When Chie Takaiwa struck up the courage to reveal a family secret to her colleague some years ago, she was met by an unexpected response.
The 37-year-old coffee stall worker’s father hails from a riverbank community in Fukuoka Prefecture that is known as a buraku, a term meaning “hamlet” used to describe areas inhabited by descendants of outcasts from the feudal era.
The sensitive nature of the issue requires Takaiwa to be cautious when discussing her background with others and she generally avoids people who have parochial views.
“I asked whether she was aware of the buraku issue and she said, ‘Yes,'” Takaiwa, who was born and raised in Tokyo, recalls. “She then said something that caught me off guard. She said that I didn’t look mixed race.”
It turned out Takaiwa’s co-worker was confusing buraku with a similar sounding English word — “burakku” (black) — and was under the impression that her father was not Japanese. Such misconceptions are increasingly common, Takaiwa and others with buraku ancestry say, especially among younger generations unfamiliar with the term or the complex history surrounding burakumin, or the buraku people, who are ethnically indistinguishable from other Japanese.
The episode may reflect the changing attitudes toward a social minority that has been ostracized over centuries for its historical association with what was once considered “unclean” occupations stigmatized by death and blood: butchers, leatherworkers, executioners and undertakers, to name a few.
However, that’s not to say buraku discrimination is a thing of the past. It continues to manifest itself in various forms, including in marriage and employment prospects, and has evolved with technology, finding a platform online where personal information is often disseminated with little regulation or oversight.
In 2004, a 34-year-old man was arrested for sending hundreds of hate-filled postcards to branches and members of the Buraku Liberation League, the nation’s largest rights group for burakumin, as well as to leprosy patients.
Takaiwa’s father, then an employee at the Buraku Liberation League’s office in the capital’s Arakawa Ward, was a recipient of several of these postcards. Written in unnaturally boxy letters and posted without a return address, they said “eta” and “hinin” — derogatory terms literally meaning “abundance of filth” and “nonhuman” that were used to describe members of feudal outcast groups — were “maggots that should be immediately put to death.”
One day, Takaiwa, then in her early 20s, collected one of the postcards from the family’s mailbox and read it for the first time.
“This was before the perpetrator was arrested, so I ran to my father’s office to let him know another one arrived,” she says. “I tried to brush it off and not think too much about it, but my father later told me I looked deathly pale.”
Several years after the incident, Takaiwa had a nightmare in which one of those postcards, this time addressed to her, appeared in her mailbox.
“That’s when I realized I had been traumatized by the experience and my heart still skips a beat when I receive postcards with similar handwriting,” she says. “That’s what triggered me to raise my voice.”
There are no comprehensive figures on the number of buraku descendants in Japan. According to a 1993 census taken by the Management and Coordination Agency (now part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication), there were 4,442 buraku communities with 2,158,789 residents, of which 892,751 were of buraku origin. The Buraku Liberation League estimates there are around 6,000 buraku communities and 3 million burakumin, with many residential districts concentrated in western Japan in cities including Kyoto and Osaka.
The origins of the minority also remain murky. Sadakichi Kita, a scholar and bureaucrat born in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and one of the pioneers of buraku studies, said that political conditions during the Sengoku period (1482-1573) created marginalized dropouts, a type of social exile he found as early as the sixth and seventh century.
Minority Rights Group International says the caste system became firmly established during the Edo Period (1603-1868), when burakumin were considered to exist outside of the four main caste divisions — samurai warriors, farmers, artisans and merchants — and “subjected to a series of laws and customs that regulated their status and restricted where they might live, the type of work they could engage in, their ability to own land and various other activities.”
These outcasts were overseen by a danzaemon, a name handed down over 13 generations by the head of eta, hinin and other outcasts in the Kanto region and beyond. With exclusive control over the manufacturing and distribution of leather, wicks and bamboo crafts, danzaemon exercised considerable authority and were believed to have lived like a daimyo.
