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II. Surveillance policy

Communications surveillance

Wiretapping traditionally has been considered a violation of the Constitution's right of privacy and has been authorized only a few times. However, in August 1999, the Diet passed the controversial Communications Interception Law authorizing wiretapping of phone or faxes, and monitoring e-mail, when investigating cases involving narcotics, gun offenses, gang-related murders and large-scale smuggling of foreigners.1 Under the new law, which went into effect in August 2000, the use of wiretaps is restricted to prosecutors and police officers at the rank of superintendent and above, and requires police officers to obtain warrants from district court judges in order to use wiretaps. The warrants are good for 10 days and can only be extended for a total of 30 days. Further, the presence of a third, independent party, such as an employee of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Company, is required during monitoring. Finally, police and prosecutors must in principle notify individuals who have been monitored within 30 days after the investigation. Strict penalties are possible for those who abuse the wiretap policy.2 The National Police Agency (NPA) and Ministry of Justice (MOJ) recently requested about JPY 170 million (~ USD 1.6 million) in 2001 for the development of a "temporary mailbox" technology for intercepting e-mail.3

The Federation of Bar Associations, journalists and trade unions opposed the wiretap law.4 Opponents argue that Diet proponents of wiretapping forced a vote on the bill before the legislatures could host a full airing of the potential privacy problems it would create.5 Professor Toshimaru Ogura, of the Japanese Net Workers against Surveillance Taskforce (NaST) and Toyama University, asserts the law does not restrict the storage and use of information gathered, possibly providing the government with a mandate to maintain databases on citizens that can be shared by other domestic—and possibly foreign—agencies.6 Further, Professor Ogura argues that the MOJ officials have a free hand to broadly intercept communications from innocent people in the process of targeting criminals; for example, the MOJ proposed in a Diet session that it could tap all of the in/outcoming phone calls of a shipping company in an effort to capture drug smugglers.7

Many have protested the wiretapping law as too large a grant of power, including one lawmaker who sued alleging the police had illegally tapped his phone.8 Over 180,000 people have signed a petition for the repeal of the wiretapping law. The signature-collecting Committee for the Repeal of the Wiretapping Law submitted the petition to the Diet on May 24, 2000.9 In August, NTT asked that its employees not be required to be present when taps are installed, saying it would likely have a detrimental effect on company performance.10 Wiretapping is also prohibited under Article 104 of the Telecommunications Business Law and Article 14 of the Wire Telecommunications Law.11

In June 1997, the Tokyo High Court upheld a lower court's finding that the Kanagawa Prefectural Police had illegally wiretapped the home telephone of a senior member of the Japanese Communist Party. The court awarded damages of JPY 4 million (~USD 36,600).12 Several NTT employees have also been caught selling information about customers.13 Several companies that provide for pre-paid cellular phone service announced in May 2000 that, in order to prevent crime, they would start requiring users to provide identification before using the service.14

Visual Surveillance

The Ministry of Transportation announced in June 1999 a plan to issue "Smart Plates" license plates with embedded IC chips. These new licenses will contain driver and vehicle information and be used for road tolls and traffic control.15 The Ministry secured $ 170,000 US in 2006 for conducting pilot tests. The pilot tests began on taxi cabs in the city of Chiba.16 Since 1986, the National Police Agency has also operated a comprehensive video surveillance system called the "N-system" in at least 540 locations on expressways and major highways throughout the country; it automatically records the license plate number of every passing car.17 Whenever a "wanted" car is detected, the system immediately issues a notice to police.18 Eleven motorists filed a lawsuit challenging the system in 1997. The latest model of N-system can also photograph the faces of drivers.19

In response to rising crime rates, Tokyo police have been operating surveillance cameras on utility poles and buildings to monitor pedestrians in the several densely populated districts of the city.20 Lawyers opposing the move assert that this surveillance is unconstitutional, pointing to a 1969 Supreme Court decision against a police officer who secretly photographed a student activist in Kyoto.21 Other areas of the country are following Tokyo's lead, but many privacy groups, such as NaST22 and the Consumers Union of Japan23 are reporting on video surveillance and publicizing all new camera installations. Suginami ward, one of Tokyo's largest wards, enacted an ordinance to limit the rapid increase in the number of security cameras being set up in public areas following heightened concerns about privacy in the community.24


  • 1.
  • 2. "Diet Passes Wiretap, ID Bills," Asia Intelligence Wire, August 13, 1999.
  • 3. Toshimaru Ogura, "Toward Global Communication Rights: Movements against Wiretapping and Monitoring in Japan," October 30, 2000.
  • 4. "Diet Eyes Allowing Police to Bug Phones," Mainichi Daily News, June 16, 1998.
  • 5. Ogura, supra; "Police Gain Right to Tap Phone Email," The Standard, August 15, 2000.
  • 6. Ogura, supra.
  • 7. Id.
  • 8. "Prosecutors Drop Bug Case by Lawmaker, TV Asahi," Yomiuri Shinbun, December 29, 2000.
  • 9.
  • 10. "DoCoMo Rrges NPA not to Seek Tapping Aid," Yomiuri Shimbun, August 16, 2000.
  • 11. Telecommunications Business Law, LAW No. 86 of 25 December 1984), as amended last by Law No. 97 of 20 June 1997.
  • 12. "Police Wiretapping," Mainichi Daily News, June 29, 1997.
  • 13. "NTT Staffers Leaking Customer Information," Newsbytes, July 2, 1999.
  • 14. "Prepaid Cell Phone Companies to Require," Kyodo News Service, May 12, 2000.
  • 15. "License Plates to Bear IC Chips with Driver, Auto Info," Comline, June 09, 1999.
  • 16.
  • 17. "Cameras to Give Police in Kabukicho 'Peep' Show," Japan Times, June 5, 2001.
  • 18. Christian Science Monitor, April 8, 1997.
  • 19. Ogura, supra.
  • 20. "Big Brother's Cameras Silently Go on the Beat in Tokyo," The Nikkei Weekly, April 26, 2004.
  • 21. Japan Times, June 5, 2001.
  • 22.
  • 23.
  • 24. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 18, 2004.