A handful of innocent-looking antique maps, one offensive word and tens of thousands of offended 'untouchables' have plunged Google into an unspoken class war that has raged in Japan for centuries.
Despite its ambition to be the cartographer of the internet age, the search engine has lumbered into one of the darkest corners of Japan — the bigotry of mainstream Japanese society towards the burakumin, the 'filthy mob', whose ancestors fell outside the caste system of the 17th-century samurai era.
Discrimination against the burakumin continues even though it was outlawed 150 years ago. The untouchable caste is not evident in manner, dress, accent, or even names, so it's hard to figure out who are descendants of this class. What the maps show, however, are ghettos labelled with titles like 'scum town' to denote where the burakumin lived, and that makes it easier for Japanese and their private detectives to figure out whether a prospective mate, student, employee, or even government official might be such a descendant. As an example of ongoing prejudice:
In 2003 Taro Aso, the Japanese Prime Minister, dismissed the chances of Hiromu Nonaka — a burakumin who became Secretary-General of the ruling party — becoming Prime Minister. 'There is no way we can make that kind of person prime minister,' Mr Aso was quoted as saying.