Metropolis on police treatment of crime against NJ


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


Crime Spree
Foreigners who turn to Japan’s justice system for help find themselves ignored. Is incompetence to blame—or racism?
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.



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.



4 comments on “Metropolis on police treatment of crime against NJ

  • A few years ago my friend and I, on our way back from a late night sport activity, saw a man sprawled out on a corner sidewalk on a local major road. It was pretty cold and there was the chance that the man would roll off the narrow sidewalk into the street, so we stopped at a local koban to tell the police.
    The attitude of the police officer was shocking. His facial expression was like ‘Why are you telling me this?’ He didn’t respond or react in any way that suggested he would do anything about it. I don’t even think he paid attention to where we said the man was.
    So my friend and I just left.

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    An observation on the police in two recent news items:
    Following the disappearance of a British English instructor (point: who was white, blonde and worked for the largest kaiwa school in Japan, or the case would probably not have made the news otherwise) the police go to question a man, now the prime suspect in her death, who manages to escape barefoot!
    An uncanny resemblance to the Lucy Blackman case…

    In an unrelated case, police visit the house of an MSDF junior NCO over alleged visa violations of his Chinese wife. (question: why the police and not immigration officials?) They just happen to find a hard disk containing classified data which they also just happen to be able to recognise as such. Am I reading too much into this, or is there more than meets the eye?

  • My own experience with members of the police in Japan are somewhat mixed. My first encounter was in winter 2005/2006, while I was giving my -now- sister-in-law a hand with a shopping spree and her daughter. I guess those two cops were somewhat curious or worried what a 6’8″ red-bearded European guy would be doing with a -by then- five -close to six- year old girl. So yes, I was stopped. They were arrogant, following the stereotype of annoying cop we all love to hate. However, I think, judging from the way they handled it and the way they talked with me, they were somewhat scared, too, for quite obvious reasons. Two Japanese cops versus me in a fight, if I would have been a bad guy… Ouch.

    The second encounter was similar. Though, while being similar from the setup, it was all different in the way it was handled. But maybe that was because it didn’t happen in Tokyo, but in Niigata this winter (off topic: there I was, wanting to see the large masses of snow in Niigata prefecture and then I run into a mild winter, just my luck). And maybe it was the fact that one of them was an old veteran and the other a rookie. They were actually quite nice and I didn’t find any subtle racism in their talk or behavior.

    There was a third encounter, but I can’t really count it. Three female traffic cops don’t really count. But it led me to the idea of always having my little niece around, if I have to deal with police. Cute little children can be quite useful there (and should my wife or my sister-in-law ever read this, I’ll get bapped).


    I agree with the last part of the addendum. Doesn’t matter where it is, always be prepared with everything you might possibly need when dealing with cops.

    Though, racism by cops or other governmental departments isn’t really a Japanese-only problem anyway. I remember, when my wife was still my girlfriend and already worked here in Austria, she had to renew her visum regularly (non-EU citizen, of course). That procedure was… Well, if I would say “annoying”, I would be very friendly towards the responsible department. First of, she ended up being called anything, from Chinese, to Korean, to Thai, even Vietnamese (mind you, no offense to these countries and their people, but my wife is quite a proud person from a rather proud family). Worse yet, they always assumed that she wasn’t capable of speaking proper German (mind you, she’s absolutely fluent in German and English). And secondly, it took ages to get things done. Four, five, even six hours waiting for the procedure being finished (often because of incompetent workers) were kind of normal. And I still say that this “situation” was caused by the conservative government we used to have (made up of conservative and right-winged parties).

    But it got even better. Once we were married (and we had the “bright” idea of doing so not in Austria, but in Japan) the real fun started. Let’s just say, she was treated as if she was an economic refugee who had married an Austrian to get the citizenship (one fo the civil servants was even nagging us that we needed to bring a notarially certified translated marriage certificate, no, we were not allowed to do it ourselves, we had to get a translator and a notary for this). I even had to come with her to testify that she was not an economic refugee (no, I’m not joking). Not that it would really matter anyway, since we’ve been planning on moving to Japan anyway. After all, she has not given up her Japanese citizenship. So we’ll be out of here by the end of next year (off topic: that’s my fault, shipping all my stuff is not as cheap as many would expect).

