A guide to street photography in Japan
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.
So this is all legal advice, right?
What follows is based on my research over the past couple of years. I’ve looked at various legal websites, photographer sites and news reports.
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. If all you’re planning to do is share some shots on your social media, as long as you’re respectful and sensible, you should be good to go.
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.
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.
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 in Shibuya 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.
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
- children or with children
- drunk or asleep
- traveling on public transport (trains, boats and buses), although platforms are generally OK
- the sole person in a setting (e.g. a single woman walking on a street).
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.
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.
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.
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.