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Prologue DURING the seventeenth century, Japan’s social order took shape in the form of a hereditary four-status order of—in descending socioethical rank—warrior-rulers (samurai), peasants , artisans, and merchants. There were restrictions on intermarriage , social interaction, and clothing. This was justified by reference to Confucian theory. The functions of the four groups were seen as symbiotic, such that together they would constitute a stable and virtuous society (Totman, 2000: 225). Not everyone fit into this structure, including the thousands of lesser clerics who staffed Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, the shop hands and household servants and day laborers who lived on the margins of urban communities. Some day laborers were landless peasants, others came from the populations of hereditary pariahs (eta or kawata) and nonhereditary punitive outcasts (hinin). Found mainly in the Kyoto vicinity or in central Japan, these pariahs generally lived in their own communities, pursued their own professions, and were subject to their own leaders. On the edge of this pariah population were the entertainers : singers, dancers, and actors who were associated with the licensed quarters (Totman, 2000: 228-9). Pariah communities had developed in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as leather workers (kawata) and as handlers of animal and human corpses. Local elites encouraged their development during the time of constant warfare since leather was a key item in the production of amour. With the outbreak of peace after 1601, demand for these goods declined and the communiSOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Spring 2003) Burakumin at the End of History IAN NEARY ties were relocated to the margins of towns or to sites where they formed their own villages. Outside the four-class system, however, there was not much to distinguish them from artisans in towns or peasants in the countryside. But from the eighteenth century, regulations were introduced by central and local government that elaborated symbols of status distinction and enforced separation of residence and function. Different demographic trends were also present. Peasant smallholders produced families of modest size but pariah groups did not face the same pro-creative constraints . As a result the pariah population grew, despite attempts by government to restrict it. This altered power relationships between neighboring pariah/nonpariah communities, creating tension and increased status consciousness (Totman, 2000: 276). After the Meiji restoration of 1868, the four-caste hierarchy was abandoned and much of its structure dismantled. A new peerage was created from court nobles and some former samurai, but most former samurai had to make do with the essentially hollow rank of shizoku. The rest of the mainstream population, including pariah groups, was lumped together as commoners (heimin). By 1910 former status had little meaning in the lives of most Japanese except for the former pariahs, now commonly referred to as burakumin; they faced discrimination in the developing job market , in schools, in marriage, and in myriad other ways when they interacted with the mainstream community (Totman, 2000: 300). Burakumin became politically active from the 1890s onwards and, despite government attempts to restrain their activity, in 1922 formed the Suiheisha, or National Levelers’ Society. This group demanded the complete emancipation promised in an 1871 edict, including economic and occupational freedom, and protection of members’ human dignity. The movement remained active until the 1930s, but was finally unable to hold out against pressure from the wartime state (Totman, 2000: 389-90). The movement revived in the 1950s as the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) and continued to confront instances of discriminatory words, deeds, and policies while demanding a compre270 SOCIAL RESEARCH hensive program of improvements to address the difficulties group members encountered. In the 1960s, following rapid economic growth, the state was persuaded to fund improvements to streets, schools, clinics, and housing in burakumin communities and to provide rent subsidies and other assistance to families in those communities. The remedial action taken by government provided younger burakumin with more education, skills, and connections, and better paying jobs that enabled them to marry and settle more freely outside their communities. Government provided substantial sums of money for these improvement programs. Meerman estimates the amount spent between 1969-1993 at about $134 billion (2001: 13). The government has, however, refused to...


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pp. 269-294
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