Community Safety in Suginami

Following our meeting with the Mayor the other day, we went back to Suginami-ku to talk to the community safety people, who are part of the Disaster Management section. Suginami is interesting because, as far back as 2004, it was the first Local Authority in Japan to introduce a special bohan kamera jourei (security camera ordinance) which is based in part at least on principles of data protection and privacy. And until neighbouring Setegaya-ku introduced their own ordinance last year, they were, so far as I know, the only such authority. The ordinance followed public consultation which showed that although people generally thought CCTV was effective (95%), a significant minority of 34% were concerned about privacy, and 72% thought that regulation was needed. These figures seem to be significantly more in favour of privacy and regulation of CCTV than the nationwide survey done by Hino Kimihiro, however he asked different questions leading to answers that are not directly comparable.

Suginami is one of the areas of Tokyo that has the other kind of CCTV system introduced by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police after 2002, help points where people press a button if they feel in danger and speak to someone from the police. The help points have both CCTV camera and an alarm / red flashing light if the caller says it is an emergency.

However the Suginami community safety officers said that these cameras have not proved very effective and in fact they cause a lot of problems, because children tend to press the button for fun, and run away – meaning that there are many false alarms.

Suginami has some of the same kind of array of ‘blue-light’ volunteer patrols as Arakawa-ku. In Suginami, there is a fleet of mini-patoka (mini patrol cars) and motorbikes, used by 15 retired police officers. These are mainly about visibility leading to deterrence and increased community confidence, as the volunteers ex-officers have no special powers nor do they carry side-arms or handcuffs or any other conventional ‘police’ equipment. Suginami does not have the small community safety stations like Arakawa-ku, although they do also have the same problem of local koban (police boxes) being closed. However where Suginami really stands out is in the sheer number of volunteers they have involved in their community patrols, organised through the local PTAs, shoutenkai (shopkeepers’ associations) and choukai (community associations). There are 140 groups with 9600 people actively involved in one way or another in community safety just in Suginami.

Suginami is a relatively wealthy ward and the kinds of problems that concern Arakawa (mainly minor street crime and snatch-thefts) are not such big issues here.  The main concern in this ward seems to be burglary and furikomi – the practice of gangsters and other criminals calling old people and pretending to be a relative or representative of a relative and persuading them to transfer money to a particular ATM (which you can do in Japan – it would be impossible in the UK). Furikomi is a very interesting phenomenon in that it seems to be a product of family, social and technological changes. Many older people who would have lived with family in traditional Japanese society are now living alone. They are lonely and miss the intimacy of family contact, so they tend to welcome unexpected calls from relatives who may now be living almost anywhere in Japan. These older people are also technologically literate and able to use mobile phones, ATMs and computers. The combination of this technological skill, dispersed families, and psychological vulnerability makes for a ripe target for fraudsters, and Suginami estimate that 40% of all crime in the ward is some form of furikomi.

In many ways, increasing concern for privacy is also a product of this change in lifestyles and family structure, as well as building techniques – western-style walls and better sound insulation mean that you can’t always know what is going on in the next room anymore, let alone in your neighbours’ apartments or houses. This also makes burglary rather easier, as once the thief has got past the initial walls or doors, no-one can hear or see very much. The intense and intimate ‘natural surveillance’ that used to characterise ordinary Japanese communities is disappearing. But the Suginami community safety officers see the possibility of revitalising such natural surveillance, and protecting privacy, without going down the route of impersonal, technologically-mediated surveillance. In many ways, this is quite heartening – if, of course, you are of a communitarian mindset. Such supportive, mutually monitored and very inward-looking communities can be stifling to those who do not fit and exclusionary to those from outside… and, not coincidentally, one of our last interviews was with a leading support group for foreign migrants in Japan, who have a very different perspective on all of these developments. That will be in my next post, which may not be until Saturday as we’re going off to Kansai for a couple of days…

(Thank-you to the Disaster Management section for their time and patience).

