Japan: Letter to Google about Street View

One year after its debut in the United States, Google's Street View has arrived in Japan, where it is already drawing criticism. Despite the company's generally positive image in this country, bulletin board threads [ja] and blogs [ja] are filled with comments questioning the way Google has rolled out its latest service. In the past few days, the CEO of a major Internet services company has spotted his own wife [ja], others have found images of men urinating outdoors, and others have caught couples entering love hotels [ja] (not to mention birds in full flight). All of this has raised serious privacy concerns [ja].

But as much as reaction has focused in other countries on private information such as license plates and personal identity, in Japan it is as much the less obvious cases of privacy infringement that provoke a reaction: seeing people's clothes out on the line [ja], open windows where robbers could break in [ja], or cars parked in the parking lot [ja].

One blogger, noting the cultural differences between the United States and Japan, realized that there was a need to explain to people at Google in the U.S. what was happening in Japan, and why the company — which generally has a very positive reputation locally — had provoked such strong opposition with Street View. The blogger is IT professional Osamu Higuchi (樋口理) at Higuchi.com, who wrote a post in his blog on August 7th titled “Letter to the people at Google” which starts:

ストリートビューを使ってみて、やはりこれは何か言っておかなくてはいけないような気がしてきたので、書きます。ひょっとして、このサイトがGoogle 八分になって検索空間から消えるようなことがあったら、この記事のことを思い出してください。

As soon as I tried out Google's Street View, I had the feeling that I had to make a comment on it, so I decided to write [this post]. If by some chance this site falls out of favor with Google and disappears from search engine results, please remember what was written here.

最初にことわっておきますが、僕は Google のことが大好きです(みんな大好きだよね)。日本の Infoseek を作るときにゴールとして思い描いていた「世界中の Web に雑然と散らばっている情報と知識を、秩序立てて整理して、だれでも必要な到達できるようにすれば、世の中が大きく変わる」という、僕らは実現できなかった夢を、しっかり会社のビジョンとして掲げて確実に実現している姿を、本当にうらやましく思います。

Now, let me start by saying that I actually really like Google (everybody likes them, no?). While I was involved in the creation of the Japanese Infoseek, I always felt envious of Google, a company that presented, as their vision, a dream that we were never able to attain. This was the dream that “if all the information and knowledge scattered all over the world on the Web could be organized in an orderly way, so that anybody could access it whenever they needed to, then the world would undergo a major change”. This was a dream that Google managed to realize.


But you know what? This Japan Street View, it just feels instinctively completely wrong to me. You can't play innocent and go this far.
I'm sure that the people in the Cerulean Tower [where Google is headquartered in Japan] are feeling the same way, and are also trying to explain to people overseas in an easy-to-understand way what is wrong [with Street View], so please listen. And I would be grateful if you guys, acting as liasons, could properly convince the people over there of how to correctly localize [this service].


I ask for you to consider just one thing.

In the following, Higuchi is addressing the people at Google in the U.S.:


Could you please remove the residential roads of Japan's urban areas from Street View?


Below I list the reasons [why this is necessary].


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


In the United States, and particularly in the case of people living on the west coast, the boundary line between private space and public space, both in terms of actual ownership and in terms of the way people think, is in the boundary line between the public road and privately-held land. In fact, I think that you all will agree that your home's garden, which faces the street, actually feels itself more like a public space, and that not keeping your front yard tidy ruins the look of the community, right?


For people living in urban areas in Japan, though, the situation is quite the opposite. The residential street in front of a house, the so-called “alleyway” (roji/路地), feels more like a part of one's own living space, like a part of the yard. In urban areas in Japan, sweeping the road in front of one's home, sprinkling water over it, shoveling snow off it, these are all considered to be the responsibility of the resident. Wandering around the older parts of the city, you'll see evidence of this way of thinking in the potted plants and little storage rooms crowded out [onto the street].


When we walk along an alleyway like that, we don't stare at and scrutinize the houses along the way. If you look away [from the road] even a little bit, you find someone's living space literally right in front of your nose. It is for this reason, I think, that we have this awareness that peeping at these kinds of places is something that is actually quite rude.


I've heard that when Japanese build houses in America, they do so in the Japanese way and surround their home with a fence, to the displeasure of people living nearby. The way that people in Japanese urban areas think, however, is very different, in the latter case it being people walking on the street, peeping beyond the fence, that draw frowns [from the locals].


