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Kyoto law puts ‘upskirt’ photography in focus

Penalty for illicit snaps upped to ¥1 million fine or a year in prison

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Each spring, Kyoto is at its busiest. The cherry blossoms bring in multitudes of tourists, and the start of the new academic year means not only thousands of local students returning to the classroom, but also busloads of junior high and high school students from around the country arriving at hotels and taking the obligatory tour of Kyoto’s historical and cultural landmarks.

At this time in particular, no visitor can fail to escape the clicking of cameras. Be they the semi-professional photographer, with his Canon EOS ID X, Nest Traveller NT-6294AK tripod and telephoto lens longer than your arm, posed on the banks of the Kamo River waiting for the right mix of light and shadow, or the hordes of tourists prowling the backstreets of Gion with their iPhone cameras, searching for Kyoto “geiko” or, really, anything “Kyotoesque” to quickly snap to prove they were there. Everybody is a shutterbug.

But in recent years, the Kyoto police have warned, another kind of photography has become a public nuisance: “Upskirting.”

Surreptitious filming or taking of pictures up the skirts of high school females has long made headlines throughout Japan. A whole subgenre of magazines exists for Peeping Toms who earn their living by taking photos on the sly, while the Internet has created unprecedented opportunities for getting photos and video out to the peeping public.

In an attempt to crack down on sleazy photographers, Kyoto Prefecture has revised an ordinance that expands the scope of protection. Ordinances forbidding covert filming do exist for public places such as shopping centers, railway stations, trains and buses, which fall under the definition of public buildings and transport systems.

The problem, however, is that their scope has traditionally been limited, tying the hands of local governments in preventing perverts from shooting illicit pictures or video, while the punishments have been deemed by police and legal experts as often insufficient to deter perpetrators even if they do get caught.

In October 2012, a male teacher at a Kyoto city junior high school was caught taking pictures under girls’ skirts. Kyoto police could not make an arrest for illegally filming and had to arrest him on another charge. But the incident sparked local interest in expanding the definition of the ordinance, which had been limited to “public places and transport.”

Expanding the definition beyond “public places,” it had long been felt, ran the risk of violating Article 35 of the Constitution, which states that “the right of all persons to be secure in their homes, papers and effects against entries, searches and seizures shall not be impaired.”

But police and law enforcement authorities had long complained that “public places” meant limited protection in quasi-public areas.

A Kyoto prefectural survey last year of 1,700 people said 63 percent did not know that schools and private workplaces fall outside the definition of a “public place”. A total of 89 percent favored extending the reach of the ordinance.

The newly revised ordinance, approved by the assembly in March, now forbids surreptitious filming at “places likely to come under the public eye.”

This means public schools, workplaces, and hospitals are now included in places forbidding such filming or photography. In addition, the revision strengthens the penalty for hidden cameras used at public hot spring bathing areas, changing rooms, and public toilets.

Moreover, in an effort to discourage illicit photographers everywhere, it creates stricter penalties for those who are caught doing all surreptitious filming.

Previously, punishment was up to six months in jail or a ¥500,000 fine. The new penalty is up to one year in prison or a fine of up to ¥1 million.

The change in Kyoto has drawn interest from other local governments. Ishikawa Prefecture plans to propose similar revisions at next month’s assembly, and other governments in the Kansai region have contacted Kyoto Prefecture expressing an interest in adopting something similar.

“It’s not just Kyoto. Other prefectures also think that their ordinances are insufficient. Twenty-seven prefectures are now considering similar revisions,” said Tokyo-based lawyer Hiromasa Hasegawa in a recent blog on Kyoto’s revisions.

The revision also comes amidst growing concern in Kyoto about crime in general, and violent crimes that may result from taking illicit photos or video, in particular.

A separate prefectural survey on safety conducted last year showed that fears of home break-ins accounted for the largest share of concern, with 58.4 percent of the 1,957 residents surveyed in June 2013 saying this is what they feared most. However, some 23 percent said that being filmed illicitly was also on their minds, reflecting increased awareness in Kyoto of the problem.

In 2008, Kyoto police sent 32 incidents of illegal filming to the prosecutors, but that figure had increased to 84 cases by 2013. With the new revisions now in place, however, Kyoto has stronger weapons to go after those who would use their cameras for illicit purposes.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.

  • Ron NJ

    Just slapping a silly band-aid on a symptom rather than addressing the root of the problem as usual. “Hey maybe if we make penalties too high then finally these creeps will drop their obsession” instead of “maybe we should figure out why there is such a problem with sexual crime in Japan and then think of ways to address the causes of this issue so that we never have to come back around and deal with the results again”. Way to think ahead, guys!
    There has to be a reason why such a huge, huge percentage of Japanese women have been sexual assaulted (multiple times, more than likely) by strangers, and why so many men spend their time molesting or taking pictures of girls on their way to and from school – efforts would be better spent addressing that issue than “oh maybe we should jack up fines and tighten rules about shooting up skirts”, because that’s going to do a whole lot of nothing in the long run.

    • JTCommentor

      Agree. But those kinds of social approaches to, lets call them, cultural issues are notoriously difficult to implement. Thats not to say they shouldnt try – of course they should. But even if successful, it would take at least a generation to see any meaningful change. In the meantime, and as the most cause-effect directed action, stiffer penalties and a broader reach seems to be a good start.

    • William

      Prevention is the best cure.
      Separate train cars for woman is a response to the symptoms not preventative method either.
      If you want to address this type of sexual harassment you need to address sexual equality as a whole in the same hit.
      This is a country that is ranked amongst the lowest in woman representation in parliament (both house) and votes in mayors who think forced prostitution is acceptable.
      Room for improvement.