Geisha “image rights”


This is something I came across a few months ago and have been meaning to post on since.

The manga above is a bilingual PR magazine published by the “International Hospitality and Conference Service Association”. I’m not quite sure what the purpose of that organization is, but its office is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I found the magazine in my pigeon hole at the correspondent’s club.

As well as articles on bonsai, English haiku and an interview with the First Secretary of the Greek Embassy, there was a two page manga about a Kyoto maiko called “Ookini Maiko chan”. The bit above gave me a surprise. I suspect this is a gentle attempt by the Foreign Ministry to educate non-Japanese about “image rights” (肖像権) in Japan.

Now, I understand that celebrities are trying to control media photos, but geisha and tourist snaps???!!! Is  some tourist who takes a geisha snap then puts it on their blog going to get a letter from a Kyoto geisha lawyer?

Well, perhaps not. But this must be indicative of the way things are going in Japan. (Incidentally, I quickly checked Flickr and there are over 35,000 photos tagged with “Geisha”.)

The manga is by Shigeo Murakami, who writes a popular series about a sushi-chef.

17 Responses to “Geisha “image rights””

  1. That is bizarre. What image rights can a person have in a public place? Well, in the States at least, none.

    Can these image rights be realistically enforced?

    As you mention there are thousands of “gaisha” photos floating out there. Though I must say that at least half of them aren’t the real deal anyway. But still.

  2. tony says:

    In Japan, people have a right to privacy, meaning they can sue for damages if photos breach that right.

    “Image rights” are something different I think. Kind of a copyright for your face? Maybe the geisha claim that the photos harm their livelihood in some way?

    In any case, completely unenforceable.

  3. Getting worryingly restrictive in many places for photographers these days. But surely as geisha basically perform any right to privacy is null and void. In the street there can be no right to this as a geisha almost never goes out without being perfect and as such uses her image to advertize herself. The fact that most viewers of the picture may never follow up on the invitation is neither here nor there. I could see geisha houses saying that all photographs taken on their premises belong to them though. If you are rich enough to be a client this probaly doesn`t matter to you in the slightest but tourists and journalists who are invited into such places my find it a problem.
    Good to have met you the other night by the way. Meant to have written that a week ago but just so busy with family more than anything else which leaves me little energy for much other thought. Am working on something for an FCCJ show as we speak however and will run it by you soon.
    Take care

  4. Alex says:

    I am working a lot with Picture and Video in Japan for both Electronic and Car Manufacturer, Image right is here no BS… I can tell you that you can be in deep troubles, and we avoid many by having to pay some organization… We have been contact several times in the last 5 years by some lawyers here, and if on a “Private” blog this would be OK, an a Commercial Website you can really get in a Nasty fight.

    Image Right is, and I repeat no BS here and difficult to grasp for foreigners working in the Image and Video industry… If you Happen be in Japan for a Shooting Trip and your Business overseas you may not get anything, but if your business is IN Japan… Man you better start hiring a lawyer.


  5. Alex says:

    Actually I am talking about everything, sorry if I was not clear ;-) But we had some “problems” in the past and even had to nearly finish this discussion with hands with some people while shooting.

  6. Alex says:

    To be clear, we had people coming right to us who wanted to take our equipment while shooting when in fact they were not in our camera visions, and this happen at several occasion in Different part of Japan. We had also been instructed at some “event” how to shoot People in certain position and not in others

  7. David says:

    Yup, where your company is incorporated makes a big difference. I’m pretty cut and clear on the rules in the states, but no idea about Japan. I would imagine that it’s basically all good until a) you get famous or make money and b) said photographed person finds ya.

  8. Being in public does not mean all photography is fair game in Japan. Image rights are usually for performers and their mangers who own the rights of the performer’s image. A geisha is a performer and thus is entitled to the same rights as a SMAP member. Commercial photographers beware and take notice. While many have said foreign photographers have never been sued in these instances, there is always a first time… Related to this are the dangerously ambiguous privacy and defamation laws in Japan. When it comes to copyright, you might want to take a look at this website – it is primarily aimed for academics wanting to use visual images in their published works.

