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)

US cameras to see the whole of the moon…

There’s been a story developing for a while now on the US-Canadian border. This used to be one of the most casual and friendly of borders, indeed there are families stretched across both sides and in many places the border meant only slight differences in the price of some goods…

But no more. There might be a new president, but Obama seems to be allowing the Bush-era plans for strengthening the border with Canada to continue. There are now CCTV towers being erected, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) patrolling, and new much stricter passport regulations and customs and immigration checks. As usual this seems to be being done with a kind of macho indifference to the opinions of the Canadians that is making the US actions doubly unpopular.

If this seems like some kind of sci-fi nightmare then then most crazy, Philip K. Dick-style element is to be found on the Michigan-Ontario border at Port Huron, where the Sierra Nevada Corporation, a US military aerospace company, has launched a tethered balloon camera (the company calls it an MAA (medium altitude airship) pointed at the town of Sarnia across the border. This isn’t even an official scheme, it’s a private company trying to sell this insanity to the Department of Homeland Security, and naturally the Mayor and citizens of Sarnia are angry about this international violation of their privacy, and many of both sides of this border think that this intensified security as an attack on the trust that exists between Americans and Canadians.

So what are Sarnians doing? They are giving the cameras something to look at, that’s what. More specifically they are planning to drop their pants for a mass ‘moon the balloon’, which in these days of ever more insane surveillance schemes seems just about the only possible response.

Planning and protest in central Tokyo

Tokyo is a constantly changing stew of styles and forms, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is just ‘organic’ change. The capital of Japan is a playground for capital, local and global, and there isn’t much in the way of planning law or practice to stop the developers doing exactly what they want. It’s worth reading Andre Sorensen’s The Making of Urban Japan for a good account in English of why this is.

Inasmuch as the traditional morphology of machi (neighbourhoods) survive, it is largely due to either the unfashionable character of the area putting off developers, temporary lulls in the property market, or the sheer stubbornness of residents in refusing to being intimidated into selling land or putting up with the serial replication of blocks of manshon (typical 5+ storey apartment complexes). Strong property rights and small traditional plots do at least mean that it is more difficult to put together the land in what is called tochi kukaku seiri (land readjusment) to make really large developments which, as a result, tends to be restricted to whole sites that come on the market through things like the privatisation of Japan Railways (although some private developers like Mori Building Co. have managed private massive land readjustment projects like Roppongi Hills that I have researched on previous visits).

Of course the building regulations that do exist tend to favour development too, as they regard any old building as inherently unsafe (because of susceptibility to fire and earthquake) and it is thus very difficult, for example, to get traditional wooden houses repaired let alone new ones built. In addition, since the Edo period regulations have sought to open fire-breaks in the urban structure and increase the width of roads and alleyways – and again, the traditional and wonderfully characterful narrow roji (lanes) are very difficult to maintain as any new building has to be set back to newer road standards. This in turn tends to make the backstreets more accessible to faster-moving traffic and thus gradually dehuamanize and desocialize these places.

So communities have a lot to contend with and, despite the 196os environmental movements and machizukuri (community development) and the 1980s craze for ‘amenity’ (which included the promulgation of a ‘sunlight ordinance’ that was supposed to stop the construction of taller buildings that would block out the sun from neighbouring plots), the developers continue to try to squeeze in unwanted and inappropriately massive structures wherever they can.

We came across this small example of a local neighbourhood campaign to stop a new manshon being built at the edge of the historic (but much damaged) Yanaka district. It might not loo very exciting but you add these developments up all over the city and it goes a long way to explaining why Tokyo is gradually losing the remaining historic and social character that makes it a surprisingly human place to live, despite its size…

A juki-net footnote

I had a conversation yesterday (not a formal interview) with Midori Ogasawara, a freelance journalist and writer who used to report on privacy issues for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. This was mainly to set up further interviews with those who are or were involved with campaigns on surveillance and privacy issues in Tokyo. However I also managed to clarify a few of my own questions about juki-net and the opposition which it attracted.

In short, there seem to have been several objections.

