I was getting visibly uncomfortable…
For several minutes, the museum attendant had been trying to tell a group of tourists in broken English that photos were not allowed. As is sometimes the case, they weren’t having any of it and continued to snap shots of the ancient relics with abandon. This was not the first time I had encountered something like this but still, it rubbed me the wrong way. After all, cases like these have become more frequent as of late. As if this breach in etiquette weren’t already egregious enough, I later saw the same group wildly branching selfie sticks indoors.
There’s no doubt that Japan is currently seeing a massive influx of foreign tourists. Year-on-year, the number of visitors continues to rise and the government has set a goal of welcoming 40 million tourists by 2020. Unfortunately though, not all visitors respect Japan’s many rules on how to behave in an overly crowded society. Whether through a lack of caring or ignorance, I’ve seen countless faux pas while chronicling Japan’s travel assets.
When it comes to photography, good behavior usually comes down to basic common sense. That said though, it’s clear that many visitors are obviously unaware of the rules. As I expect more from my readers than the common tourist, I’ve put together the following comprehensive list of guidelines to keep in mind. Japan has some unique rules when it comes to photos and heeding my advice will keep you out of hot water.
On Selfie Sticks
Selfie sticks are incredibly convenient for the user… and incredibly hazardous in some situations. Using a stick is appropriate in most scenic locations when few people are attending. Yet, in crowded tourist spots these sticks quickly become deadly weapons. Accidents are bound to happen when you have a massive crowd of people and half are wielding selfie sticks. Popular locations in Kyoto such as Kiyomizu-dera can make one feel like they are navigating a wild sea of selfie sticks. One wrong move and somebody loses an eye.
Due to rising safety concerns, some venues have now banned selfie sticks. For example, in addition to many shrines and temples, the sticks are now completely banned on all train platforms across the country. As you might imagine, things can quickly turn disastrous if you accidentally hit the wires above the train tracks. It is quite the “shocking” experience if you get what I mean.
In general, it is not a good idea to use selfie sticks in crowded urban or tourist areas but they can be a great convenience elsewhere. For example, selfie sticks are much easier to transport than a tripod and are especially useful when hiking. Taking one along with you when you hike up Mt. Fuji or Mt. Takao is actually not a bad idea. Additionally, outings by boat are another great chance to brandish the stick.
At Shrines & Temples
Japan has no shortage of picturesque shrines and temples. Most sacred sites create perfect photo-ops for visitors. Travelers please be mindful as some locations have clearly marked sections where photos are off-limits. In almost all cases these areas are generally designated by easy-to-understand or graphic signage. Please respect any rules you see posted; these are religious sites after all!
In addition to these guidelines, some shrines also conduct traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies. If you happen to come across one, it is best to refrain from taking photos. As tempting as it may be, remember that this is an actual couple’s wedding. Think for a minute… you probably would not want a stranger photobombing your big day for the mere sake of getting a souvenir to take home. I know some of you will go ahead and break this rule anyway so remember to maintain a respectful distance; do not attempt face views of the bride, groom, or guests. And, never, never, never, never, never, never interrupt the wedding procession.
Pro Tip: Unlike temples, most shrines do not have strict opening hours. This means that if you want to get a shot without others in the frame, you have the option of going either very early in the day or very late. Such areas like those around Asakusa’s Senso-ji are particularly striking. The scene is almost surreal with the shops shuttered and crowds gone. Likewise, Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto is another very atmospheric backdrop during the off-peak hours.
The dazzling lights of Japan’s big cities make for some incredibly vivid pictures. In the bustling throngs of the city though, you’ll need to be mindful of your surroundings. Make sure you are not interfering with the flow of pedestrian traffic when you stop to snap photos. Likewise make sure you’re properly following the street lights too; getting hit by a car is a bad way to end your vacation.
Photographing people in the streets is a sensitive topic in Japan. Generally, it’s OK to take photographs of a large crowd. There are some excellent vantage points around Shibuya Station where you can capture a bird’s-eye-view of the legendary Scramble Crossing. However, avoid taking photos where individuals are recognizable unless you have their permission.
This isn’t just etiquette, it’s Japanese law. If someone complains about your snapping, your behavior could end up landing you in a police station. Please note that street fashion shots are also included in this policy. Yes, some photographers complain and say they would rather sneak photos because people look more “natural” that way. Despite their protest though, Japanese law continues to protect the rights of an individual over the right to turn them into your “art.”
