Rafael Capurro

In Ethics and Information Technology (2005) 7: 37-47. See: Makoto Nakada and Takanori Tamura: Japanese conceptions of privacy: An intercultural perspective. Ethics and Information Technology (2005)  7: 27-36.




I. Japanese and Western subjectivity
II. Where do we dwell in the West?
III. Informational autonomy and privacy in the West
IV. "Denial of self" in Japan and in the West
V. Privacy in cyberspace: Are we masters in our own house?





This paper deals with intercultural aspects of privacy, particularly with regard to differences between Japanese and Western conceptions. It starts with a reconstruction of the genealogy of Western subjectivity and human dignity as the basic assumptions underlying Western views on privacy. An analysis of the Western concept of informational privacy is presented. The Japanese topic of "denial of self" (Musi) as well as the concepts of Seken, Shakai and Ikai (as analized by the authors of the companion piece on privacy in Japan) give rise to intercultural comparisons. The paper addresses the question of privacy in cyberspace and mass media. Finally the question of freedom is related to the Japanese concepts of Ohyake and Watakusi.



The present debate on privacy issues in Western societies has prima facie two origins, namely the security measures arising from terrorist attacks, particularly since 9/11, and new developments in the field of digital networking and mobile devices (ubiquitous computing), leading to what is being called a surveillance society. But in fact, this debate presupposes basic epistemological and moral concepts such as subjectivity, autonomy, data protection and the underlying idea of inviolable human dignity.

This paper deals with the question of how these concepts became part of our moral and legal self-understanding in Western countries and how far this view of ourselves and our selves, and consequently of privacy, can be understood by way of comparison with the Japanese perspective of Seken, Shakai and Ikai and particularly with regard to the topic of "denial of self" (Musi). My argument will be not just to oppose two apparently fixed conceptions of privacy but to reflect analytically and historically on the intertwining of our cultural and conceptual frameworks beyond the somehow simplistic idea of a general concept of privacy unaffected by cultural differences. The paper specifically addresses these issues in mass media and in the Internet, relating the concepts of privacy and freedom of speech to the Japanese concepts of Ohyake and Watakusi.

This paper started as an online dialogue with Makoto Nakada [N] and Takanori Tamura [T] (their article in this volume). It is by no means conclusive. We are at the beginning of what I call intercultural information ethics, whose aim is not just to compare similar or dissimilar concepts by juxtaposing them, or to look for a conceptual or even moral consensus but to become aware of our mutual biases on the basis of a nuanced understanding of similarities and dissimilarities beyond the simple dichotomy between "East" and "West."



In his book Between Human Being and Human Being (translated into German by Elmar Weinmayr, a philosopher and Japanese scholar) (1), Bin Kimura analyses the structure of Japanese subjectivity as different from the Western one. According to Bin Kimura and Weinmayr, Japanese subjectivity is discontinuous and thus opposite to a classic Western view of subject and identity as something permanent and even substantial. "Discontinuous identity" means that subjectivity is the effect of a network of relations and situations. This would explain in some way why my colleague [N]’s students are so interested in getting information about the situation surrounding the Tutiura homicide (Nakada and Tamura, this volume).  The meaning of the subjectivity of the murderer discloses itself, at least partially, when the situation is analyzed on the basis of a range of information including information that, on the one hand, reveals more precisely about the network of relationships, but does so, on the other hand, only by violating Western conceptions of "privacy."

One main point of Bin Kimura's analysis concerns the aspect of feeling guilty. European and Japanese subjectivities are similar insofar as individuals feel guilty vis-à-vis a higher and meta-individual dimension or power. But in the case of European subjectivity, this power comes from beyond in a vertical sense, while in Japan it comes from a horizontal space between us. If we consider this experience of feeling guilty as a basic moral experience, then we have a key for an intercultural analysis of the Tutiura homicide as described by my Japanese colleagues. That is, if we operate within a (Western) society  with strong or substantial subjectivities, which are continuous, then the meaning of "privacy" and respect for this "privacy" concerns basically this individuality, i.e., as a continuous, substantial something that should be protected, no matter the situation and no matter what happened. Indeed, respect  for autonomy and individuality belong to the basic moral and legal norms in the West. On the contrary, if we are dealing with a (Japanese) subjectivity – one which is not permanent, but dependent on situations and networks of relationships  – then there is no possibility for respecting "privacy" in the Western sense as a permanent quality of a substantial subject. The result is a world with clear rules – Japanese Seken – that are not based on the respect for permanent identities but on the respect for the space(s) and situations between individualities – Japanese Aida. This could be a reason why Western privacy rules remain Shakai to Japanese, i.e., not related to the structure of Japanese subjectivity. In sum, following my Japanese colleagues’ analysis, the Japanese moral world – or ethos in Greek terms, i.e., the moral rules proper to a specific society – embraces three dimensions and their mutual relationships, beginning with Seken and its negation Ikai; Seken in turn is contrasted with a more Western Shakai; and finally, Ikai contrasts with Shakai as well. According to my colleague [N] and other Japanese scholars like Yoshihiko Amino and Masao Yamaguchi (this volume) Ikai is a dangerous but at the same time an attractive place similar to the Dionysian dimension of human existence as analized by Nietzsche. When we discuss these issues in a comparative way, we are dealing with what I call intercultural information ethics. (2)


