belonged to a Buddhist sect. They also indicated that their Shinto beliefs, rituals, and ceremonies were the same as those found in communities throughout Japan.7

No student of Japanese religions would find this particularly significant as this is a normal occurrence among the greater Japanese population as well; however, when we consider the role of Japanese Buddhism in casting the burakumin down, it is surprising that they tended not to blame Buddhism. Rather, as Donoghue further observed, "they [burakumin] were convinced that religion was wholly unrelated to their lowly position in society."8

Donoghue goes on to say that most burakumin in the community follow Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo-shu) and that this sect had, in the past, supported burakumin rights. The members of the community seemed, in Donoghue's estimation, to practice religion much like their fellow citizen in regard to attending matsuri (festival.)9 There were though some differences in their religious views; for example, the burakumin in Shin-machi did tend to be less 'superstitious' than the majority Japanese population.10 Additionally, the community did exact monies on a voluntary basis -- the amount determined by town meetings and adjusted by income level -- for supporting the upkeep of the local shrine and cemetery,11 which is a somewhat unusual practice in Japan. One critical difference between the majority Japanese observation of matsuri and the burakumin observance was the foci of their orations:

In every speech and in every prayer, there were references either directly or indirectly to the community in its relation to the world outside. Some were pleas for greater cleanliness in the village, or the advisability of curtailing dog killing, others centered around the Buraku-min's lowly position in Japanese society, or the cruelty of the world expressed in one or another particular instance of discrimination against them. Other orations invoked the aid of the gods for the attainment of economic success, for the marriage of daughters, and for less discrimination against them by outsiders.12

Despite some notable differences, it seems according to Donoghue's reporting, the burakumin do not differ greatly from their countrymen in their understanding or practice of religion.

In an issue of the Buraku Liberation News, an English-language, bimonthly publication of the Buraku Liberation Research Institute, 13 the question of Buddhism and discrimination was taken up in the section entitled, "Buraku Problem Q & A." The question was, "Is Buddhism free from Buraku discrimination?" What follows is part of the response to the question:

There is a tradition that people carve a religious name for the dead on the face of a tomb as a sign of worship. That is a practice for many Buddhist religious organizations. The name for the dead is Kaimyo, posthumous Kaimyo is given by a Buddhist priest and is recorded in a post-memorial-notebook at the temple the dead belonged to. Of late, it was discovered that discriminatory names and characters in the notebooks and on the faces of the tombs exist. These were given by Buddhist priests to the dead who were of Buraku origin.

The names include the characters for beast, humble, ignoble, servant and many other kinds of derogatory expressions. Upon the disclosure, Buddhist organizations started to widely investigate notebooks and tombs in response to the requests of the BLL [Buraku Liberation League]. They found discriminatory Kaimyo, at many Buddhist sects in most parts of Japan. While the majority seems to have been given a long time ago, there are some names given even since the 1940's.14

Such discriminatory practice is one indication that Buddhism has historically contributed to burakumin oppression. As the Japanese people inescapably employ Buddhist death rituals, it is not surprising that it is here that Buddhism can make its own contribution to burakumin discrimination.

Buddhist temples that were located in Buraku communities "were called 'impure temples' (eta-dera) and were not allowed to communicate with temples in non-Buraku areas."15 Further, as the Dalits were told from the Hindu perspective, the burakumin were taught that it was their karma that placed them in this unsavory life and that forbearance was necessary if the next life was to be favorable.16

In a recent treatment of Japanese Buddhism and the burakumin, William Bodiford examined the role of Zen Buddhism and its efforts to reform its tradition of discrimination (sabetsu) against the Buraku people.17 Bodiford outlines the more recent developments of Soto Zen from its reaction to the Machida controversy to the establishment of a Central Division for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (Jinken Yogo Suishin Honbu). This concern by the Soto-shu manifests in several dimensions. In the past, the sect has created problems for buraku (and other marginalized groups in Japan) by utilizing the temple registration (tera-uke) system to provide the Tokugawa government with information that was used to further discrimination; the use of necrologies (kakocho) as a device of discrimination of marginalized groups, including use of discriminatory names in the register and alternate registers that would be 'off the books'; the use of kaimyo; and discriminatory rituals - particularly death rituals - that were prescribed for Soto priests to use with the burakumin.18

Another area of Japanese Buddhism that requires discussion is the presence and usage of discriminatory passages in Buddhist texts, including sutras. One such sutra that is problematic in this regard is the Mahaparinirvana-sutra (Nehangyo) and its pronouncements on the icchantika (Jp.issendai) doctrine.19 Ishikawa Rekizan in an article entitled, "Karma, Chandara, and Buddhist Scriptures,"20 looks at the Nehangyo as providing support for discriminatory practices. Ishikawa asserts that in the literary works (chojutsu) of every Japanese sect founder, one can finds the use of the term 'chandala' (sendara in Japanese), including work of such luminaries as Kukai and Dogen. However, he singles out the Nehangyo as "representative" of a Mahayana Sutra and posits that this sutra provides a theoretical foundation (rironteki konkyo) for other Mahayana sutras that develop the idea of the chandala (which he associates with the idea of the icchantika). Ishikawa argues that this icchantika idea (that some sentient creatures are unable to realize the Buddha-nature) contravenes the Buddhist notion of issai-shujo shitsu aru bussho, that is, that all sentient creatures have Buddha-nature.21

What perhaps is most confusing by surveying the Nehangyo is that it is difficult, despite the number of passages the icchantika notion is broached, to gain much clarity on what exactly is being asserted regarding the salvific possibility of this group. Further, exactly who should be included in this category of the 'unsavable' is a question. In regard to the issue of the text being used to justify discrimination, these ambiguities should be enough to forestall exegetical free play by those interested in supporting discrimination. While space is an issue here, a citation of a few passages from the Nehangyo may prove insightful. In chapter sixteen "On Bodhisattva," the text states,

The same is the case of the icchantika. No bud of bodhi comes forth even if they give ears to this all-wonderful great nirvana-sutra. It is never that such a case happens. Why? Because such a one has totally annihilated the root of good."22

Yet, other passages seem to argue that why icchantika remain beyond saving is not due to birth or class, but rather from their attitude toward the dharma - an attitude that can be rectified.