Varieties of anti-surveillance activism in Japan

Although some progressive activists would like it to be otherwise, anti-surveillance feeling is not confined to the left, indeed in many countries, like the USA, libertarian individualist right-wing anti-surveillance activism is perhaps more common. And it seems that such a position is not unusual in Japan either.

Having returned from a weekend of hot springs, fine sake-tasting and eating way too much, today we met with the Mayor of the Suginami ward of Tokyo, Hiroshi Yamada, a prominent figure in the anti-juki-net campaign, and a also one of the leaders of a group of right-wing figures trying to promote a new nationalist grouping at that end of the Japanese political spectrum. But this new right is not at all a simple matter of ‘back to the 1930s’ that some commentators would have you believe. Yes, this group – which also includes the Mayors of major cities including Yokohama and Nagoya as well as popular journalists like Yoshiko Sakurai – has very conservative, revisionist views, on Japanese history, but in many ways they have far more in common with the new US libertarian right in their rejection of large state and high taxes, and in other areas too, for example Sakurai has rather unscientific views on climate change!

Part of the this libertarian outlook is the rejection of state intrusion into the private lives of individuals. Mayor Yamada saw the juki-net system as part of unwelcome movement towards a more top-down society, concentrating power at the centre. He was very clear that the state’s ability to collect information on the individual should be based on what the individual wanted to give up, not on what the state thought it needed (this is very much the opposite of what the Prime Minister’s IT Strategic HQ said to us last week). He was also most concerned about the risks posed by large databases, both as an attractive target to external hackers and to corrupt use from inside operators. Yamada is not opposed to what he calls IT shakai (IT society), but the use of IT should be based on what is useful to individuals, and of course what is actually he needed, he argued, would often be less expensive than the massive computerisation schemes favoured by the current administration as part of their i-Japan strategy. In this sense, he said he would oppose any move to unnecessary centralised databases and certainly to any possible national ID register or card.

In most respects, what Mayor Yamada said could probably have been said by any left-wing civil liberties activist in the UK, or by conservative right opponents of intrusive state like Conservative ex-Shadow Cabinet Minister, David Davis. Perhaps many aspects of what is felt to be wrong with surveillance society do not correlate neatly with old left-right divisions. This view was shared by Toshimaru Ogura, a Toyama University professor and major figure in left-wing anti-surveillance activism whom we met with just afterwards, along with campaigning journalist, Midori Ogasawara again. Just as the Convention on Modern Liberty event earlier in the year showed for the UK, there are many different varieties of anti-surveillance feeling in Japan, and whilst opponents may disagree with each other, and may even find other aspects of the politics of their erstwhile collaborators utterly distasteful, they do collaborate, even if it is only for short periods.

Professor Ogura’s analysis, as that of Ogasawara and indeed of Kanshi-no! whom we met the other day, is much more focused on the way in which surveillance excludes and discriminates – against union members, activists, gaikokujin (foreigners) and so on – and also the ways in which it favours the interests not just of the state but capital. We’ll be talking to groups who deal with the concerns of these excluded people in the last week we are here. Privacy is important, but Ogura’s analysis is concerned with the disproportionate effects of surveillance. It is not just that privacy is affected but that particular groups’ and individuals’ rights are damaged more than others, and those people are not generally the ‘ordinary taxpayers’ to whom Yamada and the libertarian right are trying to appeal.

Like me, Professor Ogura is also particularly interested in the way in which particular corporations and business coalitions pushing technological ‘solutions’ to social and organisational problems can have a profound influence the way government makes decisions. Such coalitions would still be there however large government was, and in some ways, without a government large enough to stand up to the private sector, a different kind of more purely market-driven surveillance society would emerge. In that sense, it is what government does, and to whom it responds, that is more important that more arbitrary questions of ‘size’.

There’s a lot more to consider here too, in particular the extent to which any of the things we consider under the umbrella of ‘surveillance’ are actually and actively part of some coordinated state (or other) plan. I’m starting to develop a sense of this here, but I will leave those thoughts to another post.

(Thank-you to Mayor Hirioshi Yamada, Professor Ogura Toshimaru and again, to Midori Ogasawara for being so generous with their valuable time).