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How to enjoy street photography in Japan

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

A man walks under a street light in a back street in Osaka
Shadowy images where the subject is not easily identified are considered OK for Street Photography

Tourism is booming in Japan, so it's time to pack that camera and come here for some street photography magic. After all, whose Instagram isn't complete with a photo or two of Geishas, cosplayers and drunk salarymen?

Before you rush off and start chasing the locals (this happens), you should understand how Street Photography works in Japan, what the legal limits are, and why convention and privacy will sometimes trump your right to take that shot.

This is all legal advice, right?

No. This is based on my research over the past couple of years. I've looked at various legal websites, photographer sites and the websites of newspapers.

It's not formal legal advice; as always, individual circumstances and a degree of "Judge Risk" prevails.

Is street photography illegal?

As far as I can see, street photography is not illegal in Japan. Indeed, freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution, albeit with limits. In general, photographing people in public spaces is not against the law.

However...

Private spaces can restrict photography. Temple grounds, shopping malls, parks and even individual streets may have "no photography" signs. While some may be tolerant of casual selfie-snapping, if you attract attention, you could be approached, asked to delete your photos and, if you refuse, the police called.

A street performer juggles with knives in front of a crowd in Kobe
Street performances are generally OK as there's no expectation of privacy for the audience. Just keep your focus on the performance.

The police?

In general the police aim to keep the peace. Still, you will usually lose if it comes to an argument between a local and a tourist. If the argument turns aggressive, remember you can be held for up to 72 hours without legal representation, phone calls or access to your embassy. And they'll still delete your photos before they deport you.

An apology, deleting the offending image and going on your way is recommended.

How do I avoid the cops being called?

99.9999 percent of people experience Japan without a problem. It's the odd one or two who make the headlines. If you're respectful and maintain your dignity (and that of your subject), you shouldn't have a problem.

Great. So I can sell my awesome street photos!

You'll generally be fine if you want to post your shots on social media or your website. Some forums exclude street photos of people without a release, so always check the rules before sharing.

If the photo is used for commercial purposes (such as advertising or promotion) you'll need a model release from your subject and every other person who can be identified. People wearing masks, distinctive clothing or hairstyles could be identified and should be under a model release.

Between these extremes are photos with a public interest slant (which is where Street Photography is often pitched). Images used for documentary or journalistic purposes should be OK to include in a photo book or exhibition, even if the subject is identifiable.

A crowd of people beneath an advertising sign for Asahi Super Dry
Crowd shots are generally considered OK.

So I can sell my photo book, "Drunks of Tokyo?"

Japanese defamation laws are a thing of wonder. Even if what you present is entirely true, courts can find the subject was defamed if the hurt to their reputation exceeds the public interest.

In other words, photos of drunks slumped over Shinjuku at 2am could land you in court.

And how does this all legal stuff happen?

This is where it gets interesting. Within Japanese law there is a concept of criminal defamation, and often "victims" will pursue a criminal case rather than a civil one. This opens you up to prison time as well as damages.

If you've included a subject's photo in your book "Drunks of Tokyo," you'll have to prove they were drunk and there's a public interest in people knowing it.

A group of people stand around in front of a shrine in Japan, eyes fixed on their phones as they play Pokemon Go!
Is there a public interest in this shot? It was taken during the height of the Pokemon Go! craze at a temple that became a Pokestop with a rare collectible sometimes appearing. I've rarely seen so many people doing the same thing in absolute silence.

Where are the limits?

My approach is to think of how vulnerable the subject is. A bunch of mates laughing outside a tourist trap are less vulnerable than someone unconscious in a shop doorway.

In general, I avoid subjects who are

The latter point is significant if your subject is a woman. Japan is prone to misogyny, and women on their own are seen as targets by some people (mostly men). There is an obscure law you can run into if your behavior causes distress, even if you meant no harm.

Generally the rule is crowds and groups are OK, but ask permission before shooting a street portrait.

A man holds up his phone to take a photo of a flower arrangement on the street, while his wife stands beside him. Both have their backs to the camera
This shot is probably OK as the subjects can't be identified.

Does this mean I have to ask Geishas to take their photos?

Let's dispense with a couple of misconceptions here. First, Geishas are not sex workers. They're entertainers, companions and confidants. They work extremely hard, take years to learn their craft and are professionals deserving of respect by any stretch of the imagination. Second, they're not tourist attractions.

Some areas, Kyoto is notable, ban photographing Geishas to protect them from the horror stories of being chased by tourists determined to take a photo. You may need a permit, which will cost you money but only entitle you to take some of the images you want.

If you encounter a Geisha and would like to take their photograph, please approach politely and ask. Most will say no, and a few will say yes. Either way, you'll have had a pleasant encounter.

And the pretty girls in Kimono?

I once watched an American tourist try to convince a girl in a Kimono to let her take a photo. The photographer appeared convinced their potential subject was a traditional Japanese woman. She was a Chinese tourist. Many women and couples in tourist hotspots wearing "traditional" Japanese dress are also tourists.

Just so you know.

Black and white image of a woman in a kimono standing on the steps of a temple smiling, while people look on
Taken during an early visit to Japan, everyone was photographing everyone else. This would be OK for social media, not for a commercial image.

But I'm a foreign tourist, so I'll be fine!

Being a foreigner may get you some leeway, but it isn't a defense in law.

If you are challenged by a cop or a local, take a moment to reflect. Something about your behavior has made the people around you uncomfortable enough to speak out. That's an achievement in itself.

What you may have thought was perfectly acceptable behavior in your usual street photo hunting ground has clearly missed the mark here in Japan. You've been warned by the locals, so heed the warning.

A taxi winds its way through a backstreet in Osaka, Japan, surrounded by bright lights
If you photograph a vehicle, blur or blank out the number plate before sharing it.

So, street photography in Japan. Is it worth it?

Japan is a beautiful country full of amazing people and incredible scenes. If you capture some of them in your camera, that's brilliant. Don't let a quest to take a specific shot ruin your memories.

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction.

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