Now of course, if you peep through gaps in the fence or hedge, you can peek inside [people's homes]. This kind of act is referred to in Japanese as “kaimami” [stealing a peek], and from back in the days of the “Tale of Genji”, it has always been considered to be in somewhat bad taste. At this time of year, [walking down these streets], your eyes will meet those of old men cooling themselves under the eaves wearing nothing but their underwear. If this person was someone familiar to you from the local bathhouse or something, then in a case like this you might strike up a conversation with them. If this was not the case, however, you would still nod and greet them, but then turn your eyes away and each pretend like you hadn't seen each other. This is the etiquette.


According to the morals of urban area residents in Japan, the assumption that “it is scenery [viewable] from public roads and therefore it must be public” is in fact incorrect. Quite the contrary, [these morals state that] “people walking along public roads must avert their glance from the living spaces right before their eyes”.


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


With this culture [of privacy], if you were to walk along a residential street in an urban area of Tokyo, every 10 meters surveying all 360 degrees of your surroundings, there's no question that you would be reported to the police within 30 minutes. Even just filming the scenery from the street with camera in hand, there's no question that if you tried to shoot the area not covered by Street View, you would be asked, after initial questioning, to come to either the Ikegami Police Station or the Den-en-Chofu Police Station.


Japanese people intuitively recognize that a flesh-and-blood human being peeking into people's living space from the alleyway results in trouble, so ordinary people don't do this kind of thing. It is for this reason that residents are comparatively defenseless against [people looking in] from the side of the road and learning everything about their living spaces.


On the other hand, nobody notices when someone peeks — or is peeked at — through Street View, and so it is not reported. This asymmetry gives rise to a different problem.
The capacity for people in Japan — or rather, people across the whole world — to look into the living spaces of defenseless residents, without any risk of being stopped by the police, makes it possible for anyone to carry out a preliminary inspection without any risk of being reported. This kind of inspection can be used for example in searching for houses with a configuration that is easy to break into, or in looking for places along the side of public roads where cars with high resale values are parked.


A person was to do this kind of inspection from the actual street, they would be reported. Maybe it's a bad thing, but we live with a peace of mind in knowing that this is true, and therefore for this sense of security to be unilaterally and abruptly thrown out of order is completely unacceptable, however you look at it.


Before this problem gets more tangled, please make a decision and take action on this based on your own sense of morals


Despite this, however, why is that Japanese newspapers, to a surprising degree, have said nothing about this problem of Street View and privacy? Maybe it is because of Umeda's books [see note], or because of the anti-Microsoft dogma, but there seems to be a sense among these people that “we don't really know, but Google must anyway be an absolute positive”. Whether from the right or from the left, people seem to have completely stopped thinking.

[Note: Mochio Umeda (梅田望夫) is a well-known author of books on IT in Japan. See this translated interview for more information.] (note added August 12, 2008)


But in the near future, there will for sure be a case in which a street prowler or car thief is caught and testifies that they used Street View for preliminary inspection. When that time comes, it is these same people who will suddenly start a campaign triumphantly writing articles [with headlines like] “car thieves preview [crime site] on the Internet”. Before it comes to that, I am hoping dearly that you guys design a service reflecting the common-sense morals of local society.


I repeat, I consider your vision of “arranging the world's information in order to make it possible for people across the world to access it” to be something truly wonderful, and I greatly respect — and am thankful for — the fact that you have managed to realize [this goal].


To have one's own living space exposed to the whole world without ever having been asked about it beforehand, this however really makes me uncomfortable. It ignores our “right [to demand that] you leave us alone”, and comes off as nothing short of “evil”.


My request is thus, given that it will take considerable time before our sense of privacy and awareness of crime-prevention are Americanized to be more like yours, to remove Japanese alleyways [residential streets] from Street View. This will make the Internet ever so slightly less convenient, but for me that is no problem at all.

Thanks to Taku Nakajima for the suggestion to translate this article.


  • […] Salzberg of Global Voices Online has posted a translation of of an letter to Google by Japanese IT professional/blogger Osamu Higuchi. In the letter, Higuchi requests that Google […]

  • Great post, thank you for taking the time to translate it.

  • I live in Australia, where Street View was released a few days ago. As in other countries with this Google feature we have had some complaints about the photographers having entered private property to get a better view of a building (such as schools in Melbourne).

