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Hamlet Communities of the Past

Turning into the sun, I blink away spots and find scattered rows of tiny houses clustered along the hillside to form a hamlet. They are small, thatched-roof structures in need of repair. I pivot back to face him. “Here?” -THE WOMAN IN THE WHITE KIMONO

The small village in THE WOMAN IN THE WHITE KIMONO where Hajime rents a house is fictional, but hamlet communities where the Burakumin lived - a socioeconomic minority within the larger Japanese ethnic group - were real. Because the Burakumin worked occupations considered impure or tainted by death such as executioners, undertakers, butchers or tanners, they suffered severe discrimination and ostracism and often lived outside the parameters of society.

Even now, more than a century after burakumin status was officially abolished, their descendants - about 3 million of the country's 127 million people - still face discrimination, largely based on where their ancestors lived. Employers and parents of potential spouses often hire agencies to check through Japan’s protected records for buraku ancestry and “dirty” address lists can be found circulating online even though the communities are now unmarked.

Which is how Google earth got into trouble in 2009 when they discovered and posted vintage maps and layered them over modern satellite images of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. Some areas were clearly tagged "eta," a derogatory word for burakumin that literally means "filthy mass." With one click, you could see the modern world and how it lined up with a centuries-old caste system. Google faced a formal inquiry from the Justice Ministry, and the maps have since been removed.

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