Government unpins Google Maps for top design prize

Official says Prime Minister's Award not withheld over use of rival claimants' names for islets

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

In an unprecedented move, the government will not give the prestigious Good Design Grand Award to Google Maps even though it received the most votes, prompting speculation that officials did not want to reward the service because it includes contentious names for disputed islets claimed by Japan.

Spearheaded by the Japan Institute of Design Promotion, the annual Good Design Award has honored products, people and activities considered “well-designed” for more than 50 years.

An average of 1,000 entries receive the award each year, but only one gets the most prestigious Good Design Grand Award, also known as the Prime Minister’s Award.

After being nominated for the top prize by judges and the public, the candidate is scrutinized by the government and usually is approved with no disagreement.

This year is the first time since the Prime Minister’s Award debuted in 2007 that the government has refused to go along with the nominee that got the most votes.

In response, the Japan Institute of Design Promotion created a special award called Global Design 2013 and gave it to Google Maps. The institute lauded Google Maps for showing continued improvement in its functionality, including navigation and the search system, noting the design is “user-friendly” and “well thought out down to the meticulous details.”

“The maps themselves have existed for more than 10 years, but they have shown great adaptability in the advent of smart- phones in the past few years,” said spokesman Jun Akimoto.

Speculation has been rife online that political interests were behind the snub. Media reports in September said the government urged municipalities and universities nationwide to refrain from posting maps provided by Google Inc. on their websites as its English references to some islands contradict Japan’s territorial claims. .

Hideaki Ibuki, an official in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, denied that this played any part in the government’s unusual refusal and said politics had nothing to do with it.

Ibuki instead said Google Maps garnered a lower than expected number of votes at 2,752, or 22 percent of the total, compared with the usual 25 percent. It also surpassed the second-most popular product, the Epsilon Launch Vehicle by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, by a relatively narrow margin.

“We just went over those objective factors and decided that (Google Maps) didn’t satisfy the standard criteria,” he said.

Starting in 1957, the award has been considered the “only comprehensive system with which to assess” good design in Japan, the organizer says on its website.