    This long article speaks painfully and respectfully about Japanese beliefs and contains alarming statements such as “Even just filming the scenery from the street with camera in hand, there’s no question that if you tried to shoot the area not covered by Street View, you would be asked, after initial questioning, to come to either the Ikegami Police Station or the Den-en-Chofu Police Station.”

    This suggests that tourists must be filling Japanese jails, having made the mistake of filming their surroundings.

    Secondly, how do Japanese people reconcile their nation’s participation in the First World and the global economy? It would seem that Google Japan must have some Japanese nationals in their local office. Would they not have raised any alarm bells for this alleged cultural transgression? Didn’t a single policeman see the Google cars with their very obvious cameras? There is something missing in the bigger picture.

  • @Ayesha:

    Glad you liked the post!


    Thanks for your comments. In fact there were many Japanese who questioned points that were made in Higushi-san’s letter, mostly in the Hatena bookmarks for the post (in Japanese). So you are certainly not alone in wondering why tourists are not filling Japanese jails for taking pictures of their surroundings (they are not).

    For anybody interested in this topic:

    More reactions to this post (in English) on this friendfeed thread.

  • V Lease

    I must admit, this particular reaction to Google Maps puzzles me. It reads very much as if the writer actually believes that Street View (and the general excess of detail on Google Maps in general) is fully accepted in other nations, where it is culturally more acceptable. As a person living in America, I feel that Google Maps provides a drastic excess of detail, too, and I’m not alone. I’ve heard plenty of similar complaints from other people who live here.

    Going further, to painstakingly explain how peeking into a person’s home is considered impolite in Japan, where the implication is that there exist places where it is *not* considered impolite… seems a little excessive. I can assure you, a person peeking into another person’s home here is *plenty* suspicious, too!

    The real revelation here, as far as I’m concerned, is the implicit assumption that Japan is fundamentally culturally different from the rest of the world. That may well be true, but this is not the case to use to prove that point. Additionally, there lies the accusation that America is the cultural outlier here, bringing their values into the rest of the world, and expecting everyone else to play along. I’ll reiterate: Americans are not particularly comfortable with wholesale breach of personal privacy either. Our public spaces are not, as a rule, monitored via closed circuit camera, we have tresspassing laws, and using a person’s likeness (read: photograph) without their permission can have legal ramifications, as well. Most of us are very unhappy with the recently-passed FISA legislation, too.

    In summary, I fully agree with the complaints here about Google Maps, but find the cultural arguments superfluous and distracting. Enough people from a wide enough variety of locales have levied these same complaints that there’s no real need to taint them with divisive red herrings like “Japan is a unique culture unlike any other on Earth” or “America is culturally imperialistic”.

  • Kristian


    As to why tourists aren’t crowding the jails, I really think it’s mainly because they don’t go off photographing urban areas so often. I once did, and by chance two police officers passed by me and may have seen me holding my camera in hand. I did my best to try and answer their questions in broken Japanese until my girlfriend arrived to the scene and sorted things out for me.

    So I’d say that while it may be somewhat rare it definitely occurs, though I am aware of the fact that the police officers might have drawn their attention to me just because I’m suspicious in being a westerner in the first place, and a suburbian slum area is perhaps not a place for someone like that to be.

    It’s also worth to note that westerners are often excepted from any set of social rules that one might find in Japan. They are not expected to know of these and that might be one reason why there are no or few tourists in jail in Japan. In my opinion this however does not lessen the damage that Google is causing with their Street View service.

    V Lease:

    First of all, I believe that Japan is at least somewhat culturally different frmo the rest of the world and that this is only somethign to be expected of an island-nation that has been completely isolated for the better part of some five hundred years. While I am studying Japan and it’s language, I might not be very unbiased in this, but I would like to believe that Japan is in fact different and deserves to be.

    The Japanese society has been thorougly affected by a slightly altered version of Confucianism since way back and you still see traces of it today and I’ve never come across any culture with so much non-explicit etiquette and sets of rules that you are never told, but expected to know and follow, though being a westerner you are most often forgiven for your shortcomings. And one of these rules is apparently that you don’t peep into others homes from the street and you don’t even stand looking at them if you don’t have to.

