Privacy online and culture: evidence from Japan

Yohko Orito, Kiyoshi Murata, Steve McRobb and Andrew A. Adams


In today’s Net society, an online privacy policy has become to be posted in almost every commercial as well as governmental website. In keeping with this trend, a lot of studies on online privacy policies have been made and some of them pointed out interesting contestations concerning the effectiveness of the policies. For instance, Pollach (2007) suggests that online privacy policies have been drafted with the threat of privacy litigations in mind rather than commitment to fair data handling practices. However, this is not surprising from the viewpoint of the Japanese socio-cultural circumstances surrounding information privacy; whereas information and communication technology has the global nature, phenomena concerning it may have to be examined from the local standpoint. Nevertheless, it seems that there are few studies which attempt to analyse the effectiveness of online privacy policies taking local socio-cultural factors into account.

In light of such recognition, at ETHCOMP 2007, the authors announced to launch a cross-cultural research project on online privacy between Japan and UK (McRobb et al, 2007). This aims to examine whether, and how, privacy policies are differently perceived in Japan and UK cultures that have different understandings of the privacy, and of its social value. We believe that it will be helpful to identify how information privacy is recognized, what are peoples’ attitudes towards it, in two very different cultures, and to guide organizations to become more culturally sensitive in their statements and practice concerning information privacy. As part of the research project, this study is conducted focused on Japan.

A piece of evidence which demonstrates the existence of differences in understanding of the social value of information privacy between Japan and UK may be found in contents of online privacy policies. Nowadays, business organizations that operate their business globally usually construct and run their multilingual websites on which privacy policies written in respective languages are posted, and differences in contents and/or statements of the privacy policies between languages, if any, should be a good clue to investigate differences in understanding of the social value of information privacy between countries.

For example, UNIQLO, a Japanese casual wear manufacturing and selling company, which operate their business in Japan, UK, France, US and so on, run multilingual e-commerce sites on which their privacy policies are posted. Even though goods and services provided by UNIQLO Japan and UNIQLO UK are almost same, contents of privacy policy posted on the UK site is different from one on the Japanese site. Compared with the Japanese version of privacy policies, the UK version contains more specific statements in terms of data subjects’ rights. This difference may reflect different expectation of people in the two countries towards privacy online. The authors will analyse several Japanese companies’ privacy policies online based on the Japanese socio-cultural characteristics.

In addition to analysing online privacy policies, in this paper, analysis of results of a questionnaire survey, which provides material for a preliminary study to investigate Japanese youngsters’ consciousness about online privacy, will be conducted. Respondents to the questionnaire are third and fourth year students at Japanese universities who are expected to have more experience of online shopping than their parents’ generation; they tend to be less hesitant to access online shopping sites and use credit cards online than their parents. The questionnaire includes questions in order to check respondents’ individual attributes, experience of Net access and online shopping, knowledge on online shopping such as cookies, secure site seals or privacy seals and phishing, and understanding of and attitude towards online privacy policies.

Owing to certain socio-cultural and linguistic characteristics, Japanese people often consider the right to privacy to be a subjective and timeserving concept and they attach less importance to this right than do Westerners. However, in step with the progress of the information society, it is often alleged that the number of Japanese people who have concerns about invasion of the right to information privacy is increasing. The analysis and survey conducted in this study may be useful to evaluate whether the allegation is true or not.

In conjunction with other statistics and survey results published by, mainly, governmental organisations, the result of this survey will be used to analyse Japanese youngsters’ consciousness about the right to information privacy and online shopping behaviour. Our previous studies including ones presented at ETHICOMP 2005 and 2007 (Orito and Murata, 2005; 2007) would be helpful for understanding the implication of this survey from the viewpoint of Japanese culture and tradition.

Similar investigation and survey will have to be done in UK in order to achieve the objectives of our cross-cultural research project. Moreover, it should be interesting and fruitful to conduct the survey in other countries such as China and Korea as well as other European countries to compare privacy online between the East and the West and between countries in the East or the West.


McRobb,S.,Orito,Y.,Murata,K.,Adams,A.(2007)“Towards an exploration of cross-cultural factors in privacy online” , ETHICOMP2007, Tokyo,Japan.

Orito, Y. and Murata,K.(2005), “Privacy protection in Japan: cultural influence on the universal value”, ETHICOMP2005, Linkoping, Sweaden.

Orito, Y. and Murata,K.(2007), “Rethinking the concept of information privacy: a Japanese perspective”, ETHICOMP2007, Tokyo,Japan.

Pollach,I.(2007), “What’s wrong with online privacy policies?”, Communications of the ACM, Vol. 50, No. 9,pp.103-108.