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Japan: Debate over Google Street View continues

Less than two weeks after Google rolled out Street View in Japan, debate continues in the blogs [ja] over whether the new service is an appropriate match for Japanese culture and urban residential life. A letter addressed to the people at Google [ja], written by IT professional Osamu Higuchi, drew a huge reaction last week, bookmarked nearly 700 times [ja] on Hatena bookmarks [ja] (Japan's most popular social bookmarking service). The translation of that letter was then picked up abroad in both the U.S. and the U.K., in Japan both in English and in Japanese, and eventually even made its way onto Chinese bulletin boards [zh].

With Osamu Higuchi's Letter to Google making waves in Japan and elsewhere, a debate erupted over whether the statements contained in the letter were actually true or not. Early comments at Higuchi's blog were supportive. The first commenter, Jun Ohmizu, writes:

もう激しく同意です。
もし自分の子供の写真が写って
いたりして、たとえ顔がわからなくても
憤りを感じるだろうなと思います。
残念Google。。

I am completely in agreement with you.
If my own child was shot in the footage,
even if you couldn't see their face,
I think I would still harbor resentment.
Really disappointing, Google…

The next commenter followed up with a similar sentiment:

自分も感じてた違和感の原因がすごく良く理解できました
確かに好奇心は満たされ、普段見えない所をのぞき見る、ちょっと後ろめたい楽しみはありますが、よく考えれば怖いことですね

You've really captured well the root of the uncomfortable feeling that I also felt [about Street View].
Certainly it satisfies a certain sense of curiosity to see these places that you normally wouldn't be able to see, and there is a kind of guilty pleasure in that, but when you really think about it carefully, it's actually pretty scary.

A couple comments later, though, and a different view:

おいらは、気にしすぎだと思う。

I think you're all worrying about this too much.

日本特殊論でいえば、我が国は、下着すら人の見える場所に干して、地域のコミュニティーにプライバシーをさらしているカルチャーなのは確かだけど、そんなものに関心持ち、騒ぐのはそもそも、やはり、そのコミュニティーに属する身近な人だけだと思う。

In terms of Japan's uniqueness, it is certainly true that we have a culture in which people hang their underwear in places that everybody can see, exposing what is private to the community of the area. But from the start, the only ones concerned enough to make any noise about this are in the end the people who are familiar and already belong to the community.

今は、
「あらやだ、まっ、親戚のタロさがテレビ映ってるよ」
と同じ感覚で身近なものがストリートビューに映ってるのをみて、騒いだり恥ずかしがったりしてるけど、その人モノ土地の周りの、セグメント化されたコミュニティー内部の騒ぎなんだと思う。

Seeing familiar things on Street View, people all think to themselves the same thing: “Oh no, someone in my family is on TV”, and then they get embarrassed about it and make a lot of noise. But that noise is confined to within the community of people who are in their area.

比喩で言えば、ネットでハッカーの脅威がいわれても、本当の被害をもたらすのは、社内や身内。
「ボクの家がグーグル様に載ってる」以上でも以下でも無いのではないですかね。

In a metaphorical sense, it's like when [people] talk about the threat of hackers, even though the ones who cause the real damage are colleagues or people who are close to you.
“Your house is on Google” — it doesn't mean anything more or less than that, does it?

Aside from the original letter itself, one of the most popular blog entries on the topic of Street View was posted by blogger Taku Nakajima (id:essa) at the Uncategorizable blog, who collected together and translated excerpts [ja] from English-language comment threads on Higuchi's letter by Internet users and bloggers such as Robert Scoble. Among the many bookmark comments [ja] to that post, some debated whether there was broad agreement with Higuchi among Japanese bloggers in what he wrote.

In one bookmark, user id:gohshi reported that they had surveyed all the bookmark comments [ja] on the original Letter to Google (in Japanese), and reported the breakdown: 112 agreed with Higuchi, 93 were neutral, and 65 were against.

Hatena user id:matsunaga, who originally raised the issue in a bookmark [ja], posted a question [ja] to Hatena Question asking users about Street View, with three possible answers: (1) “[Street View,] what's that?” (何それ?知りません。), “Doesn't bother me. Seems like a good thing.” (別に気にならない。いいと思う。) and (3) “It's creepy and inexcusable. Stop it right now.” (気持ち悪い。許せない。やめろ。). Out of a total of 300 respondents, 52 (17.3%) chose (1), 123 (41.0%) chose (2), and 125 (41.7%) chose (3), indicating a much closer split of opinions, although as one blogger noted [ja], respondents were mostly people within the IT industry and not typical Japanese citizens.

Of those who were against the statements in the letter, a post by blogger id:nihen, entitled “Why I don't feel uncomfortable about Street View in Japan, and the connection to Private Information Protection Law” (日本のストリートビューが気持ち悪いと思わないワケと個人情報保護法との関係), made the case in perhaps the most straightforward terms. In the post, id:nihen takes the whole Letter to Google apart and responds to different sections one by one, starting with the statement by Higuchi that:

日本の都市部の生活道路は生活空間の一部で、他人の生活空間を撮影するのは無礼です

The residential roads of Japan's urban areas are a part of people's living space, and it is impolite to photograph other people's living spaces

id:nihen responds this way:

たしかに「得体の知れない人」がうちのまわりでうろちょろしながらカメラで撮影していたら無礼というか気持ち悪いと思い通報するでしょう。しかしそれが気持ち悪いのは「得体が知れない」からであってたとえばそれが交通量測定のためですとか、町内mapを作るためですとかgoogle street viewを作るためですとかそういうことが分かっていれば何も気持ち悪いとは思わない。むしろ「いつもご苦労様です」ぐらいなもんだ。そういう意味で googleが事前に撮影を行っていることを明らかにしていなかったことやgoogle号を積極的に公開していない姿勢は批判されてよいとは思う。しかしそれはもう過ぎてしまったことだ。

Certainly if a “suspicious person” was loitering around the area where I live and taking pictures, [I would consider it] rude, or perhaps I should say I would feel uncomfortable about it and report it to the police. However, the reason that I would be uncomfortable about that is that it's a “suspicous person”. If on the other hand for example [the person was taking pictures] to measure traffic volume, or to make a map of the neighborhood, or to make Google Street View, if I knew that what this person was doing was one of these things, then I wouldn't feel uncomfortable about it. On the contrary, I would thank the person for their work. So in that sense, I think it is fair that Google has been criticized for not making clear beforehand that they were going to be filming [these areas], and for not pro-actively disclosing to the public the Google car. But that's already done now, it's over.

To this statement in the Letter to Google by Higuchi:

僕らの生活スタイルは、生活空間の様子を一方的に全世界に機械可読な形で公開するようにはなっていません

In our way of living, you do not unilaterally, and in a machine-readable form, lay open people's living spaces to the whole world

id:nihen responds:

反論するのもばかばかしいのですが、生活の進化というのはそういうものです。結局のところそれが法で認められている限りの世の進化には私たちが対応する必要があるのです。僕らは車が軒先までやってくるような生活スタイルじゃなかった!なんて騒いでいても仕方がないことなのです。

It would be stupid to argue with this [statement], but this is just the evolution of our daily living. At the end of the day, as long as it is limited to what is permissible according to the law, this is just something that we need to deal with. There is no point in getting alarmed and making a big commotion about the fact that cars coming right to the front of our homes is not in line with our way of living.

The same blogger (id:nihen) also collected together and classified responses from other bloggers to Street View in a separate post [ja]. Hatena user id:umeten did the same in two separate entries, with a post on views for Street View [ja] and another on views against the new service [ja].

One of the sharpest rebuttals to Higuchi's post was by Nobuo Ikeda, who referred to the Letter to Google as “nonsense” and questioned the very idea that Japanese even have any concept of “privacy”:

まず海外まで紹介された樋口理氏の文化論はナンセンスである。私的な空間についての自衛意識は、欧米人のほうがずっと強い。日本の少年がハロウィーンで庭に入り込んで射殺された事件を覚えている人も多いだろう。「他人に自宅を撮られるのは気持ち悪い」というのは東洋も西洋もなく、現に欧米で訴訟が起こっている。

First of all, this cultural treatise by Osamu Higuchi that has been showcased all over the world, it's just nonsense. The sense of awareness about defending one's personal space is far stronger among Westerners [than it is among Japanese]. I'm sure there are many people who remember the case of the young Japanese boy who stepped into someone's yard on Halloween and was shot. The “feeling of discomfort about having one's home filmed by other people” is something that has nothing to do with the East or the West, and there have been lawsuits [over this] in Europe and America.

[...]

根本的な点は、_プライバシーは法的に保護さるべき人権ではない_、ということだ。これは普遍的な権利ではなく、1890年にWarren-Brendeisの論文で「有名人が私生活を撮影されない権利」として提唱された特殊な概念にすぎない。プライバシーを人権とするかどうかについては、1980年代に論争があったが、これは表現の自由を侵害する権利なので実定法で保護するのは好ましくない、というのが世界の通説だ。日本の法律も「プライバシー」という言葉は避けている。

The basic point here is that privacy is not a human right that should be protected by law. It is not a universal right, it is just the particular concept advocated in a paper in 1890 by [sic] Warren-Brendeis in the form of a “right of famous people not to have their private life photographed”. There was a controversial debate in the 1980s about whether privacy should be treated as a human right, but the prevailing view across the world was that, since this would violate the right to freedom of expression, it was not desirable to protect [privacy] through positive law. In Japanese law as well, the word “privacy” is avoided.

ところが日本人は、もともとプライバシーという概念を知らない(訳語さえない)ので、逆にそれを絶対視するのが「進歩的」だと思い込む傾向が強い。日弁連は、2002年の人権擁護大会で「自己情報主権」なるものを宣言した。これを主張する藤原宏高弁護士に「ではあなたが私を批判した文章から私が『自己情報』を削除しろと要求したら、あなたは従うのか」と討論会で質問したら、彼は絶句してしまった。

Even so, however, Japanese from the start do not know this concept called privacy (there is not even a translation for it), so there is a strong tendency to fall under the impression that to be “progressive” is to think of this term in an absolute sense. At the “Convention on the Protection of Human Rights” ["Jinken Yougo Taikai"/人権擁護大会], the Japan Federation of Bar Associations ["Nichibenren"/日本弁護士連合会] announced the “sovereignty of personal information”. When lawyer Hirotaka Fujiwara [藤原宏高], who made this claim, was asked in a panel discussion, “okay, so if I demanded that you delete ‘personal information’ from a text in which you criticized me, would you comply?”, he became completely speechless.

From Twitter, IT journalist Daisuke Tsuda [津田大介] posted a simple question [ja] related to the issue of privacy:

日本政府とGoogle、どっちの方が信頼できる?っていうシンプルな話もあるよな。

The Japanese government and Google, which can we trust more? — there's also this simple question.

An earlier one-line tweet by Daisuke Tsuda sparked yet another bookmarks thread [ja].

Many bloggers meanwhile questioned Higuchi's depiction of urban areas. In comments at Higuchi's blog, Eru-san writes:

一点だけ。
僕は日本人で都市部生活者だけど、申し訳ないことに「日本の都市部の生活道路は生活空間の一部」などという感覚は持ち合わせておりません。

Just one point.
I'm Japanese and I live in an urban area, but I'm really sorry, I do not have this sense [that you have] that “Japan's urban areas are a part of people's living space”.

「僕ら」などと日本の都市部生活者代表のような言い方をされると気持ち悪くてしかたありません。

I can't help but feel uncomfortable when you use expressions like “we” ["bokura"/僕ら], this style of speaking that makes it seem like you are representing all people living in urban areas of Japan.

At Baldanders.info, another blogger offers a perspective on privacy as someone who grew up outside of these urban areas:

たぶん私が田舎出身だからそう思うのかもしれないが,路地が生活空間の一部というのには共感できるが,それがプライバシー問題と直結するとは思えない。なぜなら,その「生活空間」はご近所等の地域コミュニティの共有空間であって私的空間ではないからだ。

Maybe it's because I'm from the country, but although I can sympathize with the idea that [Japanese] alleyways ["roji"/路地] are a part of the living space, I don't think that this is connected to the problem of privacy. The reason [I say this] is that this “living space” is a shared space of the neighborhood community in the area, and is not a private space.

喩えるならそれは古い家にある「土間」と同じ。土間は家の中に作られているけど,実はご近所の人たちとの共有空間の一部になっている。たとえ家人が留守であっても,近所の人が土間に入り込んでお茶してるなんてのは日常風景であった。

For point of comparison, think of this as something like the “dirt floor” ["doma"/土間] in old [Japanese] houses. The dirt floor was created inside the house, but in actual fact it has come to be a part of the space that is shared with people living in the community. So for example it was an everyday custom that, even when the family of the house was out, people from the neighborhood would actually enter the house and have tea there.

