Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 5: July forecast: rough, with ID checks mainly in the north


Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan\Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association forming NGO\「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan

By Arudou Debito
Published as “July forecast: rough, with ID checks mainly in the north”
The Japan Times July 1, 2008
DRAFT TWELVE–“Director’s Cut”, text as submitted to editor.
Courtesty http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20080701ad.html

I have suggested before (Zeit Gist Dec. 18, 2007) that Japan shouldn’t host major international events. Unfettered police power and insufficient media scrutiny create a virtual police state inconveniencing everyone.

I’ve likewise criticized the Hokkaido G8 Summit (ZG Apr. 22)–not only as a waste of resources (an estimated $700 million spent, mostly on “security”), but also because police harass foreign-looking people as potential terrorists.

Like me. On June 19, flying from Tokyo to Chitose Airport, Hokkaido, I was snagged by a plainclothes cop (a Mr Ohtomo, Hokkaido Police badge #522874) for exiting Baggage Claim while Caucasian. He wanted to see my Gaijin Card, citing Summit security. I told him I was Japanese. Then he demanded proof of that. Repeatedly. Missing my train, I said I would cooperate if he asked three Asians for ID.

He obliged, but the first Japanese businessman he buttonholed blew him off without breaking his stride. So I said, “If he needn’t show ID, neither should I. By law, you can’t ID citizens without probable cause, right?” He agreed, apologized for confusing me with a foreigner, and let me go.

Fortunately, I made an audio recording of the proceedings and took cellphone photos of the cops’ stakeout–clearly evidencing the cops only zapped the flight’s four White passengers (myself and three Australians).

So I decided to lodge a complaint for racial profiling, as well as wasting resources on ineffective anti-terrorist checks. (Check Asians too. After all, what terrorist worth his saltpeter would fly in and stand out as a gaijin?)

On June 25, I submitted a formal letter of protest to the Hokkaido Police (HP), asking: 1) How do you spot potential terrorists? and 2) How will HP avoid mere “gaijin hunting” in future?

But they weren’t cooperative. Despite my making an appointment in advance, HP wouldn’t let me talk to the department in charge of security. I was sequestered to an interrogation room for a one-on-one with some receptionist, with no authority to give definitive answers.

There would be no verifiable record of our conversation, either. A couple dozen reporters I had invited were denied entry into our meeting, even barred from treading upon HP property (they waited patiently outside the main gate). Although I brought my trusty audio recorder, police forced me to switch it off, even remove its batteries. If I didn’t comply, they threatened to reject my letter (an act of questionable legality).

HP used every trick in the book to avoid accountability. Mr. Flunkey, who didn’t even present his business card, simply denied NJ were being targeted (despite Mr Ohtomo’s recorded admission). He refused to comment for this column, and could not promise any answers to my questions in writing. Or at all.

Afterwards, I gave a press conference attended by, surprisingly, every major media outlet. The vibe was palpable: misgivings about the incredible expense for security overkill, including importing thousands of police (and their cars) from the mainland.

This is not unprecedented. In 2002, Sapporo’s World Cup England vs. Argentina match also imported thousands of police to catch “hooligans”. Yet for all the tax outlay and gaijin harassment, only one NJ was arrested (plus four Japanese)–for scalping. I submitted a letter of protest back then too, but HP refused to issue any written reply, or even apologize for all the meiwaku. “If we hadn’t done all this, the hooligans would have come,” claimed another functionary. That time, alas, the press ignored it.

Not this time. Still, press reportage wound up being mild, with no police feet held to any fires. Yoo-hoo, watchdogs?

Meanwhile, I keep receiving word of more gaijin crackdowns. Kamesei Ryokan, in faraway Nagano, sent word that ministries have just ordered all hotels nationwide to check all “foreign guests”–as potential Summit terrorists. A reporter friend also reported that registered NJ Summit journalists are being detained at the border and deported. And so on.

No doubt HP would aver that NJ are still not being targeted. But given all the evidence, that’s pretty poor detective work.

Hang on, folks–it’s going to be a rough July. And just wait: These Summits happen here every eight years. So if Tokyo also gets the Olympics in 2016, we’ll have a double whammy. Which means, unless Japan develops more public accountability, more money for the police, and more meiwaku for those who unfortunately look foreign.

Arudou Debito is co-author of Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan.  Substantiation, including photos and audio recordings, at www.debito.org/?p=1767.

730 words

13 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 5: July forecast: rough, with ID checks mainly in the north

  • [off topic]
    Why is the column called “Zeit Gist”? Is it a deliberate misspelling of “Zeitgeist”?

