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Mistaken Assertions: a response to Mark Ramseyer / マーク・ラムザイヤー論文について前近代史の叙述部分に関する問題点

May 1, 2021
Volume 19 | Issue 9 | Number 3
Article ID 5593


The Japanese version of this article follows this English translation. 日本語版が英語版の後に掲載されています。


Reviewing the arguments about the early modern and pre-modern history of Buraku communities we would draw attention to the following mistaken assertions:

All quotes are from “On the Invention of Identity Politics: The Buraku Outcastes in Japan”, The Harvard John M. Olin Discussion Paper Series: No. 964


Mistaken assertions on the origins of Hisabetsu Buraku


In fact, the burakumin are not descended from leather-workers. They are descended from poor farmers. (1) 

Most do not trace their lineage to tanners, executioners, or leather workers. A few do, but not most. Most burakumin instead trace their ancestry to poor farmers. (24)


It is clear from these quotes that JMR subscribes to the ‘poor peasant’ origin thesis denying that from before 12th century (the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, aka chūsei) there was a close connection with ‘leather workers’ as the ancestors of Burakumin. However current research uses documentary and archeological evidence to demonstrate that those known as kawaramono, eta and kiyome etc. were closely related by social lineage to leather workers and slaughtermen. 


Mistaken assertions on the occupations of kawata and chōri in the early modern period


Most importantly, most kawata never skinned carcasses and had nothing to do with the leather trade. (19)

…the vast majority of the kawata never dealt with dead animals at all. Instead, they farmed. (20)


The use of qualifiers such as ‘most’ and ‘the vast majority’ in these quotes means that these assertions are not completely inaccurate but nevertheless his account is likely to mislead the reader into disregarding the connection between the disposal of horses and cows and the tanning and leather craft industries (e.g. making setta or drums) as important occupations of kawata in the early modern period. In fact, throughout the whole of MR’s account the strong link between kawata and leather production is either ignored or minimized.

There is ample historical evidence that before the early modern period leather manufacture prospered and a considerable number of kawata/chōri were engaged in leather production and leather related crafts including those resident in Dazaemon’s area of control in the Edo region, Watanabe-mura in Settsu, modern Osaka, and Kawata-mura ruled by Tanabe in Kishū domain.

While it is true that many kawata across the country were engaged in agriculture and that this is of great significance, we should also note that they were engaged in a range of occupations not only leather work but, depending on the region, fishing, bamboo-ware production and medicine.


In truth, the kawata never constituted a guild and had no monopolies to lose. Some did work in tanning or leatherworking, but none held any monopoly on either. p 20


Setting aside the issue of ‘guilds’, it is certainly not true to say that they ‘had no monopoly rights to lose.’ The right to deal with dead cows and horses was something that seems to have been weakening in some areas towards the end of the Kinsei period but in most areas it was a kawata monopoly. Indeed, it was precisely because kawata held these monopoly rights that it was necessary for the Meiji government to issue the edict of March 1871 that opened up the task of disposing of dead cows and horses.


And historians Matsuoka (1975, 24-25) and Usui (1991, 205) both report that the shares could be -- and occasionally were -- transferred to commoner villagers. p 21


A careful reading of the section of the book from which this quote is actually taken makes it clear that Usui is referring to the situation at the end of chūsei and start of kinsei. Immediately before the passage quoted he clearly states that ‘In the kinsei period these rights were possessed by kawata alone and could not be transferred to those of another status.’ (1980, 205) The quote from Usui is used in a totally unscholarly way in isolation from its context thus straining the interpretation of its meaning in order to support the author’s argument. Moreover, while on this topic, the book from which this quotation was taken is Vol 1 which appeared in 1980, that published in 1991 was the third volume of the series. 


Mistaken assertions about the conceptual origins of Buraku discrimination in the Kinsei period


Eighteenth-century Japanese would not have discriminated against them out of any concern for ritual purity. They would have discriminated against them because they were poor. (1)

At root, the kawata faced bias because they were poor. (24)


We have never seen any historical material concerning the early modern period, including the eighteenth century, which suggests that either the rulers or populace discriminated against kawata/chōri because they were poor. If he is going to make this kind of statement he should explicitly show the sources on which he bases such claims. 

It has been clearly shown in previous research that people with kawata status encountered discrimination (contempt, exclusion, persecution etc.) which was closely tied to the concept of defilement (kegare) which had grown powerful in the ancient and middle ages and continued into the early modern era. Of course, there were other elements of race and status which were linked to the discrimination against those who had kawata status but one should not ignore or underestimate the link to the concept of defilement. There is a great deal of documentation of the existence of discrimination based on notions of defilement by both the authorities and among the population.

He bases his argument on the premise that the early modern kawata villages and people were poor but recent research on Buraku history has shown that eta/chōri in the early modern period were engaged in a variety of occupations: leathercraft, setta making, drum manufacture, agriculture, bamboo-ware, medicine such that by virtue of their positive economic engagement their living standards were in no way inferior to those of other peasant farmers and indeed in some areas they led prosperous lives. This is reflected in the population increase within kawata villages in the early modern period which was greater than that in other rural and urban communities and can be ascribed to this well-developed economic base. While it cannot be denied that it is possible that there were some poor kawata villages in some parts of the country in the Edo period, overall the view that Buraku have experienced a history of poverty is disproved by the historical data

So, the idea that they were discriminated against ‘because they were poor’ or that ‘at root the feudal bias was because they were poor’ while possibly having some validity as a partial explanation in some areas, as an overall evaluation has absolutely no academic validity. Rather in fact even where kawata villages or kawata people were prosperous, the authorities and the general population discriminated against them.

There are a number cases of selective quotation that remove them from their contexts in order to suit his argument or generalisations from unusual examples and overall displaying an unscholarly attitude.

29 January 2020
























This article is part of Japan’s Burakumin (Outcastes) Reconsidered: A Special Issue Assessing and Refuting Ramseyer’s Interpretation. Please see the Table of Contents.


Please also see our previous special issues on The Ramseyer controversy on the 'Comfort Women' edited by Alexis Dudden, Supplement to Special Issue: Academic Integrity at Stake: The Ramseyer Article - Four Letters 

​See also, a special issue on The 'Comfort Women' as Public History edited by Edward Vickers and Mark R. Frost.



Teraki Nobuaki (寺木伸明) is an emeritus professor at Momoyamagakuin University who has published extensively on discriminated people in early modern Japan. His many research monographs include most recently Kinsei Hisabetsu Minshūshi no Kenkyū [Studies in the History of Discriminated People in the Early Modern Period (近世被差別民衆史の研究)] (Aunsha, Kyoto, 2014). An introductory work to Buraku history written with Kurokawa Midori, Nyūmon: Hisabetsu Buraku no Rekishi (入門被差別部落の歴史) was published in 2016 by Kaihō Shuppansha and in English translation as A History of Discriminated Buraku Communities in Japan by Renaissance Books in 2019.


Fujii Toshikazu(藤井寿一)is a researcher at the Wakayama Human Rights Research Institute, and a member of The Society for the Research of Buraku History. His research focuses on discriminated people in the early modern period mainly in Kiinokuni, Wakayama, the south of Mie and Mikawanokuni, in eastern Aichi.


Ian Neary is an emeritus fellow at the Nissan Institute and St Antony’s College, Oxford University. He has published on the Suiheisha, human rights in East Asia and a text book on Japanese politics. His biography of Matsumoto Jiichirō, The Buraku Issue and Modern Japan, was published in English in 2010 and in Japanese translation in 2016. His book, Dōwa Policy and Japanese Politics, will be published by Routledge in July 2021.