One meaning of the Greek concept ethos is ‘to dwell" (for instance, in Heraclitus'  (ca. 544-483 B.C.E.) famous dictum, ethos anthropos daimon, or, following Heidegger's translation, "the (usual) place where humans dwell is the openness where the god (as the un-usual) can appear” (3). If the Japanese ethos is threefold, I would say that the traditional Western dwelling is two-fold or "meta-physical," namely the world of sensory experience and the world of sensible experience or, in Plato’s (427-347 B.C.E.) terms, the topos aisthetos (sensory place) and the topos noetos (rational place). The modern version of this division is the Kantian conception that we are dwellers of two worlds, namely the physical world which is strictly deterministic and the world of “ends in themselves” or the “kingdom of ends” (Reich der Zwecke). The latter is the basis of what he calls “human dignity” (Würde) as different from things that have just a value (Wert). Human dignity is grounded in the human capacity of going beyond our natural being because we are also “rational beings” – Kant uses the neutral term vernünftiges Wesen – by giving ourselves universalizable laws of action and by freely obeying them (4). The moral excellence of human beings consists in being capable of acting on the basis of such self-given, universalizable reasons or "maxims." This capacity is grasped, following Kant, in the practical experience of the categorical imperative.  Kant postulates the existence of such a place, the kingdom of ends, where rational beings dwell but which remains theoretically unknowable.

In today’s Western secularized and naturalized societies, it is difficult to make plausible this topical division between the physical and the metaphysical, even in its Kantian version. In fact, this difference is stated mostly either as a dogmatic legal postulate or it is theoretically related to some presumed prerogative of human existence such as rationality, consciousness, or personality, making difficult to understand the original Kantian concept of dignity (Würde). In many cases, a historical reason for acknowledging human dignity is given, namely the atrocities of World War II. In addition to philosophy and history, a third root of human dignity is the Judeo-Christian tradition with its conception of an immortal soul created by God in his own image (imago dei).

This brief overview shows that there is a tendency in Western thought towards a twofold dwelling – but due to different kinds of criticisms, the two places have been given different names, and they also look different, according to what the names refer to. In other words, our experiences of subjectivity and, correspondingly, of the fundament of privacy, are in some way also discontinuous at least with regard to the places where this subjectivity is supposed to be at home (whether for a while or forever), and with regard to the view of which of these places is the “common” or usual one and which is the “odd” one. We have been moving two and a half thousand years from one place to the other and sometimes we have just changed the furniture.

At the first sight, we are at the opposite of what  my Japanese colleagues call "denial of subjectivity" (Musi), particularly since Descartes discovered a firm foundation (fundamentum inconcussum) in which we can dwell, namely the cogito or res cogitans, as well as our corporality or res extensa (6). But in fact, there is also the Christian tradition of denial of the self which means less the dissolution of the self as in  the Japanese tradition, as the idea(l) of submitting the self and its will to the will of God, or, in the Kantian version, to the categorical imperative. In some way, the experience of the categorical imperative is as much an experience of being exposed to something non-natural or odd as it is the possibility of giving oneself universal laws of action that are not based on physical experience and that may even contradict or at least transcend the personal interests of the subjectivity – where subjectivity is supposed to move freely into another place as its "natural house," namely, to the place of social life of “rational beings” on the basis of mutual acknowledgement, and therefore of respecting each other's privacy or autonomous being. This is the  reason why privacy is such an important moral good in our Western societies. I would tentatively say that the moral experience as the experience of being able to act in a good or bad manner corresponds to the experience of Ikai as a "different world," i.e., as different from the common sense world of natural experience and purely subjective interests. The moral self can find an "asylum" in this moral world which is totally different from the world of power, economy and violence or the common sense world.

I put this experience in somewhat simplified version in order to make the structure of Western Shakai more distinct. Morality in the West is a dangerous as well as an attractive place. Our literature, our works of art, and particularly our movies show very often this ambivalence and we praise them particularly when human existence is re-presented in all its tragic and antinomical dimensions, i.e., when our universal moral laws collide with unforeseen situations and we have the impression of being only partially guilty for our bad deeds, i.e., for not taking care of the other in his/her inalienable autonomy and subjectivity by reflecting on the universability of our maxims. This was particularly represented in classical Greek tragedy as the contradiction between the Fate (moira) and the human will trying to master the unforeseeable and going therefore beyond its limits (hybris), the key moral experience being the one of moderation (sophrosyne), self-discipline, and developing the capacity of taking care of oneself (epimeleia heautou)as stressed today for instance by Michel Foucault’s “technologies of the self." (7) With regard to this kind of Greek dwelling, the  ethics of love as propagated by Christianity was seen in the Greco-Roman civilization as primarily something alien. Christianity, on the contrary, managed to integrate the pagan ethos and its theoretical foundation in a long and varied history within its perspective.

The Enlightenment brought about a new conception of human equality, universality, and justice that partly removed the old foundations, reshaping the house(s) where many of us live politically, legally and morally today. Because our subjectivity is a result of these experiences, these changes also make it difficult from within our own history to place the questions of privacy and guilty within one perspective. We feel guilty partly with regard to God; partly with regard to the finitude of human existence – as Heidegger stressed through his conception of a finite and timely “There-Being” or Dasein that  grounds as “nothingness” the options of human action; (7) and partly with regard to humanity as a horizon which is universal and autonomous, but not purely natural.

