Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ethics of Visual Anthropology in Japan - Part One

As long and loyal readers of this blog are well aware, VAOJ has always been concerned about the ethics of photographing and filming in public. How can visual anthropologists best illustrate various aspects of Japanese culture and still protect the lives and interests of the people we research? This question is not only philosophical and academic in nature; for me as an active visual anthropologist and teacher it is an everyday concern. What right(s) do I have as an anthropologist to take pictures/video of Japanese people living their everyday lives? And how can I best advise my students who follow the same pursuit?

These are not easy questions and Japan seems to be an especially challenging arena to explore these issues. Loyal and long readers have put up with my procrastination for some time. Many apologies are in order. And so here I go...

The goal of this exercise is to establish a set of guidelines for my students and other visual anthropologists of Japan in their pursuit of using visual media and methods in their ethnographic pursuits. To this end I have been examining ethical standards of academic organizations, Japanese privacy and portrait rights laws, practices of photographers in Japan and the experiences of anthropologists in the field dealing with real life issues and dilemmas. Needless to say the amount of information and data is overwhelming. And so I have decided rather than present a finished piece of work, I will do a work in progress presentation utilizing the advantages of the blog format. Here I can use words and multimedia images and solicit feedback through the course of my research and fieldwork. And so (once again), here I go...

Three things have especially encouraged me to end my procrastination in this endeavor. The first is that the new semester starts in less than a month. This semester I hope to incorporate more information and exercises in photography, so ethical standards of what students can photograph for the course is especially important.

The second thing is a recent article about a police officer taking pictures of a woman's legs on the train. This story is different from the usual and countless stories of men taking "up-skirt" photos. Here, a man, a police officer no less, is taking a photo on his cell phone on the train, a public space. The story appeared in Japan Today, 1/12/09:

Cop arrested for taking picture of woman’s legs on train in Kanagawa

(I provide the entire text of the story as I am unsure how long the link will work.)

A 59-year-old police lieutenant was arrested early Monday for violating a Kanagawa public nuisance ordinance, accused of taking pictures on his cell phone of a woman sitting across from him on a train on Sunday.

Shigeyuki Usui, head of the traffic section at the Misaki police station in Miura City, is accused of taking a picture of a 24-year-old woman’s legs as she sat across from him on the Keikyu line at about 6 p.m. on Sunday. The man sitting with the woman told police he noticed Usui’s cell phone camera flash and heard the camera function twice. He took Usui to station staff when the train stopped at Kanazawabunko station.

One photo of the woman’s legs was found stored on Usui’s cell phone, but he has denied the allegation, saying: “I pressed the wrong button on my phone. I didn’t mean to take a picture.” Usui also said he had been drinking at a friend’s house in Yokosuka City and was on his way home.

Link to story and comments at Japan Today:

So taking photos in public is a public nuisance in Kanagawa? Or is the issue that a man was taking photos of a woman in public without her permission?

The third thing is the "Picture of the Day" at Japan Today, 1/14/09.

(Image borrowed from Japan Today, 1/14/09)

Caption reads: This poster, featuring celebrities’ photos, has been put up at subway stations by the Japan Association of Music Enterprises (JAME) to raise public awareness of portrait rights of celebrities.

Link to photo and comments:

Portrait rights seems to be an important issue in Japan, and although the "rights" in question in the above article seem to be for celebrities and their managing companies, the issues involved might shed important light for the practicing visual anthropologist. With this in mind, I found a couple of blogs dealing with (and mostly critiquing) the idea of portrait rights for famous people. See the following example:

(Image borrowed from

Why is it that you always see pictures of people with their faces blurred out on Japanese blogs? Is it because that the faces have not been blurred out but are actually of people who have blurry-face-disease? The answer is Japanese Portrait Rights(肖像権(しょうぞうけん)) - rights introduced to "protect" folks in the entertainment industry but has become widespread enough to affect just about everybody in Japanese society. Read on to find out why I think that this is a bad thing.

Link to Danny Choo's article on Portrait Rights in Japan

And another:

(Image borrowed from Neomarxisme.)

