Burakumin - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization and Social Control. Although Burakumin as a whole are situated in the lowest stratum of Japanese society, there is a distinct socioeconomic differentiation within Burakumin communities. The higher level of their stratification mainly consists of better-educated, financially more secure, lower-middle-class small-business owners and administrators who now often work outside buraku. The first Burakumin leadership came from this class. A typical Burakumin of the lower level, however, would be undereducated, marginally employed, and often on a government relief program because of insufficient or unstable income. Migrant workers, day laborers, and some factory hands belong to this group.

The upper-class Burakumin are constantly at odds with the lower-class Burakumin, since they do not necessarily share the strong sense of alienation common among the lower-class Burakumin. Assimilation into mainstream Japanese society is a historically popular theme among them, and some even view lower-class Burakumin as a "burden" to their effort to eliminate discrimination through self-improvement.

The oyabun-kobun relationship is an important factor in the internal organization of buraku. Oyabun-kobun is a traditional concept of hierarchical relationship between a superior who acts as a parent figure (oyabun) and an inferior who takes the role of a child (kobun). Ordinary people and also criminal organizations ( yakuza ) commonly have adopted this informal hierarchy. Buraku oyabun are very influential in the community, and they often act as job-placement agents or middlemen between Burakumin manufacturers and non-Burakumin buyers. In this relationship of mutual interests and dependency, an oyabun is expected to supply a fair share of steady jobs to kobun and to negotiate with outside buyers or employers, and a kobun is obliged to accept an oyabun's offers and to complete the assignment satisfactorily. However, since the oyabun is in a dominant position, the relationship is not symmetric and so a kobun may follow an oyabun unwillingly for fear of losing jobs or being ostracized.

Political Organization. As citizens of Japan, Burakumin today participate in the Japanese political system through voting. As a strong interest group, Burakumin regularly send their representatives to the Diet and the local legislatures.

The current situation is the achievement of a long political struggle since the 1871 emancipation. Burakumin formed their first organization, Bisaku Heimin Kai (Bisaku Common People's Association), in 1902 in Okayama Prefecture, in reaction to the harsh discrimination that continued after emancipation. A year later they founded Dai Nippon Dōhō Yūwa Kai (Greater Japan Fraternal Conciliation Society), the first nationwide organization of Burakumin. Their movement was called the Yūwa (reconciliation) movement, and their goals were to eliminate discrimination against Burakumin through self-help and through the improvement of living conditions, educational standards, and economic conditions in buraku. In 1919, Burakumin leaders gathered for the first time with government officials, representatives from the aristocracy, and scholars at Dōjō Yūwa Taikai (Sympathetic Reconciliation Convention) to discuss the discrimination issue.

In the 1920s, many Burakumin leaders became dissatisfied with the Yuwa movement, which was not seeking positive changes in awareness among the majority Japanese. It was also a time of social radicalism in Japan, and Burakumin activists started the "leveling" movement to eliminate all inequalities and discrimination through political channels. They formed the Zenkoku Suiheisha (National Levelers' Society) in 1922. Their slogan was "tetteiteki kyūdan" (thorough denunciation): when they found a discriminatory behavior or Statement, they summoned the person responsible for the incident and demanded a public apology. Although this method was successful in some cases of discrimination, both the mainstream society and the moderate sector of Burakumin movements viewed it as violent and so resisted the campaign.

At the same time, the radical branch of Suiheisha was becoming increasingly critical of the denunciation method, and it began to insist on a more radical, even anarchistic approach to the issue. By 1925 the internal differences were becoming too large to reconcile, and in 1926 radical segments formed separate organizations. The moderate group established the Nihon Suiheisha (Japan Levelers' Society) to continue the policies of the original Suiheisha movement.

Although Burakumin movements saw a brief moment of victory in 1935 and 1936 when they succeeded in sending their own representatives to the Fukuoka Prefectural Assembly and to the House of Representatives, Japan's increasing militarism and patriotism began to interfere with their political activities. In 1940 Suiheisha was dissolved and its members decided to support Yamato Hōkoku Undō (Japan Patriotic Movement), which was founded to coordinate the patriotic efforts of Burakumin.

Burakumin movements, which were virtually nonexistent during World War II, quickly revived at the end of the war with the support of the new constitution, which guaranteed freedom of expression and equal rights to all citizens. In 1947 Burakumin formed the Buraku Kaihō Zenkoku Iinkai (National Committee for Buraku Liberation). In 1955 the organization changed its name to Buraku Kaihō Dōmei (Buraku Liberation League, or BLL). However, Communist influence began to split the organization from inside, and more radical Communists separated from BLL and formed the Buraku Liberation League Normalizing Liaison Association, which aimed to redirect the Liberation League by introducing a more Marxist-oriented position.

Throughout the postwar period Burakumin organizations have been successful in a number of legal battles and in denunciation of discriminatory publications and behavior. They also have made remarkable advances in education, including the improvement of educational opportunities for Burakumin and the introduction of antidiscrimination education programs in public schools.

Conflict. Both Burakumin and the historic outcastes have been scapegoats in times of social unrest and economic difficulties. Numerous reports of riots and associated Eta-gari (outcaste hunts) after the political transition in the late nineteenth century demonstrate how violence toward Burakumin became the outlet for insecurity and frustration among commoners at the time. Burakumin did not have much protection against this aggression, but the hardship accelerated their effort to form an organized movement against discrimination. Today the Buraku Liberation League's denunciation program is a popular tool for correcting discriminatory behavior and thinking, but some scholars and Burakumin activists question its legal basis and actual effectiveness.

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