    But anyway. As for cops in general, you will find rotten apples everywhere at any time. I’ve had cops check me and my car here in Vienna in a way far worse than anything I’ve experienced while being in Japan (I was once leaning spread-legged against my car and was searched as if I was a high profile criminal; reason for it… none, boredom I guess). The best advise when dealing with cops is: remain calm and cool and polite. Don’t start quarreling with them, it’s not worth it, and they’re always in the better position anyway.

    Somewhat off topic, but I was once told by a friend of mine (in Japan), that her trust in the Japanese police isn’t really high. To be frank, my trust in the Austrian police isn’t really high, either.

    That the guy who, possibly (I’m quite sure he did it, but you know how it is “innocent until proven guilty”), murdered this British teacher, got away is not really a surprise. Not every cop is a GSG9 specialist who knows how to catch and apprehend someone properly and not all of them are in the physical condition of a SWAT officer. If you take a regular street cop by surprise, there’s not much he can do. Regular street cops don’t know much about securing an area, etc. Though, that’s the reason why I think that one should always have a team of specialists on stand-by for such situations.

  • I am so lucky to have found your website and to say the least I think is my most useful discovery ever since i came to Japan. Not a while ago on a Friday night around 21:00 I was going out as usual to meet my friends who happen to be Japanese and Foreigners. To their surprise I was not able to pick up their call until the next day. What happened in between I am going to explain right now.

    When I boarded the Tokyu – Toyoko Line train bound for Shibuya I noticed 3 men and 3 women next to me all dressed in formal clothes and as you could guess they started being funny with the foreigner. At the beginning 1 of the men was trying to be funny and speak in English and he said ‘YOU MUST BE JOHN AND YOU ARE AN AMERICAN’. I smiled back and said I am sorry I do not think I know you and my name is not John neither I am American. The he said ‘JA WHERE ARE YOU FROM’. Clearly in a friendly tone I said I come from Athens. To my surprise was : ‘SO A POOR YANKIE LIKE YOU COME IN JAPAN TO GET OUR MONEY AND OUR GIRLS’?

    At the same time all his friends and the whole train wagon by now was looking at us since they were speaking to me in Japanese. I felt so embarrassed and thought I am a foreigner I should put my head down once more even though someone hurts me emotionally and embarrasses me and my country in front of everybody. So as I looked down he said to me ‘LOOK AT ME WHEN I TALK TO YOU’ and tried to grab my arm. At that time I said to him that I do not want trouble and what was his problem. Still nobody on the train interfered to his harassment and his friends were still entertained by the fact of seeing a 6.4 Feet guy being abused by a Japanese National.

    As act on defending my self i pulled my arm away at that point and when he moved forward towards me obviously ready to start a fight I knocked him out single handedly. To my surprise noone did anything and his friends started swearing at me in Japanese foul language. 1 minute after that I arrived in Shibuya station. By that time people told me to just go and they held him back. There were at least 30 people on that wagon yet noone did anything to support me. After I exited the station I was arrested while the guy and his friends reported i was the cause of all trouble. Even though I said time after time what happened noone believed me and they forced me to apologize with a Japanese bow and a letter or they would not let me go. After I wrote apology letter for something that was not my fault and i was just defending myself they escorted me to my house to see if that was the real address on my Card. Humiliation over and over again. Makes me think till when will foreign people accept this behavior until the stories are all over the international media and warn tourists about how they most likely be treated.

    I have been in Japan for over a year by the way and the event I described is in no way fictional. It describes one of the many situations I faced in Japan and by the way so disappointed to see ISHIHARA was elected again as Tokyo Governor. Bad luck for us who live in Tokyo.



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