International Journal of Social Science and Human Behavior Study
Author(s) : YUKO NISHIMURA
This paper reflects on the low social status of Japan‟s leatherworkers, whose position in the social hierarchy has for centuries been that of untouchables or Burakumin (outcastes) and who were sometimes called by the most derogatory of Japanese terms, „eta,’ which means „filth.‟ There are three economic and historical roots to this enduring social stigma, two of them having to do with the demand of the military for leather armor, saddlery and other gear. First, in the 16th century, a truce between warring clans, achieved by the Tokugawa shogunate, brought with it a decrease in the demand for leather armor and other military trappings, thereby undermining the economic base of buraku communities; (2) at the same time, weak Japanese guilds left leather workers in servitude to leather merchants and the state, ultimately forcing them to accept their social status as untouchable pollutants and (3) the Meiji restoration in the late 19th century included a modernized military that required copious amounts of leather gear, and the business, so lucrative made powerful business élites wrested control from the Burakumin. The occupational taboo against working with leather remained attached to the modern Buraku community, as Japanese leather workers failed in their struggle for improved social status. The paper compares Japanese craft guilds, which kept the leather workers as bonded labour, with European medieval craftsmen guilds, which had already provided a system of training through apprenticeship, contracts, and fixed wages for skilled workers.