Untouchability in Japan

Stephen Hodge s.hodge at PADMACHOLING.FREESERVE.CO.UK
Fri Jan 14 18:11:51 EST 2000


Ursula Graefe wrote:

> Dear list,
> in feudal Japan society was divided into four classes. The fourth
consisted
> of the so-called "eta" (which is written with 2 charakters meaning
"much
>  dirt").
> Etymologically it is supposed to be related to the word "etori"
which in the
> early middle ages was applied to people, who killed cattle and
horses to
> feed hunting falcons and dogs, or who dealt with meat or hides of
cattle
> and horses. In Shintoismus (sic), the native Japanese religion, as
well as
> in Buddhism people engaged in this kind of work were considered
impure.

This is only half the story, in my view.   There is evidence that the
people who eventually came to be classed as "eta" were originally
orphans and other indigent people who were adopted by Buddhist temples
in the early medieval (Heian) period and lived on or near temple
precincts.   Japanese society at that time was obsessed with "taboo"
or "ritual impurity" (imi) -- anything that represented or gave rise
to a disharmony in nature was a potential source of impurity -- even
things like cutting down trees, building new houses, childbirth, and
of course, anything connected with death.   Ordinary people,
especially the wealthy classes, were terrified of the disharmony or
"pollution" believed to be caused by such events and needed special
practitioners who were able through their possession of special powers
to cope with and deal with such events without harm to themselves.
Thus such tasks fell to the "eta" who were thus not considered
"unclean" themselves but were regarded with awe by ordinary people.
Contemporary literature does not indicate that they were held to be
"untouchable" or "inferior" but that they were people endowed with
special almost mystical powers.  Sadly as Japanese society began to
evolve towards feudalism with the rise of the military class in the
late Heian period, many groups in society including women and the
"eta" were marginalized and, in the case of the latter, demonized.

Best wishes,
Stephen



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