Sunday, May 03, 2009

Google Maps' Historic Maps of Japan Stir Up Trouble

The Boston Globe has an A.P. story by Jay Alabaster here about Google Maps. They posted a set of wood cut maps of feudal Japan, already available on other websites. But somehow, being on Google maps, as a layer feature, seems different.

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 was 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 100 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 the 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. (snip)

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 did not 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 dodge the issue quietly.

"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 Buraku Liberation League headquarters in Tokyo.
However, erasing the burakumin designations of the neighborhoods disturbs me as well. It is not my fight, but it smacks of the New Speak in George Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984, in which the government simply changes history to match its current needs. I wrote earlier about my discomfort over my home state of Kentucky and its beautiful state song, "My Old Kentucky Home." This song by Stephen Foster, was published in 1853, when slavery was legal, and Kentucky was a slave-holding state, at least in the central portion where plantations made economic sense. It was made the state song of Kentucky in 1928, many years before our sense of racial equality began to be more widely held, or at least reflected in public speech. The song is sort of cemented as the state song because it is so tradition-bound to the Kentucky Derby (which just ran). But, some of the lyrics make modern people cringe, so many people have changed some of the more politically incorrect verses. We may be removing the discomfort today, but we are also whitewashing the evidence of our racist past. We should not try to erase our history or re-write it to suit our convenience or sensibilities. This seems to me a very dangerous course, whether in Kentucky racial politics or in Japan caste history.

However, it seems that Google missed a major step that is taken by museums an others in exhibiting the historic maps by including some explanatory text along with the label. It is, I suppose, a bit like saying, "no offense intended," or holding up a sign that says, "for educational purposes" when you display Huckleberry Finn. This is an interesting thing to remember when any entity ventures into foreign territory -- we develop a tone deafness when we are operating in an unfamiliar culture. It would be wise to check carefully with some local consultants who work with similar material!

No comments: