Photography in Japan – what are your rights?

When can and when can’t you take photos in Japan?

I received an unexpected email from an anthropology professor in Osaka about this topic last week. He had some interesting questions which I’ve pasted below with my answers. I’d love to know how other photographers in Japan would answer.

no photography

If anyone wants to fill in his questionnaire, please do so in the comments section or send your answers to me by email. I’ll pass them on.

[My reply]

The organization to ask is the 日本新聞協会 [Japan Newspapers Publishers and Editors Association]。 I went to their office in Hibiya and a one of their staff very patiently explained the rules to me. They are also printed in a handbook published by the organization called 取材と報道 [news gathering and reporting]

1) How do you go about taking photographs in public?
2) Do you get permission from the people you photograph in public? How? Oral permission? Written permission?

For photojournalists the rule tends to be “shoot first, ask permission later”. Generally speaking, I only ask permission if people have noticed I am there.

3) What do you know about the laws and regulations in this matter, especially dealing with privacy laws and portrait rights in Japan?

You need to ask the Shimbun Kyoukai about this. As I understand it, there are no restrictions on taking photos in public places in Japan. But if the picture is published and you have infringed someone’s right to privacy, they can sue you and have a good chance of winning. The example I was given was taking a picture of Shibuya crossing, publishing it in a Japanese magazine, and then being sued because a couple in the photo were having an affair. If you harmed their marriages by infringing their right to privacy you can lose in court. That’s very different to say the UK where pretty much anyone is fair game as long as they are in a public place.

The shimbun kyoukai did tell me though that no foreign journalist has been sued in this situation. It’s probably because if the picture is published outside Japan its less of an infringement of privacy.

4) Do you do anything to protect the people who appear in your photographs (like blurring out their face, etc.)?

No I don’t, basically because I’m not worried about being sued (see above). Also, it wouldn’t be acceptable in a foreign publication.

5) Do you ever compensate people you photograph in public (either money or other considerations)?

Never money. I will send them a copy of the photo if they ask.

6) If you have published your work in print, how do book publishers deal with these issues? Is it up to the photographer or the publisher to gain permission for all photos published?

This is about the difference between editorial and other photography. If you want to use the photo in an advertisement, company brochure etc you will need a “photo release” for any people or property in the photo. The photographer normally has the subject sign the release just after the photo is taken.

It is very important for stock photography as you never know where the photo might be used. In the US its necessary to make a small payment to make the contract legal I think. (There’s a lot of info about this on the internet). Photo releases have become common in Japan too.

7) What about posting pictures you have taken in public on the internet? Are there any special considerations here? Do you do anything to protect your posted photos?

I watermark my photos. See my blog, because I have just posted a link to a discussion about this.

8) Any other comments?

I recommend you ask a media lawyer about this too. (If you find someone helpful, please let me know becasue I want to set up a panel on this topic for an event at the correspondent’s club in Tokyo). You might also want to contact Prof. Kenichi Asano at Doshisha uni. He is an ex-journalist who wants to set up a “press council” in Japan similar to one in the UK. Part of the reason the rules are so complex and sketchy, I think, is that like many things in Japan, the press tends to operate under a kind of 暗黙の了解 [unspoken agreement]. Having a watchdog would make things much clearer and fairer.

21 Responses to “Photography in Japan – what are your rights?”

  1. Mark says:

    There is a law – I’ve been assured by Japanese nationals – requiring faces to be obscured in published photos. License plate numbers also seem to be regularly obscured. Don’t know about the face- obscuring issue. Seems very few faces are mosaic’ed in photos of all kinds on the Japanese websites and blogs. There also seems to be a gray area regarding photos of the girls at the beach. Cops forever seem to be arresting photographers for…taking pictures in a public place. Would be nice to know the rules about that scenario. Also, the Google Streetview images – seems to be a controversy also about photos snapped from public places.

  2. This is a very interesting post. The times I’ve been in Japan, I’ve never shot for any editorial purposes, mostly for myself as I enjoy street photography. But this is good to keep in mind. In the US, at least, as long as it is a public space, any photography is usually acceptable. With the possible exception of children, it is always more intelligent to ask parents for permission. Acquiring permission is usually not a problem, since most papers in the states really want names to go with faces, so the photog will have to approach the subject either before or (preferably) after the picture is taken. But the privacy clause in Japan is an unexpected one. (Ironically “privacy” as a notion is said to not have existed in Japan until the Meiji era. Thank you for the information.

  3. Kjeld Duits says:

    I am a photo-journalist and also shoot for my sites. As a photo-journalist I never ask permission as my images are published as news stories in newspapers and magazines, mostly abroad. But for photos that go on my site about Japanese street fashion,, I have each person that I shoot sign a Japanese language release of rights. It is a lot of extra work, but it helps as the people in the images know exactly how the images will be used.

  4. tony says:

    I don’t think there is a law against showing people’s faces. But members of the public can sue publications if they believe their right to privacy has been infringed. The media tends to blur out faces just to be on the safe side.

  5. That`s how I understand it to Tony, the media here have a fear of maybe we`ll get in trouble so blur out any identifiing features just in case. The courts have invariably come down against the photographer in any cases that have been brought and damages are high so it perhaps better to be safe. What i don`t like is the way that ordinary people have gotten this fear too though the trickle down effects of rumour and misinformation even though there is really no cause for a blogger for example to pixalate faces, and there is a growing false understanding, as in my own country of England, that it is illegal to take pictures of people in the street.
    There is a portrait right regarding celebrities where all images of japanese “talentos” have to be authorized by them or their management before being published (in Japan at least as I understand it). This is nominally to stop unofficial endorsments in advertizing, though this seems an unneed protection to me and is, I believe, a way to stop scandal stories developing much publicity in the picture led gossip mags. Also apparently all images of the royal family are property of the Imperial Household Agency.
    Love the irony in the top picture by the way.
    Take care, talk soon

  6. marc says:

    Regardless of whether there are laws that allow one to take photos in public, I confess that I’ve found it a very easy matter to get police cooperation to threaten photographers into ‘compliance’.

    In my case, I was irked by what appeared to be a team of Japanese professional photographers taking shots of us as I was walking my son to school. I indicated a firm “no! bugger off!” and they put down the camera but being a foul mood, I dropped by the police box further down in the road. In no time at all, the policeman was on them and forcing them to pack up their gear.

    Sorry – I know you guys have a right to your livelihood and everything. However, regardless whether you might have a legal right or not, I will be damned if anyone takes photographs of my kids.

  7. tony says:

    Hi Marc. Have been on exactly the other end of that situation! I was taking photos of schoolchildren for a story on the shrinking birthrate. Two policeman hauled me into a koban, checked my gaijin card, give me a ticking off, and told me to go away and take photos of Fuji-san instead.

  8. Dear Tony and others,

    Many thanks for the comments you sent to me and the ones here at Tony’s blog. While I am not done with the project, I have posted much. Please check it out if you have the chance. And feel free to leave comments.

    Thanks again.

  9. Gary says:

    In addition to the questions about shots of people, I’d like to raise the issue of images of private buildings. I notice in particular that security guards have become increasingly paranoid about people pointing a camera at their buildings. I work in Otemachi, and photograph as a hobby. Once when photographing the nice pine trees outside the AIG building, I became aware of all the building security guards converging on me, so I put away my camera and slipped away. On another occasion I saw a security guard first giving the crossed arms sign and then remonstrating with a Japanese guy with a compact camera that he’d pointed it in the direction of the old IBJ building (now Mizuho FG). I wonder if anyone knows where the law stands on this. Security paranoia aside, if I’m on the public highway, can’t I take a picture of a building?

  10. tony says:

    Hi Gary. As I understand it you certainly have the right to take a photo from a public space, but you’ll need a property release to use the photo for any commercial purpose. Architecture can be copyrighted like any other intellectual property.

    I guess you could argue with security guards, but you’d need a copy of the law in your wallet and the determination to ask to see their boss etc. (Doing the latter sometimes works well as you can take some photos while they go to look for the head honcho!)

  11. Christiano says:

    Hi there. Another useful source of information can be obtained from the Japanese Professional Photographers Society in a workshop titled: Image Rights and Problems for Authors – Two faces: Privacy rights and publicity rights
    There is a pamphlet that explains the issue well here: I had wanted to translate it but haven’t gotten around to it yet due to lack of time. But when I do I will post a link for those who are interested in reading it. (Otherwise for those who can read kanji, it is only 3 pages long and the Japanese is not overly difficult.)

  12. tony says:

    Thanks Christiano. That’s extremely useful!

  13. Ken says:

    I make street videos using my DSLR cameras and was wondering if the rules are the same as photography?
    and great topic by the way, I learned a lot.
    and also what is the main thing that I should never do when shooting street photos or videos?

    • tony says:

      Hi Ken. As far as I know the rules are the same. Seems like the main issue is that you are much more conspicuous with a video camera, and people more likely to shoo you off their property etc.

  14. mac says:

    marc – what’s the big issue with people taking photos of your kids?

  15. A different Marc says:

    Mac – parents in general do not like people taking candid pictures of their children because there are numerous pedophiles who are taking those photos for purposes of later self-gratification, and occasionally as part of a broader campaign of stalking and later abducting a child. It sets off our parental alarm bells the same way as a skeevy old guy hanging around a playground with a bag of candy.

  16. tim says:

    I don’t know much about Japan… which is why I’m looking for guidance, but I’m a little bugged by the above comment that children might have some sort of special protection under US law. No. They don’t. If you are somewhere with “no reasonable expectation of privacy,” then you are fair game. Of course, if the photo is published, then the photographer may be liable for some sort of royalties to the subject of the photo, unless they are a “public person.”

    All of my info comes from media law classes that I took at least 5 years ago in college, and IANAL, so do some double checking, but it really bothered me that people have a perception of a need to protect the children. Get over that, America.

  17. Quora says:

    Is it illegal to take pictures and make videos of people in Japan without their permission?…

    After doing a little research here is what I have determine is the case in Japan: As with most countries you can use a camera in public to shoot photos. This part alone is not illegal. Publishing a photo in any way at all is another matter. Portrait Ri…

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