つまり,その「生活空間」に入ってくる Street View という「異物」は私的空間を侵すものではなく,ご近所という共有空間を侵してくる。これはプライバシーの問題とは思えないけど,(もしかしたら)日本特有の密な空間とその外部との関係について議論するきっかけになるんじゃないかと興味を持っている。それはおそらく日常のセキュリティ管理にもインパクトを与えるはずである。

In other words, this “foreign substance” Street View which has entered into people's “living space” is not something that intrudes on people's private space, but rather something that intrudes on the shared space of the neighborhood. So although I don't see it as a problem of privacy, I do hope that this issue will form the starting point for a discussion on the relationship between the tight spaces that are peculiar to Japan and what is outside of these spaces. This must also have an impact on the way that security is managed in everyday life.

One comment on the translation of Osamu Higuchi's letter pointed out the importance of Japan's architecture and sight angles on the way that Street View portrayed Japanese alleyways. Blogger and security researcher Hiromitsu Takagi [ja], in an entry that received a large response [ja], decided that he would actually go out and have a look at in person at the areas that Street View covers, to see what things actually look like:

さて、Googleマップの「ストリートビュー」だが、日本でも開始されたと知って早速いろいろなところを見てみたところ、それは予期していたのとは違うものになっていた。車一台スレスレ通れるか通れないかのような細い道にまで撮影車が積極的に入り込んでおり、特に予想外なことに、住宅密集地で、高い視点から塀の中を見下ろして撮影している。

Now, when I found out that Google Maps’ “Street View” had been introduced in Japan, I right away took a look at various different places, but what I found was different from what I had expected. The Google car had penetrated into very narrow streets that had only barely enough space for cars to pass through, and what was especially unexpected to me was that footage had been taken from a very high vantage point, so that you could look down over the walls [around people's homes].

To have a look at what Takagi found, taking pictures from eye level and comparing them to what Street View shows, have a look at the original post [ja].

Finally, many of the debates about Street View have been (understandably) confined to people in some way connected to the IT world. One blogger, Akihito Kobayashi, brought a bit of perspective into the whole debate by reporting on what his mom had to say when she saw Google's new service:

で、たまたま実家に帰る機会があったので、母親(年齢は息子が35歳だという点からご推察下さい)にストリートビューで自宅近くを見せてみました。すると即座に返ってきたのが、

Just by chance I had a chance to return to my parents’ home, so while I was there I showed my mom (whose age you can guess from the fact that her son is 35 years old) areas near their house on Street View. As soon as I showed it to her, she came back with:

「うわっ、気持ち悪い。泥棒とかに使われたらどうすんの?怖いんじゃない?」

“Oh my! Ew, that's creepy. What if it's used by robbers or something? It's scary, no?”

という答え。いやいやお母さん、これって面白いじゃん!と反論しようと思ってやめました。母親の世代にしてみれば、これが普通の感覚であり、それはロジックで変えることなどできないものだ――と感じたからです。

That was the answer. No no, mom, this is really interesting! — I was going to try to object like that, but then I stopped myself. Because I realized that if you think about it from the perspective of my mom's generation, this is the way people feel, and these kinds of things you can't change with logic.

Thanks to Taku Nakajima for suggestions on this article.

  • jg

    It may sound hard to believe, but some people here in Japan are confused, thinking that the camera views are *live*. Obviously that would be a stalker’s dream.

    There’s nothing on street view that couldn’t be snapped in much higher resolution by someone walking the same public routes. Showing private dwellings from the outside and trespassing is not the same thing.

    For purposes of giving and checking directions, weeding out areas and buildings when you’re looking for a place to live, or just having fun, it’s invaluable. Leave it that.

  • statiq

    Thanks for the follow-up post.

    In your covering of that debate, have you ever come across the information that Google isn’t the fist company to offer such a service in Japan?

    On 14 May 2007, about two weeks before Google launched street view in the US, a Japanese site called Location View started offering the same type of 360° street imagery for major Japanese cities (including residential areas):
    http://www.locaview.com/

    I don’t know if there were any negative reactions or criticisms when that site launched (granted it certainly isn’t as high profile as Google).

    While not sharing them, I can understand some of the privacy concerns about street view but I think it’s unfair that Google is being criticized and painted as a foreign company that doesn’t “get” Japanese culture when a Japanese company did go the exact same way.

