Dangerous Data

By now most of you have probably heard of the erasure of buraku — the segregated communities of Japanese outcastes — from Google Earth.1 The continuing discrimination against burakumin — hisabetsuminzoku2 is the phrase I was taught to use in the late ’80s, but it doesn’t seem to have stuck — which often uses their unique geographic footprint as a tool for identifying the otherwise indistinguishable burakumin from the rest of the Japanese population was the issue: having the maps on Google Earth made it too easy.

The discussion at H-Japan has been fairly low-key3 and the UCB Library has calmed the scholars’ fears by announcing that the only alterations were made to the Google Earth versions, not to the online digital archive versions. That narrows the problem a bit…

The most interesting thing in Yuki Ishimatsu’s note is that the same issue has existed for published maps:

Over ten years ago a Japanese map collector, Takashi Otsuka, made an agreement with Buraku Kaiho Domei (Buraku Liberation League) to publish a book of collection of old Kyoto maps without erasing those names. Since then most Japanese publishers started publishing reproductions of old maps without alterations. The largest among them, Kashiwa Shobo, whose VP, Hiroshi Tobe, has told me that it is important to clearly state their position to recognize the historical facts as they are to solve social discriminations in the preface of book.

This brings us back to the MIT Controversy: objectionable historical material without context. Alfred North Whitehead said that “Learning preserves the errors of the past as well as its wisdom. For this reason dictionaries are public dangers, although they are necessities.” The internet just exacerbates the problem: even if you put the material in proper context, it’s too easy for it to be copied, transfered. That said, it’s also easy for the context to be ignored, for the very existence of the material where it can be seen by many — as opposed to books, etc, which have a more limited circulation — to be problematic.

Mencken said, as my father quoted him, “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” I’m becoming convinced that removing objectionable historical material is that solution: it treats adults like children, unnecessarily distorts the historical record. I don’t think you need to distort the historical record with children, either. Edit, yes. My 7-year old asked me last week to give him a short history of WWI and WWII — he’d heard something about nuclear plants and bombs at school and he’s smart enough to want to get the real story — and I did, though I left out lots of detail. We don’t need to get into trench warfare, gas, Naziism, genocide; imperialism and war is enough, at this point. On the other hand, his art teacher told the class that Van Gogh cut off his ear because he was losing his hearing. I understand not wanting to explain Van Gogh’s personality problems to first-graders, but if that’s the case, don’t mention his ear!

Nothing I suggest as an alternative will sound like anything except an educator’s daydream. Maybe we have to accept that there are way too many people in the world who, as adults, do need to be treated like children because they didn’t learn the lessons of childhood.

  1. I got that from a student just before it showed up on H-Japan.  

  2. literally “peoples who have been discriminated against”  

  3. though Paul Stephen Lim’s story of government pressure to downplay burakumin issues is pretty shocking  

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