Why does Google Maps discriminate against Buddhist Temples?

Dear Google Maps Team,

I have noticed recently that Google Maps in Japan has stopped using the traditional Manji 卍 character for marking Buddhist temples and has substituted a plain gray drop pin. All the other religious organizations still get special icons to denote the religious group: Shinto, Christian, Islam and Judaism. Why do Buddhism get the short stick?

Apple Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps both respect local culture and display Buddhist temples the traditional way. Why can’t you? If you study history and culture you will understand that the Manji character has been used in connection with Buddhism throughout Asia for hundreds of years. It has nothing to do with European history or the tragic events of WW II.

As a Buddhist I hope that non-Buddhists strive to respect Buddhist culture as Buddhists strive to respect other cultures and religions. It’s easy to understand why some Westerners might misunderstand this aspect of Japanese culture, but misunderstanding is always an opportunity to learn new things and grow. When you whitewash one religious symbol because somebody who doesn’t come from that culture doesn’t like it or doesn’t understand it, you are promoting cultural discrimination.

I’m sure Google Maps does not want to promote cultural discrimination. Please do the right thing and respect all religions equally.

Love and Kisses,
Ata Distance

Some readers have suggested this a result of the some preliminary map symbol proposals from the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan, however the Manji symbol was retained in a later proposal with the word ‘temple’ included. What’s important to remember is that the map symbol suggestions were merely suggestions intended for non-Japanese language maps at tourist areas and such. It’s also important to note that the Japanese government did not consult with Buddhist organizations. In short what Google has done does not follow Japanese government guideline suggestions or respect local culture. It is censorship.

Related coverage on the WWDC19 Apple Maps Wish List

Manji temple place of interest icons have returned to Google Maps after a long and curious absence:


Mt. Minobu and Mt. Shichimen Fall Colors

This year I had work related visits to Mt. Shichimen in the spring and fall. Both times I was blessed with good weather and many fine views. The work is not particularly hard but the only way up is a 3~4 hour steep hike.

Shichimensan is a holy mountain, Shichimen Daimyojin is the deity enshrined there, said to be the human incarnation of the daughter of the Dragon King described in Chapter Twelve of the Lotus Sutra. She transforms herself into a Bodhisattva leads many people to enlightenment vowing to protect all followers of the Buddha.

There is beauty and power you can experience climbing Mt. Shichimen.

The Other Side of Mt. Minobu: Hiking the Old Akazawa Trail

27th generation innkeeper Kinu Mochizuki runs Edoya, Akazawa’s last remaining inn for pilgrims.

Nichiren Shu followers are well acquainted with Minobusan, site of Kuonji Temple and the resting place of Nichiren Shonin. Both followers and tourists have visited the top of Minobusan via the ropeway to see Shishin-Kaku Temple, breathe cool fresh mountain air and take in the view of Mt. Fuji and the Fuji River valley below.

The more adventurous way to the top for pilgrims, or even trail race runners, is to hike the old trail from Kuonji to Shishin-Kaku Temple. Only the truly adventurous, or hard-core trail runners, then continue on the trail to reach Shichimensan. at trail goes down the other side of Minobusan passing long shuttered inns (bo) for visiting pilgrims, through the village of Akazawa. The name of the town, red mountain stream, comes from the reddish colored rocks found in the Japanese Southern Alps and surrounding foothills.

Akazawa dates back to the Heian period. It has been designated a historical preservation district. Its history is tightly bound to the history of Shichimensan, which was established as a holy mountain and pilgrimage site long before Nichiren Shonin arrived at Minobusan in 1275. The trail from Minobusan might sound romantic, but it long ago disappeared into a quiet country road that zigzags down the backside of the mountain. Only at the entrance to Akazawa does it become a foot path again, a steep stone path winding through the village.

Stone path from the top of Akazawa

Near the top of the stone path is Myofukuji Temple. According to Rev. Chiyu Ide, the head priest of Myofukuji, its history extends back to the deepest roots of Japanese Buddhism. “Have you heard of Shugendo?,” he asked. This was one of the first forms of Japanese Buddhism

It incorporated mystic elements of both Buddhism and Shinto. Shugendo ascetics and priests journeyed through deep valleys and peaks as part of their spiritual practice worshipping huge boulders, giant trees, and the mountains themselves as the sacred vessel bodies of gods, seeking enlightenment and rebirth in the rising sunlight over the mountain.

Myofukuji temple, Akazawa

Shichimensan itself is a kekkai, a sacred barrier, protecting Mt. Fuji. If you watch an equinox sunrise on Shichimensan, the sun rises directly over the peak of Mt. Fuji. On that day, the sun shines in a perfect line across the top of Mt. Fuji, through Shichimensan, and straight to Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture. Izumo is one of the most important Shinto Shrines, said to be older than Ise Shrine itself.

