NYT guest column on racial profiling of Japanese for “looking too tall and dark”. Just like arrest of “foreign-looking” Japanese back in 2006.


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Hi Blog. Here we have a good opinion piece in the NYT (the overseas paper the GOJ takes most seriously) from a Japanese (not a NJ, so there’s no possible excuse of a “cultural misunderstanding”) who looks suspicious to Japanese police simply because she is taller and darker than average. So she gets zapped for racial profiling (a word, as she acknowledges, is not in common currency in nihongo). Well, good thing she didn’t get arrested for looking “too foreign” and not having a Gaijin Card, which happened back in February 2006 (article enclosed below).

As I have said on numerous occasions, racial profiling by the NPA is a serious problem, as it will increasingly single out and multiethnic Japanese as well. I am waiting one day to get leaked a copy of the NPA police training manuals (not available to the public) which cover this sort of activity and scrutinize them for latent racist attitudes (we’ve already seen plenty of other racism in print by the Japanese police, see for example here, here, and here). But scrutiny is one thing the NPA consistently avoids. So this is what happens — and victims have to take it to outside media to get any attention. Arudou Debito in Sapporo


Too Tall for Japan?
The New York Times, July 8, 2010, Courtesy lots of people


TOKYO — Racial profiling had never struck me as a personal issue. I am a Japanese woman living in Japan after all, where less than 2 percent of the population is foreign. And even among that sliver of a share, the majority is Asian. How could racial profiling exist if most everyone looks the same?

I was awakened from such naïveté a few years ago when I started getting pulled aside by police, apparently to see if I was an illegal immigrant. On three occasions, officers sidled up to me at busy train stations, flashing their badges and asking me where I was headed. When they concluded I was a Japanese national, they sent me on my way.

Earlier this year, two officers approached me as I was exiting Tokyo Station and asked to see an ID and the contents of my purse. I refused their repeated requests while demanding an explanation until one of the officers finally told me, “You are tall and dark-colored and look like a foreigner.” He then added, “Every day we catch four to five overstays this way,” referring to immigrants with expired visas.

I was stunned by the officer’s blatant profiling of me based on what I perceive as my only slightly unusual features: a bit taller than average height and a shade of a sun tan. But microscopic vision for sniffing out differences is a common trait among the Japanese who are often uncomfortable with dealings outside of their familiar zones.

The officers who approached me on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant were presumably acting on Japan’s Police Duties Execution Law. It states: “A police officer may stop and question any person who has reasonable ground to be suspected of having committed or being about to commit a crime.”

The Japanese law is broader than the controversial legislation in the U.S. state of Arizona that goes into effect this month, which allows police to confirm someone’s immigration status only after stopping the person on other grounds. “The same thing as in Arizona has been in place in Japan for a long time without much criticism,” says my cousin and lawyer Genichi Yamaguchi.

Most Japanese are unaware of these racially motivated checks. But even if they knew about them, it is questionable how much they would object. Profiling is a common practice here with casual exchanging of personal information. The details collected from a business card or queries such as asking where one attended university or what blood type one is serve as clues to allow people to predict how each party will behave.

As a single parent who has lived overseas and is blood type A, I am stereotyped as hard-nosed enough to have decided to go it alone, blithe from surviving dealings with all sorts of people and having the seriousness attributed in popular beliefs here to people of my blood group.

Such typecasting takes on racist overtones when applied to foreigners. “Chinese don’t know train manners,” I overheard a man say recently in response to a Chinese woman talking loudly on her cellphone in the compartment. On a bus tour of the Western city of Nara, several Japanese passengers complained that the Filipinos aboard who had trouble keeping up with the rushed sightseeing pace “don’t understand ‘dantai kodo,”’ or group behavior. When one of the Filipinos went to the restroom, a Japanese woman grumbled that she should have held back in deference to the group schedule. Such intolerance — when the government is on a major campaign to increase tourism to the country, and just this month eased visa application requirements for Chinese visitors.

There are even disturbing signs that Japanese increasingly don’t want to bother trying to understand the unfamiliar territory beyond their borders. Only one student from Japan entered Harvard University’s freshman class last year, bringing the total number of full-time Japanese undergraduates to five, compared to a total of 36 from China and 42 from South Korea.

