Tokyo human rights center Part 1: History of Discrimination in Japan

So, I was on my way home from a run in the grey hinter-regions between Minami-Senju and Kita-Senju and this uninspiring, drab public building had its doors open.

Yes, you read that correctly. It is the human rights learning center for Tokyo.

"Human rights?" you might be asking. Well, let's venture inside.

The first thing one is confronted with upon entering is a history of human rights in Japan over the years. (this oughtta be good...)

革づくりの歴史 1
History of Leather Making part 1 (hmmm. Interesting. Where might they be going with this?)




In 1991, a 5,000 year old frozen mummy was discovered in the Tyrol area of the Alps. It was clothed in the oldest leather items ever found, including a hat made from cattle hide, a leather pouch for holding flint and clothes made from animal skins. These items are assumed to have been tanned using bark and other plants.
Like Europe, leather has also been used in Japan since long ago. Here is a history of leather making in Japan.

・From early history to medieval times
Leather has been used since ancient times for armor and offerings. Improvements in leather technology were made thanks to the arrival of peoples from the Korean peninsula in the 6th and 7th century. In the latter Heian era (794-1192?), leather-working gradually spread as a handicraft industry. Those that took up this trade were referred to as Kawaramono or Kiyome.

・Warring States period (mid 15th to early 17th century)
In this period, making leather for the commander was first priority and those capable were assembled and subjugated to making armor. They were designated as leather workers and as given exclusive rights to sell leather as compensation.
In this era, the leather workers were looked upon as being unclean but the discrimination had not yet been institutionalized.

Okay. Next, let's move on to the Edo period (1603-1868).

革づくりの歴史 2
History of Leather Making part 2


Edo period
With Hideyoshi Toyotomi's nationwide land survey of 1582 and the "sword hunt" of 1588, the warrior class and the peasantry were separated. The Tokugawa shogunate further extended this policy later, causing discrimination against a variety of people to become entrenched due to historic and social reasons.
Those in the leather-making profession were treated differently from other peasants and townspeople, with wide-ranging limitations placed on what they could wear and who they could associate with. They were excluded from local government and were discriminated against by the population at large.
Danzaemon was the person in charge of the outcasts of the Kanto region. Although Danzaemon was given the rights to produce and sell leather and candle wicks as well as the right to oversee many of the performing arts, he was also tasked with execution of outcasts and served as an underling to the town magistrate.
In the Kanto region, it was necessary to send skins of slaughtered horses and cattle to Danzaemon. The skins were brought to Asakusa for salting (part of the tanning process) then tanned by Danzaemon and his subordinates.

The origins of modern leather making




The origins of the modern leather industry
With the Meiji Restoration, European leather tanning techniques were adopted in Japan, which helped modernize the leather industry. It also facilitated the production of military equipment for a modern military.
The modernization of the leather industry can be traced from three important routes, which extend to the modern day:
1. Traditional leather making techniques (Dan Naoki, etc.)
2. Business between the government and merchants (Nishimura Katsuzo, etc.)
 (March 15, the date Nishimura opened the first shoe factory in Japan is celebrated as Shoes Day in Japan today)
3. To provide employment to the Monguor people and others that lost their salary (Otsuka Iwajiro--the man who founded Otsuka Shoten, which is now Otsuka Shoe Co., Ltd. etc.)

・Dan Naoki's leather and shoe factory
Dan Naoki (the 13th and final Danzaemon) had the goal of securing a livelihood for the outcasts. In order to do so, he was ordered to learn European leather technology, and made plans to supply shoes and more to the military. In 1870 he was rewarded with a contract with the Ministry of War and in 1871 set up a leather production learning center in the Takinogawa area of Oji (present-day Kita-ku).
 American specialists were also brought to Japan to help modernize leather production and shoemaking based on traditional methods.

In 1871, with the abolition of the outcast system (exclusive trade in leather), animal skins became difficult to obtain.
In 1872, the factory was moved to Asakusa.
Dan Naoki was not exactly successful managing the factory, but he helped explain the new technology to many outcasts. These new specialists that he trained shouldered the burden of leather and shoemaking in Japan from this point.

So, there you have it. It's not the most detailed or informative explanation, but this is the effort the government of Tokyo gives to educating citizens about its several-hundred year long untouchable system.

For more about Japan's outcast system I recommend checking out Japan's Invisible Race by George A. De Vos. (1966)

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Stay tuned for Part 2 for some information about Ainu history and fun facts about gaijin in Tokyo.

(Note: All explanations here are translations.)


  1. As you point out, it's definitely not the most informative review of the Eta/Hinin system, for sure. First, no mention of said words, or the Buraku system... Quite light. Is it a tentative to explain it, or just to say "yeah, we have a human rights center in Tokyo" ?

  2. Yeah, it goes into greater detail about the 同和問題 after this part. This is the general history. I wanted to translate it as is to give an idea of how lacking it is for the Japanese.