Non-nationals in Japan: the Burakumin

English: The_New_fighting_the_Old_in_early_Mei...

English: The_New_fighting_the_Old_in_early_Meiji_Japan circa 1870 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Miyu Fujihara

John Lie (2011) argues that:

“The predicates of peoplehood are categorically asserted rather than inductively proven. Being more prescriptive than descriptive they propose and enforce what it means to be a typical or normal member… In other words, the state and its associated institutions constitute people in their idealized image, exercising biopower that shapers society and citizens… Hence as much as modern peoplehood seeks to an inclusionary identity, it excludes relationally defined minorities of the body and of the mind.”

Simply speaking, he means that creating legislation and norms and its contents decides who’s in and out, or who is ideal, mainstream or a national, and who is an outsider, a minority or a non-national. As the title of his chapter suggests, “the paradoxes of peoplehood” implies this process.

This is greatly applicable to Burakumin in Japan. Lie (2011:179-180) discusses a process that the Burakumin went through. Even though the laws and social consciousness now acknowledge the Burakumin (although not fully), and after the Meiji Restoration gave them rights equal to the mainstream Japanese, this didn’t change much of the situation. Instead it gave the Burakumin a further burden. They were given more equal conditions, meaning they were giving the same expectations they had to meet, but this time without any protections or help from anyone, however with the persistent image that they were still at the bottom of society. They got more pressure from society, earned less money, and were remained just as poor as they had been.

Here is a related example of this paradox that my mother experienced. When my mother was in junior high school, there was a random group of kids who took extra classes. They were always taken from the classroom occasionally and studied in a different classroom. She later found it out that those kids were Burakumin and the reason why they were taking extra classes was for their education, which they had been deprived of historically. I assume that the purpose was to even out the educational opportunities and lessen the gap between the mainstream and the Burakumin. However, because they were treated differently by teachers, my mother thought that the kids were special and different from her and the rest of her classmates. This can mean that they saw the kids as different, abnormal, or a non-national group: outsiders.

Even recently, the Burakimin have been discriminated against, especially when job hunting because they have particular kinds of last names and birth places that imply a Buraku ancestry.

In Japan, who is and is not the mainstream is very explicit. I think this norm is not easy to break down as it has been passed on over generations, together with an essentialist aspect of Japanese people. However, doing nothing never helps people get out of poverty and out of the bottom stratum of the society. In my opinion, with the accelerating globalization, as long as the idea of nation-state exists, there always will be those who are “outsiders”.


Lie, John. 2011. Modern Peoplehood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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