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 website, 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. -- AP