The burakumin (from the Japanese for "village people") are descendants of people who, in feudal Japan, were treated as outcasts from society. Although they have largely integrated into life in modern Japan, they still face discrimination in some areas of the country. Historically, such outcasts were engaged in activities involving either death or the slaughtering and processing of animals.Although "burakumin" is not particularly seen as derogatory, the preferred term within the community is "mura-no-mono", or "people of our community".
On House, M.D., we learn in the episode Son of Coma Guy that Gregory House was inspired to study medicine when, during a period when his father was stationed in Japan, he accompanied an injured friend to the hospital and was assisted by a man who he initially believed to be a janitor but who turned out to be a physician of buraku descent who had been ostracized by the other doctors in the hospital. However, they had to turn to the buraku when House's friend took a turn for the worse because he was the best doctor in the hospital.
During the feudal period, the burakumin were segregated into separate villages. History is not certain whether the burakumin were ostracized because they engaged in activities seen as impure, or whether they turned to these activities because they were not permitted to engage in more respectable activities. Ironically, because the burakumin held a virtual monopoly on such activities, they were often financially successful.
Despite being restored to full legal status in 1871, there was still blatant discrimination against them and they often suffered financially as others entered into their traditional professions. It was not until the early 20th century that the Japanese government started a program of improving their living standards and punishing those who discriminated against them. From the 1960s to the early 21st century, the government actively worked to improve their living conditions and by 2002 that goal had been largely accomplished and funding was ended.
Discrimination largely continued until the 1980s when younger members of the community started protesting for equal rights. Although numbers are uncertain, there are about 900,000 buraku in Japan today according to the government, and about 3 million estimated buraku according to their support organizations. In two prefectures, they form the majority of residents.