So, I, always say that beings all possess the Buddha Nature. Even, I say that the icchantika possesses the Buddha Nature. The icchantika has no good law.

The Buddha Nature too is a good law. As there are the days to come, this is also a possibility for the icchantika to possess the Buddha Nature. Why?

Because all icchantika can definitely attain the unsurpassed bodhi.23

This passage seems clear: the icchantika not only can possess the Buddha Nature, but he or she can also "attain" it. Therefore, to argue that the icchantika precept can be consistently advanced from the Nehangyo to support discriminatory Buddhist attitudes or practices seem ill-founded.

It seems evident that relevant Buddhist sutras have been used selectively to provide "doctrinal cover" and these sutras should be more fully explored and, if discriminatory, rebutted on the basis of the larger Buddhist ethic that is informed by Right Action and Right Speech. That is, the Great Compassion (Mahakaruna) that Buddhism espouses as its resolution should be more referenced in articulating what the appropriate Buddhist ethical view should be toward marginalized groups.

There are some efforts of reform and assistance from the Japanese religious corner today. Two examples of such are the Japanese sects Tenrikyo and Shin Buddhism. What follows are narrative accounts of recent interviews with participants from these sects concerned with the buraku mondai (Buraku problem).

(to be continued)

Notes :

  1. James Clavell, Shogun, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1976), p.870.
  2. George DeVos; Hiroshi Wagatsuma, Japan's Invisible Race: Caste in Culture and Personality, (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1966.)
  3. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, The Monkey as Mirror: Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987), p.98.
  4. Ninomiya list three main theories for the origin of the burakumin -- these include the "etori" theory, the "aborigines theory" and the "foreign- immigrant theory". The dominant theory is the "etori" theory which is the one taken in this paper. The "aborigines" theory argues burakumin descent from the Orokko tribe or a Hebrew tribe. The "foreign-immigrant" theory tries to argue that the burakumin were Korean or perhaps Filipino immigrants. (Shigeaki Ninomiya, "An Inquiry Concerning the Origin, Development, and Present Situation of the Eta in relation to the History of Social Classes in Japan", Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, 10, 47-154.)
  5. My research on the religiosity of the burakumin is still evolving. I would welcome further suggestions on resources, in any language, to reference in developing the place of religiosity in the lives of the burakumin.
  6. John Donoghue, Pariah Persistence in Changing Japan, (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1978).
  7. Ibid, p.65.
  8. Ibid, p.67 [italics added] "The low status, they claimed, was a sole result of their economic standing in the community and their occupations."(p.65,66)
  9. Involvement in "outside" matsuri by burakumin had, before the War, been a recipe for violence as other people had tried to exclude them from the festivities. The "inner" matsuri was useful for the burakumin as it served to unify the village around common ancestry and sentiments. (Donoghue, p.70.)
  10. Ibid, p.66.
  11. Ibid, p.67.
  12. Ibid, p.70.
  13. The Buraku Liberation Research Institute is located in Osaka, Japan. It has just recently (July 1998) changed its name to the Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute.
  14. Buraku Liberation News, September 1996, (no.92), p.10. This discriminatory practice was originally uncovered in the early 1980s. A Buraku Liberation News, dated October 1981, has a story and a picture of a tombstone with the Chinese characters for candala, which, according to a definition in Soothill's, A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, (Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass, 1937) means "derived from violent, and interpreted as a butcher, bad man." (p.326)
  15. Ibid, p.10. Interestingly, John Donoghue in, Pariah Persistence in Changing Japan, (Washington, D.C.:University Press of America, 1978) writes that, "A deep, almost fanatical feeling among the Buraku people was reported from tokushu-Buraku throughout Japan, and Suzuki (1953 : 11) contended that they [Buraku people] were leading supporters of Buddhist termples."(p.66)
  16. The doctrine of karma and its use in Asian religions to justify unequal treatment of peoples is a major issue for human rights in Asia.
  17. William Bodiford, "Zen and the Art of Religious Prejudice: Efforts to Reform A Tradition of Social Discrimination," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 23/1-2, 1996, p.1-27.
  18. The interested reader should reference Bodiford's excellent article for more details on each of these examples.
  19. Yamamoto, Kosho, (trans.), The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana-sutra, vols. III (Ube, Japan: Karinbunko, 1973-75). p.225. Two provisional comments are necessary here. The first is that my investigation of the Nehangyo is ongoing, thus my contestations are accordingly so. Second, I am aware of the controversy within Critical Buddhism (Hihan Bukkyo) over whether the notion of tathagatha-garbha is properly Buddhist or non-Buddhist. My concern at this point is to broach the text and indicate questions that may be asked in reference to buraku discrimination.
  20. Ishikawa Rekizan, "Karma, Chandala, and Buddhist Scriptures," The Bulletin of Buraku Liberatron, no.90,2/93,1-13.
  21. Ibld, p.4,5.
  22. Yamamoto (trans.), The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana-sutra, p.225.
  23. Ibid, p.658.

(This is a version of a paper for the 1998 American Academy of Religion Annual meeting, Orland, Florida, USA.)