Where The Streets Have No Name: Chapter 16: Police Harassment.

"Do you not have your passport?"

"But you should have your passport!" "

- Exchange between me and a policeman, (who was violating my civil rights).

In the autumn of 1999, I went to San Francisco. Pioneer had developed DVD drives for their navigation systems, but these could not play DVD movies. We found out that an American company had developed a PC card that could play back DVDs from a DVD ROM drive like we had, so we asked them to modify their software to run in our navigation system. One of their engineers was stationed in Kawagoe for a couple of months to implement this, and I did a lot of translation work with him. As the production deadline came closer, we still had a lot of bugs that we wanted them to fix. At this stage DVD movies were still not so common, and the people who made them made a lot of mistakes when using the technology in their disc authoring. Some of the problems could be overcome by the software, and we wanted to minimise the number of bugs that might be reported as problems in our product. The engineer responsible was sent over to the company's office in California, and I was asked to accompany him as a translator. Many of these bugs were in porn movies, so we had to be careful about bringing the actual software through customs! The work we did there was hectic, continuing past 9PM or 10PM every night, and on the final day we did not finish up until 4AM. When we got back to our hotel, the electronic room keys had already been rendered invalid.
It was interesting to compare the work environment of a Silicon valley start-up with the much stiffer environment of Japanese companies. People here wore shorts to work, everyone was on first name terms, and there were free soft drinks and snacks, including Japanese instant noodles, on hand for those who worked late, and these could be eaten while watching movies on the big screen of the home theatre system in their conference room.
We had the Saturday free so we decided to go sightseeing in San Francisco. We got a BART train from Fremont, where we were staying, and as we were waiting at the station, a woman asked me which train she should get. I told her that I was literally the worst person to ask, because being straight of the boat, I didn't know either. She eventually got on the same train as us, and spent the journey telling a large portion of her life story to the older woman who had told her what train to get. (It was by eavesdropping on this that I found out which train to get.) Complete strangers conversing like that was something that is rarely seen in Japan.
We tried to get ride on a cable car, but the queue at the terminus would make even a hardened Tokyo Disneyland visitor cry, so we abandoned that plan and decided to get a ride on one of the ferries that toured around the Golden Gate Bridge and Alacatraz. That obviously meant we had to go down to the harbour, so we had lunch at the famous Pier 39. The afternoon was spent finding a store in the centre of town that sold a particular brand of bag that my colleague's wife wanted, and that he had been ordered to buy during his trip. For the Sunday morning, I called a friend of mine, Kevin, who used to work in Pioneer's Tokorozawa factory and had lived three floors below me. He was now working in San Jose, and he drove us to the airport after a pleasant lunch spent catching up on old times.
In November of that Year, Alex left Pioneer to go work for Bose in Boston, having been headhunted on the recommendation of Damian, who had gone there a year earlier. This was a surprise, not only because he did not mention it before he made the decision, even though he had even travelled to Boston for an interview, but because of all the foreign workers in Pioneer, Alex was probably the most content, satisfied with his work and enjoying a good social life. None of the "little things" about Japan that seem to bug most people bugged Alex. When he left, the original Kawagoe group of foreigners was all gone except for myself, but I had been joined by Chris who had moved here from Shizuoka, so I wasn't totally alone.
Also in November of that year, I spent a long cold night standing in a field just outside of Kawagoe, waiting for the Leonid Meteor shower to come along so I could photograph it. There were a number of couples and families there to watch the event, and I had set my camera up a bit back from the road to avoid the street lighting. Doing long exposure shots, I got a few photos of meteors, showing up as bright streaks across the semi darkness of the sky. At around 4AM I decided it was too cold and I was too tired to continue so I packed up my gear and prepared to leave, but as I was walking back out to the road, a burst of gasps and screams was followed by chatter and exclamations from the people around me, as a bright flash streaked across the sky. As I was cursing my luck for missing what was probably the best shot of a meteor that anyone in Japan could have expected to get that night, the smell of a burnt firework wafted across the fields. Somebody, it seemed, was playing a little trick.
Because he knew of my interest in photography, the owner of Simple Simon, who was an avid swimmer at the sports club we both frequented, asked me to photograph a swim meet in which he was taking part. This involved getting up very early to travel into Tokyo, and spend a day in a hot, humid swimming arena photographing the members of the club swim team. Now you may be thinking, “Cool, babes in bikinis!” but there were more “Baachans” (grannies) than babes, and competition rules forbade bikinis. I did, however, meet several nice girls, and gained many friends. Since they spend most of their time under the water, I concentrated on photographing their diving, since that was the most active movement which would make for a good photo. As it turned out, everybody was delighted with this because it allowed them to examine their diving form, which they normally could not do because the club does not allow diving at the pool. The result of this was that my photography became extremely popular, and I was asked to do a lot more of their swimming competitions after that. In return, I got invited to their "uchiage" parties after each event.
At one swim event, which was held at an large international swimming pool in Tokyo, (what exactly makes a swimming pool "international" anyway?) I was snapping away from the balcony above the pool, when a couple of old women started asking me questions, where I was from, was I a competitor, was I taking photos of friends, and the like. I thought they were just being nosey, and I was busy trying not to miss a shot, so I was rather curt with them. When I mentioned the encounter later to Shimano, he said that the organisers had been having problems with photographers who had nothing to do with the swimming teams sneak in to take photos of the female swimmers and then release them on the internet, so those two women were probably checking me out. This is something I had not even considered, since the swimsuits were quite conservative and most of the women were not young, but I was quit shocked to realise I had been suspected of being some kind of peeping tom!
Now, being suspected or accused of something you didn't do is an unpleasant experience, even if your accusers are a couple of powerless old women. But when the police themselves start accusing you of something, it becomes a lot more serious. I have not been a fan of Japan's police since the incident in Ikebukuro with my brother, and another encounter one night in Kawagoe made things even worse. Walking home from work, I passed the local railway station, where a policeman was standing near the "koban" police box, watching over the bicycles parked outside the station. I missed the green man at the crossroads, and as I waited for the light to change again, he walked over to me, opened his coat to show me his uniform and asked me for identification.
(The following conversation is as close to the facts as I can remember, transcribed the following day. I was a bit too enraged at the time to be taking notes, so this is not verbatim, and the translation is my own. (Even if I say so myself, the translation, and my understanding of these events, is not the subject of any doubt. By this stage of my life in Japan I could speak and understand the language excellently. Nothing that was said to me in the course of the following discussion was in any way unclear.)

