Photo:Dick Thomas Johnson on Flickr

The Letter of the Law: Don’t Get Caught Out in Japan

We all have different ideas of right and wrong. However I would hope that every fair minded person in this world would possess a similar sense of what is right and wrong.

However, whilst we all have similar concepts on what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in decent society, our exact interpretation of those values into laws and other legally binding regulatory frameworks varies considerably from one country to another.

Cultural norms, historical precedents and even religious and ideological values can have a considerable influence on how a nation creates, interprets and applies its own laws.

Coming from the west, it is all too often a conceit we commit, in believing in the absolute unquestioning superiority of the western rule of law. This arrogance can often land Europeans and Americans in trouble in Japan.

With this in mind, I’m going to provide you with some simple advice to outline ways in which we can avoid such misunderstandings and ensure you can receive fair and honest treatment in your dealings in Japan.

Firstly, let’s consider things we may take for granted back home which are big no-nos in Japan.

Depending on where you come from downloading movies may be something you do on a daily basis, or something you are terrified to even attempt. Back in Scotland, it’s still not really considered a crime, but the government is under pressure from the entertainment lobby to make penalties more severe. Always eager to bend to powerful lobbyists, Japan’s government already capitulated on this issue a few years ago and enacted one of the harshest anti-torrenting laws in the world.

Photo : Dennis Skley on Flickr

Downloading of copyrighted material in Japan carries a penalty of up to 10 million yen in fines and a prison sentence of up to 2 years. Be very careful if you decide to download movies here. I would advise against it.

However, enforcement of this law hasn’t been so strict as of late. Technically, the way the law is worded makes it very difficult to enforce, after all how could you prove that someone “knowingly downloaded material they absolutely knew was copyrighted”?

Technically this would potentially make it illegal to watch you tube videos? Thus far, the law has only snared a few serial pirates. If you’re just downloading your weekly episodes of Game of Thrones and the occasional TV special from your home country, you’ll probably be ok. However, as I said, remember that what you are doing is considered illegal in Japan, however much you may feel it is a victimless crime.

Telecoms are another area where some foreigners can come a cropper in Japan.

For example, we have all thought about unlocking our cellphones in order that we may switch carrier. Unfortunately Japan’s powerful telecom lobby have played their hand well here. In the UK as an example there are several mobile phone dealerships on the high street who are only too happy to do this. However, in Japan, unlocking a phone which is locked to a specific network carrier is considered illegal and any shop that does this for you could face severe penalties for doing so. Since May of this year, the law has now been amended meaning that customers have the right to have their phone unlocked from the network after 6 months if they request it. However, private, third-party unlocking without your network carrier’s consent is still considered illegal.

Cellphone contracts are another area where one must tread carefully. The wording of these contracts is at best obtuse, at worst utterly and completely confusing. The cynic in me would believe that this is a purposeful act on behalf of the cellphone network providers to trick subscribers into buying services they don’t need. Others would call it progressive marketing.

When you take out a new cell phone contract, there will be a number of additional services added to your bill which you may not need. Additional insurance for loss or damage, email, movie or radio channel subscriptions, music download service and so on. You cannot request to have these taken out of the contract at commencement. The standard policy is to wait a month and then cancel all these unnecessary services.

Of course the service providers know that many will forget to cancel and hence they make more profit.

Also, unlike the US and UK, cell phone contracts in Japan are subject to automatic renewal. The provider does not need your permission to renew your contract. You are subject to a 10,000 yen cancellation fee if you choose to cancel mid contract. However, you can avoid this if you cancel during the 30 day grace period between the end of one contract and the beginning of another.

Thankfully the government has taken some steps to curb this apparent lack of consumer rights and since a few years ago, all cellphone contracts are subject to a 30 day cooling off period during which contracts can be cancelled with no penalty to the customer. I would strongly recommend that anyone looking to buy a phone from any of the “big 3” AU, Softbank and Docomo, takes a Japanese friend with them to the shop, who can explain everything clearly and make sure that there are no misunderstandings.

Also, always insist on having an English speaking staff member present to explain things, but do not necessarily take their word at face value.

They are unlikely to be lying however I have seen multiple instances where the contracts are so complicated that the sales staff themselves have trouble explaining them in English. If in any doubts, do not sign. Remember that the Japanese language contract always takes precedent in the event of a dispute.

Photo : Jim Hammer on Flickr

Finally, whilst I may have highlighted some of the negative aspects of Japanese law here, there are plenty of positives too. Having a cold beer in the park on a hot day is something you could never do in Scotland, where public drinking is a criminal offence. Also, I’m sure my American friends appreciate the mandatory health insurance enrolment, nobody is too poor to be treated here.

Photo : Chris Harber on Flickr

For all its imperfections, Japan remains a safe, fair and democratic society where the rule of law is respected. To best protect yourself, make sure you know before you go, and remember this age old piece of consumer advice: “If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

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