Last Updated: Monday, 05 December 2016, 14:52 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 - Case study: Japan's Burakumin minority hired to clean up after Fukushima

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 24 September 2013
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 - Case study: Japan's Burakumin minority hired to clean up after Fukushima, 24 September 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/526fb70e5.html [accessed 5 December 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

by Emily Hong

The nuclear disaster highlights health hazards for the country's marginalized workers.

In November 2012, Anand Grover, the UN Special Rapporteur for health, made a trip to Japan to investigate the right to health in the context of the triple earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that devastated the country in March 2011. His report highlighted the tremendous health risks for nuclear plant workers exposed to high levels of radiation. At a press conference, the Special Rapporteur said, 'I was distressed to learn that there is a practice of employing a large number of contract workers through a layer of sub-contractors'.

Both Amnesty International Switzerland and an investigative documentary produced by European television network Arte have claimed that many of these temporary workers are from Japan's most excluded minority – the Burakumin.

It is difficult to verify how many of the clean-up workers are Burakumin, but one Burakumin worker, temporarily employed at a nuclear plant in Hamaoka, speaks about his recruitment in the Arte documentary. 'The Burakumin, the Japanese Untouchables,' Yoshito Fujita says, 'when I arrived, I saw that there were many homeless people, like me, working. I realized then that this company recruits in the poorest areas.'

Kazuyuki Iwasa, the first Japanese worker to sue the government for radiation-related illness, 40 years ago – was a Burakumin. Photographer Kenji Higuchi, whose work documents the exploitation of nuclear plant workers, has highlighted Iwasa's case, which was rejected by the government. In a speech on the Fukushima 50, he spoke of Iwasa's tragic case and untimely death: 'Of course his origin had something to do with his job. In our social structure a discrimination creates another discrimination.'

The term 'Burakumin' refers not to a distinct ethnic group but to people living in Buraku, areas where many but not all residents are descendants of the outcastes of feudal society during the Edo period. They were given work, such as leatherwork and butchery, considered 'tainted' according to Buddhist and Shinto beliefs. Despite the formal abolition of the caste system in 1871 and special government measures in the 1970s to prevent third parties from searching Buraku ancestry, the Burakumin – who number between 1 and 3 million – remain one of the most excluded and disadvantaged communities in Japan.

Discriminatory attitudes towards Buraku remain deeply ingrained in Japanese society. According to the Buraku Liberation League (BLL), between 10 and 50 per cent of people surveyed in several prefectures do not want relatives to marry a person of Buraku origin and do not want to live in a school district which includes a Buraku area.

The BLL's survey of 12,000 Burakumin women has shown the continued effects of such discrimination on employment opportunities. Between 60 and 70 per cent of women surveyed work in irregular precarious jobs, a number 1.5 to 2 times higher than the average. In a 2012 report on minority women in Japan, the BLL claims that 'difficulty for Buraku women in obtaining stable jobs originates in their educational backgrounds, which leave them no choice but to take seasonal or irregular work'. Such structural discrimination leads some Burakumin to take jobs in some of the most 'dirty, dangerous, and difficult' industries, including the nuclear sector.

According to Yuki Tanaka, a Professor at Hiroshima City University, Japan's poor, including many Burakumin, have difficult buying into the national health insurance programme because of the high premiums.

A further issue is the practice of subcontracting, which causes lack of accountability. The Fukushima plant is no exception. Plant owner and spokesperson for TEPCO, Yoshigi Hitosugi, denied ultimate responsibility for the health and safety of temporary workers in an interview with Arte. According to Hitosugi: 'We currently employ three hundred people at the site of Fukushima through sub-contractors. In the end, we do not know who is involved or what conditions are proposed for the most dangerous tasks.'

The dearth of public information on workers' health and safety in the ongoing clean-up at Fukushima points to a larger problem – the persistence of intersecting forms of discrimination faced by Japan's most marginalized minorities.

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