One of the great advantages of life in Japan is the safety we come to take for granted. I learned recently that the downside of this appears to be a police force bored enough to look for trouble where it does not lie. Allow me to be specific; I was waiting on my bicycle at a red light in Tenjin recently when I was stopped by three cops. They asked me where I got the mama-chari (grandma-style bicycle – a friend’s old one bought at a recycle shop), took my gaijin card, asked me to get off, and radioed in the bike’s details. Apparently, either the bike or the gaijin was suspicious, and I was asked to accompany them to the police station on Oyafuko-dori. There, we were met by two older cops, twice as heavy-set and three times as surly as their subordinates.
I was questioned for a further half an hour as they took down all my information (including work and cell phone numbers) and asked me such hard-hitting and revealing questions as “Well, what will you do if we find the real owner of this bike?” Eventually, they let both this dodgy gaijin and his suspect wheels go, with the caveat that they “would be in touch.”
I asked around and a significant percent – anecdotally, it seems the majority – of Fukuoka’s foreigners have had a run in with the bicycle cops: the man asked to come out of the crowd of similarly bike-riding Japanese to be questioned; the woman stopped at a checkpoint whose bike was obviously her own but was asked nonetheless to step aside and give her information; or the fellow whose bike was checked but whose Japanese girlfriend’s bike, right next to him, was not. All true and recent stories. The police, it seems, have a tacit policy of checking foreigners’ bikes, which is to say they have a policy of checking on foreigners and using bikes as the excuse. As I waited at the light, my only fault was being foreign, and therefore suspicious. I realized that I had no idea what my rights were as a foreign resident here, and did a little research. My internet search on police policy took me to the homepage of one Arudou Debito, an American-born, Japanese-naturalized self-styled human-rights activist. Born David Aldwinckle, he had to change his name to kanji to become a Japanese citizen. According to Arudou, in May 1999 the National Police Agency founded the Kokusaika Taisaku Iinkai (Policy-making Committee Against Internationalization), specifically designed to root out “foreign crime” as a consequence of internationalization. It seems its policies, combined with the mythical foreign crime wave, have led to a more aggressive checking of gaikokujin.
The increase in foreign crime is fact; in 2003 it topped the 40,000 mark for the first time in history – an increase of 16.9% from the previous year. Those figures, combined with the horrific murder of a Fukuoka family by foreigners, galvanized public opinion about foreign crime. A closer look at the statistics reveals that considering the increasing size of the foreign community and increasing indigenous crime rate, Westerners are about 10 times less likely to commit a crime than Japanese. See www.jref.com/society for more. According to Debito’s homepage, cops aren’t allowed to question you unless you’re directly suspected of criminal activity, or are a suspicious person (Kyodou Fushin Sha). You are, however, required to carry your foreign resident’s card at all times, and the police can ask to see it. If you feel that you are being treated unfairly, however, it is legal to ask to see, and take down, the officer’s ID before giving your information. Also, the police can’t actually make you go to the station without officially arresting you. Don’t give them cause to do so though; after they do all bets are off (Japan has no habeas corpus statute). While Debito’s views are often criticized as being counterproductive or inflammatory, he makes some interesting points which you can check out for yourself at www.debito.org.
As a long term resident you get used to brushing off comments about how well you use chopsticks or how small your head is, but being stopped by the police, taken to the station and questioned was an unpleasant experience. Many of us come from countries with a history (or present problem) of racism, human rights abuses, or racial profiling. Being stopped over a bicycle is about as minor an abuse of civil liberties as you can imagine, but I didn’t like the feeling of being suspect because of my ethnicity. That was interesting, and a lesson that I can take home. Japan is an amazing country, and it’s great to live in a place where you feel safe all the time… I just wish the cops weren’t so bored.
American, Radio DJ and Suspicious Bicycle Rider