Beware of Bad Foreigners!
The ABC's of Exaggerating Foreign Crime (Oct. 2002, #30)

By Carey Paterson

Imagine opening the newspaper and reading this headline: Crimes by Japanese Abroad Skyrocket: Murder, Robbery, Theft Up 50%. If you are Japanese, your first reaction may be anger: We Japanese are no criminals! Second may be disbelief: Where did they get these numbers?

Don't worry. Even though the numbers are straight from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the years 1995 to 2000, you will never see this headline in Japan. This is because it would be irresponsible to report on the number of crimes by Japanese abroad without looking at changes in the number of Japanese people abroad. It would also be irresponsible to include murder, without noting that murders, taken separately, rose but then returned to their previous level. It would be irresponsible not to mention that figures had actually fallen by fifteen percent from 1999 to 2000, the most recent year.

And it would be downright negligent to draw broad conclusions from the meager 276 crimes that make up the data. Sadly, in reporting crimes by foreigners, the Japanese media commit all of the above kinds of mistakes. No wonder, then, that foreigners in Japan are perceived as dangerous - even though Japanese have a higher crime rate. No, that's not a misprint: The crime rate is higher for Japanese.

Far higher, according to Ryogo Mabuchi, an associate professor of sociology at Nara University. Mr. Mabuchi says the crime rate among Japanese is roughly double that among non-permanent foreign residents including U.S. military personnel. For the number of heinous crimes, the rates for Japanese and foreigners are roughly equal, although for the number of violent criminals, the rate for Japanese is about five times that for foreigners.

Mr. Mabuchi says his students are surprised to hear such figures, which fly in the face of common perceptions. He blames this perception gap on the media, although he also believes the National Police Agency could do a better job of framing their statistics.

"I don't think the police are prejudiced against foreigners," he says. "I think the police are reporting accurately on the frequency of crime occurrence. However, their crime statistics do not compare the ratio of non-Japanese criminals residing in Japan - that is, the number of arrested per 100,000 of such residents - with that of Japanese criminals. So these statistics don't accurately show the relative danger of foreigners and Japanese." He thinks the media should provide more balance rather than simply reporting the statistics announced by the police. "They should report in a way that avoids the appearance of anti-foreign bias."

Mr. Mabuchi's research has shown that crimes by foreigners are greatly over-represented in the press. He compared the number of people arrested for Penal Code violations (robbery, theft, extortion, murder and the like) with the number of people appearing in 2,579 articles on arrests published in the Asahi Shimbun for the first half of 1998. He found that fewer than 2 in 100 arrested Japanese made the crime pages, versus more than 7 in 100 arrested non-Japanese. In fact, an arrested foreigner was almost five times more likely than an arrested Japanese to be written up.

This is particularly alarming given the Asahi's reputation for being more racially sophisticated than most Japanese newspapers. But perhaps it is not surprising, when one examines journalistic ethics in Japan.


In most countries, even those not known as paragons of human rights, the media have established sensible ethical guidelines on race. Here's a typical example from The Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Virginia (U.S.A.): "Identify a person or group by race only when such identification is relevant or is an essential element of the story; introduce race to a story only when it is an issue of relevance to the story." In Japan, such guidelines are conspicuously absent. The Canon of Journalism of The Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association never once mentions race.

Some North American and European journalists believe that racial sensitivity in Western media has gone too far, mutating into an unhealthy hypersensitivity. William McGowan made this indictment in Coloring the News (Encounter Books, 2001). As one example of hypersensitivity, he cited the case of a serial rapist in New York whose police description included his race. The New York Times omitted printing the race of the minority perpetrator, even though he was still at large and the description could have led to his arrest. Mr. McGowan argued that racial details are sometimes very relevant: When a dangerous criminal has not been apprehended, public safety trumps any concern for bruised racial feelings, and a full description should be given.

The following stories from the Japanese media, however, fail to meet sensible standards.

The Japan Times (4/25/02) published a short item on a patricide committed "to obtain insurance money to marry a non-Japanese woman." She was not named as a suspect, and the report failed to explain how her foreign status was relevant to the story.

The Shukan Asahi published a feature on "foreign robbery gangs" that was an ill-disguised two-page ad for the Miwa Lock Co. The Shukan Asahi writer advised: "Check if the house key in your pocket is similar to the one shown above. If so, you had better have your lock changed." Ads for Miwa appeared in the very same issue.

In covering a police report entitled "Toward recovery of our country's public safety," The Japan Times (9/28/02) ran the headline, "Arrest rate sinks below 20% amid crime surge," but concluded with this non-sequitur: "Touching on international terrorism, the [police report] refers to North Korea's admission Sept. 17 that it abducted Japanese citizens during the Cold War." The article failed to explain the connection to recovering Japan's safety, given that there have been no such confirmed abductions since 1983, and even that one took place in Europe and not Japan.

The Japan Times (9/14/01) noted that 82.6% of robberies by foreigners were committed against Japanese. A National Police Agency official was quoted as saying, "The robberies have become organized and violent. They used to steal from compatriots, but the victims are mainly Japanese now." The piece might have balanced this by noting that, as the Japanese share of the population is far greater than 82.6%, foreign robbers were still targeting fewer Japanese than foreigners as a proportion of Japan's population.

