You may be familiar with the caste system. It’s that social structure that existed in India and is still highly important there today. You may not associate a first world country like Japan with such a hierarchical social structure, but the country does indeed have its own version of the caste system.
Historically, Japan had a social hierarchy in which the emperor stood at the top, with powerful ruling military below him and peasants and merchants below them.
While Japan still has an emperor and a royal family as figure heads today, much of the caste system has disappeared as it was abolished in 1871. There are no longer shoguns or samurai, and the common people all have more or less the same status in society.
There is, however, a distinction between the common people and what they call “burakumin”, or the untouchables. They are still highly discriminated against and go to great lengths to hide their ancestry that traces them back to burakumin.
The history of burakimin goes back to the fuedal era to describe workers in professions that were considered dirty or tainted with death, such as undertakers and butchers. Even though the caste system was abolished and no person born after 1871 can be placed in a certain caste, the social class of their ancestors can easily be identified by looking at a family register, which is clearly marked to indicate whether an ancestor was a burakumin or not.
Burakumin look just like any other Japanese person. There is nothing physical that distinguishes them from non-burakumin. They are not any more or less intelligent. Their only disadvantage are their roots. Companies will often pay to illegally acquire family registers to check if potential employees are burakumin or not, and hire them on that basis regardless of anything else. Neighborhoods that have been historically known to house a large burakumin population often receive less government funding for public building projects such as parks, roads and bridges. Families will often forbid intermarriage between burakumin and non-burakumin.
This all sounds unbelievable, but the fact is that it remains a dark, well-hidden secret even to this day. Noone talks about burakumin except for anthropologists and sociologists. It is considered very rude and unthinkable to ask about burakumin to a Japanese person, even if you don’t have any ill intentions. Most families these days don’t even tell their children if they have a burakumin background, so people may grow up never knowing their true origin. It is possible that in a few generations the word and its stigma may be forgotten altogether.