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Untouchability may be briefly describes as a system of social relationships in which certain sections of community are looked upon as so different and inferior to the generality of society that they must be kept isolated. The term caste is different from “class”, designates a system of social stratification in which there is a high degree of impermeability of strata boundaries and where the social mobility is minimum. In all its forms discrimination is a human issue and across time and space and it arises for similar reasons: distorted social attitudes, religious convictions, a concern for political and social advantages and other historical factors.

The origins of Burakumin in Japan:

A photo showing Buraku people at a river. The Buraku, like Dalits in India, are the largest discriminated-against population in Japan (Image source: TOI)

In identifying the original sources of discrimination against the Buraku-min, there are three different justifications:

• The first opinion states that the discriminations emerged due to their occupations, and faced prejudices due to the menial occupations that were considered “impure” from ancient times. The tasks specifically dealt with several unpleasant occupations like killing animals, burying the dead, bleeding, child birth, butcher, grave digging, leather dressing, etc. When the political authority used forced to ensure the continuity of these certain occupations, particular groups were formed in Japanese history, called the “Burakumin”.

• The second opinions had its linkages to the religious traditions. Since the advent of Buddhism in Japan, and wide proposition Buddhist ideas of “non-killing” and karma were used as tools to discriminate against these communities which were primarily dependent upon killing animals for their survival. The concept of Karma was used to spread negativity against the community that the Burakumins were born in the lower community due to their heinous actions in their past life. This further aggravated the negative image that they had.

• The third opinion deals with the concept of racism. It was said that certain races groups traced their lineage back to the Chinese and Koreans and does not belong to the native Japanese race. The physical appearances were highlighted and several historians and anthropologists has justified the different physical appearances due to the fact that they belong to Korea or China. (Kasahara, Shin Buddhism and Burkaumin , October 1996 )

Discrimination during the Tokugawa period:

During the Tokugawa feudal period there were two broad distinctions between the Burakumins- “Hinin” and “Eta”. Hinin means “not a full person” and athough the etymology of the word “Eta” is obscure it means “dirty”. The Eta were apparently a sort of aristocracy among the lower cat groups and remained permanently Eta. Hinin were often made servants of Eta but apparently under certain conditions would regain the status of a Heimin, an ordinary Japanese. Up to 1615, the end of Chusei Era, the ancestors of the Burakumin were not discriminated against particularly. The prominent discrimination against the Burakumins started emerging during the totalitarian and feudal era of Tokugawa Bakufu. During the Tokugawa period, the Japanese society was reorganized into following feudal classes;

  1. Samurai (Shi)
  2. Peasants (No)
  3. Craftsmen/Artisans (Ko)
  4. Merchants (Sho)
  5. Impure People (Eta)
  6. Non Humans (Hinin)

 The society was highly compartmentalized and no inter class mobility was possible.

Throughout Japan’s pre-modern history, the conception had prevailed that the society was divided into two classes; the “good” and the “base” people. The Good were the upper class people and were free and were respectable people. However the base people were of the lower order; the non-serfs, slaves and the servants. It was naturally considered that the base people should serve the good people. What is noteworthy is that “base” has meant both socially and morally inferior. The base people were not only lowly and near to earth but also morally corrupt and lesser humans. The peasants in the ancient Japan were poor and humble, and thus in many cases little better than slaves, and Eta acted as a bridge between the “base” and the “good” people and humanity and non-humanity. (Newell, 1964)

During the Tokugawa period, the need to unify and control the regional daimyos led to formation of new strategies to control the society and prevent further protests and riots. The deliberate emphasis on the discriminatory measures against the Eta, tended to assist the government in much the same way as the Jews were made the scapegoats in Europe in the later feudal era. The Bakufu government even used to count Eta population using the Japanese counter for animals (Hiki) to signify their status equal to that of animals. Often they were not included in the population census and were listed separately- apart from “people”. The Burakumins lived in separate settlements similar to the ghettos on the outskirts or sometimes outside the villages, so that they do not pollute the entire village. Their settlements were most of the times not listed in the population maps.