P = Policeman:
M = Me:

P: Hello , I'm a police officer, do you mind if I talk to you?
I did not verbally respond, but looked at him in a way that said, "carry on".
P: There have been various ("iroiro") incidents recently in which we believe foreigners may have been involved. May I see some identification?
(I took out and passed to him my alien registration card. Even at this point he was, technically speaking, exceeding his authority, as he had to have a specific and worthwhile reason to be asking me questions at all. He examined this momentarily, and then said;)
P: Do you not have your passport?
M: No!
P: But you should have your passport!
("pasupooto wo motsu gimu ga aru"; Under no circumstances was this a language misunderstanding. I remember this moment with outstanding clarity because I thought at the time;
M: I have never heard that before!
P: Even if you have a registration card, it does not mean you have a visa. The expiration date of this card is not the same as the visa.
M: But the expiration date of my visa is written on this card!
(I pointed to the "Period of Stay" section, valid until October 2002.)
P: But this card would be issued by the city office even if you don’t have a visa. That's why you have to carry your passport, to show you have a visa. It's not something we would arrest you for,
(putting both hands together in a handcuffed position for dramatic effect)
but you do have to carry it.
M: That means this (alien registration) card is meaningless!
P: To the police this has no meaning. This is issued as a means of identification in case of accidents or whatever. Not as a proof of your visa.
M: I have never heard that before! In fact I have been told before that I don't have to carry my passport!
P: By who?
M: A policeman!!!
(This was a blatant lie, but it shut him up!)

