Identification. It is important to note that neither historic outcastes nor Burakumin are racially distinguishable from the majority of Japanese, despite some common beliefs and academic writings that propose non-Japanese racial origins for Burakumin. Although in the historic period the mainstream Japanese subjected outcastes to strict dress codes and often required them to wear pieces of leather on their outer garments to signify their status, in contemporary Japan there is little to isolate the Burakumin from the majority population. Except for their reported informality of dress code, language, and behavior, Burakumin do not differ from the Japanese majority in appearance, language, and most other cultural practices.
Burakumin exclusively or dominantly occupy many small communities or areas in a community; indeed, their culture name means "hamlet or community people." (In this article, "Burakumin" is used to designate the people, "buraku" to designate their communities.) The names "Eta" and "Hinin" were used through the Middle Ages to refer to outcastes of various sorts. Eta was derived from the Japanese word for leatherworker, a name that was later spelled differently in Chinese characters to mean "plenty of defilement," which suits the popular perception of their occupation. Hinin means "nonhuman." After the abolition of caste in 1871, these words were replaced by Shin-Heimin (new commoners), Hisabetsumin (discriminated people), Tokushu Burakumin (special community people), or Burakumin.
Since the Burakumin look and behave much like the majority population, others most commonly identify Burakumin by their place of origin. Although Burakumin may choose to "pass" as non-Burakumin to avoid various forms of discrimination, they risk having their identity scrutinized if others discover their place of birth and original residence. Local people know certain areas in a locality to be buraku, and they see any connection to such areas as signifying outcaste origin. Even when a person from a buraku moves to a different region in Japan, background investigation or accident may reveal his or her origin, and this discovery often results in stigmatization of the person's professional, social, personal, and emotional life.
Location. Burakumin communities are more heavily distributed in western Japan, particularly in the prefectures of Hyōgo, Okayama, Hiroshima, Ehime, and Fukuoka. Urban centers in western Japan, such as Kyoto and Osaka, have large numbers of buraku. In contrast, the Tokyo metropolitan area, situated in eastern Japan, has a surprisingly small number of buraku.
Demography. There are some arguments about how many buraku and Burakumin exist in Japan today. The General Affairs Agency census in 1985 reported that there were then 1,163,372 Burakumin and 4,594 buraku in Japan. Independent scholars of the Burakumin issue criticize these figures as much too small and say they do not reflect the reality of the Burakumin situation. Their estimates suggest that 2 to 3 million Burakumin and approximately 6,000 buraku currently exist in Japan.
The Burakumin are heavily concentrated in the western part of Japan. According to the above-mentioned statistics, Hyōgo has the largest number of Burakumin (153,236), followed by Osaka (143,305), Fukuoka (135,956), Nara (62,175), and Okayama (56,687). In eastern Japan, Saitama, Gumma, and Tochigi prefectures have relatively high numbers of Burakumin. There are no known Burakumin in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaidō.
Before the 1920 census no comprehensive demographic data existed; however, some regional records were available. The population survey of Kyoto in 1715 recorded 11 outcaste communities with a population of 2,064; in 1800 4,423 outcastes were reported in Osaka; the National Census of 1871 counted 261,311 Eta, 23,480 Hinin, and 79,095 other categories of outcastes. The 1920 census reported that there were 4,890 buraku and 829,675 Burakumin in Japan; by 1935, the number of buraku had increased to 5,367 and that of Burakumin to almost 1 million.
As a general tendency the Burakumin population was increasing faster than the general population of Japan in the last century. The official abolition of outcaste status and assimilation efforts seem to have had no influence over the persistence of Burakumin. Continuous recruitment of new members by marriage and high birthrates in Burakumin communities account for this tendency.
Linguistic Affiliation. The linguistic affiliation of the Burakumin is identical to that of mainstream Japanese. Some ethnographic reports indicate that their speech tends to be more informal and colloquial than that of the mainstream Japanese. In contemporary Japan, where most Burakumin children are educated in the same formal schooling system as other Japanese children, any community or occupational jargon Burakumin may have developed historically is bound to decrease or even to disappear.