Burakumin (部落民: buraku, tribe + min, people), is a term often used to describe a Japanese social minority group. The burakumin are one of the main minority groups in Japan, along with the Ainu of Hokkaidō, the Ryukyuans of Okinawa and the residents of Korean and Chinese descent.
The burakumin are descendants of outcast communities of the feudal era, which mainly comprised those with occupations considered "tainted" with death or ritual impurity (such as executioners, undertakers or leather workers), and traditionally lived in their own secluded hamlets and ghettos. They were legally liberated in 1871 with the abolition of the feudal caste system; however, this did not put a stop to social discrimination and their lower living standards. In certain areas of Japan, there is still a stigma attached to being a resident of such areas, who sometimes face lingering discrimination in matters such as marriage and employment.
The long history of taboos and myths of the buraku left a continuous legacy of social desolation. Since the 1980s, more and more young buraku started to organize and protest against their social misfortunes. Movements with objectives ranging from "liberation" to encouraging integration have tried over the years to put a stop to this problem.----------------The number of burakumin asserted to be living in modern Japan varies from source to source. A 1993 investigative report by the Japanese Government counted 4,533 dōwa chiku (同和地区 "assimilation districts" - buraku communities officially designated for assimilation projects), mostly in western Japan, comprising 298,385 households with 892,751 residents. The size of each community ranged from under 5 households to over 1000 households, with 155 households being the average size. About three quarters of settlements are in rural areas. The distribution of discriminated communities varied greatly from region to region. No discriminated communities were identified in the following prefectures: Hokkaidō, Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Yamagata, Fukushima, Tōkyō, Toyama, Ishikawa and Okinawa.----------------There are many theories as to how and in which era the outcaste communities came into existence. For example, whether society started ostracizing those who worked in tainted occupations, or if those who originally dropped out of society were forced to work in tainted occupations, is disputed. According to the latter view, displaced populations during the internal wars of the Muromachi era may have been relocated and forced into low-status occupations, for example, as public sanitation workers.
The social status and typical occupations of outcaste communities have varied considerably according to region and over time. A burakumin neighborhood within metropolitan Tokyo was the last to be served by streetcar and is the site of butcher and leather shops to this day.
At the start of the Edo period (1603-1867), the caste system was officially established as a means of designating social hierarchy, and eta were placed at the lowest level, outside of the four main divisions of society. Like the rest of the population, they were bound by sumptuary laws based on the inheritance of their social class, The eta lived in segregated settlements, and were generally avoided by the rest of Japanese society. Segregation and discrimination were encouraged by the authorities as a means of government control. For example, they typically had their own temples and were not allowed to visit other religious sites. Japanese Buddhists were given posthumous religious names (戒名 kaimyo) when they were deceased; eta were often given names that included the kanji characters for beast, humble, ignoble, servant, and other derogatory expressions. When dealing with members of other castes, they were expected to display signs of subservience, such as the removal of headwear. In an 1859 court case described by author Shimazaki Toson, a magistrate declared that "An eta is worth 1/7 of an ordinary person."Historically, eta were not liable for taxation in feudal times, including the Tokugawa period, because the taxation system was based on rice yields, which they were not permitted to possess. Some outcastes were also called kawaramono (河原者, "dried-up riverbed people") because they lived along river banks that could not be turned into rice fields. Since their undesirable status afforded them an effective monopoly in their trades, some succeeded economically and even occasionally obtained samurai status through marrying or the outright purchase of troubled houses. Some historians point out that such exclusive rights originated in ancient times, granted by shrines, temples, kuge, or the imperial court, which held authority before the Shogunate system was established.--------------After World War II, the National Committee for Burakumin Liberation was founded, changing its name to the Buraku Liberation League (Buraku Kaihou Doumei) in the 1950s. The league, with the support of the socialist and communist parties, pressured the government into making important concessions in the late 1960s and 1970s. One concession was the passing of the Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects, which provided financial aid for the discriminated communities. Also, in 1976, legislation was put in place which banned third parties from looking up another person's family registery (koseki). This traditional system of registry, kept for all Japanese by the Ministry of Justice since the 19th century, would reveal an individual's buraku ancestry if consulted. Under the new legislation, these records could now be consulted only in legal cases, making it more difficult to identify or discriminate against members of the group.
Even into the early 1990s, however, discussion of the 'liberation' of these discriminated communities, or even their existence, was taboo in public discussion. In the 1960s, the Sayama Incident (狭山事件), which involved a murder conviction of a member of the discriminated communities based on circumstantial evidence (which is generally given little weight vs. physical evidence in Japanese courts), focused public attention on the problems of the group. In the 1980s, some educators and local governments, particularly in areas with relatively large hisabetsu buraku populations, began special education programs, which they hoped would encourage greater educational and economic success for young members of the group and decrease the discrimination they faced.
Branches of burakumin rights groups exist today in all parts of Japan except for Hokkaidō and Okinawa.
"Human Rights Promotion Centers" (人権啓発センター) have been set up across the country by prefectural governments and local authorities; these, in addition to promoting burakumin rights, campaign on behalf of a wide range of groups such as women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, foreign residents and released prisoners. (The term "human rights" (人権 jinken) usually has a different meaning in Japan as it does in the English speaking world. Where in English the term is most often used in reference to protecting people against violations by, for example, the criminal justice system or an oppressive regime, in Japan it is most often used in reference to equality and discrimination issues.)