The launch early last month of Google's Street View service in major Japanese cities brought with it considerable controversy and debate among Internet users, particularly with regard to the scope of coverage and lack of local consultation prior to roll-out. Opinions among bloggers were divided — and remain divided — over whether broadcasting detailed images of the country's public streets and residential alleyways to the whole world is a good thing or not. While that debate has quieted down, another discussion has emerged in its wake, centered on a curious property of the new service that, as of yet, remains unexplained by the company that created it.
One of the earliest bloggers to write about this was tama at Tamagorogu [タマゴログ], who on August 6th, after taking Street View for a spin and remarking on their surprise at the service's incredible detail, noticed something funny. While the service was rolled out across 12 cities in Japan, including Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka, the coverage did not appear to be uniform across these areas:
I noticed that there was something strange. While the coverage of city streets is really extensive, there are huge areas that are completely blank. A large portion of Ōta Ward, the area where I live, is not in Street View.
これはいったいどうしたことなんでしょう。23区内でこれほど広い空白地帯があるのはここだけのようです。23区外もかなり広範囲に網羅されていることを考えると、優先度の低いエリアだとは思えません。 Google は国防関係の施設は航空写真でもぼかしたりしますから、ここも意図的に操作されているんではないかと勘ぐってしまいます。まさかこのエリアに国家機密レベルの重要施設があって写真を自由に閲覧されてはまずい、なんてことがあるのでしょうか。謎は深まるばかりです。
Why on earth would they do this? Among all 23 wards [in Tokyo], it seems that only in this area is there such a large blanked-out zone. Considering how wide a scope has been covered outside of [Tokyo's] 23 wards as well, this is clearly not a low-priority area. In aerial photographs, Google blurs national defense institutions, so I suspect that they did this intentionally. I wonder, is there some national security-level installation in this area that they do not want to become easily accessible? The mystery only deepens.
Coverage of Ōta Ward [大田区] (Tokyo) in Street View. Follow this link to explore the area directly in Street View.
Just over a week later on August 14th, blogger and social activist Nobuo Sakiyama [崎山伸夫] wrote a post on the “blank zones” (空白地帯) in coverage on Street View of Japan's major cities:
The problem I'm talking about here is not the hotly debated issue of “what has been shot”. I'm talking here about the opposite. In Google Maps where the Street View function has been activated, roads covered by Street View are indicated in blue and easy to distinguish. By the same token, areas not covered by Street View are also easy to distinguish.
I haven't confirmed what happens if there is a demand to opt-out, but in Tokyo, beyond the large empty space across the majority of Ōta ward [大田区], there are many smaller streets that are also not covered. Yoshiwara
[吉原, a famous red-light district dating back to the Edo period
] and Sanya
[山谷, an area with cheap rooming houses where may day workers live
] are like this, for example, and there are many parts of Ōkubo [大久保
, an area with some of the largest Korean, Chinese and South-East asian communities in Tokyo
] and Hyakuninchō [百人町
, an area with many love hotels and a large Korean/Chinese population
] that are the same. The neighborhood around Yushima station [湯島駅] is also not covered in detail. I have the feeling in areas around Nezu [根津] and Sendagi [千駄木] that it simply wasn't possible to pass through narrow streets, but as demonstrated in the examples in Mejiro
[目白] pointed out by [blogger and security researcher Hiromitsu] Takagi [高木浩光
], the [car] managed to get into some extremely tight streets, so this would not seem to be a case simply of the width of the road.
Outside of Tokyo, a well-known large-scale discriminated community [被差別部落/hisabetsu buraku, or “burakumin area”] (a group from the area has bought a domain and has its own web site, but just to be safe I will avoid citing the actual name of the city and region here) hardly appears in Street View except for its periphery area. There are however many more areas in this city that are also blanked out, and also on the human rights board on 2channel [they are saying] that there is no causal relationship between Google avoiding this area and the fact that it is a burakumin area. Nevertheless, if you know the rough whereabouts of this region, then there is the potential to visualize it on the map.
(For those interested, Sakiyama goes into more detail about the connection to burakumin (部落民, a Japanese social minority group) in an interesting and detailed follow-up post [ja]. If readers are interested I could translate part of this entry in a separate round-up.)
Sakiyama's thoughts are echoed in a popular entry by Hatena blogger id:buyobuyo:
There is the concern that by seeming to avoid regions which, through history, have suffered social discrimination, the regions are in fact exposed in a very unpleasant way, by not being covered.
At the moment the area supported [by Street View] is still small, so it would not seem that this is the case, but the concern remains. I've written this before, but I think this would be a good service if they had thought harder about how to avoid filming people, and if they had limited themselves to business districts and along main roads. By announcing these sort of clear guidelines on what they were shooting, the kind of problems discussed here could be eliminated.
Coverage of Ōta Ward [大田区] (Tokyo) in Street View. Follow this link to explore the area directly in Street View. buyobuyo compares the atmosphere of Ōta Ward in these pictures to Area 51 in the U.S.
At umakoya.com, another blogger considers a few of the places in Ōta Ward not covered by Street View: Kugahara, Ikegami Honmon-ji and Kamata.
Certainly Kugahara [久が原] and Ikegami Honmon-ji [池上本門寺] are not areas where ordinary people live, although I myself actually live in an industrial area.
The technological strength of small-scale factories in Ōta ward originates in many world-class turneries, warehouses, and cleaning factories.
Considering that the blanked-out areas reach as far as Kamata [蒲田], the idea that [Google] was trying to remove high-class streets doesn't seem very convincing.
Other bloggers found blank zones in different areas. Blogger Yutaka Tomisawa [富澤豊] picks out one in Namidabashi (Tokyo) [泪橋] (link to Street View):
If you look really carefully, you'll see that there's a small blank zone in Namidabashi.
Google must be intentionally paying special attention [to certain areas].
If that's the case, it's not impossible that they would completely blank out for me the area where I live.
Meanwhile, blogger id:kanose at ARTIFACT@ハテナ系 wonders why their hometown of Nishitokyo is also blanked out:
Nishitokyo city is my hometown, but this area does not have governmental institutions, nor are there high-class streets. So it really makes me wonder why this area has been blanked out.
Coverage of part of Nishitokyo [西東京] in Street View. Follow this link to explore the area directly in Street View.
Finally, at the Osaka shi mondai matome site [大阪市問題まとめサイト], one blogger argues that the connection between blank zones and so-called assimilation districts [同和地区] (or burakumin areas) is just a new variation on an old theme:
There is no better proof of the fact that assimilation districts [同和地区] are common knowledge than the so-called “blank zone problem” [空白地帯問題], the problem that only these assimilation districts were not shot [in Street View]. It's exactly the same as pachinko being legal gambling, or Tobita Shinchi [飛田新地] being a prostitution zone. This is not something that happened today, things have been this way for a long time.
Thanks to Taku Nakajima for the suggestion to translate this article.