In 1941, the burakumin ("village people") were a large underclass in Japan whose status and employment in the war strongly paralleled that of African-Americans in the United States.  Like African-Americans, the burakumin were ethnically and socially distinct from their countrymen.  Known as eta ("an abundance of defilement") in premodern Japan, they filled the most menial positions in Japanese society and, when conscripted into the Imperial Army, were used mostly as laborers or in transport units. Their inclusion in the Army following the Boshin Civil War was a source of controversy (Edgerton 1997):

The attempt to include the eta leather workers in the army, even as boot and saddle makers, was opposed by samurai and peasants alike. The eta, or burakumin, as they came to be known, would remain so "untouchable" that no Japanese would dream of setting foot in one of their settlements. The life of an eta was reckoned to be worth about one-seventh the life of a townsman. Those eta conscripted by the army served almost entirely in all-eta transport units. Those killed in battle did not have their names listed among the honored war dead.

The origins of the burakumin remain obscure. They usually held occupations, such as leather workers, executioners, or undertakers, that rendered them ritually unclean according to Shinto beliefs. However, it is unclear whether they came to be seen as unclean because of their occupations or they were forced into their occupations because they were seen as unclean. The theory that they are descendants of the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan is based on the claim that they show stronger Caucasoid features, such as heavy body hair, than the majority of Japanese.

Prejudice against burakumin is apparently still widespread in parts of Japan today.


Dunnigan and Nofi (1998)

Edgerton (1997)

Japan Times (2009-1-20; accessed 2011-4-2)

Wikipedia:  Burakumin (accessed 19 January 2007)

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