Category Archives: Japan

Google and the big, big taboo

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.

At issue are maps appearing on Google Earth.  Such as this one, clearly labeling a neighborhood as “eta”, another term for the untouchable class of burakumin: Japan Google Old Secrets

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.

How the other two-thirds lives

While Americans are munching on Mel’s Mega Burgers and bemoaning the end the Hyper-Sized American Dream, this is how folks in my soon-to-be abandoned neck of the woods are living:


Open sewer running beside market fruit stalls, Bangkok.


Bangkok’s canal network is both a transportation system and an open sewer.

It’s all relative, is what I’m saying. Things are rough everywhere and getting rougher, but if you’re reading this in the First World, just take a moment to reassure yourself that things aren’t that bad.

And lest you think all Asia looks like this,


This is an open drain & not a river, Mysore India.

here’s a sewer in Japan:

Some have sewer rivers, some have sewer Transformers.

Images via Crooked Brains.

Obama sushi

I know I ripped a bit on the estimable Cory Doctorow, but I sure do get a lot of geeky hilarity from his co-blog, Boing Boing. Such as Obama sushi:


オバマさんの肌はアミ(小さなエビ)のつくだ煮を使用。髪は黒ゴマで、歯はかまぼこ。

The Japanese reads “Small Ami shrimp, Tsukuda-style, are used for Obama’s skin. His hair is black sesame and his teeth fish paste.”

The Japanese prime minister is set to visit the White House next week. I wonder if those sushi chefs making BHO look like Fat Albert will come up?

From Boing Boing via MSN Japan.

She's Automatic

In 2001 I was living in Tokyo and had a girlfriend who loved Rancid with as pure a love as has ever been loved. The closest I ever came to being held in similar regard was when I got us tickets to go see them.

When Rancid came onstage she disappeared into the melee. I glimpsed her at one point during “She’s Automatic” before the crowd and her own delirium swept her away. Didn’t see her again until I found a frazzled pile of sweaty exhaustion spit out by the mosh pit after the third encore. I think she had as genuine a religious experience as any kneeling penitent in a cathedral.

Today I stumbled across the YouTube clip of that very song from that very concert. Somewhere in that swirling mass of twacked-out Japanese kids Minori is ascending to nirvana.

Yes, she is.

She’s Automatic

In 2001 I was living in Tokyo and had a girlfriend who loved Rancid with as pure a love as has ever been loved. The closest I ever came to being held in similar regard was when I got us tickets to go see them.

When Rancid came onstage she disappeared into the melee. I glimpsed her at one point during “She’s Automatic” before the crowd and her own delirium swept her away. Didn’t see her again until I found a frazzled pile of sweaty exhaustion spit out by the mosh pit after the third encore. I think she had as genuine a religious experience as any kneeling penitent in a cathedral.

Today I stumbled across the YouTube clip of that very song from that very concert. Somewhere in that swirling mass of twacked-out Japanese kids Minori is ascending to nirvana.

Yes, she is.

Sewage = Gold in Japan

Ah, Japan. Source of the world’s best headlines. A reader sent me this latest: Sewage yields more gold than top mines. A sampling, as it were:

A sewage treatment facility in central Japan has recorded a higher gold yield from sludge than can be found at some of the world’s best mines … The facility recently recorded finding 1,890 grammes of gold per tonne of ash from incinerated sludge.

You didn’t know they burned their sewage in Japan? Man, they burn everything there. But who knew there was gold in them thar pipes? 

Learning Japanese possibly provides adequate stimulation

I learned a lot of interesting things studying Japanese, but I confess I never came across anything as downright attention-grabbing as this:

As I was looking up the word 電動 (electric) this afternoon, the dictionary I was using came up with this example:

電動じゃなくて手動のマスターベーションでは十分な刺激が得にくい
It’s difficult to provide adequate stimulation through manual masturbation.

If all the textbook examples had been like this, maybe I would have gone on for a PhD. Thanks, Idle Monkey Trainer.