    Also of interest might be my own current research on the ethics of photography in public in Japan.

  9. tony says:

    Hi Steven. Point taken about geisha having the same image rights as performers in Japan. But in what situation do they apply? Being in public doesn’t make you fair game for commercial photography in other countries either, hence the ubiquity of model release forms.

    But how could geisha possibly claim a web album of holiday snaps or a blog was harming their livelihood? My impression is that this is just a knee-jerk negative reaction to the Internet. David Marx explains it very well. He call it “The Fear”.

  10. Yes, the Fear… I hear you. And I do not support what the Fear has done to make our jobs whether it be photojournalist or visual anthropologist any easier. But consider the following scenarios:

    1) The geisha herself and/or her manager has a web site where they sell photos of geishas. A tourist takes some snapshots and posts them on their Flickr account. Now anyone can do a search, find the Flickr account and either download the image for free or buy it from Flickr. Loss of possible income and loss of control of the image. Under Japanese laws the individual and Flickr do not own the rights to to image and should not be selling the photos. The same holds true if an individual posts such images on a blog that has become commercialized. One can make money on their blog if they allow Blogger to post advertisements so the blog becomes a commercial money-making enterprise.

    2) Geisha have obligations to keep certain information about their clients and/or themselves confidential. If a photo of a geisha is posted on the internet (even innocently by a tourist), all sorts of information accompanies it. “Taken by my iPhone at xx:oo on such and such a date.” Locations and other images in the photos can give away certain details. Thus privacy is being breeched.

    Are these scenarios so far fetched? Tokyomango has recently started inviting reader photos which might cause may problems. Unfortunately the author has failed to respond to comments.

    I’m not trying to make up rules and/or enforce regulations. These are the current realities out there that need to be considered for the protection of the people we photograph and ourselves.

    I hope to hear reactions. Please tell me I’m wrong…

  11. […] tourism PR magazine published by the Japanese government has comic strips telling foreigners not to violate the rights of geisha by putting photos of them up on the […]

  12. RMilner says:

    People are kidding themselves if they think so-called image rights can be reserved and protected in a world where every 9-year-old has a 3MP cameraphone.

  13. […] tourism PR magazine published by the Japanese government has comic strips telling foreigners not to violate the rights of geisha by putting photos of them up on the […]

  14. anne says:

    i agree with the cartoon the Geishas are just normal human beings at the end of the day and deserve their privacy its sad that they cant go about their work without being harrased and it must be scary for them being grabbed and having cameras shoved in their face they deserve their privacy theirs plenty of fake Geishas going around Kyot iv heard wholl chat to tourists and their so convincing and they will only be too happy to pose for photos but leave the real Geishas alone

  15. William J says:

    I’m not sure you’re right, Anne. Geisha when they are “plain” are normal persons and their privacy has to be respected. But as soon as they are made up and walking in the streets in gorgeous kimono on, they are at work, they go on stage. It’s as simple as that: if you don’t want to be seen, don’t make of yourself a neon sign. By the way, a person can be recognized by his/her face, but who can understand who is under the thick make up they put on their face ? That’s the point. BTW does someone who would wear a mask of Nixxon could wave his “right to privacy”… or would the photographer have to pay some copyright to… Nixxon or the Nixxon’s mask maker ? Undoubtly this “right to privacy” in public places is an insane issue.

  16. Javi says:

    I have to agree with William J.
    I live in Japan, in a place which is one hour from Kyoto. Many times I have read from magazines or I have heard from documentaries how the Geisha´s future is now in danger, fading little by little, how girls from really far places like Hokkaido are coming to Kyoto to be accepted as Maiko and then to become Geisha. In such a situation I don´t understand why they wouldn´t want their photos published on the internet…
    It´s a very good mean of promoting their “art” and it´s also free (gratis!).
    Do you people know how much money earn a profesional Geisha working in Gion district? Maybe what they find disturbing is the possibility of being late to any of their very well paid appointments? Or the possibility of losing popularity (and consequently of losing money…) because of an overload of information about them on the net? Some people are never happy…

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