Despite Japan's claim of homogeneity, two Japanese minority groups can be identified. The largest is known as the hisabetsu buraku, "discriminated communities," descendants of premodern outcast hereditary occupational groups, such as butchers, leatherworkers, and certain entertainers. Discrimination against these occupational groups arose historically because of Buddhist prohibitions against killing and Shinto notions of pollution, as well as governmental attempts at social control. During the Tokugawa period, such people were required to live in special buraku and, like the rest of the population, were bound by sumptuary laws based on the inheritance of social class. The Meiji government abolished must derogatory names applied to these discriminated communities in 1871, but the new laws had little effect on the social discrimination faced by the former outcasts and their descendants. The laws, however, did eliminate the economic monopoly they had over certain occupations.
Although members of these discriminated communities are physically indistinguishable from other Japanese, they often live in urban ghettoes or in the traditional special hamlets in rural areas. Some attempt to pass as ordinary Japanese, but the checks on family background that are often part of marriage arrangements and employment applications make this difficult. Estimates of their number range from 2 million to 4 million, or about 2 to 3 percent of the national population.
Ordinary Japanese claimed that membership in these discriminated communities can be surmised from the location of the family home, occupation, dialect, or mannerisms and, despite legal equality, continued to discriminate against people they surmised to be members of this group. Past and current discrimination had resulted in lower educational attainment and socioeconomic status among hisabetsu buraku than among the majority of Japanese. Movements with objectives ranging from "liberation" to encouraging integration have tried over the years to change this situation. As early as 1922, leaders of the hisabetsu buraku organized a movement, the Levelers Association of Japan (Suiheisha), to advance their rights. After World War II, the National Committee for Burakumin Liberation was founded, changing its name to the Burakumin Liberation League in the 1950s. The league, with the support of the socialist and communist parties, pressured the government into making important concessions in the late 1960s and 1970s. One concession was the passing of the Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects, which provided financial aid for the discriminated communities. Another was the closing of nineteenthcentury family registers, kept by the Ministry of Justice for all Japanese, which revealed the outcaste origins of families and individuals. These records could now be consulted only in legal cases, making it more difficult to identify or discriminate against members of the group. Even into the early 1990s, however, discussion of the liberation of these discriminated communities, or even their existence, was taboo in public discussion. In the late 1970s, the Sayama incident, which involved a murder conviction of a member of the discriminated communities based on circumstantial evidence, focused public attention on the problems of the group. In the 1980s, some educators and local governments, particularly in areas with relatively large hisabetsu buraku populations, began special education programs, which they hoped would encourage greater educational and economic success for young members of the group and decrease the discrimination they faced.
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