TOKYO — When Google Earth added historical maps of Japan to its online collection last year, the search giant didn't expect a backlash. The finely detailed woodblock prints have been around for centuries, they were already posted on another Web site, and a historical map of Tokyo put up in 2006 hadn't caused any problems.
But the company is now facing inquiries from the Justice Ministry and angry accusations of prejudice because its maps detailed the locations of former low-caste communities.
The maps date 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.
Castes have long since been abolished, and the old buraku villages have largely faded away or been swallowed by Japan's sprawling metropolises.
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But they still face prejudice, based almost entirely on where they live or their ancestors lived. 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."
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.
Asked about its stance on the issue, Google responded with a formal statement that "we deeply care about human rights and have no intention to violate them."
Two weeks after the issue was raised to Japan's justice minister and at least one reporter contacted Google, the old Japanese maps were 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 quietly dodge the issue.
The Justice Ministry is "gathering information" but has not reached a conclusion, according to a ministry official.