“’I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,’ declares the Lord, ‘because you are called an outcast.” Jeremiah 30:17
When we resided in Japan as foreigners, we had a pretty good idea of what it felt like to be outsiders (see previous blog on aliens), but centuries before we arrived, Japan instituted a class of people who were considered to be outcasts. They were known as the “burakumin” (部落民) which can be translated as “hamlet” or “village people.” This peculiar name stuck because the burakumin tended to live in segregated communities scattered throughout Japan performing what was then regarded as the dirty tasks needed by society. These jobs were typically associated with death and therefore included trades like butchers, tanners, executioners and undertakers. The burakumin were looked down upon as the “defiled ones”; the more derogatory name for them in the feudal era was “eta” (穢多) that meant literally “an abundance of defilement.” Therefore, the areas where they lived were distained and commonly referred to as “etamura,” or “defiled villages.”
This ancient social outcast system surprises many who admire modern Japan as a homogeneous society where equity under the law is a high value and a common practice. Indeed, this is largely true, but the dark strands of burakumin prejudice quietly continue to exist in various forms despite legal injunctions against it. Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) was historically responsible for creating this untouchable class in the 16th century when he divided the entire Japanese population into four hereditary castes in the descending order of samurai, farmer, artisan and merchant. The burakumin were then relegated to a category below this arbitrary caste system and their degraded status was not based on different ethnicity, but exclusively upon the tasks they were required to perform.
Burakumin continued to live for centuries under a cloud of discrimination within Japanese society but this prejudice was officially terminated in 1871 by a law that is now known as the “Emancipation Edict” that granted full legal status to all burakumin and their descendants. However, it took decades for the rights of this historically oppressed group to be fully recognized. Even today, some forms of subtle discrimination continue, particularly when it comes to marriage or in some cases, employment. Several studies indicate that there are over two million burakumin within Japan and 60 percent of the Japanese mafia known as yakuza (see previous blog), are comprised of burakumin. Due to the shameful and delicate nature of this subject, the existence and the plight of the burakumin is even now rarely acknowledged in Japan.
A common phrase in the Old Testament, particularly in the Pentateuch, is “outside the camp.” This phrase refers to a status of uncleanness where certain sacrifices, ritually unclean individuals and evil doers were deliberately separated from the community of God’s people with the goal of maintaining holiness within the community. When individuals were expelled to life outside of the camp, it was generally viewed as a temporary measure, not a permanent banishment or form of discrimination, as the ultimate objective was their full restoration to the community.
The author of Hebrews (chapter 13) picks up this complex theme and noted that “Jesus also suffered outside of the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood,” (v.12) and that we should “go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (v.13) Such an amazing response turns human contrived caste systems and prejudicial attitudes on their head as it declares that no one is outside the grace of God. We are all outcasts and defiled by our sins, but God loves us so much, He figuratively went outside of the camp to redeem us. Let us therefore join Jesus “outside the camp,” taking on the scorn of others, to minister to a hurting world.