It seems to me that the question of privacy should be considered from a Western perspective within these stories, arguments, and experiences. Many of these took centuries to grow and led to power struggles and wars within Europe as well as with other cultures. Europeans became aware that the autonomous responsibility for our actions is rooted in ourselves as individuals capable of transcending our selves. This experience of human autonomy and universality, with all its ambiguities and limitations, is at the core, it seems to me, of what we mean when we say that we must protect "privacy." We believe, as my  Japanese colleagues remark with regard to the homicide in Tutiura, that this kind of public portrayal is an attempt to question or even to give up the tension between the public and the private worlds in which we live. Western newspapers are full of such stories with all details, pictures, interviews and so on and this is not only a speciality of the tabloid press. Human curiosity, malicious joy, and other “common sense” incentives are part of our ‘normal’ dwelling

In sum, I would suggest that we need a more detailed analysis of the case my  Japanese colleagues refer to by identifying differences and similarities with regard to mass media, ethics, and information in our cultures. According to my interpretation, for us Westerners – to use a very fuzzy concept – public information on such matters as disasters, crime, war, and illness does not come from outside our secularized morality or Shakai, but we are eager to find out through ethical reflection and legal action where the limits of such informative actions lie, i.e., where are the limits of using human beings just as means and not also as "ends in themselves"?

Given that we live today in a digital environment – to protect individual privacy means primarily to protect our digital data. In doing this, we want to protect what we consider a fundament of Western civilization, namely the conception of a stable, free and autonomous subjectivity. Probably in the case my Japanese colleagues refer to, the reason for looking at this publication of personal or "private" information as going beyond Seken may have different roots and also different outcomes. It seems to me that we in Western countries sometimes think about  "privacy" in terms of a dichotomy with regard to the public sphere or what we call in German Öffentlichkeit. Other dichotomies are, for instance, individual vs. community, autonomy vs. heteronomy, and identity vs. difference. We also have the tendency,  arising from our metaphysical traditions (at least since Descartes), to give primacy to the individual and not to the community, viewing the individual as something separate or transcendent like God himself. This is probably one reason why we try to protect the individual and particularly the world it dwells or its "privacy" and why we sometimes think about public dwelling as a secondary phenomenon that may interfere with or even threaten privacy, as in the case my Japanese colleagues describe. But this is, I guess, only a reaction that leaves unquestioned the phenomenon we face today with regard to digital communication and mass media. The demarcation line between individuals and society is not fixed. Something that seems today like a violation of privacy can be considered tomorrow as a normal situation. For example, the TV series  “Big Brother” was questioned from a moral point of view as a threat to privacy  – while in fact, most of the time it is just boring.


The information scientist Rainer Kuhlen conceives the concept of "privacy" (Privatheit) not primarily in the sense of data protection or of ‘the right to be let alone’, but of what we call in Germany “informational autonomy” (informationelle Selbstbestimmung) that Kuhlen understands as the capacity to choose and use autonomously knowledge and information in an electronic environment (8). This idea of privacy is based on the Western concept of autonomy at least as a  “regulative idea” (Kant) that is related at the same time to the society in which such autonomous individualities live. As Kant himself stresses in his opusculum, "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment," (9) we can think by ourselves when we are permitted to freely communicate our thoughts to others and vice versa. This can be done if and only if the (digital) media through which we communicate and the content they transmit are not basically submitted to censorship – including implicit and/or explicit censorship in the form of real or perceived violations of our data privacy.

In fact, I believe that today we are transforming the concepts of autonomy and individuality into what we could paradoxically call networked individualities. Our being-in-the-world-with-others is basically a being-in-the-networked-world. The ethics of informational autonomy is being conceived as an ethics of knowledge sharing. The principle of solidarity is not to be separated from the principle of autonomy. But when we speak about privacy, autonomy, and solidarity we do relate explicitly or implicitly to cultural and religious traditions of the West instead of creating a purely analytic distinction. This is why, I believe, other cultures may understand similar terms in different ways or even do no have some of these terms at all, not in the sense of a pure relativism of cultural and linguistic incommensurability but in the sense that the stories behind the concepts are an essential part of them (11).

The legal discussion on data privacy in Germany goes back to a decision or our Constitutional Body (Bundesverfassungsgericht) in 1983 concerning the so-called Volkszählungsurteil (Volkszählung = national census) against what was seen as excessive state  interference in the field of personal data, but our first data protection law (Bundesdatenschutzgesetz) dates from 1978. In the US the Privacy Act dates from 1974 and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act from 1986. In the European Union the Directive on Data Protection dates from 1995. According to Kuhlen, in Germany we have derived from the principle of (informational) privacy (informationelle Privatheit) the following fundamental principles (Grundsätze):

  • Principle of legitimation (Rechtmässigkeit)
  • Principle of accuracy (Richtigkeit)
  • Principle of defining the goal (Zweckbestimmung)
  • Principle of non-discrimination (Nichtdiskriminierung)
  • Principle of data "economy" (Datensparsamkeit)
  • Principle of anonymity (Anonymität)
  • Principle of informational symmetry (informationelle Symmetrie)
  • Principle of transparency (Transparenz) and Right to get information (Recht auf Auskunft) (12)

We still do not have something like the US Freedom of Information Act. Moreover, when people are willing at least partially to give up their rights to information privacy, because they will be compensated in return by a greater ability to pursue their economic interests – informational privacy, understood as data protection in the electronic environment, is not being considered by such stakeholders as a presupposition for an autonomous life. This can be considered as a tendency of current e-commerce, in contrast to our data privacy laws, and as a relativization of the privacy principle – and with it, of our basic (modern) ideas/ideal of an autonomous subject as well as of liberal democracy.

We can also notice that there is a difference between:

  • distribution data as exchanged for instance through e-mail, in forums or chats –  in which (State) surveillance on formal data as well as on content is possible;
  • interaction data created during navigation in the network –  particularly accessible by Internet providers;
  • and transaction data as stored by internet providers particularly with regard to economic transactions. (12)

In all three cases, however, is possible to undertake all kinds of "data mining" without any possibility of protecting a right to privacy (although savvy users may seek to protect their anonymity, e.g., by using software such as Anonymizer, Rewebber, or Steganos). And some authors such as Jeremy Rifkin consider the traditional concept of privacy as a relic of bourgeois 19th century society. (13) The concept of privacy is being replaced, or better: displaced, by the one of transparency. Be transparent! and then you are a good citizen.

