Posted by debito on April 3rd, 2007
Hi Blog. Here’s an article which will hopefully start the pendelum swinging backwards on the whole “foreigners are potential criminals” starting point whenever NJ interact which the police. Some advice follows from the US Embassy (gleaned after a recent email exchange over yet another case of post-assault police negligence) which would have made my closing comments a little more informative. Debito
Foreigners who turn to Japan’s justice system for help find themselves ignored. Is incompetence to blame—or racism?
METROPOLIS MAGAZINE #677 MARCH 16, 2007
By Oscar Johnson
By all accounts, Matt Lacey was doing well in the early summer of 2004. The 42-year-old American was a language student at a YMCA in Fukuoka, and he had plans to open his own business. Then in August, a friend who became worried about his absence from school found Lacey’s body in his apartment. The mystery surrounding his death, says Lacey’s family, is trumped only by the way local police have handled the case.
Trying to extract redress from Japan’s criminal justice system can be an exercise in the absurd for anyone. But add in the suspicion that’s associated with a foreign face or name, and that absurdity can turn into dismay and outrage. Many non-Japanese say their crime reports are routinely dismissed by police, who may instead turn a suspicious eye on them for daring to complain about being victims. At best, police negligence can underscore a foreigners’ second-class status; at worst, it can lead to an atmosphere where crimes against gaijin are tacitly condoned.
After getting that fateful call while visiting his hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY, Lacey’s brother Charles, a college lecturer in Nagoya, says police told him the death was likely due to diarrhea and dehydration. When Charles arrived a few days later, that finding was revised to “an accidental fall in the kitchen,” which due to Matt’s “abnormally thin skull,” killed him. Yet his body had been found sprawled on a futon in his shuttered bedroom.
In the months that followed, Lacey did his own detective work. After all, he says, police told him that if he wanted them to dig deeper, he was on his own. To date, he is no closer to learning more about how or why his brother died. What he has learned is that in contrast to the police’s initial findings, Matt’s body was found with his head surrounded in what was likely a pool of blood; there was a hard-to-miss “egg-size” lump that accompanied the 20cm-long crack on his skull; the medical examiner who did the autopsy rejects the police’s “thin-skull” theory; counter to police assertions, neighbors said they had not been questioned; and the medical examiner said police were not present for the examination.
“I’m not sure if they initially suspected my brother died from a fractured skull, but once the facts became clear, it should have been investigated rigorously,” Lacey says. He has since enlisted the aid of the US Consulate in Fukuoka, the American Embassy in Tokyo, and two US forensic experts. He’s also considering hiring a private investigator to uncover whether there was any foul play behind the death, even though police insisted to media in February that it was an accident. “They continued to put the onus on me,” Lacey says of his dealings with Fukuoka police. “They said, ‘We don’t speak English,’ and any information I could find they’d be happy to listen to. They were asking me to do their work.”
To be fair, such treatment is hardly restricted to foreigners. When Saitama police snubbed pleas from 21-year-old Shiori Ino about a stalker who later murdered her in 1999 (then covered up their blunder), it showed that law enforcement is often neglectful of the people they should be helping. In recent years, such scandals have lead to reforms of how police treat victims and their complaints. But as vigilance has increased, so too has the nation’s “foreign crime” drama, in which gaijin are typecast as perpetrators.
This raises the question of whether cases such as Matt Lacey’s are victims of Keystone Kops or anti-foreigner discrimination. Charles Lacey, who says he’s seen his fair share of malicious police acts in New York City, believes his brother’s case “boils down to police negligence.” But others say that this isn’t always the case. From reporting simple nuisances to serious crimes—whether committed against themselves or others—many foreigners say police, as well as courts, send a clear message: gaijin need not bother to seek justice.
For Chad and Keiko Edwards of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, that realization came on the back of a shaggy dog’s incessant late-night barking. Unable to endure the racket and the owner’s ambivalence, they sought solace from local law enforcement. “When the officer asked for and heard our last name [over the phone], his manner changed completely,” recounts the husband. “‘Eh? Gaijin ka?’ he said.” In the end, a heated rebuttal and follow-up call to the cop’s supervisor proved far less helpful than a six-pack of beer did for the dog’s owner.
Far more ominous is the account of a couple in Urayasu, Chiba, who wish to remain anonymous. When they phoned the police last year to report that the foreign-born husband witnessed a man beaten by three attackers and thrown into a black van, which then sped away, police abruptly lost interest after hearing his name. “What I don’t get,” the man says, “is two nights later, at about 8 o’clock, in front of the apartment were I’ve lived for four years, police showed up to interrupt my perfectly civil conversation with another black man to tell us to move on because a neighbor had called to complain. But if I call about a guy who’s probably at the bottom of the Bay by now, they’re not interested.”
Others, like Nancy Tittersall, whose worry that her broken window was an attempted burglary was dismissed by the same police department that later harassed her, demanding she show ID, wonders why the authorities “make me feel as if I was part of the problem, rather than a victim.”
The answer is quite simple, says Sapporo-based anti-discrimination activist Debito Arudou, on a recent speaking tour in Tokyo.
