Google Maps, Burakumin and the Shrinking Planet

Monday, May 4, 2009
At first, the AP article on Google Maps seemed like the garden-variety handwringing that happens whenever Google Maps rolls out street view photography in a new location (neighbors complain about invasion of privacy, etc). But it turns out, there was much more going on. From Old Japanese maps on Google Earth unveil secrets:

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...

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 back over a hundred 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.

Emphasis mine. I won't pretend to know a lot about Japanese culture, but I was fascinated by this holdover from a rigidly-enforced caste system that I never knew existed in Japanese history. Reading more about cultural issues in modern-day Japan, I also learned that Japan, like the United States, has its own tortured past with indiginous peoples: the Ainu and the Ryukyuans.

It was likewise a surprise to me to find that Akira Kurosowa intended the main character of his crime thriller High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku) to be understood as a burakumin who had overcome discrimination to become a business executive.

The infinite varieties of the human condition never cease to amaze me. And as the Google incident shows, the world is getting smaller, and people need to learn a lot more about the world around them.


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