When Google Earth added historical maps of Japan to its online collection last year, the search giant didn't expect a backlash.
The finely detailed woodblock prints have been around for centuries, they were already posted on another Web site, and a historical map of Tokyo put up in 2006 hadn't caused any problems.
But Google failed to judge how its offering would be received, as it has often done in Japan. The company is now facing inquiries from the Justice Ministry and angry accusations of prejudice because its maps detailed the locations of former low-caste communities.
The maps date back to the country's feudal era, when shoguns ruled and a strict caste system was in place. At the bottom of the hierarchy were a class called the burakumin, ethnically identical to other Japanese but forced to live in isolation because they did jobs associated with death, such as working with leather, butchering animals and digging graves.
Today, rights groups say the descendants of burakumin make up about 3 million of the country's 127 million people. But they still face prejudice, based almost entirely on where they live or their ancestors lived.
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.
Google Earth's maps pinpointed several such areas. One village in Tokyo was clearly labelled eta, a now strongly derogatory word for burakumin that literally means “filthy mass”. A single click showed the streets and buildings that are currently in the same area.