    I think this sounds reasonable, especially considering the fact that privacy in Japan is a more complicated matter than in other places of the world. I’m prepared to say it’s something unique. I can’t explain this notion very well, but to be able to have privacy in Japan you need to create this sort of imaginary bubble around you to shut everybody out. There is practically nowhere for you to go if you want to be completely alone other than your apartment and even then the walls are thin and you’d be lucky to not have a road or an alleyway immediately outside your front window. That’s why it strikes me as reasonable that you have a shared understanding that you don’t intrude on what little privacy other people have.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe Japan is one of the most densely populated countries on this planet. Though wikipedia might rank it as number 32:
    one should keep in mind that mountains cover 70% of Japan’s surface area and after distrubuting some of it to agriculture there’s really not much left to live on.

    Secondly, regarding the notion that America is thought to impose their own culture and laws upon the rest of the world, well, isn’t that precisely what America has been doing for the last 50 years or more? One example is how currently the american musc industry tries to eliminate our right to integrity in order for them to preserve their business model. It’s happening right here in Sweden. While that being said, I do recognize that the American population require as much privacy as everybody else.

    • mechagodzilla

      totally late to the party, but I wanted to mention that while Japan is less homogeneous in many ways than it may seem, the predominant expectation of personal spaces and social positions in ANY feasible exchange in-country is a matter of the cultural consciousness and completely inseparable from the issue. Google is proceeding in a way that may be effective in the long run but will never earn the goodwill of a people that are pretty much comfortable using Yahoo Japan (and the host of high-value services it offers specifically for Japanese).

  • Julian Stoev

    I also feel the strange cultural uniqueness claim in the post and I disagree with this. We have to keep in mind, that countries like Japan, but also Korea and China often tend to percept themselves as unique, original, deep in history,… some parts of their societies more than others, depending with whom you speak. This may be due to the fact that historically they did not interact often with other cultures for many thousands of years and are not very used to it. They often cite the proverb “When in Rome, do as Romans do”. But modern civilization is different thing and Japan, Korea, China are not Rome. Japan abandoned large part of its culture at the end of 19-th century and adopted many western values, which led to huge progress and also some wars. This is how samurais were forbidden swords and the cast structure was destructed. Traditionally societies in Japan, Korea and China were cast oriented – if your father was a samurai cast, you became samurai, if your mother was a prostitute cast, you became prostitute, if your father was a trader, you became trader. This is their culture. That simple… This is officially considered unacceptable nowadays. So large parts of “traditional culture” are missing these days. There is no point to pretend that this is “against the Japanese way”. There is no Japanese way. There is also no American way, BTW. 200 years ago there was slavery in the US and women were permitted to vote just about 100 years ago. There is also no “Arab way”, no “Islam way” and no Ben Laden way. To join the civilization some parts of Arab an Muslim societies will have to abandon some things considered “cultural” and sacred for them. This same thing happened in the Christian world and was named Reformation.

    So please stop the claims for uniqueness. The world is converging. There are laws in Japan. If these laws were not broken, it is OK and as Google user I need this service when visiting foreign countries. I want this to be in their web page.

  • @Julian Stoev

    Don’t want to get into an argument here, but I do take issue with your casting aside the world’s cultures as so many different “ways”.

    It may not be easy to define, but there is certainly a “Japanese way” whether or not every single Japanese person adheres to it is a different issue. And I tend to think that that is a good thing personally.

  • Matt

    I must admit, I can see the personal invasion issue up front, especially is a google truck goes into private property. But the statement that drivers, walkers, and bicycle riders cant look around as they drive a bit absurd.

    I am an american living in Japan for the past 2 years and live in a quiet country/suburban part of Tokyo.

    Foreigners do not fill the jails here because they took pictures. Stating that anyone with a camera looking at Japanese houses and wishing to share their experiences of Japanese style/culture with their loved ones shouldnt be a crime. I live in a tradional one-story house with 4 tatami rooms. I can tell you right now, that the local stores sell blinds AND bamboo blinds to prevent peeking eyes from seeing….and they’re used commonly in my neighborhood without much complaint. So the arguement that we should pick up our heads and look around seems…unreasonable.

    Like I said before, I am an american and very interested in Japanese culture, architecture, houses, gardens, shrines, temples, countryside, schools, gov’t buildings, post offices, train stations, restaurants, onsens, rivers, apartment buildings, etc….you name it. Why? Because EVERYTHING I SEE IN JAPAN seems different than in the US.

