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Japan's Outcasts Still Stuck at Bottom

January 05, 1986|ELISABETH RUBINFIEN | Reuters

TOKYO — Away from the sparkle of the rest of Tokyo lies Kinegawa, a ghetto that few citizens of Japan's capital want to know about.

Kinegawa's winding alleys are not shown on maps of the city. One bus travels its perimeter--in one direction only. It has none of the shops, coffee houses or bright lights that bring gaiety to even the quietest of Tokyo's other residential areas.

Despite its eerie isolation and a stench of raw meat in the air, it is home for about 2,500 people. Most are descended from Japan's historically outcast minority, the Burakumin.

Lowest Rung

Burakumin were categorized as the lowest rung of society, below the rigid class structure of samurai, farmer, artisan and merchant in Japan's feudal era, which ended in the 1860s.

They did jobs that Japanese Buddhists considered impure. Butchers, tanners and tomb-watchers were thought to be tainted by work that involved animal slaughter and the dead.

The class system was abolished in 1868 and discrimination against Burakumin is illegal. However, their descendants often still hold jobs no one else wants and live where no one else lives. Many stay in the leather business because it is easier for them to get and keep jobs there.

In Kinegawa, the source of 90% of Japan's pigskin production, there are 191 leather-related businesses, the largest of which employs 30 people, according to the Buraku Liberation League (BLL).

Maze of Alleys

The Kinegawa neighborhood is only one of more than 200 Burakumin areas in Tokyo and 5,000 in the whole of Japan. It is a third of a mile square--a maze of alleys too narrow for gas mains or public transportation. There are few street lamps, no mailboxes or public telephones and no doctors in practice.

The Japanese government offers Burakumin special housing and financial aid in addition to banning discrimination. But it does not, for example, have school textbooks that discuss contemporary Burakumin, who number more than 400,000.

This approach reflects a widely held belief that the problem will disappear if it is ignored, especially because Burakumin are ethnic Japanese, not foreigners.

"We should not treat them specially and they should not try to stand out," said one member of Parliament. "It will be hard for them to live with their secret, but will be best for their grandchildren. We will forget there ever were Burakumin."

Marriage a Problem

The issue usually does not arise in daily life. A Burakumin descendant who lives outside a Burakumin area may not even be aware of his own background--until the day he is passed over for promotion or wants to get married.

Most Burakumin become known only when they have been rejected as a marriage partner, the BLL says. The majority of private detective work in Japan is investigation of potential spouses, including whether they are Burakumin.

"It doesn't really matter what a person is when he's not in your circle," said a Tokyo accountant. "But it's different when he gets close."

"Even though we Japanese created this problem ourselves, people don't understand why we have it or how it came to be," said author Yoshikazu Kawamoto. "Politically, economically or socially, this is a terribly difficult problem for Japan."

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