The most infamous example of Burakumin discrimination is perhaps during the scuffle between Eta and non Eta gangs in 1859, which led to the death of an Eta. The Eta leader in the Kanto region brought the case before the local judiciary, and post the trial judgement was pronounced by Ikeda Harima-no-kami. The Judgement said, “An Eta is worth 1/7th the life of an ordinary person. If you would have me punish the guilty party, let him kill the remaining six more of your fellows.” Even today, the way to insult a person of Eta descent is to call him a “four” or show four fingers in the air, which means that they have four legs or have four fingers, one less than ordinary humans. (Passin, Oct, 1955)

Role of Religion in strengthening the Social stratification in Japan:

The indigenous Shinto religion of Japan, has placed great emphasis on ritual purity, which was considered the soul and state of body. In early Japanese religion, cleanliness was next to Godliness. Several other rituals which were not clean were considered impure, defiled and corrupt. When the Buddhism arrived in Japan, which was already Sinified to a very large extent, it brought with it a huge issue that further aggravated the issue; its prohibition to killing and eating of meat. This reinforced the Shinto conception of purity and cleanliness and hate towards blood and death. And hence as a result, certain occupations that were considered impure in both Buddhism and Shintoism, were defiled and consisted of professions like, slaughtering, handling of dead animals and human bodies, leatherwork, tanning and cleaning of dirt, shoe and sandal-making, basketry, and straw-work came to be associated with Burakumins.

From the middle ages, the Shin Buddhist followers in the Hongwanji denomination, had a huge membership since it attracted the support of all those who were oppressed by the ruling class and reorganized them under the banner of freedom. But in 16th century, the political powers divided Jodo Shinshu (also known as Shin Buddhism in the West) into two: Shinshu Otani-Ha, and Hongwanji-Ha. In order to protect themselves, the two groups became very political to sustain their legitimacy and social movements, and since then both has controlled their respective followers by converting to the values of the ruling class. Later when Buddhism became a state patronized religion and everybody was asked to belong to a Buddhist Temple, it was said that,

“The imperial family is in Tendai Buddhism, the peerage is in Shingon Buddhism, the nobility is in Jodo (Honen’s followers), the Samurai is in Zen Buddhism, the beggar is in Nichiren Buddhism, and Shin Buddhists are at the bottom.” (Passin, Oct, 1955)

This meant that only Hongwanji sect welcomed the Burakumins, and carried out an important ideological role in teaching the ideas of karma and “rebirth in the western Paradise of life” in order to consolidate the class. Some of them were forced to give up their religious identity, and came to believe that they were meant to be born Eta and should resign to their karma. They were told to seek Western Paradise of Pure Land when they die, while maintain their loyalty to their temples in this life.

However, since the Burakumins had special skills and a stable community life, they developed an outcaste respectability. As long as they were willing to accept their subjugation, segregation and isolation, they even enjoyed even enjoyed monopoly over their despised occupation. In the period of civil wars which preceded the establishment of the centralized feudal Bakufu in the centre in the 13th century, their skills in leatherwork, which was important in manufacturing of armour and weapons, was such a great demand that they even received certain privileges from their respective warrior lords.

Burakumin and the emergence of Yakuza culture:  

Yakuza or Gokudo are one of the largest transnational organized crime syndicates originating in Japan. The Burakumin are closely associated with the Yakuza culture, who dates its origins back into the feudal Edo era.  They are said to have formed during the mid Tokugawa regime (1603-1868). They might have emerged from shady merchant groups (Tekiya), and gambling gangs (Bakuto).

Image from the mini-documentary ‘Burakumin: Japan’s Invisible Minority’ | © Mata Gajinka / YouTube

Many of the burakumins joined the tekiya gangs to escape poverty and disgrace, and the Tekiya gangs were the only place where they were accepted as workers and humans and not looked down upon due to their birth in a low caste. Legally the discrimination against them ended in 1871, but they continue to be discriminated against even in the 20th century, which attracted a lot of burakumin towards this organized crime network. Yamaguchi-gumi one of the largest organized crime syndicate in the world, founded in 1915, comprises more than 60% of the people from the Burakumin community.  The yakuza community continues to believe in their honoured history, a history filled with various tales of how Yakuza comes to the aid of the common people, like a Robin Hood. They consider their members as a victim of society, who despite everything they have been through, have made good in the world through their deeds, living a life of an outlaw with dignity. (Arnason, 2014 )

Status of Burakumins post the Meiji Restoration on 1868:

With the fall of Tokugawa Shogunate, and reopening of Japan to the outside world, the Meiji government was faced with numerous challenges in transforming the feudal Japan into a country more in line with the Western powers. Not only was the issue of what to do with the Samurais but also what to do with the Eta/Hinin. Some pushed for an “affirmative action” of giving skill training and then release them gradually into the Japanese society, according to their performance. The general consensus was that this shifting of individuals from outcaste status to a commoner status should be done gradually, but with rewriting of a whole set of laws, that were inter-related, the authorities basically had to settle for a sudden end to the system.