“I don’t think police have gotten around to seeing foreigners as potential victims—only as potential perpetrators. I’m building a case based on anecdotes that show that [foreign] people feel they are not getting adequate police protection. First, I’ve heard several stories of people having chimpira (young yakuza) pick fights with them, getting beat up, then being taken to the police station and not being allowed to leave until they sign an agreement to pay restitution. Second, people are asking police for assistance—like walking in a police box for directions—and being asked to show their gaijin card.”
Negative perceptions of foreigners by the police and public is a reality in Japan, just as it is elsewhere, says H. Richard Friman, director of the Institute for Transnational Justice and a political science professor at Wisconsin’s Marquette University. But in Japan, he notes in an email interview, the situation is exacerbated by several factors, not least of which is “the willingness of political officials to play the ‘crime-by-foreigners’ card for political gain… Japanese aggregate crime data rarely specifies the victim of the crime, and anecdotal evidence… tends to stress those cases where Japanese are victims, or high profile cases of foreigner-on-foreigner violence. Thus, the common image is that Japanese especially are at risk.”
Despite efforts by the police and other agencies to improve understandings of foreign language and culture, the topic of foreigners and crime continues to pose special challenges. Police training remains limited, as does broader language support in the criminal justice process.” But not everyone agrees.
Hyogo-based activist Michael H. Fox admits the scarcity of crime-victim data is suspicious, especially as it relates to foreigners. But he has a different take on the overall problem. Fox spends his spare time fighting police malfeasance, especially wrongful arrests, and he goes as far as to call police “the biggest criminals in the country.” But as for whom they target, he says, “I don’t think foreigners have a particular problem. I work mostly with Japanese, and they are treated horribly.”
Tell that to Steve Christie, an adjunct professor who left Berkeley, California, for Tokyo 12 years ago. Christie says his estranged wife abducted his then 10-year-old son almost a year and a half ago—despite an agreement not to take the child from the parent he was with, as well as other Japanese legal documents that include his son’s written wishes. Japan, which snubs the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, is drawing increasing international attention for practices deemed detrimental to children and non-Japanese parents alike.
Christie says his wife took his son, who was living with him at the time, out for dinner and never returned. When he sought help from police, his report was dismissed. Three days later, he tracked his wife down at her new residence in Shibuya. Accompanied by a friend who served as photographer and witness, Christie arrived in time to see his wife, her parents and a burly Japanese man preparing to leave with his son.
He says he was repeatedly assaulted by the man—to the point of having his head driven into a concrete wall—for asking what was going on. At one point, his friend, who did not otherwise intervene, picked up the cellphone that fell from the man’s pocket and put it on a ledge for safekeeping. When police arrived (above), they ignored the paperwork Christie says he brought as evidence of custody rights, and instead took him, his wife and both of their friends to the police station. His request to have his bleeding head treated at a hospital was ignored. At the station, Christie says police served a peculiar brand of justice. “They said, ‘If you persist in your complaint of assault and battery, we’re going to arrest you for stealing [his accused assailant’s] cellphone—and here I am with my head bleeding.
“I think the primary reason for taking me to the police station was to remove me from the scene so my wife’s parents could abduct my son,” says Christie, who along with his lawyer will appear in a documentary about child abductions. Similar to many others in custody disputes with Japanese, Christie says he has spent just one hour with his son —in court—as legal proceedings plod on and allow his wife to keep their son in a secret location. “In Japan, it’s institutionalized racism against foreigners,” he says. “It’s not just law enforcement but also the judicial branch. The courts say they’re operating in the best interest of the child, but they’re not.”
The same can be said of how police treat foreigners victims who report a crime, but there are a few things that can be done to increase the chances of an adequate police response, according to activist Arudou. The first is to be patient and not expect a quick resoltion. “If you get flustered, it’s only going to turn the cops off,” he says. “Have everything ready for presentation. If it’s rape or robbery, have photos of the location or stolen property; if there’s a language problem, take someone with you to interpret.”
Arudou stresses that when dealing with the police, “establishing your credibility is paramount”—even if theirs may be on shaky ground.
ADDENDUM FROM LAURIE TROST, HEAD OF THE US CITIZENS’ SERVICES SECTION OF THE US EMBASSY (FORWARDED FROM A FRIEND REGARDING A RECENT INQUIRY TO DEBITO FROM A VICTIM OF ASSAULT…)
Thank you for forwarding this. Since the American filed a report he might be able to get some funding from his state for Victim’s Assistance for his medical bills… I confirmed with Otokita-san and Itami-san that it’s better to report an assault at a Police Station rather than a koban. And yes, the police tell us the incident should be reported where it happened.
FINALLY, IF YOU ARE GOING TO DEAL WITH POLICE, ANY POLICE, ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, GET EVERYTHING YOU NEED IN REPRODUCABLE DOCUMENT FORM (ON PAPER, DIGITALLY, ELECTRONICALLY AS BEST YOU CAN) BEFORE, DURING, AND AFTER POLICE INVESTIGATIONS. OTHERWISE YOU HAVE NO CASE. MIGHT BE TOUGH, BUT THAT’S WHAT YOU’VE GOTTA DO. MORE IN OUR UPCOMING GUIDEBOOK FOR NEWCOMERS. DEBITO