In George Orwell's "1984" Big Brother was watching. Today, all over Japan, the eyes belong to the N System.
At about 400 sites on Japanese roads and highways, computerized monitors operated by the country's National Police Agency (NPA) record the license numbers of every passing vehicle, 24 hours a day. The agency says its N System - N stands for number - eliminates the need for roadblocks in certain areas and speeds the apprehension of stolen cars and missing suspects.
To some Japanese concerned with protecting individual privacy, this explanation offers fleeting comfort. They say the N System is just one example of an emerging kanshi shakai - or surveillance society - where the cameras and computers of the government, though hardly as omnipresent as the telescreens in Orwell's book, observe too much.
When privacy advocates look to the past, their discomfort grows. Early this century, authoritarian leaders controlled thought and curbed freedoms in creating a militaristic state based on subservience to Japan's emperor. One result was World War II.
But aside from these worriers, most Japanese are unaware of the N System, even though it is 11 years old and cost more than $25 million in the last fiscal year alone. Once informed, they are not terribly concerned.
Take Ichita Yamamoto, a member of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party who sits in the upper house of parliament. He raised his eyebrows when he learned about the N System from this reporter, particularly because he belongs to a committee that in part oversees police affairs.
After making a few inquiries, Mr. Yamamoto's initial concerns were eased. "This is a Japanese way of thinking," he explains, "but I guess public opinion is not really against this type of system.... People tend to see security as most important."
The N System is not the only potential privacy invader. The government's Home Affairs Ministry is also preparing to assign every Japanese a 10-digit number at birth or upon naturalization. The numbers would be linked with a person's name, sex, address, and birthdate.
A law establishing this national identity number system may be introduced soon. To illustrate his concerns about this plan, Koji Ishimura, a law professor at Asahi University near Nagoya, sketches a diagram on a notepad.
A circle at the center of his drawing stands for the Home Affairs Ministry's computers, where the database of national identity numbers would be maintained. Then he draws several boxes orbiting the circle, representing bureaucracies that have already developed their own ways of keeping track of citizens.
Japan's National Tax Administration Agency, for instance, assigns each taxpayer a number. The NPA uses a number system to organize drivers' licenses. The Foreign Ministry numbers the passports it issues, and so on.
Professor Ishimura draws lines connecting the boxes with the central circle - lines that indicate the interlinking of information that will occur if these bureaucracies abandon their own systems and begin using the Home Affairs Ministry's national identity numbers. In that case, he says, a single 10-digit number would become a "master key" to all manner of personal information. "If we introduce this," he wonders, "how can we escape the government's bureaucratic authority?"
Takeshi Miyaji, a Home Affairs Ministry official, says the system is designed for "limited purposes" and that other agencies would have to indicate how they would use the numbers.
He says the ministry wants to make it easier for Japanese to prove who they are and thereby make the functioning of government more efficient. To protect privacy, the ministry will limit access to the central database and ban private companies from using the national identity numbers.
But the advocates are skeptical. "The basic problem is that ... we have no comprehensive safeguards" for personal privacy, says Takashi Shiraishi, leader of a citizens' group opposed to the national identity-number system. Mr. Shiraishi also happens to be a public official - he is a city planner in one of Tokyo's municipal offices - and says the government hasn't explained its intentions or consulted the public.
Masao Horibe, a carefully spoken law professor at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University and one of the country's leading thinkers on privacy, says it is reasonable to worry about the emergence of a "surveillance society." "In Japan," he says, "protecting privacy by law is not favored by government agencies and private companies."
Japan has a 1988 law that prevents the government from using personal information for purposes other than that for which it was collected. But Professor Horibe says there is no national law that protects privacy in general or regulates what companies can do with personal information.
He has tried to get the government to accept a modern definition of privacy - an individual's right to control the circulation of information relating to him or herself - but without success. "We don't have a culture of individualism," he says, so the idea of protecting individual privacy rights doesn't draw the support here that it does in the West.
Furthermore, Japan's bureaucracy-led government does not consider itself beholden to the people. Even when it comes to personal information, he says, officials believe that the data "belongs to the government."
To be sure, the authorities sometimes acknowledge that they go too far. Three years ago, the Tokyo city government announced residents would have to use translucent garbage bags and write their names on them. The idea was to make it easier to enforce regulations that require the separation of burnable waste and recyclable material.
Concerns over privacy caused the government to back off the name requirement. But Tokyoites must use special translucent bags that let garbage collectors figure out what's inside. "Most people comply," says a Tokyo official.