Additionally, excessive and exploitative street photography is one behavior that is actually killing Tokyo street fashion. Simply put, people do not want to be treated as zoo animals. Some of the cosplayers who gather in Harajuku will give you the green light to take a photo as long as you ask first. Nevertheless though, the decline in their recent numbers has largely been attributed to poor manners on the part of camera-touting foreign tourists.
Finally, when photographing street views be sure to avoid capturing people who are doing their jobs. Such behaviors can result in confrontational exchanges in places like Shinjuku and Akihabara. Word to the wise: don’t try to sneak pictures of hostesses or girls in maid costumes on the sly! One exception to this rule is street performers. There is rarely a problem with taking photos or videos of buskers, street performers, or people giving public speeches.
Pro Tip: As can be seen in photo above the Starbucks Coffee in TSUTAYA offers perhaps the best aerial view of Shibuya Scramble Crossing. You definitely want a picture of this if you travel to Tokyo!
Restaurants in Japan
Japan is undeniably an amazing country for foodies. Japanese cuisine is presented as a feast for your eyes. Luckily, very few restaurants have policies against photographing your meal. Go ahead and document your entire delicious journey on Instagram! Many Japanese people also take photos of their meals, so no need to feel awkward doing this. Just be sure that you are taking pictures of your spread and not the other patrons in the restaurant.
In Music Venues
Many major concert halls and live music venues strictly forbid taking photos, videos, or audio recordings. If you get caught, you will likely get a warning at first but keep in mind — you do risk getting kicked out. Furthermore, the entertainment businesses here tend to be tied somehow to the yakuza. Enough said! Don’t come crying to me if you fail to heed this warning.
In addition to live performances, night clubs usually have policies regarding taking photos or videos inside the club. If you are just taking a selfie with your friends there is typically no problems or reason for concern. Some venues ban flash photography, others prohibit videos, and a handful forbid all forms of photography. Be on the lookout for signs posted at the entrance or around the club, it is advisable to pay attention to what is written there.
Nowadays, the majority of nightclubs will not have any issue with you taking non-flash photos on your mobile phones as long as you are not harassing other patrons. Do not expect permission to bring in pro camera equipment unless you have a press pass from the venue. If you have a camera with you when you enter a nightclub, you will likely be asked to store it in a locker or in cloak service.
On Public Transportation
It’s an understatement to say that you sometimes see some pretty crazy things on Japanese trains and subways. Unless you are witnessing a crime though, you should not be taking photos or videos of other commuters. However, feel free to use the opportunity to get some great footage of the scenes outside the windows. There are some spectacular views from many of Japan’s trains and highway buses. If you are traveling on a local train then head for the front or rear sections of the train car for the clearest views.
If you were not able to get a window seat on the bullet train, no worries! There are standing areas by the doors which can be great places to capture the view. Travelers will often gather by these areas for views of Mt. Fuji when riding the Tokaido Shinkansen. If you take the Romance Car to Hakone from Shinjuku, the best seats are in the front and rear cars. These two train cars have large oversized windows for treasuring the scenery.
At some train stations you may notice groups of people waiting at the end of a platform with cameras in hand. These are train enthusiasts waiting for a very specific train to arrive. This is perfectly fine to do as long as you do not enter restricted areas or obstruct the train in any way.
In Residential Areas
There are some really cool neighborhoods in Japan ranging from the traditional to ultra modern. Photographing street views without clear images of individuals is generally no problem. However, be careful when a house is your subject. If the house is occupied, try not to photograph directly into the property. A street view that doesn’t directly peer into resident’s property will not be a problem. While we are on the topic, think again before capturing the car’s license plate in your lenses.
Abandoned houses can also make for very interesting themes. Some small villages have quite a large number of abandoned homes or better yet, abandoned hotels. Just remember that trespassing may have both legal and safety risks. If the building is very old, it may not be structurally sound.
Abandoned buildings are referred to as “haikyo” in Japanese. There is a sub-culture of both Japanese and overseas adventurers who explore and document haikyo. Don’t forget that entering haikyo is entirely at your own risk. Haikyo include everything from abandoned homes and love hotels to forgotten theme parks to WWII-era secret shelters. That said, enthusiasts are often reluctant to reveal location else they be spoiled.
Drones in Japan
Now that drones have become affordable, there is growing interest in drone photography. Japan is blessed with a bounty of amazing views and drones can be the perfect method for capturing the spectacular scenery. However, drones are not without controversy. High-population density zones, public events, and many parks ban the use of drones. There are also strict restrictions on flying drones in the vicinity of airports.
