Japanese Risk Society: Trying to Create Complete Security and Safety Using Information and Communication Technology

Kiyoshi Murata and Yohko Orito


It is alleged that we are now living in “risk society” as a consequence of modernisation or industrial civilisation (Beck, 1992) where “manufactured risk” should be recognised as social concern even though such kind of risk cannot easily be perceived (Giddens, 1999). In this circumstance, a society is intended to be organised in response to risk. In Japan, information and communication technology (ICT) is expected to serve as a key component of policies to deal with risk and to construct a secure and safe society. In fact, policy proposals made by IT Strategic Headquarters emphasise the necessity of establishing the world’s leading secure and safe society using ICT (IT Strategic Headquarters, 2008). They seem to be trying to create complete security and safety in Japan. Private companies also take a proactive stance in the policies. However, are safety and security the supreme values for human beings? In fact, this trial can ironically bring about manufactured risk, but nonetheless they have made little mention of it.

This study attempts to examine what risk is going to be caused by the construction of a secure and safe society using ICT in Japan and why, taking Japanese socio-cultural circumstances surrounding technology and governmental policies into account. Through the examination, the authors would like to consider what Japanese people are going to throw away in return for personal security and safety attained by the government-led deployment of ICT-based information systems. Risk we focus on in this study is invasion of privacy and social sorting inherent in the surveillance society (Lyon, 2003), which is being constructed with multipurpose ICT, and consequent suppression of intellectual freedom including freedom of speech and action.

Most Japanese believed that a peaceful and safe society had been constructed in Japan since the end of World War II in step with Japan’s successful economic growth till the early 1990s.

However, the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo underground system in 1995 and the child murder case in Kobe in 1997, which was called the “sakakibara” case, sowed the seeds of terror or anxiety in people’s minds that the myth of the safe Japanese society had already collapsed.

Repeatedly reported heinous crimes have given Japanese people a realisation of the serious deterioration in the security situation. Indeed, the crime statistics compiled by the National Police Agency show the increasing tendency of the number of violent crime from 2000 to the present and the decreasing tendency of arrest rate from 1996 to 2004 (National Police Agency, 2009). An opinion poll on public security conducted by the Cabinet Office in 2006 shows that 84.3 % of the three thousand respondents feel that Japan’s public security has become worse in these ten years (Cabinet Office, 2007). However, such recognition is not necessarily correct; we can conclude that public security of Japan has not been worse and Japan is one of the safest countries in the world when we peruse statistics regarding crimes in Japan.

In addition to the Japanese people’s feeling of deterioration of public order, the 9.11 terrorist attacks in 2001 gave a significant impact on policies for securing public safety in Japan. Most of litter bins at train and underground stations were removed not to be set time bombs in the bins by terrorists. Latent threat of terrorism has been repeatedly emphasised in government statements as well as in media reports which seem to attempt to promote people’s sense of fear.

Consequently, security camera systems have been installed at train and underground stations, at lifts and entrances of buildings and on streets of city areas. A security camera is called bohan kamera in Japanese which means a camera to prevent occurring crimes, even though any clear evidence of such an effect upon crimes has not been presented. According to the interview with inspectors of the National Police Agency conducted by the authors in 2008, the crime-prevention scheme using high-tech security camera systems have been steadily improved. For example, the security camera system installed in Shinjuku Kabukicho in Tokyo provides police officers with a function of real-time tracking of a crime suspect using video images when an incident happens. In the east exit area of Kawasaki rail station, the high-end security camera which equips the function of detecting abnormal or irregular behaviour using pattern recognition technology will be set up. Installation of these camera systems is hailed by the local residents because they eager security and safety in their cities, and any system, as the inspectors emphasised, equips a privacy-protection function.

The “all in one” IC cards are another technology which enable real-time tracking of individuals’ behaviour and, thus, can contribute to establish security and safety in the public transport. For example, Suica, a prepaid rail pass card with a built-in smart IC chip developed by East Japan Railway Company (JR East) which equips an electronic money function, is used by more than six million people. To each Suica a unique ID number is assigned and in the IC chip variety of individual passenger’s data including information concerning rail service usage and shopping paid by Suica are stored. JR East has already developed the real-time passenger tracking system which, they say, can be used to improve levels of customer service. It goes without saying that this system can function as a crime detection system in conjunction with the security camera systems installed at the rail stations.

Multifunctional, global positioning system (GPS) locator-equipped mobiles, which are popular among Japanese people, can also be used for real-time tracking of individual users’ behaviour. Many motorcars have already been equipped with a car navigation system with GPS, an electronic toll collection (ETC) system and a vehicle video system. In conjunction with the N system (an automatic number plate reader system), these equipments are able to be utilised for real-time tracking of motorcars.

Ordinary Japanese seem rather to hail installation of these traceability systems than to despise due to convenience as well as security and safety they can provide. Behind this attitude Japanese people’s trust in the governments exists. However, this may let them miss manufactured risk the systems can bring about.


Beck, U. (1992), Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage Publications.

Cabinet Office (2007), An Opinion Poll on Public Security, available online at http://www8.cao.go.jp/survey/h18/h18-chian/index.html (in Japanese; accessed on 24/07/09).

Giddens, A. (1999), Runaway World: How Globalisation Is Reshaping Our Lives, London: Profile Books.

IT Strategic Headquarters (2008), Priority Policy Programme 2008, available online at http://www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/policy/it/Program2008.pdf.

Lyon, D. (2003), Surveillance as social sorting: computer codes and mobile bodies, in Lyon, D. (Ed.), Surveillance and Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Digital Discrimination, New York: Routledge, pp. 13-30.

National Police Agency (2009), Crime Settings in 2008, available online at http://www.npa.go.jp/toukei/seianki7/h20hanzaizyousei.pdf (in Japanese; accessed on 24/07/09).