Tokyo Elections

Tokyo goes to the polls today. I have to say that there doesn’t seem to be much excitement, although it is widely expected that the almost permanently-in-power Liberal Democratic Party (who, as is the way of these things, are neither particularly liberal nor overly democratic!) will be given a severe kicking by the electorate. This may even cause the Prime Minister, Aso Taro, to step down. Aso is perhaps the most unpopular leader in the democratic world, with personal approval ratings that threaten to drop into single figures. He makes Gordon Brown looks charismatic, and has been best known overseas (although not so much within Japan) for making silly, often verging on the racist, remarks.

However, while these elections may be nationally very significant, they will have no bearing on the real power in Tokyo itself, Governor Ishihara Shintaro, an independent populist. He’s tough on crime, tough on the supposed causes of crime (foreigners, of course) (who has also pushed CCTV quite hard) and seems to have been Governor forever. The main reason he got elected originally was connected to the fact that he had a more famous brother, Yujiro, who was a very well-known film star, but it’s Shintaro who’s been the leading man for over a decade.

More on CCTV in Japan

The slightly left-leaning Asahi Shimbun newspaper had a pretty balanced if uninspiring editorial this week on the spread of CCTV cameras in Japan. The English translation is available here.

The most important thing in the editorial is the recommendation of national laws for CCTV. This would be better than in the UK for example, where there still isn’t any national regulation of CCTV except for the Data Protection Act. The paper’s suggestions are:

  • transparent operational procedures with ‘rigorous conditions’ for the sharing of images
  • third party oversight for police cameras and a ‘help desk where people can complain about being caught on tape’

This is a start, but only a start, and the second one would probably prove completely unworkable especially if cameras become more widespread. It would be rather better for some kind of permission system to operate, where cameras were seen as an exceptional response to a proven need. The paper is already accepting the normality of CCTV cameras in public spaces regardless of the evidence of their effectiveness- which it acknowledges is equivocal (in fact it’s generally much worse than that in the UK) or indeed the wider social impacts.

Japan to introduce resident-monitored CCTV

One of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the way in which the state has attempted to adapt Japan’s traditional culture of responsibilized local community organisations (chounaikai) for the new surveillance society (kanshi shakai, in Japanese). Cynics may well argue that what is called here bohan machizukuri (or community safety development – or sometimes the similar anzen anshin machizukuri) is simply a way in which the government can attempt to save money whilst pretending to be tough on what is always claimed to be a worsening crime rate. It is also true to say that this is also a further perversion of the machizukuri (bottom-up community development) idea that came out of local environmental movements of the 1960s.

Nevertheless, the Japan Times reported that the Keisatsuchou (National Police Agency or NPA) appears to be pushing forward with plans to extend its rather small number of CCTV cameras* into 15 residential areas starting January 2010 (two of which, Higashiyamato and Musashimurayama, are suburbs of Tokyo, and I’ll be visiting these whilst I am here) at the cost of 597 Million Yen (around £3.85 Million or $6.3 Million US). There’s always an underlying fear that is played on when such systems are installed, and in this case it is a classic: the threat to children. The small camera systems(around 25 cameras in size) will be installed on streets that are commonly used by kids going to and from school.

The fact that the schemes are focused on child safety would certainly be one of the reasons why the use of local volunteer committees to watch the cameras and manage the data from local civic facilities like community centres, has been put forward. It could also be in response to opposition from some local residents to what they see as the imposition of unwanted state invasion of their privacy, although according to the Japan Times, the police say it “will help residents to secure safety by themselves.” Their big problem is that there do not appear to be many volunteers yet!

There are many questions here. One mystery is that in Japan most school runs already have several, often elderly, volunteers who look out for children in person,in a more genuinely machizukuri form of bohan machizukuri so why the more expensive cameras? Another massive question is the one around privacy and data protection. How will volunteers be expected to act as official data controllers, especially in such a sensitive area as surveillance of children in public space? Finally, what will the effect be on trust and community relations to have one set of people in the community monitoring others? How will they be held accountable?

These, and many other questions will be just some of the things occupying my time here for the next two months…

*There are just 363 NPA cameras in Japan, however there are more owned by local municipal authorities, particularly in Tokyo, and thousands more operated by private companies and shoutenkai (shopkeepers’ associations).