A 2007 Web-based survey by the Nomura Research Institute revealed a growing reluctance to live overseas among younger Japanese. While 33 percent of men and 23.9 percent of women in their 60s and older said they would have some aversion to either themselves or their spouses going to work overseas, the share of people with that sentiment reached 42.9 percent and 38.9 percent respectively for people in their 20s.

The next time a police officer stops me, I plan to explain that suspecting me of a crime simply because I look foreign constitutes racial profiling. Only there is no term for the practice in the Japanese language.

Kumiko Makihara is a writer and translator living in Tokyo.


This has happened before, only worse for the victim:

<誤認逮捕>旅券不携帯で逮捕の女性、実は日本人 埼玉

( 2006年02月28日 00時37分 )
毎日新聞社 Courtesy of Kaoru

埼玉県警川口署は27日、入管法違反容疑(旅券不携帯)で逮捕した女性(28)が実は同県川口市在住の日本人だったと分かり、釈放したと発表し た。女性が言葉を発せず、容姿などから外国人と判断したという。

同署によると、25日午後7時40分ごろ、川口市内の路上を歩いていた女性にパトロール中の署員3人が職務質問。署員は女性の容姿が東南アジア出 身者に似ており、名前や国籍を尋ねたところ、小さな声で「日本人です」と言ったきり何も話さなくなったため、署に任意同行した。女性は署でも日本語の質問 に対し無言を通したため、同署は「外国人」と判断。パスポートの不所持を確かめて同容疑で逮捕した。

女性は逮捕後に家族の名前を紙に書き、母親に確認すると娘と分かって誤認逮捕が判明した。母親は「娘は知らない人とは話をしない性格」と話してい たという。


Police erroneously arrest ‘Asian-looking’ Japanese woman on immigration law breach

Mainichi Shinbun Tuesday, February 28, 2006 at 07:01 EST

SAITAMA — The Saitama prefectural police on Monday arrested a Japanese woman on suspicion of violating the immigration law but later released her after discovering that she was a Japanese national, police officials said.

The police had judged that the unemployed woman, 28, was not Japanese because she looked like a foreigner of Asian descent and that she carried an envelope written in Portuguese, the officials said. The woman was questioned by a policeman around 7:40 p.m. on Saturday in Kawaguchi. She told the officer that she was Japanese, but stopped answering further questions, the officials said. The woman’s family said she is not good at speaking with strangers.


15 comments on “NYT guest column on racial profiling of Japanese for “looking too tall and dark”. Just like arrest of “foreign-looking” Japanese back in 2006.

  • I remember the incident in Saitama well, and often quote the last sentence in the Japanese version which for some reason doesn’t appear in the English.

    Chief of police Satoshi Kanagawa said, “(These actions have) caused great inconvenience to the lady. We will be taking all appropriate steps in educating our officers to prevent a recurrence”.

    (Apologies for poor translation).

    — Yes, quite. Those steps ain’t working.

  • @Tony: “They” weren’t “doing a story”; it was an op-ed piece by one person writing about her own experiences.

  • There’s bound to be a next time these bozos accost me.
    Perhaps next time rather than give them an earful about racism, I may ask questions about what they will do in various scenarios, i.e. if I decide to naturalise etc and they stop me.

    Will report back when this does inevitably happen.

  • I feel bad for these people…I call it 平井症候群. After Ken Hirai, the Japanese singer who looks like he could be middle-eastern and constantly gets mistaken for a gaikokujin.

  • whats the big deal anyways? just ignore the keystones and walk away. they cant arrest you because you never committed a crime.

  • @Tony, that’s the problem with racial profiling… race has nothing to do with immigration status. And in this day and age, with so many multicultural children, the very meaning of “race” is quite a bit fuzzier than it was a generation or two ago. How do you tell just by looking at someone where they or their ancestors come from? I think the author of this article is just one of many examples that go to prove that you can’t.

    For every Noriko Calderon there are dozens of actual overstayers who know exactly when their visa is up and choose to tempt fate by staying. I’m not saying that those people should be universally ignored or pardoned. But stopping someone for being tall is NOT the appropriate way to find them.

