The key clue that led to the apprehension of a 12-year-old Nagasaki junior high school student for the July 1 murder of a 4-year-old boy was the image captured by a shopping arcade security camera of the youth walking with the victim near the scene of the slaying.
The camera was one of 18 the Hamaichi Arcade shopkeeper union installed June 9 to provide 24-hour surveillance of the 360-meter shopping street in a bid to curb nighttime violence, crime and vandalism. The union’s main reason for shelling out around 4 million yen for the video monitors was to discourage potential offenders.
When police investigating the slaying of Shun Tanemoto, who had apparently been abducted, asked to view what the cameras recorded on the night of the slaying, the union turned over the images in DVD form, said Naohide Tanaka, chairman of the shopkeeper group.
“I am glad our cameras aided the police probe into this heinous crime. But considering the original purpose of the system, I have mixed feelings,” Tanaka said. “With this experience in mind, we will operate the surveillance system by paying maximum consideration to the privacy rights of pedestrians.”
The rise in shoplifting and other thefts in recent years has prompted retailers and malls to install security cameras in strategic locations.
Shopping arcades have followed suit, as stores band together to install sophisticated surveillance systems to monitor their areas in a bid to curb crimes.
According to the latest white paper on police, the number of thefts reported nationwide jumped to 2.34 million in 2001 from 814,648 a decade earlier.
The increase was largely attributed to the soaring number of purse-snatching, shoplifting and robbery cases, which increased from 578,350 in 1992 to nearly 1.21 million in 2001. There were 303,698 burglaries targeting shops, offices and residential or other private property, and 827,593 thefts targeting vehicles.
Although there are no nationwide statistics on the number of shopping streets covered by security cameras, the Tokyo-based Group Against Surveillance Society, which looks into public surveillance systems and privacy issues, said streets covered by such cameras have increased steadily to more than 20 in the capital.
The increase owes much to efforts in the mid-1990s by the Metropolitan Police Department to encourage stores and shopping arcades to install security cameras, according to members of the group.
The number increased dramatically after the MPD installed 50 cameras in the Kabukicho entertainment district in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward in February 2002, they said.
The famous “jewelry town” district of Okachimachi in Taito Ward, where more than 200 jewelry shops and hundreds of ornament-related businesses are clustered, is the latest area to jump on the security video bandwagon.
Last week, a union of local jewelry retailers and wholesalers installed 23 cameras to provide round-the-clock surveillance in a bid to curb robberies and other street crimes.
The security cameras had been recommended by police and the Taito Ward Office, which will cover part of the 12 million yen initial cost of installing the system.
The Jewelry Town Okachimachi shopkeeper union said there have been at least 70 serious jewelry shop and dealer robberies and thefts nationwide in the past three years, with roughly 20 of them taking place in and around Okachimachi.
Yozo Hashimoto, chairman of the union, underscored the need for the security cameras, saying robbers often target customers who have just left shops after purchasing jewelry.
“Even if the robberies take place outside this district, they often start here, because robbers find their targets in this jewelry wholesale mecca and follow them, waiting for the chance to strike,” he said.
“The Nagasaki case proved that street surveillance systems can be useful for investigating crimes even when they occur elsewhere.”
Legal experts are concerned, however, that surveillance camera footage, capturing passersby indiscriminately, may infringe on their constitutional rights to privacy. They say it is imperative that laws are enacted on the operation of such cameras and on the use of the information they provide.
“It’s one thing to prevent or investigate crimes, but indiscriminate video recording of people could lead to a grave infringement of their privacy rights in the absence of laws to regulate the use of such information,” said Hirohisa Kitano, professor emeritus of law at Nihon University and a representative of the Tokyo-based citizens’ group.
“Police are expanding the use of this effective tool with private-sector funding, taking advantage of the public’s fear of crime.”
In an apparent step ahead of the central government and other municipalities, Suginami Ward plans to establish an ordinance to regulate the operation of surveillance cameras, and will launch an expert panel to map out guidelines.
The panel will discuss the responsibility of surveillance camera operators, how they should respond when police ask for footage captured by such systems, and the establishment of a third-party watchdog to prevent inappropriate operations.
Even though privacy issues may not yet be resolved, more Tokyo shopping streets are expected to deploy security cameras in the wake of an ordinance enacted Wednesday by the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly stipulating that it is the responsibility of residents and businesses to take efforts to prevent crimes.
A spokesman for the MPD, which proposed the ordinance, said street cameras are just one way of achieving this goal, but they are effective, and if communities seek ways to combat crime, the force will recommend them.