In the earlier parts of this course, Japan has been portrayed as largely homogeneous—the concepts of strict hierarchies, groupism, and stratified society reinforced this portrayal.  The truth, however, is that Japan is not entirely homogeneous—minority groups do exist, and they are being integrated into Japanese society more so than at any other time in history.  This is not to say that segregation doesn't still exist, as it is still a major problem throughout Japan.  This essay will attempt to show that Japan is not homogeneous, but also that prejudices and segregation of minority groups still exists.

First, we take a look at the burakumin, the descendants of “outcasts” from Japanese society.  These outcasts were identified as such simply because their ancestors had held jobs “considered ritually unclean, like butchering animals, tanning skins, making leather goods, digging graves and handling corpses.” (Packet 277)  In the “old” times, burakumin were “legally barred from marrying outside their group or from living outside their slums (buraku)”.  (Packet 277)

Legally, the burakumin were “emancipated” in 1871, although for many decades after that they were still effectively outcasts—similar to the way African-Americans were officially emancipated in the 1860s but were heavily persecuted against in many areas of the United States until the 1960s and beyond.  Many Japanese still considered the burakumin dirty outcasts, and it has been said that some shopkeepers “so loathed the burakumin that they would wash their coins upon being paid.” (Packet 278)

Today, the situation is much different.  Two-thirds of all burakumin polled say that they have never encountered discrimination, and 73% now marry non-burakumin.  (Packet 277)  The reasons for such an abrupt change?  The main reason is that figuring out who is a burakumin in the first place can be difficult—most burakumin now have normal jobs (only a few still work in tanning and other traditionally “outcast” jobs), and many now live outside of the buraku.  Since they are “physically indistinguishable from other Japanese”, it is hard to discriminate against what can’t be identified.  (Packet 278)  When we add to this the fact that “most parents don’t tell their kids” about the burakumin, drawing no distinction between them and other Japanese people, we have a minority that is effectively integrating itself into mainstream Japanese society.  (Packet 279)

A second major group of “outsiders” residing in Japan are comprised of Koreans.  “Most Koreans were originally forced to come here when Japan ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945.  Many came as virtual slave laborers, set to work digging canals in Osaka or mining coal.” (Packet 281)  While Koreans living in Japan are permitted to be come Japanese citizens, many refuse since they feel it would be “renouncing their Korean past and submerging themselves in a Japanese present.” (Packet 281)  Until just a few years ago, in fact, Koreans were even forced to give up their names and take Japanese names upon naturalization.  The situation in schools and the job market is not much better, as Korean children are often teased and persecuted in Japanese schools, and Koreans are often denied jobs simply for being Korean.

The solution for many Korean families is to live in ethnic neighborhoods, such as Ikuno.  There, Koreans can send their children to Korean-run schools, “attend Korean-run churches, be admitted to Korean-run hospitals or shop at markets offering Korean clothing and food.” (Packet 281)  The situation seems similar to that of the Native Americans in the United States, who are free to practice their own religious and cultural beliefs only within their reservations.

And, much like the Native Americans are increasingly leaving their reservations and becoming “Americanized”, “the 650,000 ethnic Koreans in Japan…seem to be at a crossroads and increasingly choosing the Japanese path rather than the Korean path.”  (Packet 287)  Teachers at Korean-run schools in Japan are finding that young Koreans “have no intention of going back to their homeland”, and that “Intermarriage is increasing, and taking of Japanese nationality is increasing.”  The decreasing attendance of Korean-run schools illustrates this—17,000 today as compared to 35,000 in 1967.  (Packet 288)

Even so, the situation is far from perfect.  As several letters to the New York Times note, “Any Korean living in Japan well knows the subtle and not-so-subtle discriminations still practiced against them.” (Packet 285)

So, we have seen that Japan is not completely homogeneous—both the burakumin and the Koreans are examples of minority groups living there.  However, the articles written about these groups seem to show that the Japanese want these groups to “dissolve” into Japanese society, giving up their own ideals and embracing those of the Japanese.  The burakumin are simply dissolving altogether, while the Koreans are still being segregated into their own communities to practice their own beliefs and speak their own language.

Heterogeneous, perhaps, but not exactly tolerant.


EALC 150 Article Packet.  University of Illinois, Fall Semester 2000.

As has previously been stated, the homogenous nature of Japanese culture often causes exclusion and prejudice against minority groups. This prejudice is not limited to Asian minority groups and frequently extends to non-Asian groups as well.

This phenomena can be relatively rare in such urban areas as Tokyo and Osaka or especially in tourist areas such as Kyoto and Nara. However, it is more than likely to happen to gaijin travelling and living in more rural areas or areas which tend to draw few tourists.

From my personal experience, if you are a white male in America and have never experienced the type of latent bigotry which so many African-American's encounter on a tragically regular basis, a brief time staying in Japan may be immeasurably helpful in bringing about a change in perception and understanding.

It may be hard to understand what I am talking about here without personal experience: The first time an old woman crosses the street just to avoid walking on the same side as you...well, needless to say, it can be quite a cold realization. When people cut in front of you in line while the clerk happily serves them first, it will help cement it home. When taxis refuse to take you anywhere because of the color of your skin, you will finally realize that you aren’t in Kansas anymore Toto.

Needless to say, this type of insular attitude is slowly disappearing as Japan becomes a more internationally minded country. But should you be considering locating yourself in a rural or non-urban setting inside Japan...well, you have been warned.

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