    –Not sure. I joined the column long after the banner was established.

  • Markus Moschell says:

    Domo arigato Debito-san,

    I appreciate your efforts very much.
    So, so.
    To change the deep-rooted Japanese attitude towards Gaijin is an enourmous and probably endless task.
    But if you can accomplish this mission, the world especially Japan will be a better place.

    Markus Moschell, Berlin, Germany

  • David Fox (fictitious name) says:

    Japan might benefit from something like the so-called “Police & Community Consultative Groups” as they exist throughout the U.K.
    However, as this is a public consultation forum where members of the public can question and challenge senior police officers responsible for policing their local area it may not directly appeal to “The Establishment”.

  • i hope someone can help me with this question, in japan where is the place to go to make a complaint against a police department? do police department over here have any oversight or internal affairs? do they have any checks and balances or any accountability? probably not, if anyone knows the million dollar answer then please tell me.
    i did not find the answer in debitos handbook, or maybe i overlooked it…

    –See http://www.debito.org/policeapology.html
    Short answer, short of a lawsuit (or going to the press), you can’t do a damn thing against the police in this country. That’s what I’ve been trying to make clear for several years now.

  • I suggest this checking out this eerily similar article at Time.com:

    Olympics a Bust for Beijing Business

    Japan isn’t the only country with an illogical approach to stopping terrorism. Seems to me this is a much bigger trend that everyone around the world should be worried about.

    Time.com Tuesday, Jul. 01, 2008
    Olympics a Bust for Beijing Business
    By Austin Ramzy/Beijing

    Even as Beijing prepares to welcome the world for the Summer Olympics, some of the city’s foreign residents are planning their farewell parties. China’s epic economic transformation has, in recent years, swelled the city’s expatriate population to an estimated 250,000. While hardly the most comfortable city, Beijing offered cheap food and lodging, and the opportunity to live in one of the world’s most important emerging centers of commerce and the arts. But just as the city prepares to make its international debut by hosting the Olympics in August, many of those expats have found themselves forced to leave as a result of tightened visa restrictions imposed as part of the security arrangements for the Games.

    Sabrina Mondschein, a 24-year-old American, came to Beijing last year after spending a year studying in the central Chinese city of Xi’an. She began work last fall at a small educational foundation and traveled back to the U.S. the following spring to apply for a yearlong work visa. But after returning to China, and inadvertently overstaying a temporary tourist visa, Mondschein’s application for a work visa was rejected. Officials told her she didn’t have enough experience with the foundation to serve as a representative in China. “I’m baffled,” Mondschein says. “I don’t feel angry; I don’t have any bitterness. At the end of the day you’re still a guest of someone else’s country. It’s just sobering.”

    It’s not only long-term residents who have had nasty surprises from the Chinese authorities — business travelers and tourists have also had problems getting visas for China this summer. As a result, despite expectations of a tourist boom, the number of foreign visitors to the capital last month was actually down in comparison to last year. Some large events have been called off or rescheduled, such as a four-day rock concert that authorities ordered be held only after the Games. Security forces have stepped up patrols in neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreigners, and the Olympic organizing committee published an extensive list of rules for foreigners planning to visit during the Games. For an event meant to highlight how much China has opened up in recent decades, the pre-Olympics jitters appear to be prodding the authorities to tighten up rather than relax their social controls.

    Anxieties increased after the Olympic torch was greeted with large protests during some of the international legs of its relay last spring — the government fears similar demonstrations could hit Beijing in August. In a list of 57 rules for foreigners visiting during for the Olympics, the Beijing organizing committee declared that no protest or demonstration could be held without registering with the authorities. “Illegal gatherings, processions, demonstrations and failure to comply can result in fines or legal punishment,” the rules state. Political protest banners are also prohibited from stadiums.

    An even bigger concern is terrorism. The Beijing subway system began security checks at entrances on Sunday, and heavily armed police have begun patrolling some parts of the capital. Officials have said that Beijing will have an anti-terrorism force of nearly 100,000 police, paramilitary troops and the elite Snow Wolf commando unit. In March, authorities announced what they said was a failed terror attack on a flight to Beijing from the city of Urumuqi, capital of the restive western Xinjiang region. The government blamed the attack, allegedly involving a failed attempt to set a fire in the aircraft’s lavatory, on separatists from the Muslim Uighur ethnic group. But human rights groups complain that the threat warnings lack specifics, and could be used to justify political crackdowns. (Interpol and the U.S. State Department, however, have also issued warnings of possible terror attacks during the Games.)

