Overshadowed by the 11th-hour furor over casino legalization and other legislation forced through the Diet by the ruling bloc last week was the enactment of a lesser-known law that has significant implications for Japan’s minority burakumin.
The law enacted Dec. 9 marks a turning point in efforts to eradicate centuries-long discrimination against descendants of this former outcast group by acknowledging that bias still exists and by requiring governmental efforts to eliminate it. But critics fear the law doesn’t go far enough.
Here are some basic questions and answers about the burakumin and the new law.
Who are the burakumin?
The term burakumin literally means hamlet people, and originates from a now-defunct caste system that existed in the Edo Period (1603-1867).
At the bottom of the hierarchy was a cohort of outcasts consigned to jobs stigmatized by death, such as executions or animal slaughter. Hence their derogatory class categories, including eta (filthy mass) or hinin (nonhuman). The burakumin are the modern-day descendants of these feudal age pariahs.
The caste system came to an end in tandem with Japan’s breakneck shift to modernization at the outset of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), with the government ostensibly declaring the outcasts “emancipated” in 1871.
But the burakumin remained largely segregated from society and stuck in ghettos. Even today, discrimination against people from these hamlets, or buraku, runs deep, activists say, despite efforts by the government in the late 1990s to encourage their assimilation into mainstream society.
What does the new law do?
The new law, jointly sponsored by the Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito and the Democratic Party, acknowledges that discrimination against burakumin exists and declares that it is the government’s responsibility to root it out.
It obliges the central government and municipalities to establish consultation systems, beef up education and launch probes into buraku discrimination when needed.
But the law does not outlaw discrimination against burakumin and thus contains no punishment. This means a failure to enforce the law will not result in imprisonment or fines.
Efforts to craft the law gained momentum amid increasing concern over new types of discrimination, including online attempts to identify and disclose the whereabouts of burakumin communities.
What is the significance of the law?
Proponents hail the new law as landmark legislation that will end over a dozen years of government inaction on the issue.
Japan kicked off what is widely known as the dowa (assimilation) project in 1969 to help integrate these marginalized communities into mainstream society. Over the course of the next three decades, the government invested a whopping ¥15 trillion in efforts to modernize their ghettos — which were the source of high illiteracy rates, dire poverty and rampant illness — by building roads, providing scholarships and facilitating employment.
But once the dowa initiative came to an end in 2002, the government and municipalities slipped into complacency, convinced that “discrimination against buraku no longer exists,” said Nobuhiko Kadooka, a freelance journalist who has written several books on the burakumin.
The new law, which Kadooka called a welcome but long-overdue development, is expected to correct that mindset and reignite moves toward equality.
What kinds of discrimination do burakumin experience?
Most of the discrimination affects the marriage and employment prospects of this minority group.
In marriage, this typically takes the form of opposition from in-laws.
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.
DP lawmaker Yoshifu Arita, an active human rights advocate, told an Upper House committee on judicial affairs earlier this month that these figures are only the “tip of the iceberg” and highlight the widespread prejudice against burakumin.
In addition, companies also conduct rigorous background checks that tend to put burakumin job applicants at a disadvantage, he said.
What new discrimination is emerging?
Adding to the problem is public fury over internet-based attempts to reveal the locations of burakumin communities.
In March, the Yokohama District Court handed down a provisional injunction banning a Kawasaki-based publisher and its president from publishing and selling the re-print of a book divulging the details of buraku communities. The ruling supported a claim filed by the rights group Buraku Liberation League that said 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.
The data jeopardizes the privacy of burakumin and makes it “increasingly difficult” for them to keep their ancestry secret, Kadooka said.
Later that month, the league filed a lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court against the man and the publisher, demanding some ¥230 million in damages.
Is everyone happy with the law?
The Japanese Communist Party and some human rights activists oppose the legislation, saying ignorance is the best antidote. The law, they say, will catapult back into the spotlight a taboo topic long forgotten by the public and dredge up old hatred toward burakumin.
“Social issues surrounding buraku have basically been resolved today and words such as buraku or dowa have largely fallen out of the modern Japanese lexicon,” Seishi Tanba, chairman of the National Confederation of Human-Rights Movements in the Community, said in a released statement.
The law’s calls for municipalities to investigate buraku, Tanba added, will “breed the misguided notion among the public that anti-buraku discrimination still exists” and “invade the privacy and tranquility of those who live” in these communities.
The JCP, too, is opposed to the law on the grounds that it will perpetuate a divide between buraku and non-buraku communities.
Even some who acknowledge the discrimination are dissatisfied with the law.
Tokyo resident Tami Kamikawa, who has burakumin ancestry, confessed to having mixed feelings about the law. While hailing its enactment as a huge step forward, Kamikawa, 36, voiced fears that the legislation may prove toothless due to its lack of penalties.
“The current framework leaves municipalities plenty of room not to implement policies set forth by the law,” Kamikawa said.
“The law could be used as leverage to bring about some positive changes in areas such as Kansai, where buraku liberation movements have traditionally been quite active, but I expect no immediate improvement in the attitude of officialdom anywhere else. . . . So I’m not exactly over the moon,” she said.