Why Street Photography in Japan Can Be Difficult

In countries like the US, if you’re in a public space, there is no expectation of privacy and therefore people are free to take photos of basically anything around them. This is not the case in Japan, however, as the country generally favors the Right to Privacy over Freedom of Expression.

For a street photographer, capturing people in their natural element of existence can create powerful imagery and invoke a range of emotions. It can paint a picture and tell a story, give others a glimpse of life somewhere unknown to them. The way it’s shot, edited, captioned and shared reflects how the photographer interpreted that moment, and a collection of these can show how they see the world as a whole. In some cases, it can serve an educational purpose. It’s an art, similar to songwriting and painting.

In “shy” Japan, it’s a bit different. Their take on it is that even if a person is in a public space without expectation of privacy, a photo taken of them should first get their approval and consent before sharing, even if it’s with neutral or positive intent. Obviously this can be rather difficult, especially in cities like Tokyo where people fly by in a split second.

This perspective does make sense on a personal level though, and it is good manners - after all we don’t like unflattering photos taken and shared of us. But giving preference to one’s rights in a situation can naturally inhibit another’s freedom. In this case, the photographer’s ability to communicate freely through their work becomes filtered, and therefore can be seen as an infringement on their right to express.

So in a public space, should a photographer be legally bound to go through the same steps to consent as if in a private space? As it is today, even if no negative or malicious intent exists and the work is not for sale or for profit, people may take legal action on the photographer in Japan.

It is said that hampering creative genius harms society, but these hurdles on a photographer’s art exists in countries like Japan.

What do you think? Feel free to comment below.

(For reference: The Photographer’s Right in the US)