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…