Is It Really Illegal To Take Pictures Of People Without Permission?

by Justin Sevakis,

Stefan asked:

I've seen characters in Japanese anime say that filming somebody or taking their picture without their consent is illegal. Is there really a law in Japan like this or something similar?

Here in the US and many other countries, it's almost always legal to photograph people, animals and anything else in public places without permission. As long as they're in a public area (and even privately-owned tourist attractions have been found to be sufficiently public to be treated as such), anything that happens is fair game to be photographed at any time, so long as what's being done follows "reasonable community standards." Some states also allow you to photograph private areas FROM public areas, so long as you're not peeping into someone's hotel room or dressing room. It's a little complicated, and the exact details vary from place to place.

In Japan, things tend to be weighted in the other direction, with courts generally taking a far more conservative approach to what's acceptable to photograph. Again, there are lots of shades of grey here, but generally taking wide shots of scenery that happen to have random people in it is okay, but photographing individual people without their permission is considered a violation of their right to privacy, or their "portrait rights" (a term that originated from Germany).

The "right to privacy" is a concept that doesn't really have a specific law protecting it in Japan, but rather is a "fundamental human right" that the courts there have recognized. There are two landmark court cases that are frequently cited here: the first is a 1994 case where an Osaka District Court sided against the local police for their use of a surveillance camera without probable cause. The court didn't state that ALL use of such cameras was illegal, but singled this case out for its appropriateness, the reason why it was put there, where it was put, and what the data would be used for. They found that the violation of people's privacy was not justified. A 2005 case in Tokyo ruled that photographing a specific passer-by was a violation of her rights, and that focusing on a specific person was legally different than capturing an overall vista that happened to have people in it.

These court decisions are generally in line with how the US and Japan approach a lot of things: the American way tends to be to see what you can get away with until someone tells you to stop, while Japanese society tends to favor a less aggressive approach. While the lines are not entirely clear, photographing someone without permission can open you up to lawsuits It is definitely not as safe to photograph people willy-nilly there as it is in the US and UK, so a "better safe than sorry" approach is usually a good idea.

Of course, nobody can file a complaint if they can't prove that their privacy was violated, so it's common in Japanese news programs and film productions (especially low-budget ones) to simply blur the faces of passers-by, crop their head off, or put a black bar over their eyes to make them harder to identify.

Sources: When recording in public places in Japan, privacy and portrait rights come into play (Japan Times) Ethics of Visual Anthropology in Japan (Visual Anthropology of Japan)

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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