  • Quite by accident I’ve happened across a statistical overview of J/NJ crime numbers in Japan Times from two years ago, and I am quite amazed that the NPA have the gall to pursue this type of profiling, if (a) these numbers are correct, and (b) (and I have no doubts) that both your essay above here and the NYT’s story by Ms. Makihara are factually accurate.

    Link: http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20080226zg.html

    One has only to read the sidebar on page 2 of The Daily Yomiuri every day to see that, as a statistical inevitability, Japanese nationals are going to commit infractions of laws, of all kinds, way more frequently than are non-Japanese. The word “Sheeple” comes to mind, lulled into a sense that it’s the foreign wolf whose going to get them, when really it’s the Japanese shepherd who does most of the damage.

  • Steve von Maas says:

    These stories are practically unbelievable! Isn’t anyone in Japan ashamed to have police who are behaving so primitively?! Doesn’t anyone get angry about being told they don’t look Japanese enough? It’s as if the whole country were some sort of lost tribe, newly discovered and then thrown into urban situations to see how they would behave. (Perhaps this might have been a valid explanation in, say, 1854, but it seems beyond bizarre now.)

  • @DR
    Even those statistics must be taken with a slight bit of caution. The article doesn’t talk about probability of an individual being caught for a crime. One possible argument AGAINST the statistics (that NJ have a lower crime rate than J), is that on a whole NJ are MORE LIKELY to commit crimes, but are less likely to get caught. Since the rates of “uncaught” crimes are, well, impossible to collect, it offers an explanation as to why the underlying prejudice that NJ commit more crimes than J is so difficult to quash.

  • @Kaoru

    Unfortunately, in his boilerplate apology for the newspaper the chief is only apologizing for the inconvenience that one woman experienced, rather than the inconvenience that plenty of Japanese and legal foreigners have to deal with because of a misguided police campaign.

    I guess I’m cynical when it comes to the police, but I get the feeling the 指導 (if there actually is any) is going to be less about “we shouldn’t be racial profiling people” and more about “how can we get better at picking out the foreigners?”

  • -“I guess I’m cynical when it comes to the police, but I get the feeling the 指導 (if there actually is any) is going to be less about “we shouldn’t be racial
    profiling people” and more about “how can we get better at picking out the foreigners?””

    Even this is fairly optimistic as it supposes that there is some desire on the police side to improve their techniques.
    Asking random people on the street who don’t ‘look’ Japanese to prove their innocence is the epitome of racism – I guess denying people services based upon their appearance would be too, but that doesn’t go on here now, does it? 😉

    How about abandoning this rudimentary, barbaric approach (think of the hours of manpower and money involved too) and put more energy into targeting the businesses that employ people illegally. This would be more effective and significantly less racist.

  • I came upon this article today:

    Racial Profiling in Japan
    Published: July 14, 2010

    IHT — Kumiko Makihara (“Too tall,” Meanwhile, July 8) vividly recounted her experience with racial profiling in Japan — something that, unfortunately, happens to many non-Japanese people in the country.

    I was pulled over by a policeman on a motorcycle while riding my bicycle. As a caucasian, balding, middle-aged man riding a basic bicycle with a children’s seat on the back, I must have looked very suspicious. I was asked many questions, which grew increasingly disturbing: How long have you lived in Japan? Where are you going? Where do you live?

    Quite nervously, I asked if I had done something wrong, figuring that I had inadvertently violated a traffic law. The police officer shook his head no and told me I was free to go.

    Perhaps Japan’s biggest challenge in the 21st century is remaking itself as a country where non-Japanese people feel welcome as members of their local communities and workplaces, where they are offered the same rights and privileges as other tax-paying residents of the country. As long as too many Japanese categorize foreigners as either potential criminals or cultural neophytes who cannot understand their culture and language, this will not change.

    Fortunately, there are many Japanese who do see non-Japanese people as well-rounded human beings who can learn the language and cultural intricacies to fit in.

    Adam Komisarof, Saitama, Japan

  • I wonder if the J-police have some kind a gaijin quota they need to fill. I find it hard to understand why they would constantly stop Mr. West year after year esp. since they know him unless this was about filling out and pushing paperwork around. Being Black Mr. West easily stands out and perhaps some J-cops say, “Oh good, it’s him again. I’ve got for foreigner for the day.”


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