Japan, being the birthplace of the camera, is photo-friendly for the most part. But like all travel photos, there are some common sense rules as well as some particular rules that apply when photographing in Japan.
To make the most out of your travel adventure to Japan and come back with amazing photos of the land, monuments, people and landscapes it is best to familiarize yourself with these rules and customs.
Here’s a list of what to do and what not to do in Japan from a photography perspective.
8. Basic Common Sense Guidelines
For the most part people are okay with photos if you are taking candid pictures for your personal use with your own camera. This means these photos are not for publication or resale and you’re not using a tripod or professional equipment.
These days people can spot a professional photographer, blogger or vlogger a mile away. Don’t try and sneak in photos.
Places where photography is expressly forbidden will be marked by signs. These are the same as the places where you can expect photography restrictions in any part of the world.
Religious sites, certain museum exhibits, some stores or businesses, customs and security checkpoints, and military facilities.
Sometimes when nothing is displayed or mentioned in terms of restrictions, common sense should tell you not to use a flash. Such places can include train platforms, construction sites, etc.
Some street displays and storefronts have prominent “no photography” signs posted.
No matter what your reason for taking photos in Japan, it is important to communicate intent. Department stores and boutiques are very sensitive about people taking pictures of their trendy displays and products.
You will still find people taking pictures of products to research later. I know I do that many times because I am so visual.
If this is your intention, ask first so you don’t look like you are sneaking in photos.
People are sensitive to having their faces plastered all over social media without their knowledge, regardless of intent. If you approach an individual and ask to have your picture taken with him or her, he or she may well say yes in order to indulge a visitor.
If you just want to take a photo of a Japanese person by themselves, either because of their attire or appearance, it is likely going to cause a stir. Japanese people seem to take their personal privacy very seriously.
How serious they are about it boils down to personal preference. It’s hard to tell how they feel unless you ask or see some sign that they are uncomfortable being in a picture.
Remember not knowing the language does not mean you have a carte blanc to do whatever you want. All around the world pointing to a camera and a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down can be translated to a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ to having their photo taken.
7. Photo Guidelines in Public Places in Japan
These rules don’t just apply to Japan but are good to keep in mind no matter where you travel. My personal rule of thumb is that if I’m taking a landscape or environmental photo where people are kind of small and/or are far away and not the main subjects in the scene, I won’t ask for permission.
During the day, it’s nearly impossible to avoid people in a shot at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. If someone is going to make up a large part of the photo or if it’s a people portrait, I will ask permission or just don’t take the photo at all.
For geisha, it gets a bit more complicated because they are such an iconic part of Japan and Japanese culture. They tend to have their photos taken all the time.
Whenever possible, just ask for permission. If they say no or look uncomfortable, don’t take their photo. If they speed up and don’t stop, that’s also a no. If they stop for you, then it’s a yes.
If you do get an iconic shot, don’t forget to thank them. Learn some basic phrases for thank you and good day in Japanese. This can make your Japanese photo expeditions so much more pleasant and productive.
Japan also has some incredibility fun photo opportunities like photo booths in public places. These are super fun and a great way to get some collectable photographic memories.
You may find one as you are out and about in Japan. Put the required money into the slot and enter the photo booth to take some fun photos.
You can even decorate them with little stickers and colors as you exit the booth and collect your images. This is a classic tourist keepsake in a photo crazy country for sure!
6. Selfie Sticks are Banned in Certain Locations
Selfie sticks are not allowed in some locations in Japan including train stations. They can obstruct other people’s vision and cause accidents when passersby are not paying attention to photo taking tourists.
Sometimes selfie sticks seem to give tourists the perceived permission to act without thinking and do silly things. These include leaning close to a ledge, crowd busy walkways or sitting on train tracks for that photo with the highspeed train in the background.
As tourism increases to Japan, expect this ban to be adopted in more and more places in the future.
It is not a good idea to use selfie sticks in crowded urban or tourist areas. They can be a great convenience elsewhere.
As the professional photographer in my family, I very rarely get photos where I am part of the group. When I want to be in the frame, I will take a selfie or better yet hand the camera to someone who has a similar camera or seems to know how to use mine!
If you are not sure if selfie sticks are allowed to take photos in certain places or areas in Japan, just ask people around you. Use Google translate if your Japanese isn’t up to par.
5. Japanese People May Want Their Photo Taken With You
Japanese people, especially school kids, may ask you to join them in a photo. This is very similar to what happens in India especially if you don’t look like the general public. And by this I mean if you are a westerner or even dressing in a different way. You tend to stand out from the general crowd.
This typically happens in public places like the Hiroshima Peace Park where kids go on school trips. Many of them just think it’s cool to be seen with foreigners.
You can decline if you want, but if you do decide to join in on the fun, you’ll be getting a true Japanese experience.
It may seem odd that Japanese people would want their photo taken with a complete stranger. But then again, you may find yourself doing exactly the same thing.