    The jittery climate has clouded the expectations of hoteliers and other entrepreneurs hoping to profit from this summer’s expected travel boom. “I was really looking forward to a phenomenal year, and that has slowly been tempered by the visa restrictions,” says Derek Flint, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Beijing, Financial Street. In May 346,000 foreigners visited the capital, down 12% from the previous year’s figure, according to the Beijing Tourism Administration. “May and June have been tough months. July will also be a tough month before the Olympics,” says Damien Little, a Beijing-based director for Horwath HTL, a hotel consulting firm. While most of the top hotels are fully booked for the Games, mid-range accommodations still have vacancies. “The four-star and three-star market has perhaps more than 50% of the rooms available,” says Little.

    The economic pain is felt well beyond the hospitality industry. Business groups complain that the visa rules are keeping overseas investors from visiting factories, and blocking retailers from attending trade fairs. In Hong Kong, the autonomously governed Chinese city that is a key entry point to the mainland, long lines of people wait to plead their case to officials at the Chinese visa office. “It’s really a hassle and adds a lot of time and expense,” says Richard Vuylsteke, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. “Nothing is insurmountable, but it increases the cost of business and makes people think twice before going in.” The group sent letters of complaint to the Chinese foreign ministry and the Hong Kong government. But they don’t expect to see any improvement before the Games’ conclusion. “Our interest is that things go back where they were before after Olympics,” Vuylsteke says. “Otherwise this will have an impact on business plans.”

    The visa problems are affecting more than just business, however. Farnoosh Famouri, a 25-year-old Australian, plans to marry her American fiance in Beijing on July 6. The couple, who met while working in the Chinese capital, invited 30 friends and relatives to join them, before realizing that they might not be able to renew their own visas in time. After meeting with several denials, Famouri returned to the visa office with her visiting parents for one last attempt. Upon learning that she planned to be wed in China, the officer extended Famouri visa for two weeks. “I was so happy and so excited after three months of so much stress,” she says. Still, she has to wait to learn if her fiance’s visa can be extended as well.

  • Still, no answer to my question(s):

    Do they have the right to check what’s in our bag?
    Do we have the right to refuse an “inspection” of our belongings?

    Next time, bring 2 recorders (you know, the ones that look like a pen…).

    –I think you have the right to refuse to be searched. But I’m not 100% sure.

  • yes you have the right to refuse to be searched. i just called the american consulate in osaka, and a lady named vanessa told me that she contacted the osaka police headquarters and they told her the same thing..the searches are voluntary, same like the keystone cops safety campaigns when they try to just open your car door and search inside your car..it cant be done without your consent or a search warrant..the same for your house..hope this helps

  • Thanks a lot. I should have called my embassy (yeah, I’m lazy), but anyway I doubt they would have been helpful (they’re lazy, that’s the way WE are…). Still, I imagine myself, while they’re searching my bag, suddenly screaming “zucchini” or “kaboom” when they find the zucchinis my boss gave me this morning…

  • Hi

    I’m a non-Japanese Asian and I get “Gaijin-carded” a lot, especially when I’m trying to run for a train. It’s rather annoying because Japanese-looking people would never be stopped if they seemed like they were in a hurry.

    Also, some policemen think that they are Hollywood cops and flash their badges Hollywood-style. I must really look like an overstayer to them.

    I’ve just learned to leave for work way in advance, so I reduce the need to run for trains.

    I hope you succeed with your cause.

  • Arudou-san,
    Thanks for the article, which helped clarify a bit of what has been going on, and the sound bite which was quite entertaining. I agree with almost all of what you have written, although I’m sad to say that the harassment is not being restricted to the North or even to major cities.

    I’m a college student doing research in Matsue (a quiet, Western, “inaka” town) for the summer. I studied here for a year as a high school exchange student so my Japanese is fairly good and I usually feel at home here. However, today while shopping with two Japanese friends, I was approached by two police officers who–without so much as a formal introduction other than the “Hollywood-style” badge flashing mentioned by Celeste–asked me for my “gaijin card.” I tried to explain that I didn’t have one because of my short stay (< 90 days), but the senior officer repeated that he would need to see it or…. As I was rummaging through my backpack for my wallet, he turned on my two petrified friends. I said they were Japanese, but that did not stop him from questioning them about where they went to high school, etc. At last, I pulled out a copy of my passport and handed it to him. He studied it carefully for a moment and then asked me to point out the information he wanted: name, birthday, and passport number, which he promptly copied onto his notepad. He then asked me where my actual passport was. “At my host family’s house,” I replied.
    “And where is that?”
    I tell him the street name.
    “What’s the address?”
    “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel comfortable giving that information to strangers.”
    “I’m the police.”
    “That’s fine, but I don’t think I should have to tell you that. I live in Matsue with a host family. I carry a copy of my passport because I don’t want to lose my original in the course of day-to-day life. I was told by a clerk at the kencho that a copy would be fine.”
    He then informed me that the law is in place for a reason and everyone is subject to the law and I am no exception so in the future I must carry my actual passport. He scribbled “contact kencho” in his notebook and, after a few more questions about my stay, bid me good day, got in his car and drove off.

