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Edo Period and the Class System

The Tokugawa Shogunate during the Edo-Period (1603-1868) divided the population into four classes or three sections:

  • warrior class (bushi or shi)

  • farmer class (hyakushō or )

  • townspeople (chōnin): artisans () and merchants (shō)

The class system during the edo period

The ancestors of the burakumin are the classes that were not included in that system: the eta, hinin and other various classes.

  • eta: People whose occupation dealt with death or blood, including butcher or tanners.

  • hinin: This group includes homeless people, prostitutes, or travelling entertainers and were also often given the job as policemen or guards for prisons.


The term eta and hinin is a derogatory term and should only be used for the historical narrative.


Meiji Restoration and the Emancipation Edict

Changes of the society after the Emancipation Edict

The Emancipation Edict (kaihō rei) was enacted by the Meiji government in 1871 as part of the modernisation policies. As result, the feudal class system was abolished, and the classes were changed. The warrior class (bushi) became families with samurai ancestry (shizoku), the farmer class (hyakushō) and townspeople (chōnin) became commoners (heimin). The outcaste groups eta, hinin, and others, all became new commoners (shin heimin).

The enactment meant that the outcastes groups were dissolved but the stigma towards them never disappeared, and the discrimination continued with the new established group new commoners. Furthermore, the modernization policies introduced the freedom to take any occupation. As a result, the eta lost the monopoly they had enjoyed during the feudal era on occupations such as butchers and tanners. Many of them ended up unemployed and were further marginalised.


The term shin heimin is a derogatory term and should only be used for the historical narrative.


Improvement Policies

The Regional Improvement Movement (Kaizen Undō) was the earliest form of a policy aimed towards the outcaste groups. Mie prefecture was the first one to adopt it in 1905. Focusing on improving customs and the living standards of the new commoners, it failed to make substantial change in regards to the discrimination faced by the outcaste groups as well as improving the situation, blame was shifted to the people themselves. A common trait of the Regional Improvement Movement was its structure existing through separate groups, each focusing on their own targets and region. 

With the establishment of the Great Japan Brotherhood Society (Daiwa Dōshi Kai), the former Regional Improvement groups were then unified under the Harmony Ideology (Yūwa) - an indirect approach surrounding itself on the idea of integration and harmony. 

The Rice Riots

“The Rice Riots of 1918 were an important turning point for Burakumin, plunging them into direct action.”

-Kiyoteru Tsutsui in his book:

Rights Make Might: Global Human Rights and Minority Social Movements in Japan. (2018:159)

The two leading factors of the uprising were

  1. the inflation caused by the first World War (Cangià 2013:79)

  2. giving large amount of rice provision to the troops that were sent by the government to Siberia to stop the Russian Revolution spreading to Japan (KKBM 2018:56)

The peaceful protest started by wives of fishermen in Toyama soon became a nation-wide movement. Within 2 months, the numbers of protesters rose to 700,000, demonstrating the unhappiness of the current economical situation. 

Within the 700,000, burakumin from 116 cities and villages in 22 prefectures participated in the riots. The reasons why so many burakumin were participating in the rice riots were their poverty and subsequently inability to buy rice.


The emancipation edict took the monopolised position of the outcaste groups in certain occupations which then were opened to anyone. Coupled with the loss of rights such as tax exemptions, the now burakumin were put in dire poverty and experienced harsh discrimination (KKBM 2018:56).

Out of the 8000 people that were prosecuted, more than 10% were burakumin (KKBM 2018:56).

“In one area of Mie Prefecture, only Buraku people were arrested, while in another area of Wakayama Prefecture, two people sentenced to death were both from the Buraku community.”

(KKBM 2018:56).

“This had a strong influence on the emergence of various social movements concerned with the discrimination and exploitation of the poor classes. Up to that time, most of the political activism considered self-improvement to be a solution to the buraku question and explained discrimination as a result of the lower standards of the buraku that only the Burakumin were able to solve. After the riots, however, this attitude changed and the government was finally urged to take responsibility for the improvement of social and economics conditions of buraku.”


(Cangià 2013:79)

The media influenced those actions, as it was reported that the burakumin were the instigators of the rice – a result of the prejudice that led to the worsening of the stigma (KKBM 2018:56).

Because of the massive riots, the government decided to allocate budget to buraku improvement projects in 1920 but had barely any effect (KKBM 2018:57).

​“Buraku groups played a large role in the riots, and the experience strongly affected the way people concerned with the issue interpreted the “buraku question.”


(Cangià 2013:79)

Harmony and Liberation

"The two organizations were different as night and day"

 - Christopher Bondy in his book: Voice, Silence, Self: Negotiations of Buraku Identity in Contemporary Japan (2015:23)

After the establishment of the National Levelers Society in 1922, the representation of the burakumin was shared between the Liberation and the Harmony Movement. We explore what made them so different as "night and day".

