Japan: Street View and the Burakumin

The Internet, many would argue, has created the possibility for anyone to express their opinions freely without having to belong to a category of people with the “legitimacy to speak” (i.e. journalists, scholars, etc.). Recently, however, some have worried about an increase in the number of racist and denigrative comments against minorities spreading across the web.

In Japan, for example, the advent of Google's new Street View service [GSV], aside from arousing indignation among some and sparking debates over privacy issues among others, has also led some bloggers to discuss the relationship between areas photographed in GSV and the so-called hisabetsu buraku (被差別部落). The hisabetsu buraku are discriminated hamlets inhabited by people who, for many centuries and over many generations, have carried the burden of doing the “tainted jobs” (butchers, executioners etc.). These burakumin (部落民) [hamlet people] resemble the Dalits [the untouchables], the lowest caste in the south-east Asian Hindu system, both formally abolished under modern constitutional systems but continuing their existence through prejudice in the minds of many people.

The first to raise questions regarding the topic of Google Street View and discrimination was Manabu Kitaguchi [北口学] at Journalist-Net, a journalist, expert in human rights and president of the Japan Journalists Association for Human Rights (日本人権ジャーナリスト会):


In the U.S., debates about privacy and human rights sprang up after the launch of Google's new service, Street View, and in Europe many human rights NGOs opposed its launch. However, in Japan, where there is no debate between citizens and media, the service was launched and it had a big impact on the Japanese problem of discrimination. In particular, following the launch [of the service], there was an increase in the number of people leaving anonymous messages on online bulletin boards instigating discrimination and threads with titles of “high-tech area names list” [in reference to the infamous “List of Buraku Area Names”, see Wikipedia article for details], together with identification of the discriminated areas [through the use of Google's images]



With the launch of this easy-to-use service in a country with endemic discrimination issues, Google has started a service that is giving rise to major problems. The company should, I think, initiate a dialogue with Japanese human rights groups and hold public hearings. I cannot help feeling that the “righteous” attitude here is to face the people who have been hurt and make efforts to listen to those parties that have fallen victim to the influence of this service.

Another blogger, Nobuo Sakiyama [崎山伸夫], became interested in the issue and expressed his opinion about Kitaguchi's entry at his blog:


On this issue of the areas not covered [in Street View], which continues to draw attention, I did a bit of investigating on the blanked-out zones [in GSV] and their connection with large-scale burakumin areas, a topic about which I have no familiarity — at first I only knew of one such place. It turns out that those uncovered areas correspond to places well-known for the presence of discriminated communities. However, the borderline between the blanked-out zones and the areas that are not blanked out is very subtle and, of course, no data about this matter has ever been released.



So I decided to ask the opinion of a well-known researcher on the topic of discriminated communities (I prefer not to reveal his name at the moment) to get their thoughts on this issue. I wrote [this researcher] an email, stating my personal opinion (regarding the relationship between Google Street View and discrimination against some specific communities) that, “Although tackling issues concerning the buraku discrimination problem is not my main interest, I do not however think that it is appropriate for the location of those discriminated communities to become known.” As the matter has now been taken up by the scholar I contacted, as well as the journalist Mr. Kitaguchi, I am now considering withdrawing from this debate.


Lastly, if my supposition regarding this issue proves to be correct, in the case that Google Street View continues to exist, I suppose that it will become necessary to restrict their coverage of a wide range of areas, and I also think that they should stop their coverage of surrounding support roads.


追記: 上記の著名な研究者から返事を頂いた。それによると、当該都市のストリートビューで部落を識別できる状況にはないとのこと。中途半端に知られている地名で余計な心配をしてしまったのかもしれない。

p.s.: I got a reply from the scholar mentioned above, according to whom there is nothing that would lead to discrimination of communities in the Street View coverage of the city in question. I guess I just got overly worried because of my lack of knowledge about the place names.

Kitaguchi posted a reply to Sakiyama:


As the scholar says, the information published by Google Street View does not indicate that “this is a discriminated area”. However, on other sites there are many discriminatory comments, and URLs to images on Street View have accumulated in huge numbers in older blogs. It is a matter of fact that many of those blogs urge [people] to use Google Street View's functions and refer to it. And the horrible thing is that these threads continue to be written, and this miserable situation will not stop.

For more on this issue, see an earlier post about the so-called “blanked-out zones” [空白地帯] of Japan not shown in Street View.

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