The right to privacy is also turned into its opposite through a right to information, particularly since 9/11 in the US: the right to privacy collides now with the right to security. But "privacy," understood as a human right, cannot be conceived apart from its essential connection with Western economic and democratic ideas and ideals. Notwithstanding its being radically questioned, privacy is (legally) protected at least in Germany by the principle of informational autonomy (informationelle Selbstbestimmung) which implies a right to data protection against asymmetric situations, as in the case of the electronic environment. But at the same time,  the West is paradoxically approaching a less strict  conception of privacy as an "intrinsic good" in order to see it as an "instrumental good." (14) This situation may derive from the fact of the shift to what I call our being-in-the-networked-world. This does not mean, I believe, that Western subjects are now becoming "Japanized" – but that our view of autonomy is changing, as well as our concepts of being a "subject" and a "data subject" altogether. We now speak of "privacy" in reference to communities, not just to isolated subjects. I do not know if the concept of "community privacy" is a good philosophic and legal concept, but certainly it would be worth exploring it to see if this also the case when we deal with different views of community and privacy in the West and in Japan. 


As my Japanese colleagues make clear in their article in this volume, while we in the Western world think that the self is something to be protected because it is the most precious "thing" we have – in Japan, it makes no sense to protect something that has only a negative value. On the contrary, as we see there, this something called "self" should be denied, not protected. From a Japanese perspective, according to the well-known author Hideo Kobayashi, the basis of criticism is the denial of self (musi). For us in the West, by contrast, the self is the basis of criticism and therefore it should be protected. This also includes the idea of self-criticism as a moral virtue, and, more basically, the idea that we should let others criticize us. (Indeed, there is in German culture the sensibility, "If you do not criticize me you are not taking me seriously!") According to the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, contrary to the traditional idea that criticism and particularly moral judgement belong to the autonomous "ego," this view of criticism from the perspective of the other is in fact the basic moral situation. (15) In this sense, Lévinas' ethics is a heteronomic "ethics of the other" that goes beyond the traditional (Kantian) ethics based on the autonomous self.

Indeed, we have the impression that if we suppress the subject we are unable to be critical. (16) In fact, the German educational system, similarly to other Western systems, is oriented towards the formation of a critical self. We encourage our students to develop an own ‘personal’ view of scientific and moral matters. We distinguish this critical formation from a mere ‘subjectivist’ one. To have just one's own opinion is not necessarily a sign of being a critical subject. This educational emphasis on developing a critical subjectivity reflects Kant's  view of the subject as highly objectivist as it states boundaries to the metaphysical imagination of a subject that is uncritical with regard to the boundaries of his/her knowledge. These boundaries correspond to the “objects of experience” (Gegenstände der Erfahrung). Critical thinking means, according to Kant, to be able to see this basic limitation of human subjectivity as far as it deals with theoretical knowledge. In particular, the categorical imperative means that the subject freely accepts a practical or moral law which is "in" the subject but which at the same time compels the subject to act according to a universal measure beyond his/her individual or private interests. In this way – at least within Germany but increasingly within the European Community – the concept of "privacy" can be interpreted as not primarily  a way of protecting an isolated individual with his/her subjective needs and preferences, but as concerning this individual as far as he/she "re-presents" humanity. While for Japanese "denial of self"  means "approval of the group" or, perhaps more basically, to give rise to that which is "in between" us, i.e., nothingness – in the German case (at least as far as we are Kantians), the "denial of self" means denial of the individual preferences in favour of a universal interest. We may even say that prima facie the categorical imperative looks like a Western version of "denial of self".

On the other hand, there is a much more trivial interpretation of "privacy," which ideed collides with the Japanese view: this is the idea of protecting the self as a bearer of individual preferences and beliefs as well as a representative of humanity. We could call this idea the individualistic foundation of privacy, in contrast with the Kantian version, a universalistic one, as discussed above. In  both cases we have to do with the concept of respect that plays an important role in everyday relations between human beings. This concept plays also an important role in the constitution of Japanese subjectivity and correspondingly in the notion of privacy. (17)  But what is important from a Japanese perspective is to protect the Seken rules  –  not the "privacy" of the individual with his/her subjective preferences and beliefs of his/her self as representing humanity. The key difference with regard to the Western conceptions of privacy seems to be that the self within Seken is something  that should be denied, not protected while in the West the self is the basis for critical thinking and moral action. When speaking about protection of privacy from a Japanese perspective we are not addressing the moral issue from a Seken but just from a Shakai perspective.

But this contrast in terms of positive and negative evaluations of "self" gets even more complicated: the conception of the self as something to be denied echoes in some regards the psychoanalytic discovery that we are not masters in our own house, as critically analized by Bin Kimura.


