Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Google runs into Japan’s historical prejudice over burakumin
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Google runs into Japan’s historical prejudice over burakumin

Google ran into trouble in japan over the use of historical maps of Tokyo that showed areas where burakumin, or the lowest caste, used to live.

Poor Google. They’re in a tough spot this time. The Internet giant has hit some cultural snags in Japan before, over how it rolled out its products in the Land of the Rising Sun. This time, they’re in trouble because Google used publicly available historical maps of Tokyo and Osaka in an overlay for its popular (and amazing) Google Earth program.

The problem is, the maps showed the locations of former villages where the “burakumin” used to live in feudal times. The locations have long since been developed with the concrete, steel and glass of modern Tokyo, but the antique map has dredged up centuries and shame, and a fresh spate of anger from the descendants of burakumin as well as government officials who’d just as soon forget that such prejudice ever existed — and apparently still exists.

Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation of burakumin. An Associated Press story about the current Google flap describes burakumin concisely:

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 burakumin and their descendents are dsicriminated against, even today. Here’s the most striking passage in the AP article about this controversy:

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.

And that’s where Google hit the proverbial Japanese fan, even though the maps have been available via the University of California at Berkeley since 2003, with nary a peep.

The criticism and outcry came from the burakumin themselves, who would rather their background be kept quiet. And probably from non-burakumin property owners who happen to live in the areas formerly inhabited by leather-handlers and cobblers.

It might seem to modern-day Americans that this is a quaint old practice to shun one social class for the thing they do for a living (which by the way is essential to every other social class). But it’s no joke in Japan. Some critics think that if violence is committed against a burakumin, it’ll be Google’s fault for bringing to light these locations.

The burakumin constituency, though low in social status, are apparently high in government connections, because they made enough noise to bring the attention of the Justice Ministry to the issue.

The article goes on to quote a Google statement saying, “we deeply care about human rights and have no intention to violate them.” the man who gave Google the maps to overlay on top of Google earth’s view of Tokyo has removed the maps because of the complaints… predictably, sparking more complaints that Google was trying to quietly bury the controversy.

I guess I can see the burakumin’s perspective — a very extreme comparison might be a map showing Jewish hideouts during WWII.

But really, it seems to me that this is an issue because of centuries of prejudice, profiling and stereotyping by the Japanese themselves. Google wasn’t breaking any law by overlaying these historical (and accurate) maps. And in many countries, shining a light on historical hatred would contribute to present-day peace and understanding.

It’s unfortunate that the burakumin are still so poorly treated to this day, that they lash out at those trying to bring to light their past, instead of using this as fuel to change the future