  • 太郎

    そこは微妙だな。ロケーションビューはグーグルほど有名じゃないし、日本で有名なヤフーは(日本をよく知っているので)このようなサービスは始めないだろうと思うよ。

  • pettis

    @太郎: Is the prominence of the company offering such a service really an issue? Even if one deems a Street View-style service unacceptable, the size or visibility of the company offering the service shouldn’t alter one’s opinion–it’s either acceptable or unacceptable. Or are you suggesting that because Google is a large, well-known company it should show more restraint concerning potential problems with personal privacy, that we should hold it to a higher standard?

    I don’t understand why these objections must be focused on cultural essentialist arguments. I think you’d be able to find plenty of Americans (or those in other countries) who share some of the same concerns expressed by Japanese who are weary of this technology and its potential uses and abuses. The only thing “cultural” about these reactions is perhaps the terms in which they are posed.

  • http://www.globalvoicesonline.org/author/chris-salzberg/ Chris Salzberg

    @static:

    I had seen a comment mentioning Localview, but since it didn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere else I figured that it hadn’t made much of an impact in the local context. But thanks for bringing it up.

    @太郎:

    Translation:

    “I don’t know about that. Localview is not nearly as well-known as Google, and Yahoo, [a company] which is well-known in Japan (and knows Japan well) would not start a service like this.”

    @pettis:

    I think the prominence of the company is certainly an issue, personally. As 太郎 pointed out, Yahoo, who is the company in Japan closest to Google in terms of its profile, would not roll out a service like this one in the way that Google did.

    I also tend to think that the “cultural” reactions go deeper than “the terms in which they are posed”. Osamu Higuchi’s letter was going a bit overboard (as he himself has admitted), but the basic message that “culture matters” is still very relevant, in my opinion.

  • ぴょん♂

    The resolution of the graphics served by locationview is acceptable. No zoom up function is available.

  • ぴょん♂

    グ~グルのストリ~トビュ~では、撮影カメラの位置がかなり高く
    家の塀や生垣、外の通行人から見えないように設置した目隠しの上から
    中を覗くように撮影されている。 
    日本グ~グル社は、「ストリートビューは、日本の法律にもとづいて公共の通りから集められるイメージのみを表示しており、例えば道を歩いていて見ることができるイメージと同じです。」と主張するが、現実には 日本には存在しない 身長2.5m以上の長身からの視線を世界に公開しており、グ~グル社は配慮に欠けている。

  • 可愛い奥様

    Location View は節度あるサービスをしております。
    Google とは違います。
    違いはここでレポートされています。
    http://takagi-hiromitsu.jp/diary/20080815.html

    歩行者の写真
    http://takagi-hiromitsu.jp/diary/fig/20080815/4.jpg

    Location View
    http://takagi-hiromitsu.jp/diary/fig/20080815/5.png

    Google Street View
    http://takagi-hiromitsu.jp/diary/fig/20080815/3.png

  • http://www.globalvoicesonline.org/author/chris-salzberg/ Chris Salzberg

    @ぴょん♂:
    Quick translation:

    グ~グルのストリ~トビュ~では、撮影カメラの位置がかなり高く家の塀や生垣、外の通行人から見えないように設置した目隠しの上から中を覗くように撮影されている。 
    In Google Street View, the position of the camera is very high. This allows you to peek over fences and hedges — [obstacles] which are put there to hide [this view] from pedestrians — and see inside people’s homes.

    日本グ~グル社は、「ストリートビューは、日本の法律にもとづいて公共の通りから集められるイメージのみを表示しており、例えば道を歩いていて見ることができるイメージと同じです。」と主張するが、現実には 日本には存在しない 身長2.5m以上の長身からの視線を世界に公開しており、グ~グル社は配慮に欠けている。
    Google Japan is insisting that: “Google Street View presents only a collection of images which are taken from public streets, based on Japan’s laws. This is the same as what a pedestrian sees when walking down the street.” But in reality, Google is presenting a view to the entire world [of Japan] from the eye level of a person who is over 2.5 meters high, a person like none who actually exist in Japan. Google is not being considerate here.

  • http://www.globalvoicesonline.org/author/chris-salzberg/ Chris Salzberg

    @可愛い奥様:

    Quick translation:

    Location View offers their service within reasonable bounds.
    Google is different.
    This difference is reported on here:
    http://takagi-hiromitsu.jp/diary/20080815.html

    Photos [from the perspective of] a pedestrian
    http://takagi-hiromitsu.jp/diary/fig/20080815/4.jpg

    Location View
    http://takagi-hiromitsu.jp/diary/fig/20080815/5.png

    Google Street View
    http://takagi-hiromitsu.jp/diary/fig/20080815/3.png

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