Our present discussion on privacy within the context of the digital “infosphere” (L. Floridi) (18) includes the danger that both spheres, the private and the public one, disappear. The question is, of course, which are the (cultural) alternatives to this situation or how different cultural traditions will react practically and pragmatically, i.e., by ways of networking new and old meanings which is no more and no less as what we are trying to do with this common reflection. What Tamura says about the Japanese attitude towards cyberspace as a kind of private sphere (e.g., in the example of web diaries in which personal secrets are intentionally revealed) is very  interesting indeed. In the West we have, I believe, the feeling that a personal website is an opportunity for making public some (private) aspects of one’s life. Weblogs are very popular in the West, too, and they are viewed, I believe, also as a kind of making public one's feelings and ideas. This could be interpreted as a "post-modern" Western reaction against a bourgeois view of the private sphere as something that should not be publicly disclosed and as the "container" of whatever we might be ashamed about in the event others were to reveal these aspects of our lives without our permission. I wonder whether the Japanese feelings about cyberspace as part of the private sphere are related to the fact that, as Tamura himself remarks, the Japanese society is not individualistic? Cyberspace is just an enlargement of the space between us (Aida), to use Bin Kimura's words – a space that is "private," but in a collective, non-individualistic way. Another reason for this perception could be that cyberspace is viewed primarily as a Japanese cyberspace at least as far as weblogs are in Japanese and therefore normally not accessible to strangers –  the number of netizens who can understand Japanese being probably very small. But, in fact, the relations between cyberspace and (old) mass media in Japan seem to be more complicated. According to my colleague [N], Japanese weblogs are considered to be media or communication tools for promoting individualism. But at the same time with regard to topics and readers "the Japanese weblogs are the media of reflecting the values and meanings of Seken." In other words, "Japanese weblogs are a continuation of private diary opened to the public (or people in Seken) in the Internet." (19)

Moreover, common definitions of privacy as "the right to be let alone" and "the right to control one's personal information" are indeed subject to different interpretations according to different cultural backgrounds. In the West, these views are based on the opposition between the "public" and the "private," while in Japan the question of "privacy invasion" concerns the sphere of mass media, and particularly of newspapers. It is a problem for newspapers regarding how  far they "invade" privacy,  which is no less than what people regard normally in their Seken perspective as already public  or ordinary life or common sense, but not as something to be exposed to the kind of "publicity" as created by the mass media. So the "crisis of privacy issue" is viewed, logically, as a Shakai issue. This implies that Japanese do not identify cyberspace with mass media, although there is a strong tendency of the latter to "invade" cyberspace by giving users the impression that this is just another channel to receive (and not to exchange) information and that they should therefore remain as passive or at least as dependent of the senders as they were in the past. Nothing is more dangerous for mass media than the opportunity given to users or receivers to become senders. Viewed as an interactive space, cyberspace is then, particularly for Japanese, an  enlargement of their ordinary Seken in-between. According to my colleague [N], what is a threat for the (Japanese) in-between "is the mistaken belief that we Japanese can solve fundamental social problems, including problems of privacy, through the plans or thoughts based on Shakai as well as the mistaken belief that Japanese Watakusi is the same thing as Western individualism." (20)

According to Bin Kimura, Japanese culture makes a strong difference between the ‘private’ sphere within one's own house and the ‘public’ sphere outside the house. But as we see in the article by Nakada and Takamura, Watakusi is indeed not the same thing as Western individualism. Is this difference only a correlation and not, as in the West, an opposition? I mean, do Japanese consider their public life as a kind of "big family" within which there is the sphere of the "small family"? This would correspond in some way to the description given by Hannah Arendt of the relation between the public and the private an ancient Greece and Rome. (21)  But according to my Japanese colleague, contradictory views of "Seken, Shakai, Ikai (and probably of Ohyake and Watakusi)" can be found everywhere in Japanese mass media. He writes:

It is very popular that while protection of privacy and human rights are reported somewhere in a newspaper, moderate or dramatic (i.e., disguised as tragedy) violations of privacy can be found somewhere in the same newspaper. Or, likewise, a homicide is dealt with in different ways by the same TV channel; formal portrayals reflect the values of  Shakai, and "popular" portrayals reflect values of Seken and sometimes part of values of Ikai. (22)

Our Western media are, indeed, no less contradictory with regard to, say, legal and moral norms, religious beliefs, and self-given codes of ethics. But these contradictions within both Western and the Japanese cultures, cannot be simply correlated or, even worse, identified. As my colleague [N] remarks, "both common definitions of privacy as 'the right to be left  alone' and 'the right to control one's personal information' are indeed subject to different interpretation according to different cultural backgrounds. In the West these views are based on the opposition between the 'public' and the 'private' while in Japan the questions of 'privacy' or 'privacy' invasion are more complicated because of the influence of the plurality of Seken, Shakai, Ikai or the plurality of the Ohyake-Watakusi axis and the private-public axis. Sometimes the problems of privacy belong to Shakai and sometimes they belong to Seken." (23)

As well, according to Bin Kimura,  Japanese subjectivity is a weak one, i.e., it rests on the in-between (aida) and not on a strong "ego" as in the West. He concludes from this that when they leave their homes, Japanese persons thus need some kind of mask or ritual Seken (though I do not know if he uses this word as such) in order not to "lose their faces." According to my colleague [N], for Japanese people,

"the right to be let alone" means different things according to different frameworks: "in cyberspace, there sometimes seems to be a kind of resistance against the confusion that might be brought about by transferring some contents in a certain area with a certain framework into another area with a different framework. Just as Bin Kimura suggests, most of Japanese feel that they need different 'faces' in different occasions, even in cyberspace." (24)

In the West, in contrast, personal data are viewed as something permanent that should be basically protected independently of the framework in which they are used. One important instrument for this protection is the principle of informed consent. The concept of person, which is derived from the Latin persona, i.e. mask or character, has a long and rich semantic tradition. Nevertheless, modern information technology has brought about different kinds of (digital) identities and interfaces. It is becoming more and more difficult to define what kind of "personal data" and in which situations should be protected. We are becoming, as I mentioned above, networked individualities.  

