Current Difficulties for Researchers…
Potential Difficulties for Japan’s Buraku People

Alastair McLauchlan
Senior Lecturer, School of Foreign Languages
Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology
New Zealand

Researching Japan’s buraku issue is a complicated, frustrating and surprising process. It is complicated because fundamentally the issue involves ethnic Japanese discriminating against fellow ethnic Japanese. It is frustrating because whenever I try to discuss the buraku question with Japanese friends, they either deny all knowledge of the topic or reluctantly admit to having “heard about it somewhere…but that’s all”. And it is surprising because most of those who initially deny all knowledge of the issue eventually admit to having heard of buraku residents. The quickly declare their abhorrence of all forms of prejudice or discrimination, yet when asked if they would marry someone from a buraku background, most are unable to give a direct answer, preferring to change the topic. In other words, in spite of their protestations to the contrary, these people are displaying prejudice against-buraku people.

The Buraku Liberation League has repeatedly used statistical discrepancies to highlight their plight as a means of forcing the hand of reluctant authorities, and since the introduction of Special Measures Legislation in 1969, many visible aspects of the buraku environment have improved significantly, especially housing, schools, roads and public facilities. The physical environment is only one side of the overall issue. however, and activists remain adamant that the success of projects already carried out does not reduce the need for continued commitment in other areas, especially the battle against continued covert and overt prejudice.*1 Almost 11 per cent of mainstream Japanese citizens still feel strongly enough about the issue to either refuse to have any contact with buraku citizens (tsukiai wo yameru, kinjo kara dete itte morau, jibun ga juukyo o kaeru), or at least to avoid them as much as possible (dekiru dake sakeru).*2 Furthermore, almost one in three buraku families report incidents of prejudice or discrimination,*3 and in most aspects of daily life, but particularly in education, employment, social welfare and marriage, buraku remain seriously disadvantaged.*4 Although their Tokugawa ancestors were liberated from their social and economic sub-status by the 1871 Emancipation Edict (Eta Kaiho Rei)*5, many buraku people remain trapped in a web of psychological prejudice and in their economy-dependent role*6 where they have continued to serve as an employment ‘safety valve’ in Japan’s faltering economy.*7

Statistics continue to highlight current buraku circumstances and are a substantial and stubborn benchmark of their derogated social status 130 years after the Meiji Restoration and the Emancipation Edict. However, simple figures do not always tell the whole story, and in many cases the gaps between mainstream and buraku people are wider than those portrayed by statistics. This is because statistics for ‘all Japan’ - against which buraku figures are invariably compared - almost inevitably include some measure of demographically-proportional buraku circumstances. Only when we decant that buraku component from the ‘all Japan’ statistics, are we left with a more definitive and accurate national figure, and only then can we understand the real differences between mainstream and burak people.*8 Furthermore, social research questions which are too general can generate statistics which simply obfuscate the very issue they purport to be investigating. For example, one such troublesome variable within the government’s buraku residents’ employment surveys is that ‘transport and communication’ form a single category which covers a very wide and diverse range of occupations from truck driver to airline pilot. Predictably, very few buraku people are airline pilots and, equally predictably, higher percentages of buraku people work as bus and truck drivers.*9 Combining two such divergent occupations, especially where socio-economics and educational opportunities play such a major role, into one category makes nonsense out of the statistics generated and could even be seen as a deliberate attempt to smoke-screen the bigger picture of unemployment among buraku people.

Although buraku people have made significant strides in employment over recent decades, their circumstances are again in peril as Japan’s economic woes continue. Japan’s economic protocol maintains the historical expectation that the smaller, vulnerable sub-contracting companies (shitaukegaisha) - very often employing lower skilled and poorly paid workers*10 - should bear the brunt of parent company difficulties. In order to keep the parent company afloat, sub-contractors must cut costs and if necessary, close down completely. One obvious ramification of shitaukegaisha closures is increased unemployment among lesser-educated, low-income earners. While Japan’s overall unemployment rate has now more than doubled from below two per cent in 1989, the loss of jobs and the subsequent increases in social welfare dependency brought about by the continued economic downturn are already hitting buraku workers in disproportionate numbers.*11

This emerging statistical connection between worsening buraku unemployment figures and Japan’s current economic downturn strongly suggests that improved employment figures among buraku people during the last three or four decades was as much a reflection of Japan’s expanding economy desperately soaking up a previously unwanted labour force in the interests of profit, as it was of government assistance and declining public prejudice.

This view is reinforced by the fact that during those same ‘bubble economy’ decades, even without the help of Special Measures Funding, many mainstream statistics also improved at rates very similar to, sometimes even better than, buraku trends of improvement. While buraku improvements in a number of areas have been spectacular and are still noted, overall rates have now levelled out and in many areas are heading for stagnation.

