Inside Japan’s “Gentleman’s Agreement”


TOKYO (majirox news) — The Burakumin compose one of the main minority groups in Japan, along with the Ainu of Hokkaidō and the Ryukyuans of Okinawa. Despite being thoroughly Japanese, racially and ethnically, the Buraku-Min still face discrimination.

History of the “untouchables”
The Buraku problem is a social problem that originated during the Edo period (1603-1867) when outcast groups such as the Eta (extreme filth), Hinin (non-human), Kawaramono (riverside dwellers), Tosha (butchers) and Kiyome (cleaners) were considered “untouchables” and discriminated against.

Burakumin usually lived on the riverside, and engaged in landscaping, public entertainment, disposing of dead cattle, manufacturing leather, and cleaning shrines and temples. While some people looked down on them because of their occupations, they were also thought to have extraordinary abilities and were held in awe by others. Their status was not fixed but changing.

Click on photos to enlarge

Tomoe Kawasaki - College Staff

My parents didn’t tell me much about Buraku, and they raised me as far away from the Buraku as possible. They didn’t want me to suffer any discrimination. Upon taking a class about Buraku issues in college, I started to face my family roots – roots that I was forgetting. I sometimes wrestled with my parents’ protective love, and it made me anxious; I wondered if other people would accept me because of my Buraku roots. At the same time, it was overwhelmingly joyful for me to learn so much about myself in the contexts of history, culture and people.

Now, I often visit my hometown, the Buraku where I lived until the age of 7. When I took the plunge and faced my roots, and then leaped further into my past, I found such a wonderful world.

Kayoung Lee - Researcher

Until now, I have thought that no one else shared the kind of burden I suffered. I thought I would overcome this suffering through my own efforts. However, in my case, I can keep living with the help of my friends and supporters. That’s what I think. Of course, I should not depend on them too much.

I guess anyone could encounter discrimination and prejudice anywhere, and there must be people suffering in any society, not just the Buraku.

Now, I give lectures about Buraku and human rights issues once a week, mixing in stories about how I reached this point. After I do that, students who live with a similar sense of stagnation write to me about how they feel. It is nice when I can tell them you can overcome this.

Yukihiro Uzuhashii - Beekeeper

Life should end while yelling cheers of joy! There is no time to do unnecessary things. Whether it is work or having fun, just go for it! Whoever has fun wins! There are so many things I want to do, and I’m having so much fun every day. The fact that I was born in a Buraku is a tiny thing compared to having fun on this planet.

I am grateful to my parents and their peers because through the heated human rights movement, they led Burakus to liberation. I am truly leading a liberated life.

Shuhei Yamamoto -  Welfare Worker and Taiko drum player

Shuhei Yamamoto
Welfare Worker and Taiko drum player

Taiko has a huge impact on my way of living, though when I started taiko at the age of 9, it was just fun.
But I started thinking seriously about it when a friend who plays taiko in a different group asked me, “Why do you play taiko?” Taiko is the traditional craft of the people alienated in Hisabetsu Buraku in Japan.

It started with a wish of the local adults who wanted to offer an activity that their children could be proud of. Although I did not understand it well in my childhood, taiko was also a symbol of the liberation movement in which my parents and seniors fought against discrimination. Taiko introduced me to the way many such people have lived.

I hope to continue living with their thoughts and feelings in my heart, keeping my head up and taking one step at a time, so my life marks a new path.

Chikako Watanabe - Opera Singer

In addition to being an opera singer, I give concerts for human rights with the hope to create a society where everyone can live to fulfill their dreams without unjust interference by anyone. In these concerts all over Japan, the supportive audiences give me great energy as well.

I sang in the concert held on Human Rights Day, December 10, to celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations Hall in New York. This was a concert for anti-discrimination dedicated to three groups — Blacks, Jews, and Buraku — for the first time in the world. I believe I was bestowed a great role.

Contributing Majirox New’s Photojournalist Masaru Goto has 24 years experience photographing social and human rights issues in Asia and South America. His photographs highlight he plight and resilience of ordinary people who are caught in conflicts, suffering under oppression or economically disadvantaged.

Link to see more of Goto’s work:

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One Response to Inside Japan’s “Gentleman’s Agreement”

  1. celine Viola on 03/15/2011 at 3:27 pm

    How strange to read this article few days after the Sendai’s earthquake. I remember that the Burakus constituted the largest group of victims of the Great Hanshin’s earthquake that destroyed part of Kobe in 1995. I wonder what they are feeling now when they see what’s happening in the North? Natural disasters don’t know about minorities or majorities, black skin or white skin, young or old. We are all equal in front of Nature, or are we not?

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