All this brings us to the question of what do we mean in different cultures by "shame" (aidos in Greek) –  which was a central concept of ancient Greek society. It is useful to remember that Sigmund Freud said that due to the realm of the unconscious in our lives, the “ego” (Ich)  is “not even master in his own house” (daß es nicht einmal Herr ist im eigenen Hause), but remains dependent on “spare messages” coming from unconscious processes in our spiritual life. (25) Freud’s remark questions a very popular expression in Western languages like in German: “Jeder ist Herr in seinem Haus” or in French: “être maître chez soi” or in English: “a man is king in his own home" or “a man’s house is his castle.” We use to say that it is not possible to serve two masters (Niemand kann zwei Herren dienen). Freud’s remark calls for a more detailed discussion on the question of the places where we live in or on our ethos. The Greek heritage provided us with the dichotomy between the physical and the metaphysical world that we translated into a secularized language by giving to human beings an absolute priority with regard to all other things. Since then, and particularly since Kant, we live in the house of ‘human dignity’ as well as in the physical world, the only bridge between these two houses being the categorical imperative. (26) 

In light of this complex genealogy, we have to ask, where do we, as Europeans, live today? I would say that we live in a big European house or a European Ohyake, or a  public sphere, but we do not think that Watakusi things are per se bad things, or  somehow less worthy than the public ones. Our only problem is that we do not know exactly what to consider as public or as private. In other words, our house is ambiguous and the spirit of the time or Zeitgeist seems to be such that this situation is not just negative but that it allows us to be more flexible – not only with regard to how we live within this house, with its complex history and architecture, but also with regard to the ways we behave when we are guests in, for instance, a Japanese house or in a US house. Even so, it does seem clear that in Japan (and China) the views about private rights and public policy may be even more community oriented than in Europe.


To summarize some of the most important points of contrast and similarity between Western and Japanese views on privacy is not an easy task –  not only because this intercultural dialogue is at its beginning, (27) but also because comparing apparently similar or dissimilar concepts that were coined in different historical and cultural settings is dangerous in at least two ways. One danger is that we remain satisfied with merely juxtaposing such concepts; the second is that we thereby remain in such an early stage of an intercultural dialogue, defined by what may only look like a common ground or an incompatible view –  a common ground or incompatible view that in light of further dialogue, however, will dissolve into far more complex inter-relationships, just as we have seen here.

Nevertheless, such dialogues must begin somewhere – and so here is my overview:

1. We, Westerners, or at least some of us, still live in the house of Platonic metaphysics or in its derivatives, such as the Kantian one, with their "two worlds" metaphor. As my Japanese colleagues argue, however, Japanese people (or at least some of them) live in a three-fold world.

2.  Some Westerners believe in a Christian theology which introduces the personified idea of the evil with its own house, Hell. Ikai is not the same but it creates a similar polarization with our normal ethos or morality (as parallel with Japanese Seken).

3. Since the Enlightenment, Western  morality is based on the idea of the individual as an autonomous being, having dignity (Würde), i.e., “re-presenting” humanity in his Person (die Menschheit in seiner Person) as stressed by Kant in The Critique of Practical Reason (Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, A 155). According to Kant, human dignity, as implying freedom and  autonomy, is grounded on our belonging to the noumenal world and not just to (deterministic but phenomenal) nature. This dwelling in our “personal” selves is what we mean when we say that our “privacy” should be protected. It is the basis of our democratic system.

4. Given the fact that in Japanese Buddhist traditions the "self" is "nothing" (musi) –  this idea of Western subjectivity, especially with all its political and scientific-technical ramifications, is difficult to understand. The moral, social and political questions arising from it, and particularly the notion of privacy, belong to Shakai. Thus, Japanese and Western morality, Seken and Shakai, are not necessarily entirely incompatible or contradictory – but with regard to privacy, it  seems as if opposite or contrary perspectives are at stake.

5. While Japanese morality stresses the value of the community and the dimension of "in-between" (aida) human beings, Westerners (at least some of us) underline individualism and autonomy. As a result, the Japanese conception of privacy, if we want to use this Shakai term, is community-oriented and corresponds in some way to our ancient Greek (and Roman) ethos tradition, as analyzed by Hannah Arendt. Since Modernity, however, Westerners live in a dichotomy of the  private and the public sphere that, as my Japanese colleagues argue, only loosely parallels the Japanese distinction between Ohyake (public) and Watakusi (private). In particular, for Japanese, private things are less worthy than public things. This is related to the negation of the self (musi).

6. The concept of privacy as "the right to control one's personal information" arises in Japan, on the one hand, with the arrival of the information society and particularly with the ‘invasion’ of privacy by some mass media. But, on the other hand, as our Japanese colleague [T] has shown, Japanese newspapers have been reporting about privacy issues as news, i.e., trying to protect privacy by following the values of Shakai. Japanese society seems to have imported only some aspects of the Western concept of privacy and particularly not the ‘individualistic’ perspective that ascribes privacy to the dignity of the person. This only partial importation is probably the reason for the ambivalent attitude towards the question of privacy not only with regard to mass media, but also with regard to the Internet as well – and of the Japanese mass media themselves. This ambivalence reflects the different places in which Japanese dwell, namely, Seken, Shakai, and Ikai, as well as Watakusi  and Ohyake.

7. There seems to be fundamental differences between the Japanese and Western culture(s) regarding the concepts of autonomy and privacy. Our dichotomies (public/private, public/privacy, individual/society, "noumenal"/material worlds, dignity/value etc.) do not correspond to Japanese trichotomy of Shakai, Seken and Ikai as well as to some key insights on the self, the community, and the "in-between."

8. With the advent of psychoanalysis, i.e., with Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, as well as with today’s brain research, the Western concept of the "Ego" has been radically criticized. There is an ongoing debate on the concepts of, for instance, autonomy and free will as well as a tendency to dwell, so to speak, only in our ‘natural’ house. At the same time, all our official political basic statements, for instance in our constitutions, stress the traditional view of human dignity and its derivatives, on which the idea of privacy (and private!) is grounded.

