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I spy with my miniature camera

Kazuo Ozaki
Kazuo Ozaki
TOKYO (TR) – As casually as any one of the millions of Tokyo train commuters may, Kazuo Ozaki, manager of Y.K. Musen in Tokyo’s technology hub of Akihabara, flips open his mobile phone and stares at the screen. A camera lens is mounted in the hinge. Nothing too special thus far; most phones have such a feature these days. But in truth, this is really no phone at all. It is only a micro lens contained within a phone’s body. A remote wireless digital recording device receives and stores all that is filmed.

“You can place the recorder within a 300-meter range,” he boasts of the gadget’s versatility.

Pretty sneaky, right?

Welcome to a world that would be truly Maxwell Smart’s dream. From pinhole cameras to microphones capable of picking up sound through concrete, Y.K. Musen supplies the latest and greatest in snoop technology.

Started a half-century ago by Ozaki’s family, the shop of this jovial, goateed gentleman originally made by hand much of what it sold. But today most products are produced by domestic companies and sold to customers based on what their particular need might be. Understanding the customer is vital, he says.

Perhaps, supposes Ozaki, a large company needs a receptionist and wants to cut costs. “At an information desk, no people are needed. We’ll just mount a camera in the eye of a mannequin. They’ll be able to see who is coming through that.”

The potential furtive uses are as varied as the equipment. A casino might be interested in the camera lens mounted behind a standard metal screw – perfect for recording activity on and nearby its grounds. A lens set behind a shirt button (with separate microphone attachment) could tickle the fancy of a private investigator doing some undercover work. Of course, such a gumshoe as well wouldn’t shy away from cameras inserted inside ink pens and cigarette packs – all of which are on display inside the glass cases of Ozaki’s tightly packed shop. Prices range from around 10,000 to 50,000 yen.

Such practicality though is not always the primary intent; there are the illegal – and certainly much more notorious – uses as well. Japan’s media outlets in recent years have been filled with the misdeeds of male teachers and police officers, amongst others, who have been caught making illicit attempts to shoot up women’s skirts (termed in the local lexicon as “upskirt”) or film peepshow-style video of young girls undressing in shower rooms and toilets. In addition to personal use, videotapes featuring such material are highly sought after on the Internet.

An often-repeated modus operandi for the peeping pervert involves mounting a thimble-sized lens in his shoe with a cord running up a pant leg and into a camera hidden in his pocket or duffel bag. He then will roam crowded areas, perhaps a train station, patrolling for potential panty prey descending stairs or cornered in a crowded train car.

Though Ozaki’s shop can possibly supply the needed gear in the above scenario (and even less clumsy wireless versions), he doesn’t specifically ask his customers, who are mostly males in their 20s and 30s, what they do with the equipment they buy. “I want to know how my customers use them,” he says emphatically, “but my business is in selling.” In fact, he is adamant that none of his products are used, to his knowledge, for devious means. (Ozaki will admit that he has heard of some customers bringing his cameras into live music shows or fashion shoots, where photography is not allowed.)

The key to making these cameras in miniature is the recent development of charge-coupled device (CCD) sensors, the basis of digital photography. These sensors, which supplant the shutter and film in standard analogue photography, are made of light-collecting elements that operate like an electronic version of the retina. As with the human eye, the more captured light there is the greater the resolution.

Recent years have seen picture resolutions increase by more than factor of 10 by steady progression made in CCD sensors. This increase has allowed manufacturers to shrink camera component sizes at the expense of resolution, a fair tradeoff for most – it would seem – given the still relatively high quality and the voyeuristic (and not necessarily artistic) nature of their usual use.

Turning the tables on troublemakers is an option as well. Ozaki says that he has had women come to him in search of advice on how to provide security against stalkers.

For this, he presents them with a pinhole camera no bigger than a 10-yen coin. “This is operable by ambient star light,” he says of the black camera resting on his palm and costing 58,000 yen. “You can put it in a room or wherever.”

Other uses for some of Ozaki’s wares are likely just plain bizarre. A “concrete mic” allows the user to listen to sounds emanating from the opposite side of a concrete wall by sweeping its stethoscope-like microphone probe over the target while listening through earphones. Other variations have needle extensions to the microphone for crack penetrations.

Akihabara has always been the place to go for the latest in the consumer electronics that Japan has come to be known for around the world. Foreign tourists often browse its stalls of cables and gadgets to pick up the latest items before they reach store shelves in their home country. Today, though, protection is now becoming another attraction.

A white paper issued by the National Police Agency showed that crimes in Japan had reached a post-war high in 2002. Ozaki has noticed more customers – at least those few who tell him what they are going to do with their purchases – coming in search a little piece of mind.

Entire wall displays of Ozaki’s shop are for security purposes, and the variety is impressive. Cameras inside clear plastic domes (to be mounted on a ceiling) fill a shelf like fruit in a supermarket. Box-like security cameras on pivots poke out from a wall in a manner suitable for a sci-fi movie set. Ozaki also has cameras inserted near the rim of a flowerpot and behind the black mesh of a stereo speaker.

It is just a sign of the times, Ozaki says, adding that he senses a decline in the sense of openness amongst people that seemed to exist before. “Nowadays you have to save yourself, by yourself. You cannot ask your neighbors to help.”

Note: This article originally appeared in April 2004 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.