Burakumin – The Untouchables of Feudal Japan

In feudal Japan people who worked in jobs associated with death, such as undertakers, executioners, and tanners were heavily discriminated against as they were considered tainted and impure. Shinto beliefs held that people could be seriously contaminated by repeated killing of animals or engaging in hideous misdeeds like incest or bestiality. These people were forced to live outside of regular society in outcast communities.

It is unknown when exactly these out caste communities came into existence. By the Edo period (1603-1867) the existence of outcast communities became common. At the time these people were referred to as eta, or filthy mass. The government supported the segregation and discrimination of eta communities. Eta were not allowed to visit religious sites outside of their communities and had their own temples.

The caste system of feudal Japan was abolished by Emperor Meiji in 1871 and outcasts were granted equal legal status. However, this did not end the discrimination and many terms were used to indicate former outcasts. The word burakumin (“hamlet people”) began being used in the early 1900’s to describe people of former eta communities. In some parts of the country burakumin settlements still exist in the same areas of former eta villages.

Social discrimination against burakumin is still an issue in western Japanese cities like Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. Many people, particularly those belonging to the older generation, associate the buraku class with criminality and lower socio-economic status. According to some estimates burakumin account for 70 percent of the members of the Yamaguchi-gumi, one of the largest criminal organizations in the world and the largest Yakuza syndicate in Japan.