AP on resuscitating discriminatory Buraku historical maps on Google Earth


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Hi Blog.  Here’s a bit of history that some would rather be left undisturbed:  the historical locations of Japan’s historical underclass, the Burakumin.  To me it’s existential historical fact.  To corporate employers and marriage suitors, it could be grist for discrimination.  Am of two minds about the issue, but if if the BLL comes out against it, so shall I.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo

Old Japanese maps on Google Earth unveil secrets
• By JAY ALABASTER, Associated Press – Sat May 2, 2009 

Courtesy Steve H, MS, and Paul G

TOKYO -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.

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.

Castes have long since been abolished, and the old buraku villages have largely faded away or been swallowed by Japan’s sprawling metropolises. Today, rights groups say the descendants of burakumin make up about 3 million of the country’s 127 million people.

But they still face prejudice, based almost entirely on where they live or their ancestors lived. Moving is little help, because employers or parents of potential spouses can hire agencies to check for buraku ancestry through Japan’s elaborate family records, which can span back over a hundred years.

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.

Lists of “dirty” addresses circulate on Internet bulletin boards. Some surveys have shown that such neighborhoods have lower property values than surrounding areas, and residents have been the target of racial taunts and graffiti. But the modern locations of the old villages are largely unknown to the general public, and many burakumin prefer it that way.

Google Earth’s maps pinpointed several such areas. One village in Tokyo was clearly labeled “eta,” a now strongly derogatory word for burakumin that literally means “filthy mass.” A single click showed the streets and buildings that are currently in the same area.

Google posted the maps as one of many “layers” available via its mapping software, each of which can be easily matched up with modern satellite imagery. 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.

Asked about its stance on the issue, Google responded with a formal statement that “we deeply care about human rights and have no intention to violate them.”

Google spokesman Yoshito Funabashi points out that the company doesn’t own the maps in question, it simply provides them to users. Critics argue they come packaged in its software, and the distinction is not immediately clear.

Printing such maps is legal in Japan. But it is an area where publishers and museums tread carefully, as the burakumin leadership is highly organized and has offices throughout the country. Public showings or publications are nearly always accompanied by a historical explanation, a step Google failed to take.

Matsuoka, whose Osaka office borders one of the areas shown, also serves as secretary general of the Buraku Liberation League, Japan’s largest such group. After discovering the maps last month, he raised the issue to Justice Minister Eisuke Mori at a public legal affairs meeting on March 17.

Two weeks later, after the public comments and at least one reporter contacted Google, the old Japanese maps were suddenly changed, wiped clean of any references to the buraku villages. There was no note made of the changes, and they were seen by some as an attempt to quietly dodge the issue.

“This is like saying those people didn’t exist. There are people for whom this is their hometown, who are still living there now,” said Takashi Uchino from the Buraku Liberation League headquarters in Tokyo.

The Justice Ministry is now “gathering information” on the matter, but has yet to reach any kind of conclusion, according to ministry official Hideyuki Yamaguchi.

The League also sent a letter to Google, a copy of which was provided to The Associated Press. It wants a meeting to discuss its knowledge of the buraku issue and position on the use of its services for discrimination. It says Google should “be aware of and responsible for providing a service that can easily be used as a tool for discrimination.”

Google has misjudged public sentiment before. After cool responses to privacy issues raised about its Street View feature, which shows ground-level pictures of Tokyo neighborhoods taken without warning or permission, the company has faced strong public criticism and government hearings. It has also had to negotiate with Japanese companies angry over their copyrighted materials uploaded to its YouTube property.

An Internet legal expert said Google is quick to take advantage of its new technologies to expand its advertising network, but society often pays the price.

“This is a classic example of Google outsourcing the risk and appropriating the benefit of their investment,” said David Vaile, executive director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Center at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

The maps in question are part of a larger collection of Japanese maps owned by the University of California at Berkeley. Their digital versions are overseen by David Rumsey, a collector in the U.S. who has more than 100,000 historical maps of his own. He hosts more than 1,000 historical Japanese maps as part of a massive, English-language online archive he runs, and says he has never had a complaint.

It was Rumsey who worked with Google to post the maps in its software, and who was responsible for removing the references to the buraku villages. He said he preferred to leave them untouched as historical documents, but decided to change them after the search company told him of the complaints from Tokyo.

