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?

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Reception at the British Embassy: Cherry Blossoms, Chandeliers, and Bilateral Relations

With the cherry blossom peak over, the petals (hanabira =花びら) are falling which makes for a lovely sight on the waterways (such as Meguro Rover) in Tokyo as they blanket the water, with "flower-rafts" (hana-ikada =花筏) as they are called in Japanese. I got the chance to see the blossoms at their peak though last week when I visited the British Embassy for a reception for alumni from Durham University in the UK living in Japan. It was my first visit to the embassy, located across from the Imperial Palace moat or Hanzo-Hori lined with beautifully illuminated cherry trees (though the direction signs at the station - "Embassy of British" - could have done with a native-speaker check, like many instances of English on signs in Japan!). The cherry blossoms in the ambassador's garden were stunning; Japanese readers may be surprised to know that people in the UK also enjoy the blossoms at this time of year (though it is usually too cold to eat and drink under the trees...).
Most of the guests were Japanese who had come from all over Japan - from Hokkaido to Kyushu - for the chance to take a peak inside the luxurious Ambassador's Residence. The Ambassador's garden (pictured) was of course wonderful but the living room, decked out with antique furniture, chandeliers, and pictures of royalty was something else. The invitation was also written in very formal English, with "lounge-suit" for the dress code and "carriages" denoting the end of the reception (translated rather blandly as heikai=閉会 on the Japanese version). It was also interesting to see that the Japanese invitation added the explanation that there was to be a stand-up buffet, written as risshoku (立食). This is not to be confused with tachi-gui (立ち食い) which, though using the same kanji, denotes cheap and quick stand-up noodle shops and other street stalls!

Official Japan-British relations only began in 1854 with the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty (日英和親条約) signed after the end of the "closed-country" (sakoku=鎖国) period though relations deteriorated rapidly during the 1930s (see here for a full time line). Today, relations are remarkably close: during Abe's visit to the UK in January, Prime Minister May described the two countries as "natural partners. Thriving, innovative, island nations – committed to defending the global rules." Brexit appears to have thrown a bit of a spanner in the works though, and Honda's announcement in February that it was withdrawing from the UK shocked many Brits. Japanese, though, remain pretty unfazed; an internal embassy poll apparently found that only about 40% of Japanese even know Brexit is happening! Certainly, there is a lot of love for the UK - especially tradition and pomp and ceremony - in Japan; September will see the launch of a new 'UK in Japan' campaign, beginning with the Rugby World Cup and continuing through to the Tokyo Olympics.

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For those want to learn a little more about early diplomatic relations between Britain (and other European nations) and Japan, I would recommend British author David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which is set on the man-made island of Dejima between 1799 and 1817. While the story of a Dutch clerk on an isolated trading post is a lot more exciting than it sounds (!), for those of you wanting a more modern neon-Tokyo-yakuza-filled adventure, number9dream is probably more your cup of tea (the bowling alley scene still sticks in my mind...). The detail in both books makes it clear that the author knows Japan well (indeed, he lived in Hiroshima for eight years) - he is also married to a Japanese.