The complexity and dynamism of the lives and relationships of outcaste communities in Japan, commonly referred to as eta 穢多 and hinin 非人, is occasionally lost in existing studies because of particular methodological (ideological) concerns. In records like Suzuki-ke monjo 鈴木家文書 (Documents of the House of Suzuki) and other previously unpublished materials, marginalized Tokugawa ‘status groups’ (mibunteki shūdan 身分的集団) appear as distinct yet fluid social / occupational groups with problematic status designations who experience changes that both reflect and suggest the existence of larger historical processes at work.
In this study, an attempt is made to examine the lives and experiences of ‘outcastes’ in late 18th-/early 19th-century eastern Japan in relation to three main questions. Firstly, what did life look like for members of eta and hinin communities during the latter half of the Tokugawa period? Secondly, what change, if any, occurred within rural outcaste communities during this time? And thirdly, knowing from previous scholarship that this period is characterised by the emergence of a ‘commoner-outcaste’ discourse, what effect, if any, did this policies have on the various relationships to be found in the community?
Eta are usually described in reference texts as social outcastes who participated in flaying, tanning, leatherwork, executions, and guard duties. Hinin are similarly characterised as outcaste beggars who also participated in these tasks to some degree alongside other activities like animal carcass disposal and the burial of vagrants. Eta and hinin, however, did not simply perform all of the aforesaid social functions from antiquity. Each of their social functions emerged at different times during the Tokugawa period and for varied reasons. There were, moreover, considerable differences between the organizational make-up of outcaste communities throughout the three main Japanese islands. In addition, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact period when the generic labels of eta and hinin came to refer to specific outcaste communities.
Lower Wana Village 下和名 was just one of many outcaste villages scattered throughout eastern Japan during the Tokugawa period. It was situated in present-day Saitama Prefecture. Upper Wana Village was located about 300 metres away from the western-most tip of Lower Wana Village. The Lower Wana Village head Jin’emon juggled numerous leadership positions within the village. He acted as ‘group head’ and kogashira 小頭 or ‘local eta village leader.’ Interestingly, hinin in the Lower Wana community did not live within the village itself. Rather, they either lived on the edge of the swamp that created a natural border between Upper and Lower Wana Villages or in the north-eastern corner of Lower Wana Village bordering a small forest. While this segregation was clearly related to the different functions of eta and hinin, it doubtless gave rise to an internal hierarchy within the village with its own associated stigma.
Another terrain quite apart from the village existed in the imaginations of rural outcaste communities in which flaying and begging rights existed. Labelled the ‘workplace’ (shokuba 職場), it was the legal territory for the disposal of dead cattle and horses as well as the place where people had the right to beg. When cattle or horses kept by peasants in a particular workplace died, they were taken to a place called the animal carcase dumping ground (heigyūba suteba 斃牛馬捨場) located on the periphery of each village. Nearby hinin patrolled the area on a daily basis and if they found a carcase they skinned it and disposed of the body. The economically valuable things went to the eta who had the rights of ownership for that day (called banichi 場日). ‘Begging rights,’ on the other hand, were generally owned by eta on a village basis. They were permitted to collect alms from peasant households in that village on auspicious occasions such as the time of the summer/autumn three grains. Hinin belonging to the same village were also permitted to roam around these villages begging for alms in special periods such as times of great prosperity or famine, New Years, and Obon. Hinin were made to perform the aforementioned duties of dead animal disposal (bayaku 場役) in exchange for receiving the right to beg alms. Any notion that eta only mixed with eta, or hinin with hinin, would clearly be a misconception, however, as historical records show that deep interpersonal relationships existed between members of Upper and Lower Wana villages.
However, the amalgamation of eta and hinin temple registers from 1778 indicates that a discourse of ‘commoner-outcaste’ was increasingly making its presence felt in this community. The tension created here was clearly the result of increasingly well-defined boundaries that delineated who people were. There was a mounting awareness of a ‘commoner-outcaste’ distinction based upon what constituted ‘normal’ practices; the Lower Wana Villager’s social and legal standing was dependant on the leader of the “Edo outcaste order,” Danzaemon 弾左衛門, who existed more than 50 kilometres away in Asakusa浅草. Furthermore, the workplace, although local, was inextricably linked to the larger work undertaken by Danzaemon, which cut across established boundaries that were traditionally used to define rule and legal jurisdiction for the rest of the community. By the third quarter of the 18th century, the local Wana community had reached a historical point where Jin’emon and his fellow villagers were forced to identify their place in the local community. They chose an explanation that tried to preserve the ambiguity of their existence as both ‘normal’ and ‘different.’ Their position, taken for granted in earlier periods within the wider Wana community, by the late 1760s had suddenly become incomprehensible.
The discourse of the commoner based on a notion of normality came to significantly impact social practices in within Lower Wana Village in the second half of the 18th century. The Upper Wana Village used this discourse as a mechanism to facilitate stable rule through the homogenisation of the eta and hinin within Lower Wana into obedient masses. This ensured their control over them and therefore the possibility of communal stability. Lower Wana Village certainly attempted to reject these attempts by the Upper Wana community to merge them into a manageable ‘outcaste’ body. But at the same time, there appears to have been an acceptance by this community of the logic behind claims that Lower Wana community was different. The official discourse of commoner-outcaste continued to be more pronounced during the early 19th century until it appeared as a hegemonic discourse by the 1820s.