Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Monday, May 18, 2009


Google Earth is in trouble again. This time it is over the historical maps that show the location of old "burakumin" neighborhoods in Japan. It turns out that people in Japan who come from a "burakumin" background are still experiencing some discrimination. In my opinion, if this helps to raise the issue, then it's a good thing. I'm sure such discrimination would not be legal, but it is can be hard to deal with. The burakumin of Japan are the people historically assciated with "death trades," such as grave diggers. This may not be easy for Americans to understand, because in America, morticians are regarded as respected professionals, and if a college student wanted to make a little extra money digging graves, he would not be looked on as undesireable. But in fuedal Japan it was quite different.

In China, they don't really have "burakumin," but they sure do have regional prejudice. When I first came to China, there was a big controversy because of a television program in which all the bad guys had Henan accents. The idea that people from Henan are devious, or crafty is pervasive in China. And it's very hard to get a handle on just how this whole thing started. When I ask Chinese people about it, they say stuff like, "It's because they're lazy." One of my Chinese friends told me, "Henan is to China what China is to the rest of the world."

The racial issue in America gets a lot more attention, perhaps becuase it is racial. In China (and Japan--the Burakumin, unlike the Ainu, are ethnically indistinguishable from other Japanese), people group discrinminations are usually not racially based. They do often have to do with family, though. During the Cultural Revolution, if someone in your family had been a landlord in the past, you would be austricized. In India, they say, you don't cast your vote, you vote your caste. Fortunately, modern society tends to water down these old distinctions. But the recent flap over Google's historical maps has reminded us how hard it is to rid ourselves of age old bigotry.

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