8 thoughts on “Communism grows in Japan

  1. ay 2, 10:06 AM EDT

    Old Japanese maps on Google Earth unveil secrets

    Associated Press Writer

    TOKYO — 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.

    Castes have long since been abolished, and the old buraku villages have largely faded away or been swallowed by Japan’s sprawling metropolises. 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. 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.

    Google Earth’s maps pinpointed several such areas. One village in Tokyo was clearly labeled “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.

    Google posted the maps as one of many “layers” available via its mapping software, each of which can be easily matched up with modern satellite imagery. The company provided no explanation or historical context, as is common practice in Japan. Its basic stance is that its actions are acceptable because they are legal, one that has angered burakumin leaders.

    “If there is an incident because of these maps, and Google is just going to say ‘it’s not our fault’ or ‘it’s down to the user,’ then we have no choice but to conclude that Google’s system itself is a form of prejudice,” said Toru Matsuoka, a member of Japan’s upper house of parliament.

    Asked about its stance on the issue, Google responded with a formal statement that “we deeply care about human rights and have no intention to violate them.”

    Google spokesman Yoshito Funabashi points out that the company doesn’t own the maps in question, it simply provides them to users. Critics argue they come packaged in its software, and the distinction is not immediately clear.

    Printing such maps is legal in Japan. But it is an area where publishers and museums tread carefully, as the burakumin leadership is highly organized and has offices throughout the country. Public showings or publications are nearly always accompanied by a historical explanation, a step Google failed to take.

    Matsuoka, whose Osaka office borders one of the areas shown, also serves as secretary general of the Buraku Liberation League, Japan’s largest such group. After discovering the maps last month, he raised the issue to Justice Minister Eisuke Mori at a public legal affairs meeting on March 17.

    Two weeks later, after the public comments and at least one reporter contacted Google, the old Japanese maps were suddenly changed, wiped clean of any references to the buraku villages. There was no note made of the changes, and they were seen by some as an attempt to quietly dodge the issue.

    “This is like saying those people didn’t exist. There are people for whom this is their hometown, who are still living there now,” said Takashi Uchino from the Buraku Liberation League headquarters in Tokyo.

    The Justice Ministry is now “gathering information” on the matter, but has yet to reach any kind of conclusion, according to ministry official Hideyuki Yamaguchi.

    The League also sent a letter to Google, a copy of which was provided to The Associated Press. It wants a meeting to discuss its knowledge of the buraku issue and position on the use of its services for discrimination. It says Google should “be aware of and responsible for providing a service that can easily be used as a tool for discrimination.”

    Google has misjudged public sentiment before. After cool responses to privacy issues raised about its Street View feature, which shows ground-level pictures of Tokyo neighborhoods taken without warning or permission, the company has faced strong public criticism and government hearings. It has also had to negotiate with Japanese companies angry over their copyrighted materials uploaded to its YouTube property.

    An Internet legal expert said Google is quick to take advantage of its new technologies to expand its advertising network, but society often pays the price.

    “This is a classic example of Google outsourcing the risk and appropriating the benefit of their investment,” said David Vaile, executive director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Center at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

    The maps in question are part of a larger collection of Japanese maps owned by the University of California at Berkeley. Their digital versions are overseen by David Rumsey, a collector in the U.S. who has more than 100,000 historical maps of his own. He hosts more than 1,000 historical Japanese maps as part of a massive, English-language online archive he runs, and says he has never had a complaint.

    It was Rumsey who worked with Google to post the maps in its software, and who was responsible for removing the references to the buraku villages. He said he preferred to leave them untouched as historical documents, but decided to change them after the search company told him of the complaints from Tokyo.

    “We tend to think of maps as factual, like a satellite picture, but maps are never neutral, they always have a certain point of view,” he said.

    Rumsey said he’d be willing to restore the maps to their original state in Google Earth. Matsuoka, the lawmaker, said he is open to a discussion of the issue.

    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.”

  2. Criticism of Japan emissions target

    CHINA: Japan’s target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 15 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020 is inadequate, China’s foreign ministry has warned.

    Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang noted the new target was just 2 per cent better than Japan’s previous pledge under the the Kyoto Protocol, which runs from 2008 to 2012.

    Japan’s new target brings it closer to that of other major industrialised countries, but has been criticised by environmentalists as inadequate.


  3. Diamond engagement rings lose sparkle in Japan

    Wed Jun 10, 2009 4:43am EDT

    By Nathan Layne

    TOKYO (Reuters) – To 29-year-old Tsutomu Tada and his bride-to-be, an expensive diamond ring just seemed like a waste of money, especially in these tough economic times.

    “If economically I was in a really comfortable position I guess I would buy a ring,” said Tada, a Japanese employee at a radio station in Tokyo. “But I’d rather put that money toward giving us a fuller life once we get married.”

