National / Media | Japan Pulse

Social media fails to follow traditional news outlets' stricter approach to portrait rights in Japan

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

A man in Chiba Prefecture became irritated last month at how long it was taking for a barrier at a rail crossing to open. Losing patience, he fetched a hand saw from his van and removed the barrier arm so that he could drive through.

Unfortunately, another person recorded the incident on their phone and posted it on Twitter. The user apologized for capturing a few passing cars’ license plates, but believed it was important to capture the man’s behavior. The post went viral, attracting tons of attention online before ultimately being picked up by television networks.

When excerpts from the video were broadcast on TV, news programs blurred the man’s face. This is common practice for mass media in Japan, but this was only one of several recent incidents underlining how social media has changed such perception of privacy. Sites such as Twitter and YouTube are far more likely to encroach into someone’s space, whether the purpose is to shame someone for acting badly … or simply score some laughs.

Part of the appeal of the internet early on in Japan was the sense of anonymity granted to users. This allowed sites such as 2channel or Mixi to become hubs of online activity. Even today, Twitter in Japan stands apart from other platforms because of this, with its privacy policy even specifying that pseudonyms are acceptable.   

This anonymity has emboldened users to attack others, with no hesitation about hiding their identity. One of the most popular genres of video online is the DQN video, a slang term referring to people acting in a stupid or obnoxious fashion. Compilations on YouTube capture such behavior in convenience stores and on the streets. This has extended to all corners of the internet, where some use the Net as a way to shame anyone doing something they shouldn’t be doing.

A recent example of this occurred in Nagoya, where a man delayed a train by refusing to let its doors close. A video of the incident was shared online and was ultimately picked up by TV networks, which also blurred the faces of the people that appeared in the frame.

This is because the networks are playing it safe. Media law in Japan gives people the right to be left alone, while portrait rights allow individuals to avoid being photographed. Such legislation has been around for decades as a way to protect identities, although the application of such laws gets blurry pretty fast. In short, if you film in public and you publish the results online, a person in the footage can in theory file a complaint if their identity is clear. Such practice also applies to social media, as a person can file similar complaints to YouTube or Twitter.

In general, traditional media abides by these standards to avoid lawsuits. They are bigger targets with large financial reserves, after all. Individual online users generally don’t have to worry about this too much, although it is possible to find yourself in hot water for uploading such posts.

It isn’t all about documenting jerks and teens messing with food. The Twitter account Shibuya Meltdown shares photos and videos of people sleeping in the entertainment district, along with images of other chaotic behavior.

“Yeah, for some reason it’s the funniest thing in the world,” account founder Thom O’Brien told Vice in 2016.

Is it ethical? In the Vice interview, O’Brien wrestles with this question, but justifies it by saying being in public makes them fair game (while also avoiding ethical pits such as photographing homeless individuals). Shibuya Meltdown is ultimately a DQN account without the shaming (down to highlighting recent incidents), and has proven popular both at home and abroad. It helps that O’Brien says he doesn’t profit from the site or try to sway public opinion — compare this to a like-minded Polish photographer’s series, which was published in a book and tried to take a broader look at life in Japan. People weren’t so happy.

However, trepidation still exists. Sometimes, Japanese netizens post images on #shibuyameltdown but go so far as to blur out faces.

Maybe the best way to look at privacy on social media in Japan is to treat each user like its own TV station, and it is up to them to decide whether or not to play it safe and blur the faces. Hopefully, they will be able to save a few barrier poles at rail crossings in the process.