9. We Westerners seem to live simultaneously in different worlds according to different traditions that partly overlap and partly contradict themselves. This makes the dialogue with the Japanese culture even more difficult because what they import or perceive as Shakai concerns only some of these stories of our Western houses. This is particularly the case when we take into account the differences between Europe – which again an oversimplification! – and the United States. We have partly contradictory traditions and stories within our own European house(s). To ‘protect privacy’ may mean, in the US, particularly since 9/11 and with a long and strong individualistic tradition, something very different as, say, in Germany or in other countries.

10. In a very general way we can say that the concept of privacy in the West is oriented towards the individual, while Eastern countries – and also other cultures like the African ones, for instance – stress the concept of community and give privacy at least partly a negative connotation. In case they tackle this question in a more or less positive sense, it seems that it loses its strong roots in Western anthropology and becomes a practical question of, say, how to deal or how to protect personal (digital) data in the information society.

A discussion of these deeper roots of the question of privacy belongs to an intercultural dialogue that aims not only at solving common practical problems when we use information technology but also at trying to understand how we became who we are and what is going on with our selves and the houses in which we live in this new digital and global environment. Beyond the current discussion, this further dialogue should include concern with particularly two topics:

1) The invasion of the public sphere by the private one. This is very paradoxical but we need to protect the public sphere no less than the private one, particularly in the Western countries (in all of them?), e.g., when people use their cellular phones everywhere and speak loudly about their very private affairs.

2) The question of the body, particularly as it is the object of digitization in its different parts. This means that what is originally most private, i.e., our own body, is becoming more and more object of digital analysis. What was philosophically perceived as a unity in the Middle Ages – anima forma corporis, i.e., the soul as form of the body – is now becoming more and more digitally fragmented. Privacy is not just related to the physical but to the physical body as digitally grasped. In this case, the question of privacy understood as data protection is expanded from the idea of digital data about  the person to the body conceived as an information system. This conception then leads to further questions of security and identification concerning all kinds of data, such as genetic data, biometric data etc.(28)

As I hope these questions suggest, our dialogues have only just begun.


(1) Bin Kimura. Hito to hito to no aida. Tokyo, 1972 (German translation by E. Weinmayr Zwischen Mensch und Mensch. Strukturen japanischer Subjektivität. Darmstadt, 1995)

(2) Rafael Capurro. Intercultural Information Ethics. In Johannes Frühbauer, Rafael Capurro, Thomas Hausmanninger (Eds). Localizing the Internet. Ethical Issues in Intercultural Perspective. Munich, Fink 2006.

(3) Martin Heidegger, Letter on Humanism, in Platons Lehre von der Wahrheit. Mit einem Brief über den „Humanismus“. Francke Verlag, Bern, 1954, p. 109: „Der (geheure) Aufenthalt ist dem Menschen das Offene für die Anwesung des Gottes (des Un-geheuren).“ (Translation by RC).

(4) Immanuel Kant. Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. In Werke, Ed. W. Weischedel. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1964, Vol 7.

(5) See René Descartes. Meditationes de prima philosophia. In Oeuvres, Ed. Ch. Adam & P. Tannery. Vrin, Paris, 1996, vol. VII. 

(6) Michel Foucault. Technologies of the Self. Ed. L.H. Martin, H. Gutman, P.H. Hutton. Amherst, The University of Massachusetts Press 1988.

(7) Martin Heidegger. Sein und Zeit. Tübingen, Niemeyer 1976 (13th ed.), § 58.

(8) Rainer Kuhlen. Informationsethik. Umgang mit Wissen und Information in elektronischen Räumen. Universitätsverlag Konstanz 2004.

(9) Kant, Immanuel. Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? In Werke, Ed. W. Weischedel. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1964, Vol. 9.

(10) This starting point leads to a series of further questions intended as the basis for future discussions. I wonder whether the Japanese view(s) on privacy are less individualistic and more group oriented? Is there something like a "group privacy" in Japanese moral thought and traditional moral life (Seken)? What about the protection of what is "in-between" the (Japanese) selves? Is there a difference between expressing freely "one's inner secrets or sins" and to get this done by, say, a newspaper, Asahi? Privacy in the sense of an attempt of the self to remain an individual separated from the other seems to be a moral "sin" only from the perspective of Shakai. But if we take the viewpoint of Seken why should the privacy invasion by the media be considered as (morally) "bad" if the self should be manifest and "loose" or deny itself? Do my colleague [N]'s student think that this kind of media report is a way of restoring post-factum the dimension of nothingness that binds a group by making clear the reasons that led to the appearance of a discontinuous individuality? Is "nothingness" something that in a Japanese view could and should be (legally) protected? Is the moral scandal, from the viewpoint of Seken, the fact that group privacy or, if I may say, "nothingness" was violated? According to Nakada (personal e-mail from April 4, 2005), "for Japanese 'denial of self' means 'approval of the group' [...] but this 'group' might mean different things in different occasions." In fact, on the basis of "denial of self" the "approval of the group" means basically "to give rise to that which iss 'in between' us, i.e., nothingness.".

(11) Kuhlen (2004, p. 188) who cites, among others, Hans-Jürgen Gartska. Informationelle Selbstsbestimmung und Datenschutz. Das Recht auf Privatsphäre. In: Christiane Schulzki-Haddouti Ed. Bürgerrechte im Netz. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, Bonn 2003, 48-70.

(12) Kuhlen (2004, p. 186-187) Kuhlen makes a difference between privacy as related to data protection and “Privatheit” as the right to informational autonomy, i.e., of choosing information according to personal needs.