Harmony Movement

The Harmony Movement (Yūwa Undō) was government-funded and would find a greater importance after the rice riots and the subsequent establishment of the Suiheisha as a counterforce against the rise of the Kaihō Movement. In 1920, the government would introduce the first budget for yūwa policies. 

  • avoided raising awareness of the buraku issue

  • responsibilities of the discrimination is on the burakumin themselves

Liberation Movement

The groups of the Liberation Movement (Kaihō Undō) were dissatisfied with a lack of proper approach towards a solution of the buraku discrimination and the living situation of burakumin. The Suiheisha (being the largest and only representative group) advocated for a direct path to the issue. 

  • confronting discriminators through denounciation sessions

  • promotion of a positive burakumin identity 

After the beginning of the second World War in 1939, both movements would see immense changes. The Levelers Society was disbanded in 1942 while the various groups under the Harmony ideology were unified to the Public Duty Association for Dōwa (Dōwa Hōkōkai), thus marking the name shift from Harmony (yūwa) to Assimilation (dōwa).

The end of World War II -
The resurgence of the buraku movements

Soon after the end of the second World War, buraku activists returned to their previous endeavours. In 1947, the National Committee for Buraku Liberation (NCBL Buraku Kaihō Zenkoku Iinkai) was established which in 1955 changed its name to the Buraku Liberation League (BLL - Buraku Kaihō Dōmei). In 1960, those who favoured the Harmony/Assimilation approach then left the organization to form the All Japan Assimilation Association (Zen Nihon Dōwa Kai). This group would later see itself in various scandals and ideological clashes which ended to a split within the Assimilation movement with the establishment of the National Liberal Assimilation Association (Zenkoku Jiyū Dōwa Kai) in 1986.

The BLL would see the same fate as the members of the Left-Wing Faction within the organization end up establishing their own - the National United Buraku Liberation Movement Association (Zenkairen - Zenkoku Buraku Kaihō Undō Rengō Kai) in 1976.

The Special Measures Law for Dōwa Projects

In 1960, the Deliberative Council for Dōwa Policies (Dōwa Taisaku Shingikai) (which was changed to the Joint Council for Dōwa Policies (Dōwa Taisaku Kyōgikai)) was created. The council conducted two surveys summarising the results into the Report by the Deliberative Council for Dōwa Measures (dōwa taisaku shingikai tōshin) in 1965. Aside from the statistical data and investigating the history of the buraku issue up until that point, the report further lists measures that are required towards the solution. This would provide the basis for the Special Measures Law for Dōwa Projects (SML - dōwa taisaku jigyō tokubetsu sochi hō) from 1969 and the subsequent laws afterwards. 


The target of the SML policies were not all buraku areas but were defined as designated areas or dōwa areas. 

During the 33 years of the SML, the infrastructure of the dōwa areas and the living situation including social welfare, education, occupation, etc. were improved. 

2016: The Act for the Promotion of the Elimination of the Buraku Discrimination

Although the Special Measures Laws contributed to the improvement to the living situation for many burakumin, the discrimination against was never "solved". Facing contemporary ways in which discrimination, hate speech and stigmatization can spread in the form of the internet and other means, this law uses that background as its basis (seen in article 1). In 2015, the demand for a law that would approach the before-mentioned issue began on the 16th December 2016, the Act for the Promotion of the Elimination of the Buraku Discrimination (APEBD) was enacted. 

Unlike the SML, the APEBD does not clarify any financial support or infrastructural policies but works towards the solution of the buraku discrimination. It is open to interpretation as to how much this law can offer towards this goal but the fact that it refers directly to the term buraku and that it acknowledges contemporary forms of the buraku issue is nonetheless a step forward.



I was struggling how to implement the bibliography for the history but I go for this style. References will be added step by step. My apologies for this!

Edo Period and the Class System:

Meiji Restauration and the Emancipation Edict

Improvement Policies – Kaizen and Yūwa

Rice Riots 

  • Cangià, Flavia. 2013. Performing the Buraku: Narratives on Cultures and Everyday Life in Contemporary Japan. 1st ed. Münster: LIT Verlag.

  • KKBM = ‘Kore kara no buraku mondai’ gakushū puroguramu sakusei kenkyū kai. 2018. Hajimete miyō! Korekara no buraku mondai gakushū: shōgakkō, chūgakkō, kōkō no purogramu [Let’s start! The buraku issue from now on: Program of elementary, middle and high school]. 1st ed. edited by Hyōgo buraku kaihō jinken kenkyūjo. Ōsaka: Kaihō shuppansha.

Yūwa and Kaihō

The End of World War II - The Resurgence of the Buraku Movements

The Special Measures Law for Dōwa Projects

2016: The Act for the Promotion of the Elimination of the Buraku Discrimination

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