Nighttime use of drones is prohibited as well. Most drone laws have less to do with photography and are more focused on air safety. In some cases, you can get special permission from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to operate your drone within a restricted area.
Tokyo and other big cities are off-limits for drones except for some indoor courses. That said though, there are still plenty of great coastal and mountainous areas that are ideal for drone usage. You do NOT need a license to fly a drone in Japan.
In Shopping Areas
Most clothing stores and department stores prohibit the photography of their goods unless you have purchased them. A lot of this has to do with people taking photos of the original designs and having cheap knock-offs produced in other countries. For similar reasons, shops selling original character goods, art, and other unique items may also prohibit photography.
Crimes & the Police
If you witness a violent crime or theft, or if you are the victim of a crime, try to film as much as possible. Report it to the police immediately and provide any available footage. While you are not supposed to film people without permission in Japan, ignore this rule if you should witness or be the victim of a crime. Sometimes just pointing a camera at someone gets them to stop their criminal behavior.
Do not, however, post the videos on the internet if the victim is identifiable. Your intent may be to catch or shame the culprit, but crime victims can experience trauma or societal backlash over the incident. Given the strict laws about photographing individuals in Japan, this can lead the way for unexpected legal troubles EVEN IF YOU’RE THE VICTIM.
OK, this should not even be needed to be said, but here goes. Japanese kids are super cute. I get it. Their level of kawaii can make you feel compelled to capture it in photos. Most parents though are unsurprisingly not comfortable with complete strangers taking pictures of their children. If for some reason you absolutely must take a shot, ask the parents’ permission, and be prepared to just walk away if your request is declined.
Also, do NOT photograph kids in their school uniforms around town, outside of school, or on public transit. This is a sure-fire way to get labeled as a creepy pervert or even reported to police. Your best chance for a photo-op is if a group of school kids ask for a photo with you. Some school children are fascinated by people from other countries and will ask for a picture together. In these cases, it is not inappropriate for you to ask for a copy of the photo or to take the shot on your camera and share it with them.
Maid Cafes, Hostess Bars, Etc.
As you might imagine, you will need to ask permission to take photos inside these establishments. Maid cafes actually earn money by selling photo-ops with their maids, so please do not take photos without permission. Yes, you will have to pay for your picture with the maid. Snapping a pic of your food or drink is usually fine, but not the shop interior or staff. You also cannot photograph other customers.
Hostess clubs, host clubs, and kyabakura are less strict about pictures but some rules still apply. Taking photos of the interior design and your drinks is usually allowed. Nonetheless, ask the staff’s permission before you photograph them. Some individuals are particular about protecting their privacy. Definitely do not photograph other random customers. For the ladies out there, host clubs generally do not have a problem with customers taking videos of champagne calls.
Nudity in Japan
The common sense rule applies here too! Consensual artistic nude photos are allowed as long as you do not distribute images depicting the genitalia. If you’re taking these kind of photos, you should already know this, but make sure to also get a signed model release form. Secretly filming nudity, sexual situations, or up-skirt shots can land you in a heap of trouble regardless of whether or not you distribute the data. Simply getting caught in the act will result in detainment and possible jail time.
Over the past few years, American “pick-up artists” have posted some controversial videos online. They appear to show Japanese women being secretly or reluctantly filmed in sexual situations. Do not imitate this. Distributing nude, sexual, or pornographic images without consent is classified as revenge porn. Japan has enacted laws against this. Even if the initial filming was consensual, it is still considered revenge porn if you do not have consent to share it.
Japanese Photo Booths
Pretty much every traveler to Japan needs to try out a “purikura” photo booth at least once. These are most frequently found in game centers and arcades. Find an empty one and enter the main booth. Put your coins in then select the number of people and background colors. Go for it; try out a number of poses for your pictures.
After you finish taking the photo booth shots, head towards the outside panel. Here, you can decorate your photos on the touch screen with text, stamps, and more. Once the timer runs out, it will stop automatically. Next, choose your print format and the photos print automatically. You can also select an option to have a few pictures sent to your email address. These are a great Japanese souvenir to make with your friends.
Some Closing Advice
It may seem that Japan upholds many strict rules regarding photos and videos. In reality though, basic manners and common sense will help you avoid any major problems. The take-away lesson? Just make sure you have permission when and where needed. In a worst case scenario when or if you are confronted about photos or video, please remember good manners will always serve you well. Keep it real; apologizing and deleting the data is usually enough to remedy the situation.
Until next time travelers…