A while back I wrote about the sad tale of “Murasaki”, a woman of Japan’s traditionally despised burakumin (literally, “extreme filth”, or “filthy mass”) caste. Now Google, which has its fingers in pretty much every pie available in the known universe, has gotten into this one.
I suppose when you’re everywhere in the universe, as is Google, it’s hard not to step into it every now and again. Feelings are bound to get hurt. What’s more remarkable, really, is an untouchable class still exists in Japan:
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.
“If we suspect that an applicant is a burakumin, we always do a background check to find out,” she said. She agreed to discuss the practice only on condition that neither she nor her company be identified.
Lists of “dirty” addresses circulate on Internet bulletin boards. Some surveys have shown that such neighborhoods have lower property values than surrounding areas, and residents have been the target of racial taunts and graffiti. But the modern locations of the old villages are largely unknown to the general public, and many burakumin prefer it that way.
I just checked my calendar. Yep, it’s 2009. Living in Tokyo it often seems more like 2109. But then I guess it just depends on which part of town you’re in.
Not to worry, though. The indefatigable Japanese have a solution, albeit a typically roundabout one:
A neighborhood in central Tokyo, a few blocks from the touristy Asakusa area and the city’s oldest temple, was labeled as an old “eta” village in the maps. It is indistinguishable from countless other Tokyo communities, except for a large number of leather businesses offering handmade bags, shoes and furniture.
When shown printouts of the maps from Google Earth, several older residents declined to comment. Younger people were more open on the subject.
Wakana Kondo, 27, recently started working in the neighborhood, at a new business that sells leather for sofas. She was surprised when she learned the history of the area, but said it didn’t bother her.
“I learned about the burakumin in school, but it was always something abstract,” she said. “That’s a really interesting bit of history, thank you.”
So maybe give it a few more generations, and it will go away? Cold comfort for Murasaki, but maybe her great-grandchildren will be happy about it.