A YEAR ago, just after a Japanese school board decided to relocate an elementary school here, a man named Daikichi Sekiguchi received an unsigned letter. ``It will be sad if our children go to this school - they will be considered burakumin,'' it said, using the euphemistic term for a Japanese minority whose ancestors worked in occupations once regarded as ``unclean.''
Burakumin literally means ``village people,'' but it describes an ``invisible'' group of Japanese who lead humbled lives on society's margins, victims of an ancient bigotry. Although physically and ethnically Japanese, burakumin are often set apart. Their plight is rarely acknowledged, their stories rarely revealed.
The letter to Mr. Sekiguchi continued: ``We are happy just to live in a separate community and to have different bloodlines.'' After that, a petition against moving the school was presented by some resident associations. The school board shelved the move.
``Now we know other people still really despise us,'' said Sekiguchi, the local leader of Sekiyado's burakumin.
He has seen many types of bigotry over his seven decades in this town, home to some 50 burakumin families. They have lived for centuries near the fork of a river in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo. Most eke out a living by recycling other people's refuse.
``In my youth, discrimination was so common we didn't think it was discrimination,'' Sekiguchi explains. Kids would openly taunt him with derogatory names. During festivals, religious icons would not be brought into burakumin areas for fear they would be ``polluted.''
Even in the allegedly egalitarian Japan of today, burakumin carry a cruel social stigma and are often victims of subtle discrimination. Sekiguchi's son, for instance, lost a chance for a job at a Tokyo company after revealing that his father was a burakumin leader.
The stigma is a remnant from the days of the last shogunate. Under a rigid hierarchy set up by the Tokugawa clan, which ruled Japan with sword-wielding repression from 1603 to 1867, an untouchable group was created below and outside the official classes of warrior, farmer, craftsman, and merchant.
These outcasts lived by slaughtering animals, working with leather, or doing other jobs deemed religiously impure under old Shinto and Buddhist beliefs.
They were openly mistreated and tagged as either eta (much filth) or hinin (nonhuman), terms now eschewed. They lived in separate hamlets, often by rivers, and developed a type of theater which some scholars say is the origin of kabuki.
In 1871, soon after the shogunate was overthrown, a reformist government legally emancipated this caste, giving it a less demeaning label of burakumin. But over a century later, few burakumin will reveal their ancestry, fearful of social ostracism.
The acute sensitivity about burakumin prevents an accurate tally of their numbers. The government estimates there are 1.16 million, but burakumin leaders claim over 3 million.
EITHER way, this hidden minority makes up 1 to 2.5 percent of the population.
While the original excuses for discrimination have long since passed, burakumin remain social pariahs due to a common Japanese belief that one's status flows along bloodlines.
Detective agencies have compiled lists of burakumin names and sell them to hundreds of companies that try to avoid hiring burakumin, and who sometimes share them with others on computer networks.
Another reason for lingering discrimination, say observers, is that prestige-conscious Japan operates on a hierarchical structure that puts an emperor on top and minorities such as burakumin at the bottom.
``The tragic fate of the outsider confirms to the Japanese just how lucky they all are to lead such a restricted, respectable and in most cases, perfectly harmless lives,'' writes Ian Buruma in a 1984 book, ``Behind the Mask.''
``Many burakumin wish they could leave their districts and start a new life elsewhere,'' says Toshikazu Kondo, a burakumin activist.
``But their past will follow them. We never tell outsiders where we live, or what our fathers do,'' says Mr. Kondo.
An antidiscrimination group of burakumin activists was first formed in 1922, and later named the Buraku Liberation League. The BLL uses a tactic known as a kyudan - denunciation campaign - to confront those who act or speak against burakumin, demand a confession, and try to ``reeducate'' the offender.
Fear of kyudan among many Japanese has helped to end the most open and vicious name-calling and prejudice.
In 1969, spurred in part by the civil rights movement in the United States, the government began to upgrade living standards and education for burakumin.
Known as dowa (assimilation), these projects were partly an attempt by Japanese leaders to control the left-leaning BLL, says Sueo Murakoshi, a Osaka City University sociologist and chairman of the Buraku Liberation Research Institute.
But, says BLL official Tamio Yamanaka, ``Dowa has drastically improved housing for burakumin. Slums have been eliminated and roads widened.'' Nonetheless, much more needs to be done, he says. Burakumin suffer from higher rates of illiteracy, unemployment, poor health, and poverty than other Japanese, surveys reveal.
The government, however, plans to end dowa in March, 1992. Officials say burakumin need no extra support after 23 years of assistance that has cost over $26 billion.
The BLL not only demands more dowa, but wants parliament to pass a law to make discrimination an official crime and to teach it in classrooms. What the government really wants, says Mr. Yamanaka, ``is for the problem to just go away.''
Indeed, many burakumin themselves argue that dowa and the BLL just perpetuate discrimination by spotlighting the group's existence. They prefer not ``to wake up a sleeping baby,'' a Japanese idiom, hoping burakumin can slowly blend into society. Others, however, say prejudice runs too deep to be ignored and might increase during an economic recession when burakumin would become scapegoats.
``It's difficult to know if discrimination decreases in a community that does not declare itself burakumin,'' says Dr. Murakoshi. The BLL claims there are close to 6,000 burakumin communities, but only 4,603 have declared their existence to obtain dowa projects.
In recent years, high land prices have driven many non-burakumin to seek housing in burakumin communities. The integration has created new social frictions.
By 1992, the government, under foreign pressure, plans to allow massive imports of shoes, many one-third the price of those made by the protected leather industry.
Burakumin shoemakers say they are being sacrificed to a trade-off with the European Community. To gain access for Japanese autos and electronics in the post-1992 EC market, Japan has to open its market to European exports such as Italian shoes.
Already, some leather imports have put a few burakumin-run firms out of business. In the meat industry, too, the first full-scale imports of foreign meat starting in April are threatening burakumin butchers.
``All we ask is for government to give us time and financial support to modernize,'' says Yamanaka, the BLL official. ``So far they are not very serious.''
He adds that more than Japan's internal harmony may be at stake. ``Japanese look for differences between people - that's why they discriminate against buraku, or other Asian people. They will not be truly internationalized until they learn how to coexist inside Japan.''