The history of outcastes in Japan dates back to its early historic period, beginning in the eighth century A.D. (Nara period). Under the centralized bureaucratic government with imperial leadership, clan-based groups called Uji and Kabane became associated with often exclusive occupational guilds, or be. These guilds included leatherworkers, caretakers of the dead and tombs, and butchers—the traditional occupations of later outcastes.
The practitioners of these occupations gradually became separated from the majority society through the ancient to early feudal periods as unclean, undesirable, lowly, and less than human, and Japanese society denied them rights granted to its mainstream members. In addition to encompassing the traditional occupational groups, the outcaste community absorbed people who dropped out of the social systems because of poverty or criminal behavior, as well as those who failed to be an integral part of the stable society, for instance, runaway peasants, flood-plain dwellers, and itinerant entertainers of all sorts.
Toward the end of the twelfth century the failing economic system based on peasantry and heavy taxation helped cause the decline of imperial power and the rise of the military class, which marked the beginning of the feudal age. The consequent political instability and poverty affected commoners most severely, and a large number of peasants lost their financial means and social affiliation and were forced out of their homes and their assigned land. Because all peasants of the time were legally bound to their land and it was illegal for them to leave it, there was no place for them in the social system, and they became a transient population. Together with all other kinds of people who were excluded from the socioeconomic system, they joined traditional outcastes, to form the medieval outcaste population.
Historie evidence indicates that the medieval outcastes' occupation and residence varied. They engaged seasonally in work ranging from street performing, street sweeping, and leatherworking to unauthorized religious practices, changing their residence to accommodate their seasonal occupation.
This fluid population of outcastes gradually evolved into more specialized occupational groups throughout the feudal age. In the period of continuous military confrontations, from the fifteenth to the sixteenth century, warlords invited outcaste leatherworkers to their territories in order to secure the supply of military gear. The increasing demand for leather goods required a large number of outcastes in the industry and accelerated the occupational differentiation of outcastes.
In the seventeenth century the Tokugawa shogunate consolidated the systematic and legal discrimination against outcastes in Japan. After conquering warlords in most of the territory known today as Japan, the Tokugawa government set out to establish a strict administrative system that ensured social and economic stability for nearly three centuries. Incorporation of the outcaste below the rigidly divided castes of warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants was a strategy for detracting from the dissatisfaction of lower castes: no matter how difficult their lives may have been they were still better than those of the "nonhuman" outcastes.
Eta and Hinin were two major categories of outcaste in this period. The most crucial differences between the two were the terms of their status and the areas of their occupational specialization. The Eta inherited their status and tended to engage in farming, craftwork, and community services. Hinin were usually those who had been degraded to outcaste status as a punishment and who could be reinstated to other castes; their occupations were usually unskilled or transient. Entertainers also fell into this latter category.
Although outcastes in the Tokugawa period varied in occupation and worked as leatherworkers, basket and sandal makers, temple caretakers, crematory workers, butchers, entertainers, laborers, and farmers, others commonly treated them as nonhumans and forced them into hard labor, economic difficulties, and poor living conditions. Outcastes lived in designated segregated districts or separate communities, and occupational necessity determined their access to the public areas. Government-imposed dress codes prohibited any ornaments and narrowly defined types and quality of garments allowed for outcastes.
Their services and the products of their labor belonged to the government authority, and until later in the period there was no direct compensation for their work; instead, the government allowed them the "privileges" of begging and gathering from the commoners who benefited from the outcastes' services. This practice led to the common but untrue belief that outcastes were "beggars" and not a productive part of society, and it strengthened the discriminatory perception of and behavior toward outcastes.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a major political change occurred. The shogunate failed in economic reforms and mismanaged the inevitable contacts with foreign countries. After negotiations among political leaders, the emperor was restored in 1868 as the sole political power of Japan, supported by low-rank warrior-class technocrats. The new government's priority was to modernize and Westernize the then "backward" nation. In 1871 the government emancipated the outcastes as a part of this modernization effort.
This emancipation brought no real change in the discrimination against outcastes. Discriminatory practices against Burakumin persisted in almost every aspect of life, and the government made little effort to enforce its declaration of "equality." In the municipal house registration government officials recorded former outcastes as "Shin-Heimin" (new commoners), thus clearly distinguishing them from the traditional commoners. Segregated residence also continued, although there were no more legal restrictions. The only change that occurred was a negative one: the industries that outcastes had traditionally dominated were now open to everyone, and nonoutcaste investors began to venture into leatherwork and other crafts, threatening the small-scale former outcaste manufacturers and placing a heavy economic strain on many Burakumin. In addition, rapid political and economic changes caused financial difficulties to common people, and their frustration often found outlets in "Eta-gari" (an outcaste hunt).