“We tend to think of maps as factual, like a satellite picture, but maps are never neutral, they always have a certain point of view,” he said.

Rumsey said he’d be willing to restore the maps to their original state in Google Earth. Matsuoka, the lawmaker, said he is open to a discussion of the issue.

A neighborhood in central Tokyo, a few blocks from the touristy Asakusa area and the city’s oldest temple, was labeled as an old “eta” village in the maps. It is indistinguishable from countless other Tokyo communities, except for a large number of leather businesses offering handmade bags, shoes and furniture.

When shown printouts of the maps from Google Earth, several older residents declined to comment. Younger people were more open on the subject.

Wakana Kondo, 27, recently started working in the neighborhood, at a new business that sells leather for sofas. She was surprised when she learned the history of the area, but said it didn’t bother her.

“I learned about the burakumin in school, but it was always something abstract,” she said. “That’s a really interesting bit of history, thank you.”


17 comments on “AP on resuscitating discriminatory Buraku historical maps on Google Earth

  • This is all a kind of intricate political dance that has very little impact on real people’s lives.

    The discrimination was clearly taking place before Google ever published the maps. The maps can only be as responsible for the discrimination as a person’s skin color can be. (To say a person’s skin color is responsible for their discrimination would be to prima facie accept the discrimination. The skin color is only the modus operandi.) Shall we all cover up our skin color thereby ending skin color based discrimination?

    One can make the semi-plausible argument that the publication of these maps specifically on Google makes discrimination easier, however, this is simply untrue. Those who wish to discriminate were already doing so. It requires a certain amount of specialization to figure out who lived where, and so I’m sure there are specialists available, and they have the relevant maps already. (And by the way, someone else will put the maps up, this is inevitable. Doesn’t the article mention a Japanese site?)

    Google is particularly spineless here, like most giant company behemoths. I’m reminded of Google eagerly following the Chinese government request for censorship.

    The real culprit here, of course, is the koseki system. Yet the article doesn’t even come anywhere near touching this topic.

  • Sorry, but I cannot side with the BLL on this one. First they complained to the Justice Ministry when Google published the uncensored maps; then they complained about erasing their history when Google censored the maps. What do they actually want? As far as I can tell, they are just hassling Google in order to publicize their cause.

    More importantly, who are these agencies that have access to the koseki records? If the Justice Ministry wants to do something about this issue, why can’t they just close the system to the public for good — for instance, by strengthening penalties for unauthorized access to the database?

  • The idea of trying to erase the Burakumin villages from the maps only serves to prolong the prejudice against them. I think many of the problems NJ and undesirables face would dissappear with greater public awareness. Most Japanese people I’ve talked to have no idea that NJ can be denied housing, arrested without probable cause, etc,. They think Burakumin discrimination is a thing of the past. I’ve had people claim that noone points and says “Gaijin da!” when they see a NJ.

    America didn’t get worker and civil rights by hiding the problem and waiting for time to fix it. People had to bring the problem out on the street, into the newspapers, and on TV. Raising awareness is the only way to start erasing ignorance. Instead of trying to hide that information it should be publisized. “500 years ago an underclass lived here, and guess what? They still do! Maybe we should do something to fix it!” That said, an explanation would be useful but, a “historical” context reads like whitewashing to me.

  • I think that it was very irresponsible of the author of this article to describe the areas that were shown on the maps. No matter how many people saw this on Google Earth, it is better to keep these areas unknown to the general public to protect the rights of the people who live and work in these areas.

  • Mark Hunter says:

    Justin. Right on! Do you live in Japan? If so, you know apologists abound, both Japanese and Non-Japanese. Education, as you correctly point out, is the only answer, followed by legislation outlawing discrimination based
    on ethnicity and race.

  • Fat chance we will ever see some kind of civil rights movement like there was in the 1960s in America.. thanks to the stigma associtated to burakumin, most people just want to live their lives and hope it doesn’t come to light in [invective deleted] Japan.

    Its a sad state of affairs in this country where corporate employers will actually dig deep to find out if your grandpa’s grandpa was considered burakumin and therefore consider you unfit for the position. People say the caste system isn’t in practice anymore but I think they are lying to themselves. Is Japan really a modern nation?

