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Google Earth faces backlash for putting historical maps of Japan

TOKYO, Japan -Google is facing inquiries from the Justice Ministry and angry accusations of prejudice because of its maps detailing the locations of former low-caste communities of the country.

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.

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.

Google spokesman Yoshito Funabashi points out that the company doesn’t own the maps in question, it simply provides them to users. Critics argue they come packaged in its software, and the distinction is not immediately clear.

Printing such maps is legal in Japan. But it is an area where publishers and museums tread carefully, as the burakumin leadership is highly organised and has offices throughout the country. Public showings or publications are nearly always accompanied by a historical explanation, a step Google failed to take.

The League also sent a letter to Google, a copy of which was provided to The Associated Press. It wants a meeting to discuss its knowledge of the buraku issue and position on the use of its services for discrimination. It says Google should “be aware of and responsible for providing a service that can easily be used as a tool for discrimination.”