If you find yourself in this situation make the best of it. Make friends and ask them for other spots around the area that are good photo ops.
Like I said earlier, Japan was the birthplace of the modern camera. The Japanese are used to taking a lot of photos for themselves too. You might even find a photo spot that is completely unique and known only to the locals.
4. Photographing Shrines, Temples and Religious Places
Japan has some amazing and picturesque shrines and temples. Not only the famous ones that have been photographed countless times but also smaller and less crowded ones.
Most sacred sites create perfect photo-ops for visitors. As a traveller you must be mindful and respectful. Some locations are off-limits to photos and cameras.
In almost all cases these areas are generally designated by easy-to-understand graphic signage.
Please respect any photography rules you see posted around the area. These are religious sites that hold special meaning and significance to the locals. Don’t disrespect them for your own personal gain.
In addition to these guidelines, some shrines also conduct traditional Japanese prayer and wedding ceremonies. If you happen to come across one, it is best to refrain from taking photos.
There is nothing worse than being put on display by a group of tourists all holding up their phones and recording every minute of the ceremony. And we have all seen this at some point or the other.
When you behave like this, you are more concerned about the photo or video than actually observing and enriching your life with these once-in-a-lifetime travel and cultural experiences.
And whatever you do, don’t ask a local to step aside for what you think is a perfect photo op. The whole objective is to experience. Taking photos is just one way to do that, not the only way!
Getting to a temple or a shrine early or staying late past the general tourist crowd is a great idea. You might get some unique shots free of people and commotion.
3. Street Photography Guidelines in Japan
Japan is very famous for its dazzling lights and street signs especially in urban cities. The light make for some pretty vivid pictures. The neon lights and signs add to the striking nature of photos.
Like anywhere else, be mindful of your surroundings. People are trying to get to work or get home to their families. Don’t interupt their flow.
Make sure you are not interfering with pedestrian traffic when you stop to snap photos. Likewise make sure you’re following the street lights. Getting hit by a car is a bad way to end your vacation.
Photographing people in the streets is a sensitive topic in Japan. It’s okay to take photographs of a large crowd.
There are some excellent vantage points around Shibuya Station where you can capture a bird’s-eye-view of the legendary Scramble Crossing. But expect to see throngs of photographers doing the same here.
And sometimes people, especially photographers, can get nasty in terms of dealing with other photographers taking too much time or even taking too much space with their gear bags and tripods.
When it comes to street photography in Japan, avoid taking photos where individuals are recognizable unless you have their permission. This isn’t just etiquette in Japan, it’s Japanese law.
If someone complains about your continuous snapping, your behavior could end up landing you in a police station.
Street performers are another issue altogether. These people are there to have their photo taken and get some money in exchange. Don’t try to sneak in a photo and walk off without paying them. That is considered rude.
2. Food and Restaurants Photography
Japan is an amazing country for foodies. From street food fare to fancy restaurants – there is something for everyone. The cuisine is also so visually appealing.
Very few restaurants have policies against photographing your meal. Go ahead and document your entire culinary journey.
I know many photographers who go on food specific photo tours to Japan and their images are always mouthwatering to say the least.
Being a vegetarian I am always fascinated with food photos of things I normally don’t eat. From the looks of it, Japan is a food photographer’s paradise.
The good thing in Japan is that many Japanese people also take photos of their meals. You don’t need to feel awkward doing this.
Just make sure to take pictures of your spread and not the other patrons.
1. Neighborhoods and Residential Areas
There are some really cool neighborhoods in Japan. These range from the traditional to ultra-modern and edgy. Photographing street views without clear images of individuals is generally no problem.
Be careful when a house is your subject. If the house is occupied and the residents are out and about try, to not photograph directly into their homes or at the residents.
If you are lucky and get an invite into a local’s home, please ask before you try and sneak in some home décor and lifestyle photos.
Abandoned houses can also make for very interesting themes. Some small villages have quite a large number of abandoned homes or abandoned hotels.
Keep in mind that trespassing may have both legal and safety risks. If the building is very old, it may not be structurally sound.
Abandoned buildings are referred to as “haikyo” in Japanese. It’s oftentimes hard to find specific locations on a map. Hard core photo enthusiasts who specialize in photographing abandoned places will rarely post exact co-ordinates on social media.
To a first time traveler to Japan, these photography rules might seem excessive and strict. But in reality, most of these are basic common sense things and rules around how to behave in a public place. They’re basic manners.
No matter where you travel, be it Japan or elsewhere, make sure you have permission when and where it is needed.
Worst case scenario, if you are confronted about photos or video, please remember to be civil. This is especially important if you are a traveler and out of your core element.
Don’t be confrontational and show a sense of entitlement. Be honest, apologize and delete the image or video. This is usually enough to remedy the situation. It’s a good gesture to show that you are truly sorry for being disrespectful in someone else’s country and/or home.
Cover Image by Abhenav Murthy