(13) Jeremy Rifkin. The Age of Access. New York, Putnam 2000.

(14) For a discussion of the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goods in relation to Western justifications of privacy and information privacy rights, see Deborah Johnson, Computer Ethics. 3rd. ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. pp. 120f..

(15) Emmanuel Lévinas. Totalité et Infini. Essai sur l’extériorité. The Hague, Nijhoff 1961.

(16) The word "criticism" comes from the Greek krisis, which means to distinguish, to separate, to select – but also to fight or to take a measure by comparing each other in a (sport) competition. This concept is basic in different areas such as politics, law, medicine, the military, sports and, of course, in science and philosophy. In German we use the word Urteil, which corresponds to English "judgement." In our religious tradition, God as the supreme sovereign is the origin of the law and therefore the one who states the (eternal and natural) law at the beginning and who judges at the end of time ("final judgement").

(17) We have different forms of expressing this respect in family relations as well as in other situations in which we live. This is even more complicated as customs are different for instance in Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain, to mention just some European nations, and of course, in other non-European cultures. The signs of respect aer also closely related to language. We have in German as well as in other Western languages, the difference between "Du" or the familiar "you" and "Sie" as the polite form for addressing another person. In Japanese the different possibilities for addressing another person are more complex.

(18) Luciano Floridi. On the Intrinsic Value of Information Objects and the Infosphere. Ethics & Information Technology, Ethics and Information Technology, Volume 4, Issue 4, 2002, pp. 287-304.

(20) Personal e-mail from Prof. Nakada, April 3, 2005

(21) Hannah Arendt. Vita activa, München, Piper 1981 (English edition: The Human Condition. Chicago & London. The University of Chicago Press 1958).

(22) Ibid.

(23) Personal e-mail from Prof. Nakada, April 4, 2005.

(24) Ibid.

(25) Sigmund Freud. Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse, Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp Verlag, 1989,  Vol. 1,  p. 284.

(26) But, if one takes a look at the Christian heritage, we find behind this dichotomy, which corresponds in some way to the dichotomy between "this world" and "the coming world," a very complex mythical morphology. The question of evil was secularized during the Enlightenment and became a question of the evil in the world as caused by social and economic system, namely capitalism, that allows the exploitation of humans for the sake of profit (Karl Marx). Since then we live in the "first," the "third," and even the "fourth" world.

(27) Masahiko Mizutani, James Dorsey, James H. Moor. The Internet and Japanese conception of privacy. In: Ethics and Information Technology 6: 121-128, 2004. It is also not quite appropriate to say that there is a general concept of privacy (or whatever) and that each culture "will develop their own richer conceptions of privacy."  Where does this general concept come from? In arguing like this we may be missing the point and giving up the opportunity to "change the place of thinking" (François Jullien. Du “temps”. Élements d’une philosophie du vivre. Paris, Grasset 2001).

(28) European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, Opinion No. 20 “Ethical Aspects of ICT Implants in the Human Body” Brussels 2005.


H. Arendt. Vita activa, München, Piper 1981 (English edition: The Human Condition. Chicago & London. The University of Chicago Press 1958)

R. Capurro, J. Frühbauer, T. Hausmanninger (Eds.) Localizing the Internet. Ethical Issues in Intercultural Perspective. Munich, Fink 2006.

R. Descartes. In Oeuvres, editor, Meditationes de prima philosophia. Ch. Adam & P. Tannery, Vrin, Paris, 1996, vol. 7.

European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies. Opinion No. 20 “Ethical Aspects of ICT Implants in the Human Body” Brussels 2005.

L. Floridi. On the Intrinsic Value of Information Objects and the Infosphere. Ethics & Information Technology, 4(4): 287-304, 2002.

M. Foucault. In  L.H. Martin, H. Gutman, P.H. Hutton, editor, Technologies of the Self. ed. L.H. Martin et al. The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst 1988.

S. Freud. Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp Verlag, 1989, Vol. 1.

H. Gartska. Informationelle Selbstsbestimmung und  Datenschutz. Das Recht auf Privatsphäre. In Christiane Schulzki-Haddouti, editor, Bürgerrechte im Netz48-70. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, Bonn 2003.

M. Heidegger. Platons Lehre von der Wahrheit. Mit einem Brief über den „Humanismus“. 2nd ed. Francke Verlag, Bern, 1954 .

M. Heidegger. Sein und Zeit. 13th ed. Tübingen, Niemeyer, 1976.

F. Jullien. Du “temps”. Élements d’une philosophie du vivre. Grasset, Paris, 2001.

I. Kant. Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. In W. Weischedel, editor, Werke. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1964, Vol. 6.

I. Kant. Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? In W. Weischedel., editor, Werke. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1964, Vol. 9.

I. Kant. Was heißt: sich im Denken orientieren. In W. Weischedel, editor, Werke. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1964, Vol. 5.

B. Kimura. Hito to hito to no aida. Tokyo, 1972. German translation by E. Weinmayr: Zwischen Mensch und Mensch. Strukturen japanischer Subjektivität Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. Darmstadt, 1995.

R. Kuhlen. Informationsethik. Umgang mit Wissen und Information in elektronischen Räumen.
UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, Konstanz, 2004.

E. Lévinas. Totalité et Infini. Essai sur l’extériorité. The Hague, Nijhoff 1961.

M. Mizutani, J. Dorsey and J. Moor. The Internet and Japanese conception of privacy. In: Ethics and Information Technology 6: 121-128, 2004.

J. Rifkin. The Age of Access. New York, Putnam 2000.

Last update: December 13, 2017


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