Net Effect

Is Google Earth putting one of Japan’s main social minorities at risk?

I almost missed this fascinating story in The Times (of London) on how Google Earth found itself in hot water in Japan by allowing (with some modfications) to map discrimation against the burakumin caste, which is one of the main social minority groups in the country. It’s not the first time that online maps have ...

I almost missed this fascinating story in The Times (of London) on how Google Earth found itself in hot water in Japan by allowing (with some modfications) to map discrimation against the burakumin caste, which is one of the main social minority groups in the country. It’s not the first time that online maps have been used – and, most importantly, abused, as the Times story makes clear – to document the exact position of ethnic minorities in a city (see this excellent post from Paul Goble on how Russian nationalists have done the same thing in the Russian city of Volgograd).

However, the case of the burakumin is even more interesting, as it involves a controversial subject that is a few hundred years old and maps could provide enough information to identify those belonging to the caste and then discriminate against them (the fear of identification is great among the Burakins – many companies refuse to hire them and some even hire private detectives to run adequate background checks)…

Despite its ambition to be the cartographer of the internet age, the search engine has lumbered into one of the darkest corners of Japan — the bigotry of mainstream Japanese society towards the burakumin, the “filthy mob”, whose ancestors fell outside the caste system of the 17th-century samurai era.

By allowing old maps to be overlaid on satellite images of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto on its Google Earth service, the search engine shows how the old ghettos relate to the 21st-century streets.

That, critics say, is perfect ammunition to hurt descendants of the people who lived there 400 years ago.

Under pressure to diffuse criticism, the search engine has asked the owners of the woodblock print maps to remove the legend that identifies the ghetto with an old term that translates loosely as “scum town”.

Google has unwittingly created a visual tool, however, that would have prolonged an ancient discrimination into the internet age, according to the lobbying group established to protect the human rights of three million burakumin.

And here’s more on why Google’s actions matter:

Throughout the recent history of the burakumin, the central issue has been identification. Because there is nothing physical to differentiate burakumin from other Japanese and because there are no clues in their names or accent, the only way of establishing whether or not they are burakumin is by tracing their family. By publishing the locations of the ghettos with the modern street map, the illegal quest to trace ancestry is made easier, Mr Matsuoka said.

He said that the mistake of Google was to believe the old maps had lost their capacity to cause offence.

Printing the maps is not illegal in Japan, but museums and publishers are careful about how they are presented, especially if the words on the maps may cause offence.

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