He then started to tell me how it was unfortunate that he had to do this as most foreigners were honest and hardworking, but I shouldn't take it badly. I responded to this by saying that if a report had been filed of Japanese person committing a crime they would not stop and question all Japanese people, but he responded by saying that they would stop anyone who fitted a given description, and in the case of foreigners, we all look alike, in the same way that Japanese and other Asians look alike to western eyes. I wasn't sure if he meant that the police can't tell the difference or the witnesses can't, but either way I saw the argument going downhill. The signal changed to green, so I said "gokurousan"(*) and walked away.
(*) A Japanese phrase that means "job well done" or some such. The intonation I used quite clearly said "Fuck Off"!
I left the scene in a rage, and had a few beers at my local bar to calm my nerves. On my way home I stopped at a "yatai" mobile ramen stand. Just as I was finishing my ramen, a van pulled up behind me and two men got out. One of them flashed a plainclothes officer badge, and asked for ID. When I gave him the alien registration he started the "Don't you have your passport?" routine but I made it quite clear that that I had already been worked over once and the alien registration was all he was going to get from me that night. I then asked him what specific crime they were investigating that required questioning of foreigners, and he said that a woman had been attacked and robbed, and the only description they had to go on was "foreign male". He said he understood it was unfortunate that the majority of foreign residents were being bothered by this type of investigation but it was a "sho ga nai" ("nothing can be done") situation and I should expect it to happen again over the next few days as the investigation was ongoing. I saw or heard nothing after that.
Looking at this on one level, it was a legitimate stop and search on the grounds that I fitted the description (i.e. foreign male) of a suspect in an ongoing investigation. (Indeed, as the second officer said, "sho ga nai", the police have a job to do and they were doing it! If I were to start considering these events on a "bad cops are out to get me" basis, it would leave me subject to a citywide police conspiracy theory, and as King Lear said, "That way madness lies".)
No, this was the straightforward police exercising straightforward police policy. But therein lies one problem! They only took down my name and address on both occasions. There was no "Where were you on the night of the 15th" type questioning! Having taken down my name and address, what did they intend to do with it? Knowing whether or not I was a legal immigrant would not help their investigation of the assault, so I can only assume they were using the opportunity to do a sweep for illegal immigrants. I was being treated as a suspect, solely because I was foreign, and I don't think it had anything to do with any crime that had actually taken place, since the first officer did not specify what the crime was. Rather, I think he saw a foreigner standing in front of him, and used the ongoing investigation as an opportunity to check me out for a valid visa, something he would not have been allowed to do otherwise.
But what really bothered me most about this incident was the fact that that policeman lied about the law. I am not obliged by law to carry my passport, if in possession of an Alien Registration Certificate. (I later confirmed with a friend in the police that this is correct, although even he avoided answering my question in front of a third party.) So why did this officer state that I must? I am sure that from the police point of view, having everybody carry identification would make it tremendously easy to apprehend illegal aliens and other criminals, but Japanese society has chosen to value personal privacy over the convenience of police investigations, so that individuals should not have to face the indignity of being suspected of a crime without due cause, and it is not acceptable for policemen to make up their own laws to try and get around that.
Further, if they are not willing to accept an officially issued and legally valid identification document, (which was issued to fulfil exactly the purpose for which they were requesting my passport, what is the point of having to carry it at all? By making me wonder "Have I been breaking the law all these years?", this officer was guilty of oppression and intimidation, subjecting me to several days of uncertainty and insecurity, and that is the opposite effect of what the Japanese Police are there for, to improve the actual security, and the perceived security, the feeling of being safe, of all law abiding people, not just the Japanese, living in Japan.
As a result of this incident, my view of Japan and of living here was tarnished in a way from which it would take a long time to recover. I went online to confirm my understanding that I did not need to carry my passport, and in the course of that research I was put in contact with a person called Dave Aldwinkle, who later changed his name to Arudou Debito when he took Japanese citizenship. I had seen his homepage previously, in which he reported an occasion when he was stopped at Haneda Airport and asked for identification for no reason other than he was foreign, and he had put together a guide indicating how to protect oneself from such intrusive questioning and avoid being hassled in such a way without justification. He quoted the law which specifically prohibits the kind of random, unjustified checks that he and I had experienced, and that is why his name came to me in the course of my conversation with the officer that night.
He asked me to write up a report of my encounter, which I did, for a homepage he was involved in about human rights issues in Japan, but I don't think it ever got used. He also invited me to join mailing lists which discussed such issues, and I became quite interested in the topic. Reading all the complaints and gripes that people had (it was the nature of the list that there would be few people with positive experiences to recount) about living in Japan, I started thinking about all the negative aspects of living in Japan, even if they didn't directly affect me. I found myself frustrated by the treatment of foreigners as opposed to Japanese nationals, as regards visas, housing, voting rights, and discrimination in general, right down to trivial things like the way some people try to speak English to you even though they can't, and won't speak Japanese to you even when you have made it clear that you can. As a result of this I found myself becoming gradually more and more impatient, intolerant and downright rude to people, taking offence whenever I felt I was being treated like a foreigner, because I expected people to recognise immediately that I was a long term resident and not a short term visitor. In short I was becoming a person I did not like. I decided to take a step back and reassess my opinions of the place in which I had chosen to live and its people, and came to realise that since most of the petty little annoyances that were bothering me, would not bother me if I didn't let them, I was left with a lot of good things to be thankful for about the society in which I lived. There are a lot of things that I think should be changed in Japan, for the sake of the Japanese people as much as for a foreigner like myself, but it is up to the Japanese people as a whole to change them, not me. I have seen a lot of change in the years I have been here, and am sure there will be even more radical change in the years to come, but overall I think Japan is heading in the right direction and will continue to do so. I resolved to remain watching from the wings, offering support, assistance and advice in any way I can.


 Read On...


If you dropped in by accident, the story starts  here;



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