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Neighborhood Incident

April 24th, 2013

I was walking to the station this morning to go to work, and saw something that was rather troubling.

There’s a small candy shop near the station exit, and as I approached, I saw four people standing in front of it: two uniformed police officers, one man in a suit, and one “regular” person, a foreigner. The person in the suit was wearing white gloves.

As I passed, I noted two things: first, the foreigner, a dark-skinned gentleman, spoke English but with an accent that suggested he was a national of an African nation. Second, the man in the suit with gloves spoke English—and was telling the man that he wanted to do a “body search” (I assume he meant a pat-down).

In the 80’s and 90’s it happened constantly. They never patted me down, but they stopped me all the time, very often when I was riding my bicycle, which they always accused me of stealing. They would ask for my ID card (all non-Japanese save for some Koreans are required by law to carry their registration cards with them at all times), sometimes that being the only purpose of the stop.

In recent years, I have not been subjected to this, but it has never stopped for many in the foreign community.

So when I saw what I did this morning, it evoked more than just a little suspicion.

True, it could have been justified—perhaps the man had actually stolen something from the store, maybe it had been caught on video or something. Or it could have been something completely unrelated to the shop.

But here’s the thing: I have never seen police confront anyone on the street in that manner before.

I have seen endless incidents of cops pulling people over in cars for traffic violations, of course. I have seen cops dealing with people in all sorts of situations. But in over 20 years in Japan, I have never see cops stand by as a man in a suit and gloves patted someone down on the street.

As I mentioned, it was somewhat disturbing to see.

First of all, where did the guy in the suit speaking English come from? Certainly not from any local police box, that’s for sure. There were no cop cars parked nearby that could see, no cars at all in fact—the streets there are pretty narrow, it’d be hard to miss. The closest police station of any size is 3km south, a good 12-14 minutes away by car—and even there, I’d be surprised to find English-speaking plain-clothed cops. So where did this guy come from? Was someone holding the man there for a half-hour while they called someone in?

More disturbing, though, was the venue: they were suggesting a pat-down, presumably for shoplifting (though who knows what they were in fact stopping him for), right there in the street.

Is it just me, or is that more than a little improper?

One incident this brought to mind was one of the many times I was stopped on suspicion of stealing the bicycle I was riding, usually in the same area I biked almost every single day. On this one occasion, I was stopped by not one cop, but by about half a dozen, with a squad car and everything. While one peered into my bicycle frame for a serial number to trace, the others grilled me about my job, where I lived, my country of origin, and so on.

Now, at this time—in the late 80’s to early 90’s—there was a great deal of friction between the U.S. and Japan, and part of this played out in police behavior and part in the media. When Americans would appear in TV dramas, they were usually violent, loud, criminal, obnoxious, and/or AIDS carriers. When Japanese pitchers intentionally hit American players with fastballs, the players would rush the mound—prompting media excitation about “害人”, supposed to be the word “foreigner,” gaijin, but spelled with the characters meaning “harmful person.” And so on.

So, when I was surrounded by those cops engaged in the serious business of discovering that I did, indeed, own my own bicycle, I saw Japanese pedestrians walking past and glancing at the tableau—and had no doubt that many were seeing me, and thinking, “So, it’s true.”

Nor did it help that, while I was pulled over with some regularity, and while I saw other foreigners pulled over, I never saw Japanese people pulled over for bike-theft checks. Not that it never happened, but it was pretty clear there was a sharp difference in how such stops were decided.

Ergo I am sensitive to such displays which center on foreign residents.

It is possible that what I saw was completely legit. However, the fact that I never seen anything even resembling this treatment before raises doubts with me.

Am I being unreasonable? I’d be interested in anyone’s thoughts on this…

Categories: Focus on Japan 2013 Tags: by
  1. Anonymous
    April 25th, 2013 at 07:48 | #1

    1. You are sensitive
    2. It is happening
    3. It may mean something
    4. Or not
    5. You will see


  2. kensensei
    April 25th, 2013 at 12:16 | #2


    When you say the pat-down was happening in the street, do you mean the man was lying face down in the street? Or was he standing?
    Either way, I suppose it would be more appropriate to take the suspect into an enclosed office, unless of course the whole point of the incident was to embarrass the foreigner.

    If it were me, I probably wouldn’t be as sensitive to it because I am more of a “by-stander” when living in Japan. But the fact that you own a house there and have permanent residence status in Japan would account for an increased level of sensitivity and general insecurity; you have more skin in the game.

    By the way, I lived in Hiroshima for two years back in the late 80s. I rode my own bicycle everywhere but was never stopped by police for anything. In those days, the police were mostly looking for gangster activity and vandals and left the foreigners alone for the most part.

    My two cents.


  3. Troy
    April 27th, 2013 at 15:12 | #3

    I suspect if the Japanese — speaking generically or collectively — could have their way they’d send all the Africans in Japan back to Africa forthwith.

    Yes, that’s racist. But it takes a pretty enlightened person to not be racist like that.

    Japanese-Americans in California were in the same boat as African-Americans and Mexican-Americans 100-odd years ago — I read a story how the municipal pool was cleaned once a week, and whites had the first ~5 days to themselves, then the minorities had their day.

    The idea that existing on this planet where one wants to is something of an inalienable human right hasn’t quite caught on yet and won’t for a good long time still I guess.

    It’s my general impression that the masses are generally conservative, get liberal only in self-defense, and outright radicalized when that doesn’t work.

    It’s always easy to shaft The Other. We Americans want to go that in airport security theatre — we don’t want to put (white) grandmas through the same security procedures that higher-probability middle-eastern people should get.

    One’s “Culture” is a queer thing. Very elemental human emotion and seat of identity and safety for everyone’s psycho-social make-up.

    Japan’s collectively horrific experience 1942-45 also did a number on the Japanese mindset of Japanese Culture, given how medieval Japan still was going into the war and how much sacrifice everyone had been compelled to suffer for the good of the national kokutai and all that.

    Some Japanese turned away from that — the Teachers Union is the best example of the radicalization of the postwar Japanese. But for every 1950s radical there was also a conservative like Shintaro Ishihara being made.

    LDP’s going to win big this summer election, too, so ISTM Japan’s still reverting.

    I’d like to live 6 months successively in like 5 different countries to get more experience of how well different cultures handle their immigrants — England, Sweden, Germany, some southern European country, and maybe Canada. Since I’m your typical germanic stock I’d at least not stick out on the street in these countries.

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