MAHARASHTRA, India — As a topic that does not often receive media coverage, Japan’s untouchable caste, the Burakumin, still face discrimination and ostracisation stemming from as early as the 1600s.
The Story of Kazuo Ishikawa
In May 1963, in the Japanese city of Sayama, a 16-year-old girl went missing. That night, kidnappers blackmailed her family, demanding a ransom. The following day, her sister took fake ransom money to a designated place where many policemen awaited and surrounded the site. The kidnapper arrived but grew suspicious when exchanging words with the girl’s sister and eventually fled, even escaping the police. Two days later, police found the missing girl’s dead body.
This botched attempt that led to the rape and subsequent murder of the girl drew heavy media attention as the police were already responsible for causing a similar incident in the same month. Due to the growing media and public pressure, the police went to the neighboring Burakumin area and falsely arrested a Burakumin man named Kazuo Ishikawa.
With a limitation of his legal rights and even an outright denial of these rights, threats of police arresting Ishikawa’s brother, the sole breadwinner of the family, and false promises by police of a lesser jail sentence, led a coerced Ishikawa into confessing to a crime he did not commit.
Ishikawa received a sentence of life imprisonment but was released after 32 years. Even after his release, he still continues to fight to clear his name as well fighting against the discrimination faced by Burakumins.
Who Are the Burakumins?
Ishikawa belongs to the Burakumin community, people who are seen as Japan’s untouchables, considered outcastes, non-humans, lower castes and Eta (full of filth). Burakumin translates to “hamlet people” and their discrimination saw its origins in the Tokugawa feudal period (1603-1867). This discrimination is a product of a caste system that, although abolished, still lingers in Japan today.
Japan’s Caste System
Japan’s caste system was formalized on the basis of division of labor, associating people with their jobs. This caste system was stratified into four primary castes, which were warriors, merchants, artisans and farmers. A portion of the population fell out of this caste structure and these outcasts held jobs that the rest of the Japanese population refused to work in.
These jobs included working in a slaughterhouse, performing executions, tanning leather, undertakers; often jobs considered religiously and ritualistically impure due to the job being tainted with death.
Laws regulated the Burakumin’s social freedoms, including where they could walk, the areas they could live in, the people they could speak to and their attire. The aim of these restrictions was to set the untouchables apart from the rest of the “pure” Japanese population.
Current-day manifestations of this discrimination are not only limited to the descendants of untouchables from the Tokugawa period but also all people who reside in the Burakumin neighborhoods that have historically isolated and confined Burakumin people. People who once lived in such a neighborhood, or whose parents resided there, even those who unknowingly move into such neighborhoods, face the possibility of anti-Buraku discrimination.
The Burakumin also face discrimination when it comes to employment opportunities, as Buraku rights groups found that a handwritten 330-page list with names and community locations of Burakus was for sale to potential employers to screen out the untouchables. This act of economic exclusion, in turn, is also responsible for the Burakumin’s systemic persistent poverty.
Denied from acquiring political power and influencing change, the Burakus also face discrimination in the political sphere. Even the former Prime Minister of Japan Taro Aso once declaring “we are not going to let someone from the Buraku become Prime Minister, are we?”
Poverty Among the Burakumin
In a story published by the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, Ishikawa spoke about other social discrimination he faced growing up like other children shunning him, throwing rocks at him and mocking him. He also spoke about Burakumin poverty, talking about how hungry he always was, needing to beg for scraps, eating grass and even getting lucky by catching rats, lizards and snakes as food.
This is why he believes the police were able to convince him to confess to a crime he did not commit. The police falsely told him that they found his brother’s footprints at the crime scene. Since his brother was the sole breadwinner of the family, Ishikawa did not want their state of poverty to further worsen if his brother faced imprisonment. Only after educating himself while in prison, Ishikawa stated “I learned that I was from a Buraku and that’s why my family faced such poverty and that’s why I went to jail for a crime I didn’t commit.”
Ending the Caste System
To end the caste system, steps will need to be taken to tackle both the economic hurdles of poverty exacerbation, housing limitations, denying employment and political power, as well as the social discrimination that Burakumins are subject to.
Positive steps have been made. In 2016, the Japanese government adopted an Act on the Promotion of the Elimination of Buraku Discrimination, a landmark piece of legislation that can eventually lead to the end of caste system discrimination. The legislation declares the “government’s responsibility to combat discrimination against Burakumin through establishing consultation mechanisms, improving education and investigating instances of discrimination when they occur.”
When both economic and social impacts of discrimination and adequate government intervention holds discriminators accountable, then the societal practice of treating individuals as less than human will truly come to an end.
– Iris Anne Lobo