The buraku people, or burakumin, constitute one of Japan’s largest discriminated against minority group.1 Like indigenous peoples discussed in this book, the buraku people are neither newcomers nor oldcomers-their residence in Japan parallels that of majority Japanese. Nor are they a distinct racial or ethnic groupthey do not differ from majority or mainstream Japanese in skin color, facial features, or any other characteristics of physical appearance, nor do they share a distinctive language, religion, or other characteristics of sociocultural heritage. Yet, as George De Vos, the American anthropologist who conducted some of the first in-depth studies of buraku communities, has pointed out, “nonvisible features can be used with equal force to segregate off a portion of a society as essentially inferior, or in religious terms, ‘impure’” (De Vos and Suarez-Orozco 1990: 171). Many social scientists regard burakumin as members of a politically created caste, or outcaste, group, though some (for example, Shimahara 1984) argue that, lacking a distinctive culture, contemporary burakumin do not meet all criteria of
outcaste status. Racial, ethnic, and caste definitions and classifications can, of course, be highly subjective, and boundaries between groups are rarely clear and fixed. Failing to find a “neat and simple” definition, the author of a review of research on buraku origins and issues concluded that the “only consistent identifying feature of burakumin is that they are discriminated against” (Su-LanReber 1999: 4).