Sunday, May 3, 2009

Burakumin Districts on Google Map: "Google's system itself is a form of prejudice"

"Old Japanese maps on Google Earth unveil secrets"
The Associated Press (May 2, 2009)

"When Google Earth added historical maps of Japan to its online collection last year, the search giant didn't expect a backlash. The finely detailed woodblock prints have been around for centuries, they were already posted on another Web site, and a historical map of Tokyo put up in 2006 hadn't caused any problems.

"But Google failed to judge how its offering would be received, as it has often done in Japan. The company is now facing inquiries from the Justice Ministry and angry accusations of prejudice because its maps detailed the locations of former low-caste communities...."

As an American, I may not be able to understand Japan's reaction to Google's assault on their sensibilities.

"...The maps date back to the country's feudal era, when shoguns ruled and a strict caste system was in place. At the bottom of the hierarchy were a class called the 'burakumin,' ethnically identical to other Japanese but forced to live in isolation because they did jobs associated with death, such as working with leather, butchering animals and digging graves...."

The caste system is abolished now, of course. On the other hand, being one of 'those people,' living in one of 'those' neighborhoods can have it's down side.

"...An employee at a large, well-known Japanese company, who works in personnel and has direct knowledge of its hiring practices, said the company actively screens out burakumin job seekers.

" 'If we suspect that an applicant is a burakumin, we always do a background check to find out,' she said. She agreed to discuss the practice only on condition that neither she nor her company be identified...."

That's where Google comes in. Google Earth made an old, Japanese, map available online - and it shows where the Shogun period equivalent of an American trailer park was.

And, if there's any trouble: it's Google's fault.

"...The company provided no explanation or historical context, as is common practice in Japan. Its basic stance is that its actions are acceptable because they are legal, one that has angered burakumin leaders.

" 'If there is an incident because of these maps, and Google is just going to say "it's not our fault" or "it's down to the user," then we have no choice but to conclude that Google's system itself is a form of prejudice,' said Toru Matsuoka, a member of Japan's upper house of parliament...."

As I said, as an American I probably can't understand the situation. In this country, reviews of unpleasant realities and past wrongs involving America are required course work in schools. But, I suppose that by Japanese standards, Google must be to blame for the way burakumin are treated.


TC said...

OK, I have to follow, google and the Japanese caste system, too good to pass up. Great blog.

Brian, aka Nanoc, aka Norski said...


Thanks for the good words - and for touching base.

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