Japan moves to criminalize exploitative photo voyeurism

Japan moves to criminalize exploitative photo voyeurism


This file photo shows a placard indicating the prohibition of unauthorized photography being held up towards the spectator stand during a track and field competition in October 2020 at Yanmar Stadium Nagai in Osaka. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) — A bill has been submitted to an ongoing session in the Japanese Diet targeting a crackdown on people who take surreptitious photographs, a move that would make it illegal nationwide to snap voyeuristic images of a sexually exploitative nature.

While the issue is particularly serious for young athletes targeted by people engaging in “sneak photography” at fields and courts around the nation, the situation remains unresolved as proving sexual or malicious intent in photos taken of athletes competing in sporting attire is difficult.

At a symposium on April 15, lawyers working on the issue and former national volleyball team member Kana Oyama, among others, stressed the need for legislation, saying it is a “remaining issue” for sneak photography, especially for competitive athletes.

“You cannot say that just because photos are taken of someone who’s clothed that it isn’t a problem,” said lawyer Yoji Kudo. “We shouldn’t give up on legal controls simply because it is difficult to draw a line of distinction,” he said.

Kudo spoke of his determination to have clear legislation after pointing out the damage caused when images of athletes’ bodies are posted and proliferated on the internet.

He gave examples of other countries where clandestine photography is punishable by law.

Oyama says she first learned the reality of photo voyeurism in junior high school when, while changing out of her uniform at a venue with no locker room, her coach warned that photos of her were being snapped.

“I feel a responsibility to create an environment where children can genuinely engage in sports,” Oyama, now a mother of two, said about her call for stronger legislation.

Until now, people caught by police taking photos without the subject’s consent fell under the purview of prefectural anti-disturbance ordinances. But ordinances differ from municipality to municipality regarding the acts they cover and the penalties involved.

Along with legislation related to “photography crime” prohibiting surreptitious pictures of a person in postures that might be construed as sexual in nature, supplying or disseminating sexually explicit images or video are also included as punishable offenses.

Such voyeurism cases have occurred more frequently in recent years, with a corresponding uptick in arrests made. Under the new law, violators would face imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of up to 3 million yen ($22,000).

The new regulation, however, does not include photography of athletes in sporting attire at competitions, except in cases when an infrared camera that can see through clothing is used. It would prohibit the taking of such photos of athletes in training, though.

According to the National Police Agency, the number of arrests for surreptitious photography reached 5,019 cases in 2021, roughly three times the 2010 figure.

One major cause for the increase was the spread of smartphones but perpetrators say that no matter how they do it, they treat it like a game which allows them to find satisfaction with little regard for guilt or risk.

There is a common psychology to men who take photos of athletes or others with sexually exploitative intent. Some view it as “dependence syndrome” because people carrying out such activities tend to do it on a regular basis, making it a deeply-rooted issue.

“It was curiosity. I tried it and snapped the photo. It was almost like a game,” a former junior high school teacher in his 40s who began taking voyeuristic photos in college told Kyodo News in an interview about his first time committing the offense.

As he was able to capture more and more images, he became increasingly absorbed in “the game,” and his methods became increasingly daring.

“I never imagined I’d be caught,” but in 2019, a train passenger spotted him placing his smartphone under the skirt of a female high school student. He was referred to prosecutors on suspicion of violating an anti-disturbance ordinance.

He felt guilty about his actions as a teacher responsible for children. But he added, “When I was doing it, all my (inhibitions) flew away. When the switch turned on, I forgot everything and couldn’t see anything around me.”

About 2,000 voyeuristic images were found stored on his phone when he was caught.

The man believes that photographing athletes for sexual gratification can be considered the same as doing it on a train or the street. “It is a value that pervades our society. There is a Japanese view that sexualizes women,” he said.

Akiyoshi Saito, a social worker who treats and supports sex addicts, says that photo voyeurism, like gambling, “has an aspect of dependence on the act.”

Although the new legislation will undoubtedly impose penalties in hopes of preventing the crimes, the former teacher said, “It’s not that simple. There are people who would do it even if they were sentenced to death.”

In March, an aviation trade union released a survey suggesting that about 70 percent of flight attendants in Japan have reported photos being taken of them surreptitiously.

Akira Naito, chairman of the Japan Federation of Aviation Industry Unions, called the number “astonishing,” stressing the need for strict penalties through legislation.

Although flight attendants primarily answered that their entire bodies or faces had been photographed, some reported pictures of their breasts, buttocks or other regions being taken in the close confines of an aircraft, demonstrating it is an all-pervasive issue.

Sakura Kamitani, a lawyer and expert on victims of photo voyeurism, said, “The trend toward making it a crime to photograph is a big step forward, but it is unfortunate that athlete voyeurism is not punishable.”

“I am aware that it is difficult to put the law into writing, but it is still a crime that requires legislation,” Kamitani said.