While the caste system was abolished after the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate with the 1871 Emancipation Act by the Meiji government, severe discrimination persisted in social spheres. Buraku communities remained predominantly poor, both economically and in terms of infrastructure, and these former outcast groups faced significant hurdles when it came to educational opportunities, marriage and finding jobs.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that burakumin groups began organizing for their cause. Zenkoku Suiheisha (National Levelers’ Association) was created in 1922, scrutinizing discrimination among individuals and institutions until its disbandment in 1942. Following World War II, a more militant and politically active organization was formed called the Buraku Kaiho Zenkoku Iinkai, which became the Buraku Liberation League in 1955 and was headed by influential leaders such as Jiichiro Matsumoto (1887-1966).
One of the most significant hindrances to assimilation has been the koseki (family registry) system that records in detail one’s family heritage and would include current and past addresses that could lead to buraku connections. While strictly confidential, there have been numerous occasions in which prospective employers and in-laws would refer to unofficial lists of buraku areas or pay private detectives for background checks before hiring employees or allowing couples to tie the knot, a form of prejudice that lives to this day.
In a 2014 survey by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, 26.6 percent of the respondents said they would oppose their children marrying someone of burakumin lineage, including 4.3 percent who described such a scenario as “absolutely intolerable.”
A similar survey by Aichi Prefecture in 2012 found that 48.5 percent would protest their offspring getting married with burakumin, although most said they would unwillingly agree if their children’s wishes persisted.
It wasn’t until she began attending middle school in her local Adachi Ward that Tami Kamikawa learned of her aunt’s existence.
Kamikawa’s parents both come from buraku communities — her father from a district in Mie Prefecture and her mother from one in Osaka. As young adults, the two relocated to Tokyo in hopes they would face less intolerance in a large city. They met each other through the Buraku Liberation League’s activities and had three daughters.
A bespectacled 38-year-old homemaker with two children, Kamikawa says her parents grew up when buraku discrimination was visibly rampant, before a law introduced in 1969 began addressing the myriad concerns, including poor infrastructure and housing in buraku, or dōwa districts, the latter being an official government term meaning “same” or “harmony” that is used to refer to administrative policies and services related to resolving buraku issues.
“Those were different times,” Kamikawa says. “I’ve heard about people who committed suicide over thwarted marriages or chose the path of a yakuza after being denied employment.”
It was under such social conditions that her aunt severed communication with her family.
“When my father’s sister got married, it was apparently part of the deal with her in-laws to cut ties with her family,” Kamikawa says, a revelation that cast a shadow on Kamikawa’s own prospects of marriage and work. “These were concerns that I shouldn’t have had to be worrying about under ordinary circumstances.”
The Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute, the Buraku Liberation League’s research wing, says the 1969 law helped “rebuild thousands of dōwa areas, some literally from the ground up, with the money for such projects coming from national, prefects and local governments.”
In addition to what was spent rebuilding communities, funds were used to subsidize housing, provide scholarships for burakumin youth and underwrite other programs to reduce the financial burden on burakumin families, projects that totaled ¥15 trillion by the time the initiative came to an end in 2002.
The massive subsidies, however, also attracted organized crime syndicates and reported cases of corruption fed public hostility toward burakumin that still lingers to this day.
In 1975, a scandal erupted when the existence of books collecting a nationwide list of all names and locations of buraku settlements was discovered. These books were being sold via mail-order to numerous corporations and individuals to screen job applicants, leading the government to revise article 10 of the koseki law the following year to restrict access to family registers, making it significantly more difficult to investigate people’s backgrounds.
That wasn’t the end of the notorious “lists,” however.
Kamikawa is one of the founding members of Buraku Heritage, the name of a website and a group of young buraku offspring and researchers, including Takaiwa, who have been conveying their experiences through first-person narratives in essays, interviews, events and seminars.
“Activists from our parents generation would often address themselves as ‘we,'” Kamikawa says. “Our purpose is to make our stories more personal by starting with the subject pronoun, ‘I.'”
Buraku Heritage was founded in 2011, which coincided with the massive Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan and led to a renewed appreciation of social media services as lifelines for those affected by the disaster. The proliferation of internet-based communication tools, however, would also lead to online attempts to reveal the location of buraku districts.
In March 2016, the Yokohama District Court handed down a provisional injunction banning a small publisher and its president from publishing and selling the reprint of a prewar book divulging the details of buraku communities.