    Secondly, its hard enough to find local friends because many either do not speak english or do not wish to slaughter enlish(I dont care if they do). I speak Japanese enough to get around and have had more than one experience where I was pushed away because they didnt want to deal with me. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for them, I spoke Japanese. To which they were suprised and werent able to use the excuse “I dont know english. Sorry.”

    Thus, leaving myself to explore on my own, wondering about Japanese life and wondering what peoples’ lives are like outside of the Japanese who sign up for Enlish School. Its hard to get into any industry in Japan that isnt English teaching related. Thus, What can you do to overcome learning about Japanese industries? Read books, newspapers and watch news and TV.

    But all this goes back to the post at hand, about how one cannot according to the original post go walk around and look around…particularly with a camera…even if you wish to simply remember the sight. Furthermore, in parts of Tokyo, the sheer amounts of signs with Kanji/romajii around presents a difficult hassle to a new learner of Japanese. Being able to stop, look around 360 and find where the train station, hostel, hotel, restroom is…is important.

    My question back is: Is therefore illegal to take pictures from your own home? I see on a daily basis people taking pictures of airccraft near a US Air Base. Could one of them be a terrorist or supplying information? Maybe, but who knows? Does that make every single picture taker of aircraft a criminal due for inspection/interogation? I hope not, it would clog the jails.

    My only concern of Google is that they establish rules of where that vehicle can go and establish areas of where photography is prohibited before hand as well as the procedures for taking photos. If they need to coordinate with local city/prefectural gov’t, then fine. However, its is already clear that some of the picture may or may not be invasive.

    My bottom-line is: How can a foreigner take pictures of a different country in order to learn about it or share the experience while being expected to not look around and take pictures?

    I’ve heard reports on how crime is attributed to foreign influence in Japan. To that, I can see its correlation since whereever non Japanese go crime is reported on the news. However, it takes a Japanese-on-Japanese rampage in Akihabara to makes headlines. Most other crimes seemlingly either go unreported or are a footnote.

    To be honest, I had always thought Japanese life to be more intrusive than that of American lifestyle. The complaint of personal privacy amongst Japanese a bit odd. ONe of the biggest reason is what has already been stated: That more people live within one square mile over all than most people in america. That makes it hard to not know of something going on. One example, in america if I so as to hear my roomates or neighbors whether in an apartment or a house, I feel like complaining. However, he in Japan, I see and hear stories all the time about people being loud. Believe it or not, but I believe that to be more attibuted to the proximatey in which people live next to each other more than the reason that people are loud. I go to sleep everyday listening to people riding/walking by my house only because my house as well as many others are locted within a pebble throw of a public road. In american, where generally theres more space, the distance from my bed to the street is MUCH greater and I cannot usually hear people’s conversations at all.

    When I first stepped foot on Japanese soil, I first realized that it would be highly unlikely that I would have as much privacy than I did in the states due the sheer amount of people within a given area than that of the US. Further, like previously mentioned about the Genji period, it seems all the tradional stories I’ve seen in Japan involve some of “eavesdropping” or peaking into someone’s home. Such acts against privacy I cannot remember at this moment in american stories or history. Furthermore, I do not see scores of peopletaking pictures of aircraft on any given day in America near american bases. The contrary is true here in Japan. In my eyes, its simply more or less due to perception that people here are more readily available to take pictures, eavesdrop, etc… The only thing anti-privacy wise in the US, is the paparozzi and the acts they pull to get a dime.

    But these are my observations over the past 2 years here in Japan….and the point being made doesnt stand up well enough against anti-privacy in the US to me. I feel like I have much less privacy here than in the US. The use of StreetView doesnt prove anything to me, but the mere fact that people live so close to each other…..does….even without cameras.

  • Chip

    I’ve lived in Japan for more than 24 years and thoroughly understand the author’s concerns. However, a quick look at Street View of my neighborhood showed only blurred faces of my neighbors and license plate numbers. Maybe other street views are in more detail, but I had the same results when checking the View near my local station. My impression was that Google did a wonderful job of clearly identifying streets and alleys, but seems sensitive to the worries and concerns of individual privacy.

    Unfortunately, with so many Japanese carrying cell phones with high-definition cameras and increasingly quality video capabilities, Google street view would the least of my concerns. I dare say the busy-body oba-chan (elderly woman) in my neighborhood is a greater threat to privacy than anything Google could possibly imagine.

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