Infringement on their "portrait rights" (肖像権). You see, the portrait rights are not only a "personal right" (人格権) but also a "property right" (財産権). "Portrait publicity rights" (肖像パブリシティ権) are a big part of the entertainment industry's profit structure, and although there are no laws specifically protecting these rights, the courts have ruled in the management companies (jimusho)'s favor over the years. These rights mean that I can't just throw a picture of Amuro Namie on my candy bars to help sell them in the market.

Link to "Stop Using Images of People We Own!" on Neomarxisme:

One interesting point here, I think, is that there are no existing laws regarding portrait rights specifically whether it be for celebrities or common folk. It seems unfortunate (but not surprising) that courts seem to side with the big businesses. Also of interest is the seemingly unrealistic aspects of these so-called portrait rights. I have witnessed on numerous occasions that whenever a famous person is in view, the hordes of people in the public are all taking pictures of them with their digital cameras and cell phone cameras. Are these people all breaking the law? Of course it depends on what these people do with the images they capture. So what is they post them on a private blog? Or an "educational blog?" Is this OK?

For the purposes of visual anthropology we really need to move away from celebrities and focus on real people. What rules do we need to follow when we do visual anthropology in Japan? What is we are doing a study on fashion and want to photograph women's legs on trains? Is this really a public nuisance? Do we need to get permission from people in public spaces when we photograph them for academic purposes? What are the laws?

I will continue and deal with these questions in my next post. Until then, please give me feedback.


Anonymous said...

First of all, thank you getting this thing going. Nicely in time for my next visit to Japan too.

As regards the police man, I got confused first because I immediately thought it was exactly the same as up-skirts. You're arguing it's different because the woman's legs were in plain sight, yes? Maybe you could spell that out a bit more clearly: I think we all know he didn't take that photo because he wanted to study ladies' fashion, so it's not immediately obvious why his case is different from up-skirts.

The point that anti-voyeur/pervert laws could be used against regular street photography is valid, though I guess I'm inclined to wait for a case with no obvious sexual harassment spin before drawing any conclusions. I also wonder how this kind of incidents would play out at different settings; would a regular police box that didn't have their pervert stamp ready 24/7 react the same way as the train authorities?

I think the ethical question is pretty clear cut here, even if the legal isn't. If he had legit reasons for wanting a clearly risqué shot, asking permission first should be common sense in every country. Or to put it another way, the reasons to shoot candid are either because you want to capture the moment, or because asking permission from everyone in the photo would be too much of a hassle. Neither of those applies in this case, nor in hypothetical study of ladies' fashion scenario.

The portrait rights issue is hard too. The danger of legal repercussions from posting a shot on a blog somewhere is of course infinitely small, but still. I'm sure you're intending to come to this later, but there are a number of Japanese photographers who have taken candid photos on the "street" and got them published: Kineo Kuwabara, Daido Moriyama, Tadahiko Hayashi, Ihei Kimura, Araki, etc. Is there a different law for "art" or did they have publishers that don't mind risking legal trouble?

visual gonthros said...

Many thanks for your comments - you have given me much to think about.

I think the JT article does a good job of distinguishing the police officer's act from the usual up-skirt. He was sitting across from her on the train when he snapped his shots as opposed to sticking a camera in a position to capture a private area.

Of course the guy is a pervert. But what I want to know is what was the crime? Was the crime taking a photo in public or was the crime taking a risqué photo? If the former, then I am asking my students to break local ordinances to complete their visual anthro assignments. If the latter, why was it risqué? Doesn't the person being photographed share some responsibility for public conduct (I'm sure I'm opening a huge can of worms with this question, but so be it...)? This illustrates even further foreign students' need of a set of guidelines for taking photos in Japan. In Japanese culture, what is considered to be inappropriate to be photographed in public?

We might call on common sense here. But common sense differs from culture to culture and from person to person.

As you note, there have been plenty of Japanese (and foreign) street photographers who have published their photos as "art" or even "the truth." Did laws and regulations apply to them? Times have changed and things are changing now. I have contacted many photographers currently working in Japan and am getting some interesting responses. I need to wait for a few more replies before I can do another post. Please stay tuned. And please comment further.