“This was established as a Shugendo temple,” Rev. Ide explained. “In Nichiren Shonin’s time, it was Shingon. Nichiro Shonin, a Senior Disciple of Nichiren Shonin, convinced the head priest of Myofukuji to covert and become part of Kuonji.” Some of the Myofukuji Temple structures today look new. Inside the Founder’s Hall, colorful kifuda line the walls. In the Main Hall, there’s a restored ceiling painting of Shichimen, the protector of the holy mountain. Asked about the number of temple members here in Akazawa, Rev. Ide became quiet for a moment. “I have to travel a lot to support the temple. I’m not here as much as I would like to be.”​

Buddhist priests in country temples usually have to work other jobs to make ends meet. Rev. Ide travels extensively doing Kito blessings and Reidan consultations. It not only supports the temple, but also helps bring new practitioners and pilgrims to Akazawa and Shichimensan.

The path from Myofukuji temple to Edoya inn

Further down the stone path, almost at its end, is the Edoya ryokan, the last surviving inn of Akazawa. It is run by 92-year-old Kinu Mochizuki, the Okami, or proprietress. She is the 27th in her family line to hold this honor and responsibility. Okami is one of the many Japanese words almost impossible to translate into English. The two characters that make up Okami are “woman” and “Shogun.” It conveys a woman general who runs the family business, raises the children and keeps the tradition going. Still today, the longest running Japanese family businesses, some dating back to the Heian period, are invariably run by women generals.

Mochizuki-san’s back is bent with age. She walks with a cane, but is cheerful, bright and always happy to show you her inn while explaining the history.

“I’m 92, and since last year I’ve had pain in my lower back,” she explained. But that did not stop her from opening up the sliding doors to reveal the big interior room.

“This is where guests chant Odaimoku, eat and sleep.” She pointed out the hallway that ran outside the tatami rooms. “As you can see there is plenty of space for groups of 50 to 60 to put their luggage and other belongings.”

Shichimensan seen from Edoya

“We have groups staying here from May to November, 700 or 1,000 people sometimes, so all the inns (meaning Edoya and the other bo surrounding Shichimensan) have to cooperate and divide them among the inns. We all serve the same food and charge the same price. 60 stay here, 40 there, and so on. When that happens we all sit around making hundreds of onigiri, rice balls. Even though my back hurts, I can do it. I only have these hands, but I endeavor to do my best.” She thrusts out her hands for emphasis, strong country hands that have clearly done a lot of work.

What is the future for the last remaining inn in Akazawa? Mochizuki-san says, “I have a grandson. He is interested, but I don’t know if he is willing to take on the responsibility of running Edoya. I have no say in the matter of what happens after I die. What’s the point of worrying about it?

The Mochizuki family has been running Edoya, an inn for pilgrims, for 27 generations.

“Nowadays, who wants to take on this difficult work when there are easier ways of making a living? There really isn’t anything here in Akazawa. It is 100 Cho (the old distance measure of approximately one cho =109 meters) to Minobu, 50 Cho to Shichimensan. There weren’t that many pilgrims when I was growing up because of the distance. And there were not many pilgrims coming during the war. Those who came had to bring their own rice, and we would cook it for them. They had to have enough for the whole journey because of war rationing.

“It became dangerous here, too. Near the end of the war, several bombs were dropped in the village below, because the B-29 planes had to clear their holds on the way back from bombing Kofu. It’s hard to believe that a person like me experienced that. We had to clear metal debris from our fields. As junior high students, we were required to work in military or agriculture production. There was no freedom. We can look back now and say how stupid it all was, but back then it was simply what one had to do.”

Mochizuki-san went on to explain that modern roads and bridges changed everything. Now people can drive to the bottom of Shichimensan, park their car and start walking. When groups come now, they don’t hike from Minobu. They drive up from below, stay overnight, and then drive back down to the Shichimensan trail entrance. The pilgrims have changed, too. Most of those coming now are from Reiyukai, not Nichiren Shu members.

She waved her hand at the big empty room. “In the old days, the ceilings and walls were covered with silk banners and senjya fuda. They disintegrated long ago. When the pilgrims came, it wasn’t just once. They arrived every year, no matter what.” Nichiren Shu members stopped coming during the late 1980s bubble era, when values changed and Japanese birthrates went into steep decline. A culture carefully built up over centuries can disappear in the blink of an eye.

“There used to be six inns here in Akazawa. We’re the last one. Osakaya had been closed for ten years, but this spring, someone rented it and has opened it as a guest house for backpackers from overseas. There’s even a man from France who wants to live here,” she said, as if a man from France was an unexpected turn of events.

Sunrise over Mt. Fuji as seen from Shichimensan

If you come to Minobusan, Akazawa and Shichimensan, you can experience directly and breathe the air of faith and practice expounded by Nichiren Shonin. You can see all that it built over the course of centuries, one pilgrim, one step at a time. Don’t let these hard earned accomplishments fade away. Come to Shichimensan and hike the same path of countless pilgrims over centuries past. The path is the same, taken one step at a time.

The statue of Lady Oman and the waterfall near the Shichimen trail entrance. Lady Oman prayed under the waterfall then climbed Shichimensan, the first woman to do so.