Essential tips for taking photos in Japan

Japan offers beautiful opportunities for photo-taking, be it vibrant cherry blossoms in spring, colourful fireworks in summer or glistening snow-capped mountains in winter. Japan is generally tolerant of photography, but there are however many places where photographs should not be taken. As more and more tourists flock to Japan in recent years, it is essential that visitors understand and respect the local laws and observe correct photo-taking etiquette. So use these tips to help on your next trip to Japan once the world is back to normal again.

The laws regarding photography in Japan can be summed up as follows:

Photos of crowds in public places (such as most streets and parks) and of building exteriors are generally acceptable. Photos of individuals require permission, but in my experience, most Japanese are hesitant to be photographed up close by a stranger.

Why is taking photos an issue in Japan?

The most pertinent issue is that of tourist behaviour when taking photos. Groups of tourists congregating in large groups to take a photo blocking the path, taking a photo in a place that prohibits photography (such as at concerts or inside temples), or otherwise just breaking the law in order to take a photo. One prime example being the actions of certain Chinese tourists in 2016 who climbed cherry blossom trees to take a photo, destroying the trees’ branches in the process.

The most important thing to do is just to obey signage. If there is a “no photography” sign displayed, then just do not take a photo.

Temple exterior shots are fine, like this one I took at Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto

Temples

Photography is usually permitted outside of the temple grounds although ensure that you are being respectful and don’t use selfie sticks or be overly loud. Inside the temples is a different story though as most temple interiors are off-limits for photographers (and will more often than not have a “no photography” sign displayed).

The same goes for cemeteries and gravesites. Japanese graves are beautiful and intricate but photographing them is a huge no-no out of respect for the dead. If you do, you’ll likely draw the ire of those around you. Don’t turn someone’s final resting place into your next Instagram story, stick to shots of the temple exterior.

Drones

Japan is quite relaxed about the use of drones, although several high-profile crashes have put pressure on lawmakers to tighten the rules. You do not need a licence to fly a drone. However, drones cannot be flown near airports or above-crowded places (which rules out most of Tokyo) and can only be flown during the day. You must obtain a permit if you wish to operate a drone in a restricted area or fly at night. More information about this process, as well as specific drone information for Japan, can be found at this website.

Typical purikura photo booths in an arcade

Purikura (Photo booths)

These are fun, whacky photo booths that are popular among Japanese girls. You’ll see them in arcades and they are definitely worth checking out. They allow you to add effects and change the appearance of your face. Unfortunately, Japan does not allow two or more men to use the booths without a female present. This is little known outside Japan but is worth keeping in mind to avoid disappointment.

Chikan warning sign in Okinawa
Credit Mk2010, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Public Transport

Japan has a problem with illicit photography on trains and in train stations, and you will see signs warning against so-called chikan (perverts). It is good practice to avoid taking photos or filming while on public transport so that everyone can be comfortable. Although, feel free to film the view outside the window or take a photo of the train itself. Many enthusiasts line up at the end of platforms to photograph certain trains, which is fine as long as you are doing it safely.

The main message is basically just to be respectful of the people around you and obey the signage. If you keep this in mind, you won’t have any problems taking amazing photos in Japan!

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