What Can Anthropology Tell Us About Social Inequality? - A Look at the Burakumin of Japan

Caste systems may seem no longer relevant today, but even in places where they have been abolished, caste-based discrimination and prejudice can remain rampant. In Japan, discrimination like this still exists towards the Burakumin, also known as Eta (literally translated as “an abundance of filth/defilement). Anthropological concepts like kinship, descent, and lineage, as well as anthropology’s investigation of the caste system, can help us understand the social injustice faced by the Burakumin.

Today, the Burakumin exist by virtue of bloodline connections to their original Burakumin ancestors. Although the feudal caste system was abolished in 1861, history and records of their lineage still exist, and are distributed throughout Japan. Although such distribution is now illegal, it is still common practice for employers to regularly screen applicants for Burakumin ancestry. Other types of discrimination also exist, such as preventing marriage between buraku and non-buraku, due to fear of tainting the family bloodline. This practice of tracing Burakumin descent is what perpetuates their marginalization in society today.

The Burakumin were originally members of the “untouchable” caste in the Japanese feudal era, characterized by occupations like butchering and tanning, which were thought to be tainted because of their connection to death. Marriage outside of the caste was forbidden, also known as endogamy, which made class or social mobility almost impossible. Further, they were segregated from the rest of society, living in separate villages, also known as Buraku. Most interesting however, is that the Burakumin are physically indistinguishable from non-buraku Japanese. While ethnic groups around the world are victimized simply because of phenotypic differences in skin color (aka racism), the Burakumin experience discrimination because of something, that in some ways, only exists only on paper.

It is interesting to note that issues of kinship and descent like these still bear much importance to many modern-day societies, even to a first world country like Japan. The concept of kinship-based discrimination, or “tainting a family bloodline,” is unfamiliar to North American society, at least in the author’s opinion. However, North America practices its own forms of discrimination, and it is important to keep the concept of cultural relativism in mind.

Examination of the Burakumin through an anthropological lens can help to understand why marginalized groups like this still exist today. It is important to realize that although some forms of rigid social inequality, like the caste system, have been legally abolished, their effects can echo for centuries to come. This can be a hard concept to grasp. Indeed, women’s rights in North America have legally been equal to men’s for roughly half a century. However, inequality still remains, and feminism continues to be an important social movement. One should draw the conclusion then, that the inequality Burakumin experience today has been preserved in a similar way, and deserves an equivalent response.

A map that originally marked the segregated Burakumin villages in feudal era Japan, but was censored by Google at the request of the Japanese government.


http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20090120zg.html VIA wn.com 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margaret-dilloway/the-japanese-untouchables_b_697585.html VIA wn.com http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2001972131_outcasts05.html VIA wn.com 
http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20040605f1.html VIA wn.com

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