Many political and cultural movements characterize the struggle of former outcastes or Burakumin throughout modern history. Reconciliation and assimilation movements represent one side of their efforts, which argues that the poverty and different life-style of Burakumin caused the persisting discrimination and that the improvement of Burakumin living standards and cultural assimilation into the mainstream society are essential to eliminate the discrimination. The other side of the scale is the more aggressive political movement that defines the Burakumin situation as a class issue and the result of victimization rooted within the mainstream society. People who support this position assert the responsibility of the larger society for positive changes in Burakumin issues. These movements, aided by the democratic constitution instituted after World War II, the Law for Special Measures for Dōwa Projects (1969), and the Law for Special Measures for Regional Improvement (1982), have succeeded in improving the Burakumin situation and reducing discrimination to a certain extent.
More than a hundred years after emancipation, however, the deep root of discrimination against Burakumin is far from dead; indeed, it is finding a new soil in the complex social problems of contemporary Japan. While subtle forms of discrimination and vague but definite prejudice against Burakumin are the most common problems, some recent incidents show that hostility between the majority population and Burakumin still exists. A group of teenagers in Yokohama beat and killed homeless people in the 1980s, and day laborers from buraku participated in an outbreak of street riots in Osaka in 1991. The Law for Special Measures for Regional Improvement expired in March 1992, and the Japanese legislature concluded that there was no more need for this antidiscrimination law and decided not to renew it. The future development of the Burakumin movement under the new legal conditions is uncertain.
The long, continuing history of outcaste/Burakumin discrimination contains certain underlying ideas that have developed and supported the structure of discrimination and segregation in Japanese society. The most well-argued aspect of this discrimination centers on religious beliefs about the protection of ritual cleanliness. Teachings of Shintoism, the native religion of Japan, place a strong emphasis on ritual cleanliness as the essential part of righteousness, which is to be strictly guarded from contamination by death and blood. The introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century, and its recognition as a state religion from the eighth century onward, added to this view of death and blood as taboo, as the imperial and shogunate governments fully embraced the Buddhist doctrine against killing in their official policies. Thus the Japanese considered occupations that dealt with death or bloodshed "unclean" and contacts with them defiling. (This view that outcastes and their descendants are "unclean" is strong even today among many Japanese.) Still, the society needed to care for the dead properly according to the religious requirements, dispose of animal carcasses, and produce leather goods; the solution to this dilemma was the segregation of people who engaged in such occupations from the general population.
Furthermore, at the heart of the outcaste existence, which has served the contradictory needs of Japanese society, is the connection between the outcastes' continuing economic importance and their lack of access to political power. For instance, Hijiri priests in ancient Japan were extremely important religious figures, as they were knowledgeable in the agricultural calendar and counseled farmers with the proper timing for seasonal activities. The Yamato clan, the politicoreligious power in the early historic period, saw them as competition and eventually made them outcastes. The Hijiri priests thereafter played the same economic role in agricultural communities but were devoid of political influence.
In the feudal age, repeated civil wars increased the demand for leather goods, and thus it was very important for feudal lords to have outcaste leatherworkers, called "Kawata" or "Eta," under their control. In the later feudal age, lords often assigned outcastes to the cultivation of marginal land, used them as virtual slaves in various enterprises to improve the local cash economy, or placed them in dangerous situations such as those of guards and low-status detectives. In spite of the crucial roles they played in the feudal society, their ascribed outsider status effectively prevented them from gaining any political power. In the later Tokugawa period some of the outcastes became quite affluent and influential. A legend from this period depicts the defensive reaction of the government: an Eta was killed in Edo (later Tokyo), and the head of the outcastes in Edo appealed to the magistrate; he ruled that an Eta was worth one-seventh of a regular person, and therefore one regular person had to murder seven Eta before he could be convicted.
In modern industrial Japan, Burakumin workers supply cheap, disposable labor to industry as part-time workers or day laborers. Burakumin also work more often than mainstream Japanese for small businesses and factories that belong to the lower stratum of the hierarchical industrial structure of modern Japan. Thus they frequently suffer from having unstable incomes and few benefits.
Some theorists also have postulated that the existence of outcastes is a reincorporating mechanism of sociocultural deviation. The outcaste population has been increasing constantly, largely because of the continuous flow of new members from mainstream society, either directed by authority or pressured by economic failure or loss of social affiliations. Japanese culture holds it as ideal to be average and to keep to one's place in society, and deviation from the norm is strongly discouraged from early childhood. This cultural emphasis has successfully incorporated most of the population most of the time, thus creating a largely homogeneous society. However, there were people throughout history who were excluded from the majority society, and students of discrimination issues have discovered the historical systematic segregation of those who failed to be normative or who lost legitimate status in society. Existence of outcastes may be the way Japanese culture coped with unwanted segments of society, keeping them usefully under control yet isolated from others.
These three factors—the perceived need for ritual cleanliness juxtaposed with the economic need for "unclean" occupations; the desire to keep those with economic power from having political power; and the need to purge mainstream society of undesirable elements—together have established, supported, legitimized, and, most important, depoliticized the discrimination issues. Many mainstream Japanese still accept arguments that postulate non-Japanese origins, inherent inferiority, and ritual uncleanliness of outcastes; thus, the differential treatment of Burakumin seems almost "natural" to them. There is no evidence, however, to support such hypotheses. It is rather, as summarized above, a political, economic, and ideological manipulation throughout Japanese history that has created discrimination against Burakumin.