The rights of many over the one

The first thing to know about privacy in Japan is that there's no word for it.

People here make do with puraibashi - the Japanese pronunciation of the English word.

After a quick look around modern Japan, you might be forgiven for thinking that vocabulary isn't the only thing lacking. In this group-oriented society, the concept of privacy seems a little weak as well.

Magazines feature hidden-camera photo spreads - sometimes shots of skirt-wearing pedestrians' underwear.

Electronic stores are chockablock with secret filming and listening devices disguised as pens and watches among other things, and there are often stories in the press about their use. Using these gadgets isn't illegal. (US laws, by contrast, prohibit recording a telephone conversation without the consent of parties involved.)

In Japan, there are older indications of a relaxed attitude toward privacy. Public baths are popular, and traditional architecture favors open spaces divided by paper screens that make for effortless eavesdropping. At mountain inns, guests can still expect to be given a room with a dozen other strangers who sleep side-by-side on their futons.

Indeed, the general right to privacy isn't mentioned in Japanese law, and culturally, it's been less honored than the right of the family or group to know and act on a member's affairs.

But Koji Ishimura, an expert in privacy law at Tokyo's Asahi University, says an awareness of privacy is growing in postwar Japan. He cites the rise of nuclear families over multigenerational ones, urbanization, and better pensions that give seniors independence from their children.

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