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Japan to introduce resident-monitored CCTV

July 7, 2009

One of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the way in which the state has attempted to adapt Japan’s traditional culture of responsibilized local community organisations (chounaikai) for the new surveillance society (kanshi shakai, in Japanese). Cynics may well argue that what is called here bohan machizukuri (or community safety development – or sometimes the similar anzen anshin machizukuri) is simply a way in which the government can attempt to save money whilst pretending to be tough on what is always claimed to be a worsening crime rate. It is also true to say that this is also a further perversion of the machizukuri (bottom-up community development) idea that came out of local environmental movements of the 1960s.

Nevertheless, the Japan Times reported that the Keisatsuchou (National Police Agency or NPA) appears to be pushing forward with plans to extend its rather small number of CCTV cameras* into 15 residential areas starting January 2010 (two of which, Higashiyamato and Musashimurayama, are suburbs of Tokyo, and I’ll be visiting these whilst I am here) at the cost of 597 Million Yen (around £3.85 Million or $6.3 Million US). There’s always an underlying fear that is played on when such systems are installed, and in this case it is a classic: the threat to children. The small camera systems(around 25 cameras in size) will be installed on streets that are commonly used by kids going to and from school.

The fact that the schemes are focused on child safety would certainly be one of the reasons why the use of local volunteer committees to watch the cameras and manage the data from local civic facilities like community centres, has been put forward. It could also be in response to opposition from some local residents to what they see as the imposition of unwanted state invasion of their privacy, although according to the Japan Times, the police say it “will help residents to secure safety by themselves.” Their big problem is that there do not appear to be many volunteers yet!

There are many questions here. One mystery is that in Japan most school runs already have several, often elderly, volunteers who look out for children in person,in a more genuinely machizukuri form of bohan machizukuri so why the more expensive cameras? Another massive question is the one around privacy and data protection. How will volunteers be expected to act as official data controllers, especially in such a sensitive area as surveillance of children in public space? Finally, what will the effect be on trust and community relations to have one set of people in the community monitoring others? How will they be held accountable?

These, and many other questions will be just some of the things occupying my time here for the next two months…

*There are just 363 NPA cameras in Japan, however there are more owned by local municipal authorities, particularly in Tokyo, and thousands more operated by private companies and shoutenkai (shopkeepers’ associations).

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