What Is Privacy?
“THE right of privacy is not easily understood,” explains The Guide to American Law, “because it cannot be described with precision.” David F. Linowes, professor of political economy and public policy, adds: “There is no agreed definition of privacy.”
Legally speaking, the right of privacy is a comparatively new thought, rooted in a law-review article written by Louis D. Brandeis and Samuel Warren in 1890. This landmark article was triggered by their indignation against unscrupulous newspaper sensationalism known as “yellow press.”
Privacy was thus defined as “the right to be let alone.” However, Professor Masanari Sakamoto of the University of Hiroshima wrote that this definition “was unfortunate for the later development of the right.” He views privacy as a positive concept that includes both the separation from others and the involvement with them.
Professor Sakamoto’s views are in keeping with the definition of privacy in The Encyclopedia Americana. There privacy is defined as “the claim made by individuals, groups, or institutions that they be allowed to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.”
Thus, what one may consider to be a matter of privacy, another may not. Let us compare various views.
Attitudes Toward Privacy
“The protection of private life does not even have a precise word in Portuguese to define it. The dictionaries do not list the word ‘privacy’ (privacidade),” reported O Estado de S. Paulo, a newspaper in Brazil. That was in 1979. Only recently, in 1986, has a dictionary in Brazil listed the word privacidade, which is borrowed from the English. In the Korean language, there is no single word that is an equivalent of the English word “privacy.”
The situation is similar in Japan. “There is, in fact, no Japanese word for ‘privacy,’” explains Donald Keene, an American Japanologist. “In group-oriented Japan,” observes Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, “the right of the individual to privacy has traditionally been less honored than the family, group, or community right to know about and intervene in an individual’s affairs.” For example, if you want a job in a Japanese company, you should be prepared to face questions such as: Are you getting along with your wife? Where does she work? What is her income? How old are your children? What school do they attend? If you are single, once you get the job, your boss may say: “It is about time you got married and settled down.”
Would you consider this an inexcusable invasion of privacy? The Japanese employee may not think so. Asked when they feel peace of mind, only 8 percent of the Japanese answered “when alone.” Almost two thirds of those polled said that they felt peace of mind when they were with family or friends.
A Japanese bride, however, was shocked to see what happened at her wedding in the Philippines. She asked her Filipino husband who all the guests were at their wedding reception. “I don’t know them,” he answered. “We prepare a lot of food, and anybody can come in and share our joy.” Among Filipinos, that is showing hospitality. What a difference from many European societies where you are expected to have a formal invitation before you make a visit or join a party!
Before dismissing different views on privacy as unacceptable, try to see the positive side of other people’s views. A European may complain that there is no privacy in other societies. However, in these other societies people have been taught to share almost everything with their family and friends. A person is expected to sacrifice his privacy rather than protect it.
Problems to Overcome
True, there are what some consider problems where people customarily have little privacy. If people living in such a society want to study or engage in other personal activity, they have to cultivate to a high degree the ability to concentrate. Donald Keene observed in his book Living Japan: “The only real privacy comes from shutting oneself off spiritually from other people who may in fact be a few feet away, and this kind of privacy is necessary in Japan.”
Living in close proximity to relatives and friends can create other problems. Some Japanese married couples, for example, feel a need to flee to “love hotels” for their intimate times together. Similarly, in Brazil privacy is limited in a home where only a thin curtain hangs instead of a door or where rooms are merely partitioned-off cubicles. Conversation and other sounds pass freely to other rooms.
But not only can such housing situations create what some consider to be problems; so can the friendly nature of people. This can irritate privacy-oriented people. For instance, if you do not have children, you may be bombarded with personal questions such as, ‘You don’t have any children? Why not?’
A Greater Price to Pay?
Yet, being overly curious about a neighbor’s affairs is viewed with a certain contempt in Denmark. Similarly, in Britain, many middle-aged people treasure privacy even from their own children. In a class-conscious society, each social group tries to live within the protection of privacy.
However, in countries where a high degree of privacy is expected, it comes with a price tag. For example, when an 80-year-old man locked himself out of his house in Denmark, he could not bring himself to ring his neighbor’s doorbell. He wandered for an hour and a half in cold weather until a policeman helped him get to a locksmith.
Problems like this prompted the Danes to start a door-to-door campaign in the 1970’s. The campaign’s aim? To encourage lonely people to call on their neighbors to a greater degree and to communicate with them. In the course of a few months, some 50,000 Danes participated in this campaign. Such a phenomenon on the part of a privacy-oriented society shows the need to be concerned about others.
Yet, in Germany 62 percent of those polled by the Allensbacher Institute viewed their own private happiness as their main purpose in life. But as this institute concluded: “If we deem giving to others as foolish and only see our own private happiness and that of our family, we may already have reached the social ice age.” Indeed, a lack of concern for others goes hand in hand with selfishness.
In Japan a trend toward selfishness with the emphasis on privacy is observed. “Among the many changes in Japanese society wrought by the nation’s rapid economic growth,” writes Tetsuya Chikushi, a leading Japanese journalist, “is the phenomenon of children growing up with their own rooms, a phenomenon considered by many to represent the greatest historical change in Japanese society.”
The change has both a positive and a negative side. The privacy can help the child develop a sense of responsibility and provide him a haven for study and meditation. Yet, it can cause children to become recluses in their own room, forsaking communication with the family. Pointing to such negative aspects, Hiroshi Nakamura of the Children’s Culture Institute in Japan said: “The earlier the independence the better, the more affluent the better, the more perfect the privacy the better—it is these very thoughts that are the cause of the psychological gap in the family.”
The growing selfish attitude in its society is alarming many Japanese. The dilemma helps us to see the need for balance.
[Blurb on page 6]
Some married couples flee to “love hotels” for their intimate times together