The ruling supported a claim filed by the Buraku Liberation League in which it argued that distribution of such a publication would instigate discrimination against burakumin.
In April, the court ordered the head of the publisher to delete from his website information that included the addresses of buraku nationwide, the number of households in each hamlet, their average living standards and common occupations.
This was the same year a new law was enacted that obliges the central government and municipalities to establish consultation systems, beef up education and launch probes into buraku discrimination when needed.
However, the law does not outlaw discrimination against burakumin and thus contains no punishment, leading some to call the legislation toothless.
While the site, which also includes Kamikawa’s name and profile, was taken down, a mirror site soon popped up in its place. Meanwhile, there are YouTube videos posted by those visiting purported buraku communities.
“My daughter, who is 10 years old now, once told me she came across my name on the internet. I became curious and conducted a search myself, and found my name, as well as those of my parents, on the site,” she says. “It made me realize how easy it is for kids of this generation to access these sites, which makes it even more important for them to be exposed to positive information online.”
Burakumin are often described as an invisible race without the stigma of skin color or ethnicity. They are also no longer identifiable by their jobs, with most opting out of working in traditional fields such as leather making. A recent visit to one of Japan’s largest leather processing districts in Sumida Ward revealed many workers were immigrants.
The other clue to identifying burakumin, addresses, is also becoming increasingly less significant as the social minority move into nonburaku areas while other Japanese pour into these neighborhoods.
Ryushi Uchida, a professor of sociology at Shokei Gakuin University in Miyagi Prefecture and an expert on buraku issues, says blood relations (ketsuen) and territorial bonds (chien) have historically been at the core of burakumin identity. However, these links appear to be eroding over time through migration and increasing intermarriages between burakumin and other Japanese.
“Then again, people with no burakumin ancestry can become targets of discrimination if they move into traditionally buraku districts,” says Uchida, “which raises the question: Who exactly are burakumin?”
Perhaps the issue is complicated by a sense of taboo on discussing the topic in public spheres, including in major newspapers and on television.
“I was in Kagoshima Prefecture recently and heard that someone wrote ‘beware of eta’ on a road sign,” Uchida says.
“These incidents are almost never covered by the media, but locals are well aware they exist” — a type of everyday discrimination that instigates fear and uncertainty to burakmin of being outed.
“Yes, the situation has drastically improved over the past 100 years, but the issue persists today,” he says.
Miyo Hasegawa, a freelance photographer and Kamikawa’s younger sister, says she didn’t discuss her buraku lineage with classmates while growing up, but was aware of occasional cases of discrimination happening in her locale through her parents who were active in buraku rights movements.
Like other burakumin descendants of her generation, the issue appears less about personal confrontations against prejudice, but more about her identity.
“I began attending meetups for buraku kids in high school, which inspired me to begin shooting photographs,” she says.
Hasegawa subsequently entered a photography college and helped Kamikawa direct a 45-minute documentary about their family released in 2000, titled “Futsū no Ie” (“A Normal Home”). Now she’s getting ready to shoot portraits of burakumin as part of a project chronicling their experience.
Asked about her family history, Hasegawa says she’s aware that her great grandfather on her mother’s side used to operate a tanning factory in Wakayama Prefecture.
As children, she and her sisters visited her mother’s relatives in the prefecture, in an area known for its leatherworks.
“I’ve taken my own children there with me, too,” says Kamikawa, whose husband is not a burakumin.
While her children complained of the noxious odors emanating from the workshops — as she did when she was small — Kamikawa says the smell has come to represent an indelible part of their childhood.
“In terms of identity, I’ve yet to define who burakumin are,” Kamikawa says.
“Some say we aren’t burakumin since we don’t live in a traditional buraku community. At the same time, however, our identity is inextricably linked to being descendants of the underclass,” she says.
While Kamikawa used to wonder what life may have been like if she grew up in a “normal” household, coming from a buraku background has given her the opportunity to delve into the complex nature of discrimination and social minorities firsthand, while opening the door for her to collaborate with other activists and academics from various fields.
“I don’t consider my background as something negative,” she says. “Yes, there is the risk of being discriminated but by regarding my identity as an irreplaceable asset, I’ve gained much, much more. And I hope my children will accept their own heritage as something positive and useful.”