For those who don’t know — and you would be forgiven considering the lack of coverage the issue receives — a buraku is the term used to describe an area where some, but not all, of the residents have ancestral ties to the people placed at the bottom of feudal society in the Edo Period. These people were assigned tasks considered “tainted” according to Buddhist and Shinto beliefs, such as butchery and leather work, where the killing of and use of animal corpses was involved. Today, official statistics put the number of burakumin at around 1.2 million, with unofficial estimates as high as 3 million.

Despite the numbers, the issue is something of a taboo in Japan: Mention the word “burakumin” in conversation and the response you often get is a polite silence. This approach seems to extend to the mainstream media, with television and newspapers barely covering the issues regarding this minority group.

On the Internet, where people are less likely to be held accountable for what they say, things are different. On one discussion forum, a human resources worker explains that his company will not employ someone “if there is doubt about whether he/she comes from a buraku.” Another contributor says that while the habit of not employing people from buraku areas may have ceased for big companies, “for smaller, older companies, it is normal.”

As well as postings supporting the view that discrimination exists, you are just as likely to come across the opinion that not only is discrimination a thing of the past, but that buraku communities have unfairly benefited from special treatment by the government. There is criticism of the funding of dowa projects, first set up to help buraku communities in the 1960s, as well as allegations of corruption and links to organized crime.

On popular sites like 2channel, the topic is often discussed in less measured, often abusive, terms. This was noted by a U.N. report into discrimination in 2006, which criticized the level of discriminatory abuse on Web sites, much of it targeting the burakumin.

Dismissing all criticism as bigotry, however, would be unfair. Or more specifically, criticism leveled at the group representing them, the Buraku Liberation League. Recent events have not done much for their image. The 2006 arrest of a leading member of the Osaka BLL, Kunihiko Konishi, and the revelation that he was a member of Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest mob syndicate, did little to weaken the accusations of links to organized crime.

On his blog, freelance journalist and BLL critic Atsushi Terazono sees the image associated with the BLL as having worked in the group’s favor, allowing them to gain preferential treatment and funding for projects with few questions asked.

“As long as the projects were related to non-discriminating activity, things were accepted in local government even though they were preposterous.” writes Terazono. “The most important thing for people in local government has become trying to avoid collisions with the BLL and other organizations.”

After the arrest of Konishi, the BLL issued an apology, and pledged to “reform more than 2,000 branches all over Japan, ensuring the liberal conduct of each group, making sure there are no connections to gangster groups and getting rid of those who are related to them.”

The scandal seems to have had an impact on local government attitudes to support for buraku communities. Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto’s budgetary plan for 2009 allows no further subsidies for buraku-related projects. This has led to protests from within the buraku community that they are being punished for the crimes of certain individuals.

Aside from the accusations of corruption, central to the whole issue of funding is the question of whether, or to what extent, discrimination still exists.

In his 2006 report, then-U.N. Special Rapporteur on race issues Doudou Diene described discrimination as “deep-rooted” and urged the government to draft a national law against it. A recent survey conducted by the Osaka prefectural government on the attitudes of residents toward human rights issues seemed to support the U.N. view. To the question of how respondents consider the placing of priority on family lineage when deciding on a future spouse, 38.7 percent said that they “think it natural” or “think it unreasonable but cannot do anything about it,” a 6.3 point increase from a 1995 survey. In terms of important issues in deciding on a potential spouse, 20 percent answered, “Whether he/she is of buraku origin.” In Tottori, a study of the economic situation of dowa communities revealed that 55.6 of dowa district residents are in permanent employment — 8.7 points lower than the prefectural average, indicating a worsening of conditions since 2000.

Discrimination and its effects are not an easy thing to gauge, especially when communication between buraku communities and the rest of society is so limited. Apart from the Konishi case, the public has heard little else about the burakumin in recent years. A joint statement issued by a group of 71 nonprofit organizations in the wake of the U.N. report recognized this and called for an end to “the marginalization and invisibility” of minority groups in Japan.

Ironically, this invisibility may be partly due to the BLL itself. Buraku issues are considered dangerous, and there is a fear that mere mention of the word “burakumin” or criticism of something related to dowa policy may be construed as discriminatory.

“People are not sure what they can say,” said one journalist who, as seems to be the norm, wished to remain anonymous. “If they talk about this issue and mention some area which is buraku or criticize the BLL it might be called discrimination, so it is easier to say nothing.”

He has a point. The BLL seems to employ a rather broad view of discrimination that makes discussion difficult. For example, a comment placed on a Web site asking for information about the location of buraku areas was cited as an example of “a discriminatory incident” on the BLL-related Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute home page. Yet surely this depends on how that information is used rather than the question itself? The reaction is understandable given the way such information has been used in the past, when buraku lists were once circulated around companies, but it hardly promotes understanding. Researchers also note the difficulty of communicating with the BLL. The group declined to comment for this article.

There seems to be confusion all round as to whether invisibility is a problem or a solution. A suggestion on another discussion site underlines this, with the writer wondering why “the burakumin don’t move out of their communities so people don’t know their background.” Another contributor suggests that if “more outsiders move in, areas won’t be considered buraku anymore.”

But if invisibility is a goal, this implies that the buraku community has nothing to offer in terms of its history, culture and particular experience, and this is not the case. In Kansai, the Naniwa buraku community celebrates its 300-year history with a 500-meter road showcasing the traditional buraku industries of leather work and taiko drum production. The road — lined with monuments to the community, information boards and taiko-shaped benches — leads to the Osaka Human Rights Museum, where that other important aspect of buraku culture is investigated: its involvement in the human rights struggle, documented through the literature and art of those who have suffered often terrible discrimination.

In places with a relatively large buraku population, some attempts have been made to bring the problems into the light. One of the areas that the U.N.’s Diene visited was the Nishinari district in Osaka. Here, district leaders reported that racism and xenophobia were “deeply linked with ignorance” and that “neighboring districts are much less discriminating than ones that are far away.” The district is thus making efforts to establish links between buraku and nonburaku communities, promoting mutual awareness.

It would be nice if the Japanese media took its cue from such an approach and, instead of avoiding the issue, took heed of the recommendation from the U.N. report that the national media “give more space to programs on minorities in order to reflect the pluralism of its society.” This could only be done with help from those charged with representing the buraku communities. Encouraging easier media access and allowing for debate would, as well as allowing the BLL to show it has cleaned up its act, take the issue out of the shadows of Internet chat forums and into the open. Then, perhaps, the public would gain a better understanding of what it is like to come from a buraku and of how the lives of those who do are affected. And surely, in the long run, access to information is a much more effective weapon than invisibility in the fight against discrimination.

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