The origin of the Eta, or Japanese pariahs, is altogether obscure. Some see in them the descendants of Korean captives, brought to Japan during the wars of the latter part of the sixteenth century. By others they are considered to be the illegitimate descendants of the celebrated generalissimo Yoritomo, who lived as far back as the twelfth century. Even the etymology of the name is a subject of dispute among the learned, some of whom believe it to be from the Chinese characters e-ta, "defilement abundant," while others derive it from e-tori "food-catchers," in allusion to the slaughtering of cattle and other animals, which, together with skinning such animals, digging criminals' graves, and similar degrading occupations, constituted their means of livelihood. We ourselves incline to date back the first gradual organisation of the Eta as a separate class to a very early period-say the seventh or eighth century-when the introduction of Buddhism had caused all those who were connected in any way with the taking of life to be looked on with horror and disdain. They lived apart, generally on the outskirts of towns or villages, and were governed by their own headmen; for the spirit of elaborate organisation pervading old Japanese society penetrated even to the dregs. There were three chiefs of the Eta, who resided at Yedo, ösaka, and Kyöto. Danzaemon, the Yedo chief, was privileged to wear two swords. Besides the Eta proper, there were the Bantarö or watchmen, and the Kawara-mono or vagrants, who travelled about as strolling players. Some trace to these the origin of the modern theatre.
The legal distinction between the Eta and other persons of the lower orders was abolished on the 12th October, 1871, at which time the official census gave 287,111 as the number of Eta properly so-called, and 982,800 as the total number of outcasts of all descriptions. Scorn of the Eta has naturally survived the abolition of their legal disabilities. It is a favourite theme of latter-day novelists, one of whom, Enchö, excellently adapted the plot of Wilkie Collins's New Magdalen to the Japanese life of our day, by substituting for the courtesan of the English original a girl who had degraded herself by marrying an Eta.
Books Recommended - Land Tenure and Local Institutions in Old Japan, by Simmons and Wigmore, in Vol. XIX. Part I. of the "Asiatic Transactions." Brinkley's Japan and China, Vol. II p. 41 et seq. The Eta Maiden and the Hatamoto, in, Vol. I. of Mitford's Tales of Old Japan.