Why Japan is a surveillance society

We met yesterday with member of the Campaign Against Surveillance Society (AKA Kanshi-No!) a small but active organisation formed in in 2002 in response to the Japanese government’s jyuminkihondaichou network system (Residents’ Registry Network System, or juki-net). plans and the simultaneous introduction of police video surveillance cameras in Kabukicho in Tokyo. We had a long and detailed discussion which would be impossible to reproduce in full here, but I did get much more of a sense of what in particular is seen as objectionable about past and current Japanese government actions in this area.

The main thrust of the argument was to do with the top-down imposition of new forms of control on Japanese society. This they argued was the product of the longtime ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s neo-liberal turn and has thus been some time in the making. It is not a post-9/11 phenomenon, although they were also clear that the G-8 summit held in Hokkaido in 2008 used many of the same forms of ‘community action’ in the name of preventing terrorism as are used in the name of anzen anshin (safety) or bohan (security) from crime in Japanese cities everyday.

However, they argued that this might be a product of neo-liberalism, but the forms of community security were drawn from or influenced by a much older style of governance, that of the Edo-period mutual surveillance and control of the goningumi (five family groups). (this is actually remarkably similar to the argument that I, David Lyon and Kiyoshi Abe made in our paper in Urban Studies in 2007!). Thus the mini-patoka and wan-wan patrol initiatives in Arakawa-ku were seen as as much a part of an imposed state ordering process as the more obviously externally-derived CCTV-based form of urban governance going on in Shunjuku.

Underlying all this was the creation of an infrastructure for the surveillance society, juki-net. They were certainly aware of the way that juki-net had been limited from the original plans, and indeed they regarded these limits as being the major success of the popular campaign against the system, however they argued that the 11-digit unique number now assigned to every citizen was the most important element of the plans and this remained and could therefore serve as the foundation for future expansion and linking of government databases. They pointed to the way that the passport system had already been connected.

Kanshi-no! were also concerned, in this context, about the development of plans for experimental facial recognition systems to be used in Tokyo (at a location as yet unrevealed). This would imply the development of a national database of facial images, and a further extension of the personal information held by central government on individuals.

So was this all in the name of puraibashi (privacy) or some wider social concerns of something else? Certainly, privacy was mentioned, but not as much as one would expect in an interview with a British activist group on the same issues. I asked in particular about the decline of trust and community. The argument here was that community and any lingering sense of social trust had already been destroyed and that CCTV cameras and other surveillance measures were not responsible in themselves. However, from an outside perspective it does seem that there is more of a sense of social assurance and community, even in Tokyo than there is in the UK. I do wonder sometimes when people (from any country) refer back to some time when some idealised ‘trust’ or ‘community’ existed, when exactly it was! Rather than a  particular time, it seems to be a current that either asserts itself or is suppressed of co-opted into the aims of more powerful concerns in particular times and places.

I asked at one point what immediate change or new laws Kashi-no! would want, and the answer was quite simple: no new laws, just for the state to respect the constitution which they said already made both CCTV cameras and juki-net illegal (although of course the Supreme Court recently disagreed).

(Thank-you to the two members of Kanshi-no! for their time and patience with my questions)

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

6 thoughts on “Why Japan is a surveillance society”

  1. You have a long way to go before you are on a par with the UK. The U.S. is trying to catch them too. It is becoming a George Orwellian dream come true.

  2. I am certain that Japan has far fewer monitored cameras than the UK (which is where I come from BTW!) or indeed the USA. However, the point of the research that I am doing is to try to get beyond simple measurements like that and consider the very different forms of surveillance that operate in each of the four countries that I am studying and think again about how we can compare them.

  3. I think you are right to look for the roots of Japanese attitudes to surveillance much further back, I’d say even pre-Edo-jidai. Household registration goes back to the Hieian-jidai I believe.

    Personally I don’t find the (apparently?) relatively benign surveillance here as threatening as I do in the blatantly fascist UK State, I don’t feel that bureaucrats here hate me so much as want me to stick to the correct forms. Interesting area!

    Have you done anthing on security in recent large ‘mansion’ developments? That does strike me as sinister – somehow an importantion of North American fears (and technologies of course)

  4. Thanks, Iain. Yes, I agree in general with your assessment. But I also think things are changing. We had another interview yesterday with people from the Prime Minister’s IT Strategy group and they were pretty clear that the government wants to go down the route of greater centralisation of personal data regardless of the current law (in other words Kanshi-no! are not being paranoid!).

    There has been research on the security mansion (and ‘security town’) developments. We did another interview I haven’t yet reported on here with Hino Kimihiro of the Building Research Institute who does such work, and there’s a Professor Sakou at Nihon University who has done quite a lot of research on these developments.

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