A screenshot of the historic map showing
the label for a burakumin village.

Google Stirs Up Centuries-Old Prejudices in Japan With New Map Feature

May 06, 2009 08:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
Maps that detail the locations of low-caste communities in Japan are the latest in a string of campaigns by Google that have been considered culturally insensitive.

Google Accused of Cultural Insensitivity

Maps that date from an era in Japan when a strict caste system was in place have been released on Google Earth amid much controversy. The maps, part of a collection from the University of California, Berkeley, included labels of communities that reference the “burakumin,” a group of people lowest in the caste system and forced to live separately from other communities because their work involved death (for example, butchering and grave digging). Some labels of these areas even used what are now considered to be offensive derogatory terms.

Prejudice against the burakumin continues today, with some companies using Japan’s extensive family tree records to weed out any candidates with buraku ancestry. The worry is that the maps on Google could be used to discriminate against present day neighborhoods with a history as burakumin communities, or that property values in those areas will suffer as a result.

The Justice Ministry in Japan is looking into the matter; the Buraku Liberation League has already sent a letter to Google in hopes of meeting with a representative for the company and discussing how these maps may promote discrimination.

A formal statement from Google said, “we deeply care about human rights and have no intention to violate them.”

This is not the first time that Google has stirred up controversy with its mapping tools in Japan. After Google launched its Street View service (a ground level, 360-degree view of city streets) in August 2008 in Japan, it was met with complaints of privacy violation throughout the country. In December 2008, the Campaign Against a Surveillance Society in Japan wrote a letter to Google requesting that the Street View feature be stopped because it violates privacy rights.

Background: Why Google may be seen as culturally insensitive in Japan

One of the reasons critics in Japan target Google as being culturally insensitive may be the search giant’s response to matters of controversy, looking strictly at whether an action was legal rather than attempting to adhere to cultural customs.

In response to the complaints that Street View violated privacy, Google stated, “Street View only features photographs taken on public property and the imagery is no different from what a person can readily see or capture walking down a street. Imagery of this kind is available in a wide variety of formats for cities all around the world. We are committed to respecting local laws and norms in each country in which we launch Street View.”

The response to complaints about the historic maps showing burakumin communities was similar, and while it is technically legal for reproductions to be made of those maps, it is customary to provide historical context for the content, something that Google did not do. After complaints, Google removed the references to the burakumin communities without explanation, which further angered some. “This is like saying those people didn’t exist,” said Takashi Uchino from the Buraku Liberation League.

Google has also made a few blunders trying to capture a larger audience in Japan. Although the search engine dominates many countries worldwide, it is trailing Yahoo in Japan. In one marketing attempt, Google used the frowned-upon pay-per-post strategy (paying bloggers to write positive reviews of new features), a strategy Google itself even tried to prevent in the United States.

Related Topic: Google Street View raises privacy concerns around the world

Privacy concerns over Google’s Street View feature are not limited to Japan. In the United States one couple tried to sue Google for invasion of privacy because the Google Street View car, supposedly on a private road, took pictures of their residence. In an instance in the U.K., a village tried to prevent the car from snapping photos of its streets, worrying that the pictures might attract burglars to the area.

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