  1. First of all was the objection to the idea of a centralised database, which was able to link between other previously separate databases.
  2. Secondly, there was the fact that this was the national state asserting authority over both local government and citizens. Both Local Authorities and citizens groups had argued for ‘opt-in’ systems, whereby firstly, towns could adopt their own policies towards juki-net, and secondly and more fundamentally, individual citizens could decide whether they wanted their details to be shared.
  3. The third objection was to there being a register of addresses at all. Many people saw this simply as an unnecessary intrusion onto their private lives, and in any case, the administration of welfare, education and benefits worked perfectly well before this (from their point of view) so why was such a new uniform system introduced?
  4. Next there were objections based on what was being networked. The jyuminhyo (see my summary from the other day) is not actually a simple list of individuals and where they live, but is a household registry. It might not, like the koseki, place the individual in a family line, but is still a system based on patriarchal assumptions, with a designated ‘head’ of the household, and ‘dependents’ including wives and even adult children.
  5. Finally, there was the question of the construction of an identification infrastructure. Whether or not juki-net is considered as an identification system, and it does have a unique identifying number for each citizen, and has the potential to be built on to create exactly such a comprehensive system of national identification. Lasdec, who we talked to the other day, may not approve of this, or believe it will happen, but they are only technicians, they are not policymakers and don’t have the power or the access to know or decide such matters. And in the end, if they are required by law to run an ID system then they will have to run it.
  6. There were, as I already mentioned, objections to the potential loss or illicit sharing of personal information. I don’t think this is intrinsic to juki-net, or indeed to database systems, but of course both databases and networks make such things easier. People are also quite cynical about promises of secure systems. Lasdec may say that that juki-net is secure, but there have been enough incidences of government data leaks in the past for people not to accept such assertions.
  7. Finally, Juki-net connects to the border, passport and visa system. The reason that foreigners will finally be included on the jyuminhyo (and therefore juki-net) from 2012 is not therefore to respond to long-term foreign residents’ requests for equal treatment but in fact to make it even easier to sort out and find gaikokujin, check their status, and deal with unofficial and illegal migrants. Groups campaigning for the rights of foreign workers (mainly the exploited South-East Asian and Brazilian factory workers) have therefore been very much involved. Of course it also makes it possible to connect the overseas travel of Japanese people to a central address registry.

I’ll be meeting Midori again soon, I hope, along with other researchers and objectors. I am also still hoping to be able to talk to officials from the Homusho (Ministry of Justice) and the Somusho (Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts & Telecommunications), but they are are currently passing around my request to different offices and generally delaying things in the best bureaucratic traditions!

Mega-events, Security and Surveillance

The connection between what are often called ‘mega-events’ (international summits, major sporting competitions etc.), securitization, and he intensification of surveillance is becoming a very interesting area and one which we wrote about in our recent book on urban resilience. I am writing some further stuff on this with Kiyoshi Abe on how mega-events have been managed in Japan.

It seems that in general, such events are either used as ‘test-beds’ for new technologies and procedures which are then either continued afterwards (as with The Olympic Games and CCTV in Greece in 2004 and The FIFA World Cup and video surveillance in Japan/Korea in 2002), or become ‘islands’ of temporary exemption where normal legal human rights protections are reduced or removed and whole areas of public space are often literally, fenced off (as in Rio de Janeiro for the Pan-American Games of 2007, whose model will apparently be extended to include walling off the poor favelas in time for the 2014 FIFA World Cup). There’s going to be a very interesting conference on The Surveillance Games later this year to tie in with the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Now The Guardian newspaper is reporting that the London Olympics 2012 may make use of a proposal originally designed to stop the proliferation of unofficial commercial advertising near games venues in order to prevent protest. The legislation even allows police to enter private houses to seize material.

Of course the government say that they have no plans to use it in this way, but it’s interesting to see the way in which the ‘standards’ being imposed by such travelling cicuses of globalization tend to end up looking more like the authoritarian regime in Beijing (host of the highly securitized 2008 Olympics) than the supposedly liberal west, whilst at the same time promoting a very controlled but highly commercialized environment. Even the original purposes of the 2006 law (necessary for London to host the Games) are an interesting reflection of the massive corporate interests involved in the Olympics, for which they apparently need a captive and docile audience.