What remains is a troublesome, stagnant residue in the form of statistical differences between buraku citizens and mainstream groups in almost every area, a state of affairs which is deteriorating further along with Japan’s faltering economy. While this gap will never be finally bridged until mainstream attitudes change, the statement by Muraoka Jiichiro from the Ministry of Justice (1976) that anti-buraku prejudice is a matter of individual psychology and conscience, and that legislation will only exacerbate the problem,*12 typifies Japanese authorities’ long-standing ‘hands off’ approach to anti-buraku prejudice. Muraoka’s statement flies in the face of specific or implied promises of social inclusion and equality for buraku people in the Charter Oath (1868), the Emancipation Edict (1871), the Meiji Constitution (1889), Article 14 of the post-war Constitution (1948), Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke’s promise (1958) and the Deliberative Council Report (1965). Furthermore, statements to the United Nations denying the existence of discriminated minorities in Japan (1980),*13 a similar statement by Prime Minister Nakasone to a Diet meeting in 1986,*14 Prime Minister Murayama’s 1994 defence that the International Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination would conflict with constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech,*15 and Tokyo Governor Ishihara’s (2000) reference to sangokujin,*16 leave nagging doubts, even today, as to whether Japanese authorities are united and committed on serious social issues such as minority prejudice. For as long as buraku people remain statistically disadvantaged, especially in education, employment, income and social welfare, and for as long as mainstream parents remain troubled over a child’s intention to marry someone with from a buraku background, the vexing issue of covert prejudice remains unsolved.

While there are already clear warnings that particularly in economic-related areas statistics are likely to deteriorate in the foreseeable future, buraku citizens must not be forced back into the socio-economic circumstances whence they have so recently emerged. Therein lies one of Japan’s most challenging social issues of the new millennium, not only for buraku people themselves, but even more for the government and all Japanese.


  1.  Buraku Kaiho Kenkyujo (1994) 9.

  2.  Buraku Kaiho Kenkyujo (1996) 171.

  3.  Buaku Kaiho Kenkyujo (1995) 131. Highest recorded rates are in Tottori (49.1%), Hiroshima (46.8%) and Kagawa (43.5%). Marriage, seeking employment, school life and residential address are the most frequently cited circumstances for the incidents. This statistic covers the 10 years 1983-1993.

  4.  McLauchlan (1999) 1-29.

  5.  The Edict revoked the Tokugawa status of eta and hinin (…eta hinin nado no shouhihanroujo…) and created status and occupation equality with Japan’s hoi polloi (heimin doyo tarubeki…).

  6.  McLauchlan (1999) 16-20.

  7.  Upham (1987) 116.

  8.  For example, if we accept that there are 3 million buraku citizens, constituting 2.5% of Japan’s total population, we can re-calculate the official 1.9% national drop-out rate for secondary school pupils (for example) down to approximately 1.85 %, thereby widening (and worsening) the gap between mainstream and buraku people.

  9.  Buraku Kaiho Kenkyujo (1996) 8.

  10.  Kitaguchi (1999) 52-62.

  11.  Ishimoto (1999) 127.

  12.  Asahi Shimbun (10 December 1976).

  13.  See Report of the Human Rights Committee, United Nations 1982. General Assembly Official records (New York), 37th Session. United Nations Document A/37/40, made in response to CCPR/C/10/Add.1, 14 November 1980, (specific catalogue record of Japan’s original statement).

  14.  Showa Shi Zenkiroku (1991) 1220. Also cited in Herzog (1993).

  15.  Neary (1997) 95.

  16.  Japan Times (April 13 2000).

Reference List :

  • Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo (December 10 1976).

  • Buraku Kaiho Kenkyujo (1994) The Reality of Buraku discrimination in Japan. Osaka: Buraku Kaiho Shuppansha.

  • Buraku Kaiho Kenkyujo (1995) Dowa Education. Osaka: Buraku Kaiho Shuppansha.

  • Buraku Kaiho Kenkyujo (1996) Konnichi no Buraku Sabetsu: kakuchi no jittai chosa kekka yori. (Vol III) Osaka: Buraku Kaiho Shuppansha.

  • Herzog, I. (1993) Japan’s Pseudo-Democracy. Folkestone, Japan library.

  • Ishimoto, H. (1999) Seikatsu Jittai Choosa. In Buraku Kaiho to Jinken Nenkan. Osaka: Buraku Kaiho Shuppan. 121-127.

  • Japan Times, Tokyo (April 13 2000).

  • Kitaguchi, S. (1999) An Introduction to the Buraku Issue: Questions and Answers. Folkestone: Curzon Press. First published in Japanese as Nyumon Buraku Mondai: Ichimon Ittou. Osaka: Kaiho Shuppansha, 1986.

  • McLauchlan, A. (1999) Introduction to Kitaguchi, S. An Introduction to the Buraku Issue: Questions and Answers. Folkestone: Curzon Press, 1-39.

  • Neary, I. (1997) Burakumin in Contemporary Japan. In Weiner, M. (ed) Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity. London: Routledge, 50-78.

  • Upham, F. (1987) Law and Social Change in Postwar Japan. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.