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Tokyo’s robotic eyes are everywhere

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

You are not alone.

You are never alone.

Is that comforting, or terrifying? It’s up to you. But Josei Seven magazine writes about “our surveillance society” in these terms: “Take one step outside your house and wherever you may be — on the street, in a store, at a train station, in a taxi — chances are a security camera has its eye on you.”

Comforting? Maybe, from a potential crime victim’s point of view — and we’re all potential crime victims. But that’s not all we are. Is it possible to live comfortably with the notion of being perpetually watched? Should we have to?

There are “millions” of security cameras nationwide, Josei Seven says. Add to them the ubiquitous smartphone — how many would there be on any given street corner? — enabling anyone, anywhere, anytime, deliberately or incidentally, to photograph you and shoot you straight into cyberspace without you so much as suspecting it. If you’re the type to walk around with your fly down, muttering to yourself and waving your arms about in tune to an imaginary dialogue going on inside your head, to mention only one potential embarrassment, maybe you should take a good hard look at your vulnerability. Maybe you should put a curb on those little quirks that make you you. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt once said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

An average Tokyo housewife with a part-time job, Josei Seven figures, would in the course of a typical day be photographed by 150 to 200 cameras. First to capture her image are outdoor security cameras as she walks down a main shopping street to the train station. The station itself has cameras. So might the train she boards, and if they protect her against the notorious train gropers knows as chikan, should she be grateful? Perhaps.

She steps into a convenience store to buy lunch — more cameras; into a supermarket in the evening for groceries — more still.

Convenience stores and supermarkets generally preserve their security camera data for a month, to be scrutinized if there’s a shoplifting incident or in the event sales don’t match receipts. Maybe someone is studying your image right now, as you read this. So what, if you didn’t do anything wrong? If you feel that way, fine. Keep your nose clean and you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Speaking of clean noses — this is by way of comic relief: There’s this really good-looking parcel delivery man, Josei Seven hears from a 43-year-old housewife who was secretly a little sweet on him. One day he rang her bell, having a parcel for her. The house being equipped with a security camera, she watched him on the monitor before opening the door. Apparently concluding no one was home, the delivery man let himself go entirely — he began picking his nose. Very incautious.

A certain 45-year-old woman enjoys solo karaoke. She rents a private karaoke box and flings herself into the mood of the occasion, dancing and belting out pop songs and having herself a great time. Once, taking a bathroom break, she overheard two young male staffers talking about her: “That old girl really kicks up her heels, doesn’t she?” She was being watched! “I gave them a dirty look and they seemed embarrassed — but not as embarrassed as I was!”

Watch what you say in a taxi. Some are equipped not only with cameras but with recording devices. Two women, mothers of elementary school kids, started talking in a taxi about a third mother in their circle. They didn’t like her and were unsparing in their language. They mentioned her name. Then they learned that the third mother’s husband is a regular user of that same taxi company. He wouldn’t get to hear of their indiscretion — would he? Probably not — but certainly not? Who’s to say? Supposing he did hear — would they ever know?

Is privacy an innate human need? Judging by its relatively short history, it is not. It grows on us as civilization, or a certain kind of civilization, advances. In the West, it’s pretty much absent until roughly the 15th century. In Japan, as historian Jason Sand writes in a study of domesticity in the Meiji Period (1867-1912): “The use of rooms opening directly to one another … put Japan 450 years behind the West, where they had had corridors since the Renaissance.” The Japanese language, Sand notes, didn’t even have a word for privacy. Even today it’s the English loanword puraibashii that fills the void.

Japan most aristocratic, luxurious era prior to modern times was the Heian Period (794-1185). Soft, cultured living was the lot of the fortunate few to the manor born. Here if anywhere was a breeding ground for privacy. But nothing came of it. Servants were everywhere, seeing everything, noting everything, commenting on everything, without anyone visibly chafing. There’s a marvelous scene in the 11th-century classic “The Tale of Genji” in which the eponymous hero, wanting to promote a marriage between a young lady under his protection and an ardent suitor, releases a swarm of fireflies, exposing her beauty to the suitor’s awe-struck gaze: “There was a flash of light. She looked up, startled. Had someone lighted a torch?” Privacy meant nothing, and Genji’s action was thought, if anything, charming.

From fireflies to miniature, ultra-sophisticated, omnipresent cameras. We’ve come a long way. And puraibashii? Well, if it’s that important to you, stay home. Home — the last refuge. Not for long, maybe. Josei Seven hears this story: A 37-year-old housewife began noticing little anomalies. The underclothes in her closet seemed to have been touched. Some snacks she’d bought went missing. What was going on? Upset, she installed a security camera. And the culprit turned out to be … her mother-in-law!

Confronted, the old lady was unrepentant: “Your underwear is altogether too frilly, my dear.”

  • J.P. Bunny

    I bet Debito is convinced all these cameras are all targeted especially at him.