Google Streetview Japan Opinions

August 10, 2008

I just finished this article on Japanese Reactions to Google Streetview entitled Japan: Letter to Google about Streetview.

It posts a partial translation of a letter written by a person named Osamu Higuchi who argues that Google should end its Streetview program in Japan. He sites a series of cultural reasons such as it’s rude to take someone’s picture without their permission, and that the Japanese everyday lifestyle is not to be shown to people all over the world. He discusses whether people keep their houses tidy or not, whether looking at someone’s front gate is peeping or not. Higuchi even argues that the demerits of Google Streetview in Japan were never discussed in the mass media because of the Japanese media’s anti-microsoftness.

I wish the translator had also looked at the comments section as well. There are lots of comments from people who completely disagree. Most people said that he was just thinking too much. Some also accused him of having the kind of thinking that keeps Japan separated from the rest of the world, the kind of thinking that presumes some kind of uber-uniqueness of the Japanese people over other country’s people (with the fault of not knowing enough about other people in the world to see the similarities).

People who don’t know a lot about Japan or don’t read a lot of Japanese will probably agree, but we know better don’t we. There are already tons of blogs on which interesting Streetview views have been found, a lot of them do not promote the kind of image of Japan that some people in Japan will want to show. Japan is gradually becoming more open and real, and it’s about time for Japan to start staring its social problems in the eye and stop hiding them.

What Mr. Higuchi may actually be most concerned with are images caught of high school kids walking down the street together in which the boy has a hand on the girls breast, images of people walking into love hotels and brothels. Some of these places are on major streets, and people living here in Japan see these things everyday. A lot of people here want to continue to portray (and themselves believe) the image of Japan as a pristine, polite nation.

Here is an example of something I often see driving down the street that people like Mr. Higuchi and other people unrealistic about the realities of modern life in Japan don’t want you to see. There’s a lot of road peeing going on here.

The photo comes from a blog called “Google Map Streetview Collection” it has beautiful pictures, funny pictures, crazy houses, even one that caught a model in the middle of a photo shoot.

I encourage everyone to play with Google Streetview in Japan if you want to know what some of the streets look like. It will also help if you are planning to do some walking tours, because as you probably know, most streets in Japan have no names. It could be useful for finding good landmarks to use on your travels.

I hope Google streetview covers even more of Japan. Anything that will open up and loosen up Japan is very welcome here!


1 Chris August 10, 2008 at 10:13 am

Hi there,

Thanks for taking up this story in such detail. Just wanted to respond to the comment that: “I wish the translator had also looked at the comments section as well.” Actually I have looked at them (mentioned that in a comment to the post), and I have considered adding translations of those as well, but the original post itself was already quite long and there are other stories to cover (you’re welcome to do add translations of those in the comments section if you like, would be very interesting).

But in any case the point of the translation was to get people talking about this, since the original had been such a conversation-starter in the Japanese blogs. Conveying the full depth of debate on this issue right now in Japan would require a lot more work. Maybe in a follow-up post sometime…

2 jay August 10, 2008 at 12:20 pm

Thank you very much for the comment. I agree that it’s a topic that needs to be talked about. In Japan it’s illegal to take a person’s picture without their permission. I hope Google is blurring faces here!

I wonder though if privacy concerns are going to make Google have to quit doing Streetview, or make the world look like a ghost town.

3 Iain Barraclough August 10, 2008 at 12:32 pm

The original post referred to on Global Voices Online, and the comments that follow it, make for interesting reading.

One of the comments is from a Julian Stoev, who suggests that the Japanese need to get over their uber-uniqueness, and I would echo that thought.

The Japanese way of life is arguably “unique”, mainly because Japanese society is relatively insular and stuck in an archaic social paradigm (including vestiges of Shintoism and emperor-worship), having never really gone through the baptism of fire of the Reformation and into an Age of Enlightenment. Japan rests rather on its “customs”, which must not – of course – be offended.

As for the original post by Chris Salzberg, I would suggest that he should rely less on what he says in a comment – that he thinks Japan’s uniqueness “is a good thing” (based on no logical argument that I could find in the thread), and should instead take a rational look around himself. For example, why should Japanese people be afraid of social scrutiny?

If he did take that approach, he might observe that, as a general rule, wherever one finds that custom must be obeyed – and especially philosophical/religious custom – one will tend to find fascism in disguise, usually as political/religious ideology/dogma. For example, the “female circumcision” (a euphemism for the horrifically barbaric practice of female genital mutilation) of 12 year old girls in the non-secular Muslim-dominated Egypt, and some other Muslim societies in Africa.

“Hey – it’s our custom. We’re doing no harm. Leave us alone if you don’t share our beliefs.”

Yeah, right.

If anyone thinks that this doesn’t apply in Japan, then they should consider this: The peace with Japan and the rest of the world might not have been so effective and long-lasting if the Americans had not identified and addressed two systemic causal problems in Japanese society – the Shinto religion and the emperor’s state rites, both being embedded in the Japanese paradigm, along with “patriotism”. The politicisation of Shinto was typified by a Japanese Ministry of Education ruling of 1932 which acknowledged that Shinto shrines were non-religious establishments for fostering patriotism. State Shinto became a mouthpiece for the militarist regime of the 1930s. After Japan’s defeat in 1945 the American Occupation authorities decreed Shinto’s disestablishment, ending State Shinto. The emperor’s state rites were recategorised as the private rites of the imperial family. End of problem – apparently.

That does not mean that the pardaigms of Japanese society should not evolve into something more civilised in terms of individual and collective responsibility, freedom and liberty.

4 jay August 10, 2008 at 2:19 pm

I agree completely. I would even go so far as to say that sometimes I find that the Japanese customs people adhere to, their reasoning is often based on a misunderstanding of their own culture or a mistaken type of comparison to another country. A simple example of this are the myriad of people here who prefer living in Japan over say Australia because “Japan has four seasons”. It even applies for people in different areas of Japan. I’ve lived in two cities that claimed superiority over other cities because of their proximity to both mountains and oceans. For the record, Japan is an archipeligo. It’s not too hard to find places near both mountains and the sea.

I really like living here, but hope for the day when everything is out in the open, people are talking about things (as we are here and in other comments), and figuring out ways to be happy, secure, productive… openly.

5 Chris August 17, 2008 at 2:04 am

Hi Jay,

Posted a follow-up piece with translations of comments from the original post, as well as bloggers with differing views on Street View. Have a look when you have a chance.

6 Dave August 18, 2008 at 2:07 am

Interesting to see the opinions on this Street View. The common Japanese opinion is that they don’t like it because it might show Japan in a slightly less than perfect light. Japan, being the beautiful country with 4 seasons (and, as I have been told here, the only country which does have!) and to have people shoing public displays of affection or couples walking into love hotels would be not on. Similarly, the Waiwai section of the Mainichi website was closed because of a couple of Japanese online campaigns that it showed Japan off in a bad light.

And yet on TV you see “tarento” going to foreign countries and doing a worse job for international relations than this software ever could. Just yesterday I saw some creature in a school uniform and 1″ thick painted on eyebrows walking through South Africa and it just had me cringing.