Japan: Sanka, Legendary Gypsies Living in the Wild

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

Sometimes forgotten issues, people or stories come back from oblivion and awake something in the collective imagination. Sometimes too, the protagonists in those stories become part of a legend, whose historical origins are difficult to track down.

This is more or less what happened to a group of people who are said to have lived in the remote mountains and plains of the Japanese archipelago until the 1970s. They are the Japanese gypsies or Sanka [ja], written as 山家 (people of the mountains) or 山窩 (mountains nomads).

What brought the existence of this group of people – seemingly never registered by any government – back to some people’s minds was a documentary by public broadcaster NHK [ja] a few months ago.

Like some classical western literature which lingers on the myth of the ‘noble savage’, some bloggers speculated on the origins of these legendary nomads and on their ‘natural’ lifestyle.

Mount Iwate, Japan. Image by Flickr user Jasohill (CC BY-NC-SA).

Mount Iwate, Japan. Image by Flickr user Jasohill (CC BY-NC-SA).

Onoda explains what he has heard of the Sanka's livelihood and habits until their disappearance:




The story of Sanka is not something from another country. They lived in Japan and had the technical ability to mend tools such as the winnowing baskets used in agriculture. They went from farm to farm and received food such as wheat or rice in exchange for their mending work. They made their homes near river beds or in the caves of cliffs, fished in rivers, and washed themselves there also. They were drifters that lived in family units. […]

After the 1960s, they suddenly disappeared. […]

One of the reasons for their disappearance could be that tools like winnowing baskets and others that were used by cultivators and were their livelihood are no longer used. Also, forests, rivers and plains where they used to live freely had disappeared under the waves of development. They must have started having problems like landowners that wouldn't allow access to their property to strangers.

According to jiyodan, the Sanka were a free people that tried to resist assimilation by the Japanese central government which, during the 18th and 19th centuries, forced people like the Ainu people (in the northern regions of the country) and the Okinawa people (in the Ryukyu Islands) to abandon their culture and language and adopt those of the main island:

明治維新以後に戸籍(壬申戸籍 /じんしんこせき)をつくるまで、山窩(サンカ・サンガ)は、治世の外に存在した自由民であった。

In our country there is a group of people, the people of the mountains – unidentified inhabitants or nomads who lived by fishing and hunting.They're called Sanka and have never been identified as a different race.
Until the family register system was set up after the Meiji Restoration [1868], the Sanka or Sanga were a free people who existed outside the government’s control. They were distributed throughout the whole country from the southern Kyushu region to the northern Tohoku. It is believed that they were pushed north by the peoples who arrived relatively later in history. Refusing to be assimilated, they escaped to the mountains. It is also believed that “they could be part of the Jomon people, Japanese ancestors with a Polynesian linkage.”
In other words, their existence can only be explained if we consider them as the part of aboriginal races that resisted assimilation.
Sanka had contacts with the new populations so they weren't completely apart from civilization.
There is the belief that they lived in groups and retreated to the mountains, and the plains. […]


Later on the Sanka, like those hidden in the mountains, had to accept in their daily life civilization and started to use tools. But they continued to obstinately preserve their lifestyle and build their private living area within the borders of mountains and hills. So they continued to exist as “a people who didn’t want to associate with people who came to be governed”. Until a little after the Meiji Restoration [1868], they existed as a group of non registered people.

Nobody knows exactly why such people apparently ‘disappeared’ in the 1970s. Some believe because they were deprived of the lands where they could live free. The so-called economic miracle that made Japan the second largest economy in the world in the few decades after the war could not admit of the existence of such free-of-the-system people.

Image by Jetalone (CC CC BY-NC-SA).

Image by Jetalone (CC CC BY-NC-SA).

According to kuronekobyakudhan [jp] who replied to questions on Sanka on Yahoo, they did not disappear all of a sudden. He believes that the phenomenon evolved and the poor got to become the new Sanka.

Some of them continued to be marginalised like many other Japanese minor social groups who because of their humble origins, often going back to previous centuries, were discriminated against and could never become part of the main stream working society. It is a problem that exists still today even if on a different scale, and that local administrations still try to cope with:

山 窩族については徳川家康のブレーンのひとりであった林羅山などが記していますが、大正時代に三角寛が大衆紙に山窩を題材にした小説を発表するとちょっと した山窩ブームが起き、本来の山の民ではなく、社会をドロップアウトしてしまった人たち(世界恐慌もそれを後押しした)が山間部でのホームレス化してしま う社会現象が起きています。

One of the leading lights of [the shogun] Tokugawa Yeyasu's administration in the 16th century, Hayashi Razan, wrote about these Sanka people. During the Taisho era of 1912-1926, writer Misumi Kan [ja] published in a popular paper a short novel mentioning them and a fascination with the Sanka was sparked. However, in reality they were not truly people from the mountains, it was a social phenomenon where social drop outs, ended up being homeless people living in the mountains, a trend that the world crisis intensified.

そうした山窩族を含めた被差別民は各地に多く存在し、[…]山梨県内には調査資料では1935年にそうした被差別地区が23区域1818人(1993年にはそれが6区域293人に縮小し た。)とあります。

Such kinds of Sanka and other discriminated social groups exist in numbers in every area of the country. […] For instance in Yamanashi Prefecture according to a survey, in 1935 there were a total of 1,818 people in 23 ‘discriminated wards’. In 1993 the number of “discriminated wards” decreased to six, with 293 people in total.

Kuronekobyakudhan also said that, nowadays in every area, the government has set up an administration office just to deal with the problem of social discrimination, which the Sanka suffered, and which also means that although the problem may have been reduced, it is yet to be solved:


The people who work in this field know the historical background that brought this phenomenon to light, they also know that they have to take care of those people and so they are all well trained for the task.

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.