In a more sustained example of irresponsibility, the Sankei Shimbun (5/8/01) ran a front-page editorial by Shintaro Ishihara, the right-wing demagogue and governor of Tokyo. Mr. Ishihara made the following points:

A certain particularly grisly murder by Chinese was "indicative of the ethnic DNA" of Chinese.

"It is highly unlikely that crime committed by foreigners will be decreasing." (In fact, such crime has dropped, according to the National Police Agency.)

"Approximately 35,000 foreigners are arrested in Japan each year for criminal investigation, with roughly 15,000 of those being Chinese criminals." (These figures come from rounding up the number of counts of arrest involving foreigners from 34,398 to 35,000 and then confusing that number with the number of persons arrested.)

"[t]he largest penitentiary in Tokyo for felons accommodates a maximum of 2,600 prisoners. It holds 500 foreigners serving time there, and 209 of those are Chinese (for the year 2000)." (The ratio of foreign prisoners (500 foreigners to 2,100 Japanese) is not at all representative of prison populations in general. In fact, the prison he cites is the favored destination for arrested foreigners in Tokyo.)

ISSHO Kikaku, the human rights group that pointed out these excesses of Mr. Ishihara, has called the governor guilty of "incitement to racism by a public official," an action the group says contravenes the U.N. International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a document signed by Japan. ISHHO Kikaku also has asked why Mr. Ishihara does not focus on Japanese organized crime, when Japan has "one of the largest per capita organized crime syndicates of any country in the world" and when the U.N. Center for International Crime Prevention names Japanese crime groups twice as often as Chinese ones.

One might be tempted to excuse the Sankei Shimbun for the sins of a non-staff contributor, until one reads The Canon of Journalism of The Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association: "[Newspapers] must reject interference by any outside forces and resolve to remain vigilant against those who may wish to use the newspapers for their own purpose. On the other hand, they should willingly give space to opinions that differ from their own, provided such opinions are accurate, fair and responsible."

Human rights groups also chafe when Special Law violations (narcotics offenses, prostitution and the like) are compared between foreigners and Japanese. Because visa violations fall into this category, the comparison is biased against foreigners: Overstaying a visa may very well be a crime, but it is misleading to include it in comparisons with Japanese criminals, as this crime simply does not apply to Japanese. There is also the problem of identifying causes. Do foreigners commit certain crimes because of Mr. Ishihara's "ethnic DNA," or because they tend to be in the age and economic bracket that is more prone to crime no matter what the race or nationality?


The police have made their own gaffes. Consider the pamphlet "Details of Crimes by Visiting Foreigners: How Not to Be a Victim," published by the Shizuoka Prefectural Police in February 2000. The pamphlet claimed that crimes by "illegal foreigners" (fuho gaikokujin) were expanding, becoming more violent and organized, and posing a threat to Japanese society. This pamphlet was produced for use in police boxes but was also obtainable by private citizens. While some of these claims could be substantiated, the pamphlet was sloppy and heavy-handed enough to raise many questions.

According to The Community, an [internet-based] group concerned with the treatment of foreigners, the recommendation that shopkeepers should report on the activities of foreigners is particularly dangerous. The group says this would invite arrests for being the wrong nationality in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Shizuoka was not alone. This fall, the Nakano Police in Tokyo urged local banks to post signs warning customers to beware of "bad foreigners" (furyo gaikokujin), citing an increase in bag-snatchings and robberies at ATMs. When asked by a representative of The Community to provide figures to support these claims, the Nakano Police were unable to do so. The police eventually removed the signs after admitting that bag-snatchings had, in fact, been declining.

These same posters turned up in Nagano Prefecture, as reported in the Mainichi Shimbun (2/22/01). According to the Mainichi, the Nagano Prefectural Police denied that the posters were racist and claimed that foreign crime was increasing, but again they were unable to provide supporting figures. This was just one month after the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department withdrew posters asking residents to report anyone heard speaking Chinese.

While noting a national decrease in crimes by foreigners, the Hokkaido Prefectural Police this year reported sharp increases within Hokkaido. As an example of how foreign crimes in Hokkaido are becoming "more vicious, clever and organized," the report cited the case of a Thai woman entering Japan on another Thai woman's passport. Although the police identified her Japanese companion as "the agent escorting her from Thailand for illegal entry into Japan," they concluded: "This incident helped to establish a clear picture of a Thai secret organization for illegal entry." There was no further mention of the Japanese connection.

Such lapses notwithstanding, the Hokkaido police have included a useful English-language Web page for questions and requests. Like many departments throughout Japan, they hold seminars on traffic safety and crime-prevention measures for international students. And they have dispatched officers on exchange programs to North America and China.

With luck, such efforts and the awareness-raising research of academics like Mr. Mabuchi will pay off in reducing both crime and prejudice. As Mr. Mabuchi says, "I can only hope that even one person is swayed by the objective facts to reevaluate his prejudice against foreigners."


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