    Japanese men are increasingly spending less on diamond engagement rings or not buying them at all, a reflection of the country’s sluggish economy and changing views on courtship and marriage.

    The trend underscores the challenges facing Western brands like Tiffany (TIF.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) and Bulgari (BULG.MI: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), which dominate a bridal jewelry market that has shrunk by a third over the past 15 years and is now worth $2 billion.

    “It should worry a lot of European jewelers,” said Yannick Derrien, general manager of the Japan operations of France’s Mauboussin, which earlier this year opened a store on the main jewelry strip in the Ginza district of Tokyo.

    When Japan’s economy was booming in the 1970s and 1980s men were encouraged to spend the equivalent of three months salary after a commercial from diamond producer De Beers that took root in the public consciousness.

    That commercial started to look out of touch with reality after the country’s economic bubble popped in the early 1990s and Japan entered the “lost decade” of stop-start growth. It last aired in 1997 after a 20-year run.

    Yano Research Institute estimates the average diamond engagement ring purchased this year will cost 290,070 yen, down from 387,000 yen in 1993 and roughly the equivalent of one month of salary for an entry level white collar job.

    Over the same period the percentage of men that bought a ring will have slipped to half from nearly 80 percent.

    Experts say the drop-off stems partly from a decline in the practice of “yuino,” a tradition of betrothal gifts between families. The engagement ring is sometimes included in the package of gifts from the groom.

    “In the past when it was a marriage of two families, an entire family would get behind the giving of yuino gifts,” said Rieko Ohsaki, an editor at wedding magazine Zexy.

    “In the sense that it is now a marriage of two people, it becomes whatever those two people can afford.”


    Demographically there is little reason for optimism.

    The number of marriages peaked above 1 million a year in the early 1970s before entering a long downtrend. It has recently settled at around 700,000 a year but will likely fall in coming years as the population shrinks and greys.

    Couples are spending more on wedding bands while some are buying watches and other jewelry items in lieu of engagement rings. But overall the pie is still shrinking.

    Traditional jewelers are also having to cope with new market entrants like GNH, which is selling rings online, similar to the strategy of Blue Nile (NILE.O: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) in the U.S.

    That means tougher competition for a customer base that will become increasingly discerning about quality and price.

    Last week more than 5,000 people lined up outside the Mauboussin store in Ginza to receive a voucher for a 0.1 carat loose diamond worth about $50. The French jeweler is now trying to translate that campaign into sales of pendants and rings.

    “The outlook remains tough. The population is declining and the number of people buying engagement rings should continue to fall,” said Chiharu Akiyoshi, a senior researcher at Yano.

    “Luxury brands are making efforts to strengthen their presence in bridal jewelry because it is holding up relatively well to the economic slump.”

    Some jewelers are expanding their product offerings to target both the cost-conscious and the well-to-do.

    De Beers Diamond Jewelers Japan, a joint venture between De Beers and luxury group LVMH (LVMH.PA: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), said it was enjoying double-digit sales growth of bridal jewelry, helped by a wider range of models including a 0.3 carat ring for 210,000 yen.

    “We have broadened our product range and have been able to capture demand,” said Yoriko Daijima, a public relations director at the company, which sells De Beers products in Japan.

    And in a sign jewelers can still move the really big stones, a De Beers store in Ginza recently sold a 2 carat ring for about $100,000.

    The catch? – The buyer wasn’t Japanese.

  4. TOKYO, June 29 (AP) – (Kyodo)—More than 80 percent of new recruits who started working this spring would choose to work if asked to do overtime rather than go out on a date, according to a survey released on Monday, possibly reflecting a shift in young people’s values under harsh economic conditions.

    A record-high 82.8 percent of 3,200 new employees polled who participated in job training offered by the Japan Productivity Center, a nonprofit organization based in Tokyo, between March and April said they would prioritize work, while 16.6 percent said they would choose a date over extra work, according to the survey.

    The gap between the two sides has been growing from 25 percentage points in 1991 and hit a record this year at 66.2 points, with 78.6 percent of men and 88.4 percent of women prioritizing work, the survey said.

    “Perhaps people are becoming more conscious of work than their private lives as they really feel how harsh the economy is,” said an official in charge of the survey.

    Asked whether they feel insecure about possibly being laid off, 46.1 percent answered yes, an increase from 39.8 percent in last year’s survey.

    Some 48.9 percent said they would continue to work as well as their partner even after getting married, with a record-high 63.1 percent of women saying they would work after marrying.

    The survey introduced this year a question about whether people feel they could not get married without actively searching for a marriage partner, to which 35.2 percent of men and 25.6 percent of women replied yes.


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