The term used to describe this feudal abandonment is called “Kaihorei” or translated as the “Emancipation Edict”. However, the term Kaiho never once appears in the book. The term used to describe the emancipation document is “Senmin Haishirei” or the “Order to abolish the system of ignoble people”, proclaimed in 1871. Although the general feeling appears to be that the government has solved the caste system and create a society more in lines with the modern, industrialized society, Burakumins continued to face discriminations in the Japanese society even post the proclaimation of the emancipation edict. Since the people were badly shaken up due to rapid changes in the state, their anxieties increased were directed towards these “New Citizens”, as another reason for discrimination. The reality and consciousness of discrimination became hidden deep in people’s minds, and the topic of Burakumin and using any discriminatory words became a taboo.

 Members of the Buraku Liberation League and other supporters demonstrate near the Tokyo High Court on Oct. 31, 1974, to protest a ruling handed down to Kazuo Ishikawa, a burakumin sentenced to life in prison for the killing of a 16-year-old girl in 1963. | KYODO (Source: The Japan Times)

The Burakumins continued to face discrimination post the 1871 edict. They continued to live outside the villages, had no land to cultivate, and little land to build houses on, and continue to bury the dead, in exchange of certain specific amount of harvest from each household. Due to their inferior position, it was cheaper to hire Burakumins instead of a commoner or a Japanese farmers, who were swarming to the cities in search of employment. In shoemaking industry for example, the position that was previously guaranteed by the Tokugawa laws, was lost under the Meiji laws, and Burakumin from the lack of capital and opportunity, did not find it easy to enter into ordinary fields.

In 1922, the National Equality society (Zenkoku-Suiheisha), inspired by the thoughts of Romain Rolland, Gorky and Shinran, was founded in Kyoto, to do away with the inequalities faced by the Burakumins, and was later provided massive support post the establishment of Declaration of Human Rights. (Boyle)

Status of Dalits in India:

The Basor weaving bamboo baskets in a 1916 book. The Basor are a Scheduled Caste found in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India.

The term “Dalit” in India originated from the Hindi word “Dalan” meaning oppressed or broken. Legally, or as the Government of India may call it, “Dalits” is a caste mentioned in the Art. 341 of the Indian Constitution under the term “Scheduled Caste”. The term schedule caste was first used by the British Government in Government of India Act of 1935, which first catagorised them as “Depressed classes”.

The caste system in developed in India as a method of handling, relations among extremely diverse social groups that had to co-exist in the same geographical and social space: the conquerors and the conquered, different religious groups, and different tribes. The method which assigned them specific tasks and functions, graded them into a hierarchical order and was deeply embedded into the socio-religious conception of Hinduism. Even Buddhism which originated in India in 6th century B.C was unable to replace the caste mentality of the deeply orthodox Hindu population, by introducing the concept of Universal Brotherhood. The religious backing to the caste system in India was provided by “Manusmriti” or also known as “Dharmashastra” of Hinduism. It divides the society into four classes or the “Varnas”;

1. The Brahmins (Born from Brahma’s mouth)

2. The Kshatriyas (Born from Brahma’s arms)

3. The Vaishyas (Born from Brahma’s Thighs)

4. The Shudras (Born from Brahma’s feet)

5. The Untouchables (Not included in the Chaturvarna system and hence considered the outcasts;

Those presumed to be descended from the Aryan race were placed higher; those from the aboriginal Dravidians were placed lower. Over the period of time, all the four mentioned casts developed into several sub-castes, with each caste representing minute variation of occupation. Characteristically, each caste had its own occupation that distinguished it from other castes, and its next generation was expected to carry on the occupation, and thus was hereditary in nature. Inter-caste mobility was forbidden and marriage between two people of different casts were almost forbidden due to wide scale institutionalized discrimination.

