Entering the Twilight Zone, with camera but on shaky ground


So yesterday as I was emerging from the depths of Shinjuku station, I came up not to fresh air but the formulaic strains of some Japanese pop group and a bunch of craned-neck fans ooh-ing and ah-ing. Based on the audience being 99% female, perhaps it was one of Johnny’s boy bands performing (Johnny Kitagawa is basically the Japanese version of Lou Pearlman), as part of some Nescafe promotion (women were handing out canned coffee drinks). Anyway, a good photo op…or so I thought.

No more than 15 seconds after putting the camera around my neck, I was descended upon by a uniformed man who was clearly not a police officer, but some rent-a-cop for some security company I’ve already forgotten the name of. Putting up the universal (or is it only in Japan?) “X” sign formed by crossing his arms, he was telling me “No Photos”. I was about to point to a couple of women with their cell phone cum cameras in the air when I saw that another security guard was telling them to put away their phones. WTF?!

In ham-fisted Japanese I told the security guard that I wasn’t standing on private property (though it did occur to me that perhaps the land was owned by Japan Railway and that my argument was on shaky ground, pardon the pun) and after a minute or so of me asking him if he owned the land I was standing on, he relented with the arm gesture than means “I give up, you win.” Whether this was because he couldn’t be bothered with a pesky foreigner or because he realized it was he who was on shaky ground, sure enough after that I was left alone by the security force, though they continued to tell other folks to put away their cell phones or digicams (presumably the fact that I was shooting the audience and not the band was noted by the “authorities”).

Tired of the scene I noticed that a crowd was forming across the street in front of one of the department stores and went over there to check it out. The crowd of about 50 had divided themselves leaving an imaginary catwalk between them, leading from the department store door to the street. I presumed that someone famous must be inside and that the crowd was waiting for him or her to exit, and this was confirmed to me by one of the ladies in waiting (apparently a famous comedian was inside, though in the end he never materialized). She also didn’t hesistate to tell me “no photos,” which was said in a way that made it clear she was parroting what someone — no doubt with an authoritative air but lacking any actual authority — had told the crowd before I had arrived.

This was getting ridiculous, like I had just woke up in my very own Twilight Zone episode where talent handlers and their minions ruled the roost, where cameras had been banned unless they were attached to an arm adorned with a “Press” armband, and where I was the last person on this planet to get the message. So I got my cojones in a bunch and positioned myself right at the end of the damn walkway staking my ground — and given that it was the street I sure as hell hope it was public property — and waited for said talent to emerge (sadly as I pointed out, the talent must have been flown by helicopter to safety because he never did produce himself).

In reality I didn’t want another scene of some non-cop telling me I couldn’t take photos, but as I thought about it later it occurred to me that I was probably making a show of it more for the folks in the audience who had been told to put their camera-phones away, and who had obediently relented. I couldn’t get over the fact that they — like the young women cooing over the pop group across the street — had acquiesced so easily in the face of apparent authority.

The scenes taken together were in fact rather pathetic: legions of adoring fans, hoping to capture probably nothing more than a fuzzy, low-resolution, figment of reality snapshot to email to their friends (“Guess who I saw today….?”), getting their enthusiasm dampened by young men with ill-fitting blue shirts and police caps following orders that probably didn’t fit them either.


It may well have been Johnny’s that was behind this production, for his talent agency — the most sucessful talent agency in Japan — is notorious for guarding the public image of his various talents. Indeed, if you visit the company’s site you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single image of any of their talent (I didn’t), and they’ve been known to go after various sites using unauthorized images.

Whomever was behind the concert event yesterday, it’s been clear for a while that talent agencies and related entities have become more agressive in protecting their supposed (though not explicitly codified in Japanese law) rights to their own image. Hence this campaign sponsored by the Japan Association of Music Enterprises which was launched in 2002 and recently updated. I don’t have a translation of the text for the current ad, but the old ad — showing a woman covering her face — featured a tag line along the lines of “Freely using this face is forbidden by law.” with the remainder of the ad going something like:

Of course entertainers and famous people, but also everyone, has a right to their own likeness. Other people can’t use these likenesses without permission. The publication of these photos, or “idol collages” [putting a face from one person onto a body from another] and things like that, is forbidden by law.

No “law” was ever specifically referred to, and it still isn’t. While I’m sure that I’m missing the nuances on this explanatory page the gist goes something like: “Wouldn’t you feel violated if someone took your photo while you were having dinner or out for a walk with your lover? These photos which can cause emotional distress are a violation of your human right to privacy. Not only artists or entertainers are protected, but everyone has these rights. And you can imagine that if common folks feel violated, then artists or entertainers are doubly violated since their portraits have economic value.” All of it is couched in “violation of rights” language, rather than specific laws which are being broken. And all of it cleverly exploits the “human rights” of common folk to garner sympathy for the rights of entertainers to make money.

Now, I can sympathize with artists wanting to control how they’re represented, and how representations of themselves are sold and marketed, but this whole “my face is part of my economic property” seems to go just a bit too far. And to say that a public personality has such a “right to one’s own likeness” (shouzouken in Japanese) beyond the confines of the concert hall or soundstage, in other words, in public is just a bit overboard. Granted, what JAME is concerned about most are probably things like aicora (“idol collage,” eg. ai from the Japanese for “idol” and cora from “collage” — stick that into your J-E dictionaries!), which most right-thinking people would agree is not kosher, but to tell me that I can’t take a photo of a public celebrity coming out of a department store, or even publishing said photo, is well, Twilight Zone stuff.

2 Replies to “Entering the Twilight Zone, with camera but on shaky ground”

  1. They are out to create an artificial scarcity of these images, so that they can sell them to young girls. There are whole Johnny’s stores with all the walls lined with little tiny photos of all the hundreds of idols and such. When you go in you get a little order form where you write in the index number and then how many you want of each of your selections, and then hand it in at the cash register. They charge something like 100 yen apiece for them. Of course, no photos are allowed in this place either.

  2. the following comment was left Nov. 2nd by Gaijin at http://www.gaijinworld.org, and accidentally deleted by yours truly a couple of weeks later:

    I was similarly accosted last year at an outdoor concert given by a shamisen player. There were guys with stepladders and 500mm mirror lenses clambering all over the place when I arrived but my foreignness was the signal that shit had goten out of hand, apparently. I was told brusquely to stop which I did with an apology. Then I noted that nobody else had been told to stop, so I re-started. There was, I should note, a gorgeously lit castle in the background which was more than half the shot and was not represented by any talent agency to my knowledge. Eventually, after I repeatedly, soundlessly pointed to the others in reply to my own reprimand, the gig was closed to cameras.

    Its another of the great contradictions of the country – the showbi world. Visit the official site of any idol here and I warrant you’ll not find a single useable image – in fact they even go as far as putting sad, 30dpi pixelated images up – defiling the very image they seek to guard. They have all kinds of tricks like slicing the images into pieces to make it more diifficult etc.

    So, then, to recap; their visual “property” they’ll protect to the point of hiring expensive security guards to protect, but their CDs can be rented for a few yen at any street corner video store, along side a bunk of blank CDs and tapes at cut-neck prices!

    A contradiction? Or, perhaps a signifier of the true worth of what is actually on the CDs and a flat admission that what they look like is, in fact, all they have??!!

    Interesting post.

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