    — If you phrase it like this, you invite counterargument, of “What of the class systems in other modern nations?” Think your points through better and make your statements more calmly.

  • Another example of Japan hating foreigners to see their dirty little secrets. They don’t mind the information being available so that people in Japan can discriminate, but it infuriates them when this knowledge is available world-wide.

    Open it up, let the sunlight disinfect this dirty little festering sore.

  • Douglas Sweetlove says:

    I think TJJ may be on to something. It reminds me of when the famous “Wai Wai” website was shut down by the Daily Mainichi. The idea that outsiders would see the seamier side of Japan was very discomfiting. The existence of a dark and nasty side of Japan wasn’t the problem.

  • I dunno Debito – which class systems do you to refer to? Do prospective employers look at your family tree in America NZ or France? In our countries where prejudice does exist there are laws in place to deal with it, and it is dealt with – quickly and effectively when it crops up.
    That’s not to say there aren’t areas which rich and others which are poor – but that’s not the result of your family tree, and education will get you from one to the other very quickly.
    I tend to side with Joe Jones above. None of this has made much sense from afar – and I have found it very difficult figure out what people are actually upset about and what they want done about it.

  • “I’m reminded of Google eagerly following the Chinese government request for censorship”

    That example is all about the bottom line: profit. A company CEO would sell his own mother (or, as in this case, go against his own moral code) in a second if he thought he could make a buck off of it.

  • I concur with Douglas Sweetlove & TJJ, I too get a sense that they hate to think ‘outsiders’ know about their less favourable aspects.
    Whenever the topic has come up with the Japanese people I know they always act surprised that a foreigner would know about such things and want to know how I ‘found out’.
    They’re doubly surprised when they find out it’s in the introduction of travel books like Lonely Planet.

  • I can’t help but distrust this article. It looks like the journalist talked to a couple of people and took their opinions at face value. One company does background checks according to an anonymous HR person? “Some surveys have shown…?” I’m pretty sure that most Japanese are unaware that burakumin discrimination still exists in any form, much less care to engage in it. It’s definitely an issue, but not to the extent that this author implies.

    — Quite possibly. But I have been with the BLL on some of their fact-finding missions (job and marriage incidents). Discrimination does happen, and many (if not most) Japanese are quite aware of it (they just might be a little chary of talking about it with you); there is quite a lot of information about Buraku discrimination in the education system as well. I don’t think the BLL is just making hay wherever they can. If you really want to know more, stop by BLL and ask some questions. I find them quite helpful and open-minded.

  • I lived in a town that was famous for having a large burakumin area. Everyone knows where it is. It’s no secret. If Google were to throw up a historic map of that area I am sure it would have the burakumin village marked on it. I wonder if people around here would get up in arms about it, even though even us foreigners in town knew the location.

    For anyone interested, the maps are still available just not on Google Earth. I spent some time looking at them the other day. They’re quite interesting. http://rumsey.geogarage.com/index.html

  • [author’s statement expressing disappointment with the quality of commenters, with unnecessary invective, deleted]

    Let’s suppose someone in the West published a map that shows Jewish neighborhoods and each house where a Jew lives. Google did exactly that equivalence in Japan. It should expect a backlash.

  • I don’t think it is that simple, HO. This was no map of where Jews or Burakumin live, rather a historical map of where their neighbourhoods used to be. There is a “Judenplatz” in Vienna, and plenty of other places with similarly well-known historical associations, many of which continue to this day.

    If someone published the data with any aim to incite racial hatred, they would be guilty of a criminal offence in the UK, but the data themselves are freely available. 2 mins googling revealed that my last neighbourhood in the UK is 0.0% Jewish, 0.8% Buddhist etc (according to the govt census). That’s up to date (well the census is only done decadally, the last was 2001) and on a granular scale of 1500 people. When can I expect the backlash?

  • The data is useless for burakumin discrimination without companies getting unlimited access to kosekis, and that was made illegal.
    Burakumin discrimination is not location based but ancestry based. The “important” thing is not where you live now but where did your ancestors live the day before burakus were abolished.
    Some people might still want to avoid buying real estate in former buraku locations if they knew about them(they are not widely known in all towns). And this is what I believe to be the real reason behind this rage.

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