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Google Under Fire For Japanese Historical Maps

May 3, 2009

When Google Inc. added historical maps of Japan to its Google Earth online collection last year, it did not anticipate any resulting backlash. 

The detailed prints, which have been in existence for centuries, were already posted on another Web site, and the company had posted a historical map of Tokyo in 2006 without incident.

However, Google miscalculated the reception to its posting of Japan’s historical maps.  The company is now facing inquiries from Japan’s Justice Ministry amid angry charges of prejudice because the maps showed locations of former low-caste communities.

The maps date back to Japan’s feudal era, when a strict caste system was in place.  At the bottom was a class known as the “burakumin”, who although ethnically identical to other Japanese were isolated because they performed jobs associated with death, such as butchering animals, working with leather and digging graves.

Castes were abolished long ago in Japan, with the country’s old buraku villages having faded away or having been consumed by the sprawling development of Japan’s major cities. 

Today, descendants of the burakumin make up just 3 million of Japan’s population of 127 million people, according to rights groups.  But they still face prejudice because of where they or their ancestors lived.

Moving offers little relief, as employers or parents of potential spouses can hire agencies to check for buraku ancestry through Japan’s extensive family records, which date back centuries.

One employee at a prominent Japanese firm, who 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 told the Associated Press.

Lists of these so-called “dirty” addresses abound on Internet bulletin boards, with residents sometimes being the target of graffiti and racial scoffs.   Indeed, some studies even have found that these neighborhoods have lower property values than surrounding areas.

Nevertheless, the modern locations of the old villages are largely unknown to the general public, something many burakumin prefer.

But with the addition of the historical maps, Google Earth has now identified several such areas. With a single click, users can now see all the streets and buildings currently in the of the old burakumin villages.  One Tokyo village was clearly labeled “eta,” a highly derogatory term for burakumin that literally means “filthy mass.” 

Google posted the maps as one of the many layers of its mapping software, each of which can be easily correlated with modern satellite imagery. 

The search giant provided no explanation or historical context for the maps, something that is common practice in Japan. 

Google’s position that its actions are acceptable because they are legal 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,” an Associated Press report quoted Toru Matsuoka, a member of Japan’s upper house of parliament, as saying.

Matsuoka’s Osaka office borders one of the areas shown on the Google Earth maps.

For its part, Google says its position is clear.

“We deeply care about human rights and have no intention to violate them,” the company said in a formal statement.

Yoshito Funabashi, a spokesman for Google, emphasized that the company does not own the maps in question, it merely provides them to users. 

However, critics say the distinction is not immediately clear since the maps come packaged in Google’s software.

Although printing such maps is legal in Japan, it is something publishers and museums approach carefully. Publications or public showings of the maps are virtually always accompanied by a historical explanation, a critical move Google failed to make.

The highly organized burakumin leadership has offices throughout Japan.

In addition to his role in the Parliament, Matsuoka also serves as secretary general of the Buraku Liberation League, Japan’s largest such group.  After he discovered the maps last month, Matsuoka brought the issue to Justice Minister Eisuke Mori during a March 17 public legal affairs meeting.

Two weeks later, after at least one reporter had contacted Google about the matter, the historical Japanese maps were abruptly changed, and any references to the buraku villages were removed.

Some saw the move as an attempt by Google to quietly dodge the issue, since there was no note made of the changes.

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

The Justice Ministry has yet to reach a conclusion on the matter, but is now “gathering information,” according to an AP report citing ministry official Hideyuki Yamaguchi.

The League also sent a letter to Google requesting a meeting to discuss its knowledge of the buraku issue and the company’s position on the use of its services for discrimination, the AP reported.  

The letter said Google should “be aware of and responsible for providing a service that can easily be used as a tool for discrimination.”

This is not the first time Google has misjudged public sentiment in Japan.  The company’s Street View feature caused outrage among many who complained that the maps displayed ground-level pictures of Tokyo neighborhoods that were obtained without warning or permission.

Separately, the company has also had to negotiate with Japanese firms angry that their copyrighted materials were uploaded to Google’s YouTube property.

One Internet legal expert said that while Google is quick to harness new technologies to boost its ad network, society often pays the price.

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

The maps at issue are part of a larger collection owned by the University of California at Berkeley.  David Rumsey, a collector with more than 100,000 historical maps of his own, oversees the collection.  Ramsey, who hosts more than 1,000 historical Japanese maps as part of a vast online archive he runs, says he has never received a complaint.

It was Rumsey who collaborated with Google to post the maps on Google Earth. He was also responsible for removing the references to the buraku villages. 

Rumsey said he preferred to leave the maps untouched as historical documents, but later decided to alter them after Google informed him of disputes 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 told the AP.

Rumsey said he is open to restoring the maps to their original state in Google Earth, while Matsuoka said he is willing to consider further discussion about the matter.

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