Monday 29 April 2019

Japan as a Country of Surveillance: Crime, Cameras, and Cards

One thing I have noticed recently is the proliferation of surveillance cameras which have begun to pop up all over the place. Whereas in the past these were typically found only at places like stations, public buildings, shops, and convenience stores, today they are in the most innocuous locations, stuck to the top of lamp-posts on quiet streets with a sign at the base warning passersby that 'crime-prevention cameras' (bōhan kamera =防犯カメラ) are in operation. In the UK, one 2013 survey put the number of CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras at between 4 and 6 million, an average of one for every 13 people. In Japan, however, there are no official statistics, though an article in the Nikkei Shimbun in 2012 put the number at around 3 million. Today the number is surely closer to that of the UK.

Of course, Japan has a famously low crime rate and recorded crimes have been at record lows in recent years, falling below 1 million after a peak of 2.85 million in 2002. A boost in police numbers has certainly contributed but the spread of security cameras is undoubtedly another key factor (in 2016 more than half of all criminal charges were apparently based on surveillance camera footage!). With the rugby world cup this year and the Olympics in 2020 efforts to up surveillance, such as the introduction of cameras on trains, are even more noticeable. The Tokyo Metro site here details the new poster campaign to give foreign visitors 'international level peace of mind' (世界トップレベルの安心).
The price to be paid a safe society is a great deal more surveillance and less privacy than one might experience in the UK. I have previously written about Japan's 'friendly authoritarianism' characterised by groups such as local neighbourhood associations and citizen patrol groups who are encouraged to keep an eye on comings and goings in the community. We are also encouraged to register our name and address at the local police box (kōban). And, the Big Brother Kabuki-style 'moving eyes' (ugoku bōhan no me) sticker warning that crime will not be overlooked (minogasanai =見逃さない) is fairly ubiquitous - including on the back of 100,000 vehicles, such as soft-drink delivery trucks, in the Tokyo area. An alternative slogan is frequently seen on the back of mama-chari bicycles warning potential kidnappers that their children are being watched over attentively (mimamotteiru =見守っている). See here for an interesting article about when these stickers were created and by who.
Foreigners in particular - there is a strong 'foreign crime' discourse in Japan - may find such an environment disconcerting, especially when it means getting stopped by a 'friendly' officer for police questioning. But it is not only non-Japanese who have become shaken by Japan's intensified surveillance regime. The Secrets Protection Law (Himitsu Hogo Hō=秘密保護法) which came into effect in 2014 to guard 'specially designated state secrets' was controversial enough to mobilise Japan's usually sleepy civil society. Then, in 2016 Japan's Supreme Court ruled that blanket surveillance of Muslims in the country was not unconstitutional. The following year, in a Japan Times interview, Edward Snowden warned that the new conspiracy law of the same year moved Japan a step closer to achieving sweeping surveillance of ordinary citizens while in June of this year the scope of crimes that can be investigated using wiretaps was expanded. Finally, the 12-digit Social Security and Tax Number system know as 'My Number' (マイナンバー) which was introduced at the end of 2015 to streamline tax, pension, and welfare raised a number of privacy concerns; to date, more than half of the Japanese have still not obtained a card (which, in theory, remains voluntary). Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?