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Published:October 13th, 2009 09:30 EST

Big Brother Comes to Small Town Japan

By Geoff Dean

 Surveillance cameras are nothing new, I suppose. London and New York are famous, or infamous, examples of the power of ubiquitous monitoring but they are hardly unique. In a sense, Tokyo and the rest of Japan has lagged behind the world trend in these matters.

 Still, some are disturbed by the plans of the Japanese National Police Agency to install surveillance cameras in 15 residential areas across Japan, as reported by the Kyodo News Service. According to the report, some Japanese citizen groups have complained that the "move is an attempt by the police to boost surveillance of the public." Shocking! Surveillance cameras used for surveillance!

 Others have questioned the meaning of the locations selected for this pilot program. There are some suburban areas of Tokyo and Osaka included in the program but also I wade in rural Wakayama-prefecture (best known for citrus production), Higashi-Matsuyama in even more rural Miyagi prefecture (best known for picturesque, uninhabited islands immortalized in Haiku), Fujieda in ridiculously rural Shizuoka-prefecture (the tea growing region), and off the charts rural Amami Island, near Okinawa. As far as I have heard, these areas are not exactly hot-beds of crime or even of people. They are small, rural towns populated by the elderly, for the most part. Why were they selected over more developed city areas? What is the point of surveillance cameras in a place where there are few passers-by? Were they selected, as some suggest, because the locals were unlikely to complain about the cameras, or even notice them? Don`t ask me. It`s not so much that I don`t know, although I don`t, as I don`t live there so I don`t care. Forgive all the "don`ts" in one sentence.

 My concern is the part of the plan that got less coverage. In order to save resources, the police have decided to outsource the monitoring of the surveillance cameras to local groups. This will "help residents to secure safety by themselves" according to a police agency official. They will operate the cameras and "manage" the image data. Presumably, if they see something suspicious, they will report it to the police, who will follow up on it.

 Is it only me or is there a legitimate concern in giving local residents the ability to spy on each other? If I come home at 3AM for whatever reason, will my neighbor be watching? Will the police be notified? What if the image data gets leaked? If I happen to meet a friend of the opposite sex on the street corner, will that be reported? Especially in local areas like Amami Island, where many people already know each other, will this not lead to endless gossiping? Police harassment?

 Maybe not, since the plan calls for establishing networks of 25 cameras in each area. 25 cameras in a suburb of Tokyo. Not exactly saturation coverage. Criminals or anyone doing anything slightly suspicious need merely locate the nearest camera and stay out of range. 25 cameras in the wide-open spaces of rural Wakayama or Miyagi, where probably only one or two people might pass by in an hour. Who is going to have the pleasure of monitoring that?

 As I already said, there are no plans to install any cameras in my neighborhood in western Tokyo and the people I talked to all said, without exception, they had never seen a surveillance camera on the streets anywhere in Japan, even though some 363 are supposedly already installed at busy intersections. Still, installing them in low crime, low activity sites could be the precursor to installing them everywhere. After all, if Amami Island already has them, how can Tokyo and Osaka turn them down? Soon my neighbors may be scrutinizing my every move...

(Cue the music) "I always feel like somebody`s watching me...I can`t enjoy my tea!"