Baraku Villages in Old Japanese Maps – and Google Earth

c. 1850 Map of Edo or Tokyo

c. 1850 Map of Edo or Tokyo

Google has recently been the subject of a major backlash from the Japanese government, Burakumin equal rights groups, and the Japanese Press regarding its addition of a collection of rare 18th and 19th century Japanese maps of Tokyo or Edo to the Google Earth service. The Burakumin are a social minority group labeled as “outcasts” under old Japanese caste system. This system, which dates to the early days of the feudal shogun era, identified the Burakumin as “untouchable” due to their employment in death related professions such as gravediggers, undertakers, embalmers and leather workers. Burakumin were believed to have been “tainted by death” and thus unlucky. Though the caste system was legally abolished in 1871, Japan is a deeply traditional society and discrimination remains an issue to this day. The remarkable Japanese family registry or Koseki makes it easy for companies and individuals to track families back over 100 years, thus identifying the modern descendents of the Buraku. Today many large and prominent Japanese corporations actively discriminate against the descendents of Burakumin. Further, residents known to reside in old Buraku districts in the massive Tokyo urban zone are similarly discriminated against.

When Google added a collection of stunning woodblock maps from the Berkley Collection to its Google Earth project by overlaying them with modern satellite views, the locations of several previously unremarked Buraku villages came to light. Some are located in high profile and wealthy central neighborhoods, such as the “Eta” village just a few blocks from the Asakusa district. Residents fear that the satellite overlays and relative availability on this information on Google Earth will enflame a new wave discriminatory activities against the Buraku.

Berkley, Google, and prominent map collector David Rumsey, whose combined efforts are responsible for the Google Earth images, responded by editing out many of the references to Buraku villages, but publicly stated that they would be willing to reinstate them as historical documents. Personally, I agree, these maps are historically important and reflect a reality of life in feudal Japan. Modern discrimination against Buraku villages and those who are descended from the Burakumin is a contemporary issue and must consequently be dealt with in contemporary ways. Hiding or obscuring history does little to solve or resolve modern prejudices.

Over the years we have had the privilege of owning many stunning Japanese woodblock maps of Edo (Tokyo), Osaka, Kyoto, and many other important Japanese cities. These maps are masterful constructions of unparalleled beauty and should available for everyone to appreciate.

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