My wife Karen and I first learned about burakumin—descendants of Japanese outcastes—in 1994, while praying through Operation World. Two years later, I retired from the US Marines, and we began a trip through western Japan looking for a place to begin our second careers as missionaries.
Looking for a place to serve
“Good luck finding a pastor with such a unique attitude.”
The words of the Japanese pastor shocked us. He had just given us a tour through a hisabetsu buraku (discriminated-against district) near his church. But our visit ended on a flat note when we mentioned we wanted to partner with a church to reach out to burakumin.
After several more disappointments, the Lord led us to a pastor who shared our heart. For the next six years we served as cooperating evangelists with Fukushima-chō Church, located in Hiroshima’s largest hisabetsu buraku.
Every human being is created in the image of God. Yet, discrimination remains a world-wide problem: the Dalit of India are outcastes, the aborigines in Australia suffer prejudice, the racially divided cities of America sometimes erupt in riots.
While less severe than in many places, discrimination is still a problem in Japan. Groups that suffer include Chinese and Korean residents, Ainu, Ryukyuan islanders, people with handicaps, and foreigners.1 Burakumin also suffer. They are racially and linguistically the same as other Japanese, but are targeted because their ancestors were outcastes.2
The history of burakumin
In the Edo Period (1603–1868), society was divided into four castes: samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. Below these were the outcastes—confined to ghettos and given “unclean” work, jobs involving dead animals or people. These were people such as executioners, undertakers, grave diggers, butchers, and leather tanners.3
The caste system was abolished in 1871, but poor living conditions and severe discrimination remained. So, in 1922, the National Levelers’ Association was founded with the objective of ending discrimination.4 The Christian influence is obvious in their crown of thorns flag,5 which is still used today by the Buraku Liberation League. These, and similar organizations, protested against the conditions in the ghettos and lobbied the government for help. In response, from 1969–2002, buraku areas were designated as dōwa chiku (assimilation districts) and a series of government programs provided improved housing, educational assistance, hospitals, community centers, and more.6 Large improvements were made, but some neighboring communities resented the assistance given to the dōwa chiku. After government assistance ended in 2002, many facilities built with dōwa program money ran out of funds. I recently visited four dōwa chiku; all their community centers were closed.
Despite considerable progress, discrimination has not disappeared. Incidents such as bullying of burakumin children, employment discrimination, and parents forbidding their children from marrying burakumin, continue. In the neighborhood we were ministering in, while people were friendly and casual, there were serious complaints about discrimination. It was common to hear stories about people being turned down for a job or rejected as a marriage prospect just because of their address.
It’s a secret, or is it?
During our research trip in 1996, we stopped at the information counter in Okayama Station for a social experiment. In tortured Japanese, Karen asked, “Excuse me. I am researching human-rights issues. Can you tell me where your dōwa chiku are?”
Flustered, the young lady replied, “That is a historical problem that no longer exists. There aren’t any of those areas in Okayama anyway.” She got a translator on the phone to make sure her meaning was clear.
Karen was about to give up when the Japanese urge to help kicked in. The young lady said, “Wait a minute!” and disappeared. She returned a minute later and gave Karen a slip of paper with the name of the city office for buraku issues. “Maybe you could ask there,” she said.
At that office, we talked with an official who worked with the 27 dōwa chiku in Okayama city. He spoke freely about reports of discrimination and the steps the city was taking in response.
Our experience at the information counter taught us that there is awareness of burakumin even though many prefer to pretend that discrimination does not exist anymore. In contrast, at the city office we saw that buraku issues can be openly discussed—in the right place.
The challenge of low literacy
The harsh smell of a rendering plant processing animal remains engulfed me as I approached the next five-story apartment building—one of a dozen built in a row by a government housing-improvement project. I knocked and waited. After a minute, a flustered young mother appeared. She greeted me with a puzzled look.
“Good morning, I’m from the local church,” I said. “We’re delivering a small gift to everyone in the neighborhood. I’ve also brought you an invitation to a barbecue party in the park.” As I spoke, I offered her a Bible and a flier. She looked at the items for a moment and then scratched her head and gazed at my feet. “I can’t read,” she said.
The next year, we worked with our church to produce a cassette tape with a message, testimonies, and songs for our door-to-door outreach.
It is very rare to meet illiterate Japanese outside of dōwa chiku, but in these communities, adult reading and writing classes are often well-attended.
Ministering to burakumin
As Christians, we need to remove the beam from our own eye before trying to remove a speck from another person’s eye (Matthew 7:5). Discrimination may be worse in our sending countries than it is in Japan. We need to be careful with our own language use. Unless essential for explaining historical prejudice, we should never use words like eta (full of filth) or hinin (non-human).7 To many, even the term burakumin is offensive, although it is often used by anti-discrimination groups. The most widely accepted term is dōwa chiku (assimilation districts). Also, be aware that although some burakumin claim their ancestry with pride, many try to “pass” in society by keeping their background secret.
Helpful preaching texts that show that God is not prejudiced include Numbers 12 (Moses’ Cushite wife), Exodus 12:38 (other races joined the Israelites), Leviticus 19:34 (foreigners welcome in Israel), and the many stories when Jesus reached out to the lame, blind, lepers, Samaritans, etc. These all show that we serve a God who welcomes outcastes with open arms.
1. “Ethnic Issues in Japan,” accessed January 7, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_issues_in_Japan
2. George Devos and Hiroshi Wagatsuma, Japan’s Invisible Race (University of California Press, Berkely and Los Angeles, 1967), 10-12.
3. Ibid., 20-23.
4. “Declaration of Human Rights in Japan,” accessed January 7, 2017, http://www.hurights.or.jp/archives/focus/section2/2002/03/declaration-of-human-rights-in-japan.html
5. “Keikanki,” accessed January 11, 2017, https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/茨冠旗.
6. “Burakumin,” accessed January 7, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burakumin
7. Timothy Boyle, “A Brief History of Buraku Discrimination in Japan,” accessed January 8, 2017, http://www.konkyo.org/burakukaiho/news/burakuhistory.pdf
Dan and Karen Ellrick came to Japan as missionaries in 1996. Their current focus is resource development. Dan is also the Japan representative for International Ministerial Fellowship.