    Also, as he drove off, I noticed that the two officers had just come out of a bar owned by my American friend. They had parked in front of his bar showing that it was a predetermined destination and not a casual stop on a leisurely stroll around the station. I was hurt. The police were purposefully tracking us all down.

    While I was a bit surprised at this encounter, I was not completely caught off-guard because the previous evening I had talked with two Norwegian tourists who had been antagonized earlier that day at a train station. A mother and her son were stopped and asked for their passports and, wary of handing them over to a stranger with a badge, they initially refused. After some broken English conversation, they were then escorted to the local police station where the son, who stands around 200cm, learned his first words in Japanese: juu-nana. The police refused to believe he was so young (and thus not lying about other information, I assume) until they checked and double-checked his passport. A hour and couple of aspirins later, they were released.

    When I got home today, I asked my host parents about what was going on. They said it had something to do with the G-8 Summit and that I should worry about it. I laughed it off with them because that seemed to be the appropriate response, but I can’t help but feel frustrated. Yes, I’m foreign, but since when has that become a crime?

    Anyways, that’s my 2 yen. Thanks for taking the effort to do what I would were my Japanese better: hold them accountable.

    Thank you for your attention,


  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    Amanda, technically speaking, you were in the wrong by carrying a copy of your pasport and not the original. Yes, making people carry their original passports for ordinary daily activity puts them in danger, but the Japanese government is happy to shift all the costs onto you just to make their own jobs easier.

    Was this cop in uniform? I certainly hope he was. When he writes down your details, write down his badge number. If he positions his notebook so as to hide the badge on his breast pocket — they often do tis — specifically ask him for it.

    Then you have your host family write a mild letter of rebuke to the Matsue city hall and police department, reminding them that their host daughter would have had a much more positive impression during her short stay in Japan had officer #AB123 been more polite to his constituents. The letter will go in the bin, but hundreds of them might start to make an impression!


    Just to add one more ‘I got carded’ story to the heap, this afternoon [July 13, 2008] I was walking just outside San’ya, the day laborer’s section of Tokyo, when an officer pulled up on his bicycle and asked the man I was with for identification. After he said he was just visiting and didn’t have a gaijin card because he no longer lived here–an unsatisfactory response for the officer–he turned to me. I told him i live in Tokyo, and he asked to see my gaijin card. I asked him why, and he said, ‘So you’re refusing?’ I said no, i’m just asking why. After a few more comments of mild protest (were we doing anything suspicious?), the story my [African] colleague told me a week ago flashed in my mind: the officer at Haneda had said ‘If you give us any trouble we’ll have to arrest you.’ So i produced the card and, after he took a couple minutes to write down apparently all details of my card, I said, ‘If I may speak honestly, I don’t see why I have to be treated like a criminal. I’m a law-abiding citizen.’ Then the officer said it’s because of the summit; many foreigners are overstaying their visas.

    Of course this was total bullshit, and the irony was my friend wasn’t even carrying his passport, and the cop didn’t press the issue, luckily. It was almost as if he merely wanted to show he carded somebody. I was quick to assume that the real issue was that we were walking around San’ya, the day laborer’s district, but fact is my friend had lived there for several months (and in fact wrote a book about it), and he had never been carded. I’d call that evidence of a trend.

  • Roberto Leon says:

    This year I have been approached twice by the police in Tokyo only because I look as a foreigner (indeed I am one). They asked for my registration card as I went out from the ticket gate. I had done nothing wrong, I was just walking back home. Even though I have the right documents, I feel very annoyed. Only because my face is different they ask me to show an ID. The first time I just gave them all the information (they made many questions) and my id card. The second time I told them I was in a hurry and didn’t have time. They followed me. Outside the station there was rain and so I started running because I didn’t have an umbrella. One of them caught me and force me to stop. Eight more police came and surrounded me. They accused me of running away from the police (I was only trying not to get wet). They took me home and finally I showed them my valid ID. I had the id in my pocket all the time, but I didn’t want to show it because they just approached me because I look different. This happened today and I am so angry that I find it hard to sleep. I just wanted to share it. I hope the law will change. It is not right to stop somebody only because he is different.


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