At the bottom of this social hierarchy were those castes that performed all the menial and despised services of the community, such was sweeping, laundry, slaughtering, leatherwork, tanning and shoe-making, and all other work that were considered demeaning. Moreover for the Hindus, the killing the cows, on which many of these communities was particularly odious. And thus, the untouchables were therefore compelled to live in their own settlements, on the outskirts or outside the villages borders, and forbidden to associate with, share meals with, or share water from common water sources, touch members of the high castes, or even let their shadow come in contact with any high caste member. The inferiority was not only social and occupational but also moral, and it was considered that their status is the reflection of their moral values. The lower caste were lower because they were meant to be born that way. The untouchables were also prohibited from educating themselves and thus remained largely backward and illiterate.

In Hindu conception, everyone’s place in the scheme of things was ordained by fate, the endless chain of causation. What one had done in their previous incarnations, determined their fate in present life. The low caste was therefore serving the penance in this life for their past sins and through good deeds in their present life, they will be able to attain higher value in their next incarnation.

Role of religion in strengthening the caste system:

Buddhism played a significant role in social and cultural empancipation of the Dalits in India, due to its message of Universal Brotherhood. The Buddhist concept of equality between all men and between men and women, stating both can become a Bodhisattva by following the eight fold paths, was appealing to the untouchables in India. By converting to Buddhism, the Dalits could escape from the social discrimination faced by them throughout the centuries. Buddhist Scriptures were generally written in Pali (an ancient Indian language), which was considered the language of the masses. Since only the Brahmins were entitled to receive education, and read and explain the Holy Scriptures, written exclusively in Sanskrit (often called the language of the God), very few people could actually understand them. On the contrary, Pali written Buddhist scriptures were widely read and accepted. Given the inherent social discrimination, many Dalits preferred to convert to Buddhism, Jainism or even Islam to protect themselves from the social hierarchy.

Status of Dalits in 20th Century India:

The most notable civil rights movements pertaining to Dalits, came during the times of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi advocated the social change and end of discrimination of the Dalits. As opposed to several many derogatory terms used for the dalits, he coined the term “Harijan” or the “Children of God”.

Mahatma Gandhi collecting funds for Harijans at a railway station in Bengal, 1946. Gandhi (2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948), was the preeminent leader of the Indian independence movement in British-ruled India. (Image source: Alamy)

Today untouchability is abolished in India, but only on paper, and several Dalits continue to face the social discrimination and considered inferior. Certain Dalits, however, managed to obtain important positions in India, prime example of which being Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a notable lawyer and an influential Dalit leader, who went on to become one of the chief drafter of the India constitution, which came into force in 1950.

File image of B.R. Ambedkar | Photo: Commons

Modern Dalit activists have also constantly have been very actively involved in reforming the education system, by making the system more inclusive. There have been state led efforts to empower the Dalit communities and other backward communities by granting them reservations in Public employment and Public educational institutions. Discrimination against Dalit, is less apparent in urban and suburban areas, where the population is more dense and diverse, but in rural areas they still continue to be discriminated, which proves that tradition of discrimination is so deeply ingrained into the society that laws and legislations can only improve their conditions to a very small extent.

Comparison between the two communities:

Untouchability in both the countries can be explained by conjoint effect of three general factors mentioned earlier; rigid hierarchical structure; a worldview that conceives of social status as inherent in the constitution of the universe; and a concept of pollution that associates dirt with ritual impurity. The higher the degree in which societies are characterized by the presence of these three elements, the greater is the likelihood of presence of some kind of discrimination in the society.

In both the cases hierarchy was important means to control the society. Both the society were almost divided into same number of classes. It is also interesting to note that, both of them were highly hereditary in nature. This tends to minimize the both changes and inter-strata movement, which means that hereditary hierarchies will be more rigid than the non-hereditary ones.

The world view of both the societies differed in several aspects, but in each case it provided a basis of the conception that status is important and inevitable in the society, and thus in some way well deserved. In India, its major source was religion, through the Hindu concept of Karma and moral causation. In Japan, it was more secular in nature.

“The Japanese seem to have made a religion out of their social order. India made a social order out of their religion.” (Passin, Oct, 1955)

From all our observations we can conclude that concepts of pollution and taboo were very important. There were very menial, dirty, even despised occupations, but they are not all defiled in a particular sense that equates physical dirt with religious impurity.

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The author graduated in Economics and Political science and is currently pursuing her Master's in East Asian Studies from University of Delhi. She is quite keen in understanding diverse foreign policies and societies and their impact on Global Geopolitics.

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