Monday, May 4, 2009

Old Japanese maps on Google Earth unveil secrets

Source: Yahoo Tech

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.

No no no no.. it's not Google's system that's a form of prejudice. IT'S YOU! If the Japanese government gets so bent out of shape that a map leads to prejudice and discrimination, then why don't they get mad that there is prejudice and discrimination to begin with!

It makes no sense why the burakumin are hated. Such a snobbish class society from medival times. We should respect all people. How can the Japanese eat prepared meat and fish and then dog on the people who prepare it for them. That's so ungrateful!

We need people to do all sorts of things, , run funeral homes, fix cars, cut hair, clean sewers, prepare meat, etc... They make our lives much easier. Why discriminate against an entire village because they did such things centuries ago.

"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.

You know you are doing something wrong when you don't want to be identified.


Anh Khoi Do said...

"You know you are doing something wrong when you don't want to be identified."

So true! I would add: if you know that a mentality is bad, why would you advocate it, in the first place?

I feel rather insulted when I hear Japanese people saying that they live in the "most Westernized country" of Asia. Seriously, if someone applies for a job, just judge him because of his competence. The only reason someone's candidacy for a job wouldn't be considered (in a normal country), it's because that person has a criminal record.

Degenerasian said...

It just bothers me when governments get involved. I understand people are prejudiced and sometimes they run their businesses as such. But when governments are like "shuuuuuuuuuuuuush, shut up, you're giving away locations of people who may be victims of prejudice" that's just stupid.

And Japan is hardly the most Westernized Asian country. That title belongs to Vietnam and the Phillipines who have french and american influence respectively.