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The Japanese iPhone Shutter Sound

The unmutable shutter sound on Japanese iPhones is a source of much frustration to foreigners living in Japan who know what it’s like to have a camera with a silent shutter.1 It’s natural to question why this is but, to the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a great explanation in English. Often I see speculation of an unnamed law2 that mandates cameras in Japan make an audible sound when taking a photo or beginning a video recording.3

The truth is a little more Japanese. Daichi Ito of BuzzFeed Japan wrote the definitive article back in June of 2016 but I see very few English speakers referring to it, so I thought I’d summarise it here for others.

The big ‘news’ comes from Apple Japan’s response to Daichi’s enquiry about why iPhones sold in Japan have the unmutable shutter sound. Apple states that it is because of carrier standards. According to Daichi, these standards are self-imposed and not required by law. Daichi asked the three major carriers (docomo, au and SoftBank) whether there were expectations that these standards would be revised and was told not at this time.

So there are carrier standards that require phones to have an unmutable shutter but if they’re not required by law, how did these come about? Daichi also interviewed Kaiji Takao, one of the people at J-Phone (now SoftBank) involved with the development of the camera technology in mobile phones. Takao shared material with BuzzFeed that showed it all dates back to the year 2000 when mobile phones that included a camera (!) were entering the market. In September of that year,4 Masashi Tashiro, an entertainment personality, was arrested for attempting to surreptitiously photograph up women’s skirts at a train station.5 At the same time, video calling was beginning to take off and was viewed as a potential public nuisance.

Although the Tashiro incident didn’t involve a mobile phone,6 the resulting media hoopla brought the issue of a future in which everyone carried handheld cameras with them to the fore. To avoid being seen to not be doing anything, J-Phone decided to introduce two features: ‘manner mode’ (essentially, a global setting to mute your phone) and a shutter sound for the camera that would be produced even if the phone was in manner mode. The other Japanese carriers followed J-Phone’s lead.

These ‘requirements’ continue to this day. At the time, Japanese carriers were deeply involved in determining the features of the phones manufacturers would produce. That power has waned and it’s not clear from the article how the ‘standards’ are promulgated today. Presumably carriers provide a specification document to manufacturers who want a carrier to sell their phone and that document includes requiring ‘manner mode’ support and an unmutable shutter sound.

And there you have it. It’s a choice by Japanese carriers originally taken as a proactive measure to ease (perceived?) social anxiety. It’s—unfortunately for those of us who wish otherwise—unlikely to change soon. ✺

  1. This doesn’t fit anywhere else but I feel compelled to call out Joel Breckinridge Bassett (who is a must-read for English-speaking technology enthusiasts with an interest in Japan) for the flippant disregard he has for this frustration (eg. here).

    The irony is that Joel (rightly) almost never misses an opportunity to take to task Apple Maps apologists for failing to acknowledge the very real problems non-American users have with the service. As such, Joel knows firsthand that just because the pundit doesn’t consider this a frustration doesn’t mean other people don’t (and not merely foreigners in Japan). The BuzzFeed article that is the subject of this post makes this clear.

    Now one can make the case that, for privacy reasons, having an unmutable shutter sound is good. There is something off putting when I’m back in Australia and friends take photos of me that I wasn’t even aware were being taken. But all that demonstrates is that this is a more complicated issue than it appears at first glance; not that it’s a case of whingey foreigners.

  2. There are ordinances at the local level in all 47 Japanese prefectures about preventing disruptive behaviour (this Japanese Wikipedia page heroically lists them all). They are not the reason for the limitation.

  3. This post refers to the unmutable shutter sound but the unmutable audio cue that plays at the beginning of video recording is similarly vexing. It’s a sort of ‘ding’ sound which is at least a little less anachronistic.

  4. The BuzzFeed article refers to October 2010 but this was the date of an infamous press conference at which Tashiro made a tasteless pun when explaining why he’d taken the photos.

  5. It’s not clear from the information available in Japanese whether Tashiro was taking photographs or recording video. According to the English Wikipedia page, he was using a camcorder but this is not sourced and I couldn’t find anything in Japanese confirming one way or the other (the Japanese page does not include this wording, for example). I’ve gone with ‘taking photographs’ but will revise if new information comes to my attention.

  6. At least as far as I could tell. Presumably Daichi would have mentioned this fact in his article if it was indeed how Tashiro had taken the photos.