Monday, June 21, 2010

Racism, Part 1

They say that when you're angry about something and you write a missive or email, you should wait about 20 minutes and then throw it away (or delete it, in this digital age). Does that hold true for blog entries, as well? Perhaps, but I'm going to write about this while it's fresh. This may get a little ranty, but I'll do my best to stay on course. I've decided to divide my thoughts into two parts. In Part 1, I'll focus on Japan in an international context. In Part 2 I want to talk more about the U.S., and Japan in comparison to my home country.

So today Brian and I were on our evening dinner break (we teach night classes on Mondays). We had a bit of extra time, so we went for a walk and decided to stop by Family Mart (a Japanese convenience store chain) on the way back to school. We both bought some tea, but as I had some bills to pay, Brian exited the store first. Once my business was concluded, I started to walk out, and noticed that Brian was talking to a couple of well-dressed, middle-aged gentlemen outside the store. Oh, that Brian - always making new friends. So I thought.

As I went outside and began to introduce myself to Brian's new friends, one of them greeted me with a "Konnichiwa" and a badge. I glanced at Brian and noticed that he was cooperatively but obviously unhappily engaged in conversation with the officer's partner. "May I see your...gaikokujin touroku shoumeishoumeisho, please?" he asked good-naturedly. Somewhat stunned, I nodded and with a "Hai," pulled out my Alien Registration Card. "あぁ、日本語大丈夫ですか?" (Ah, is Japanese okay?) he asked. I considered for a moment. I remembered having read about other foreigners' experiences with Japanese police, and a common piece of advice seems to have been to never admit to speaking Japanese. If you do, you may find that you may misunderstand something, but having said you speak Japanese you have waived your chance at the "stupid gainjin" card. Yeah, but we haven't done anything wrong, I thought. I don't want to make this harder than it has to be. "はい、大丈夫です," I answered. Yes, Japanese is fine.

As the detective examined my I.D. and took notes, he asked me stuff like where I live and where I work. As the shock wore off and began to be replaced by annoyance and indignation, I also began to direct my answers towards the other office who was talking to Brian. "Where do you work? Itami?" my guy asked in Japanese. "I looked at him and said yes, also in Japanese, then looked at his partner and added "But I work at two schools. Brian and I work together at the school near here."
"Ahhh, you two are friends?" one of them asked. We both nodded.

After a few minutes of this, I received my I.D. back and could tell this interview was wrapping up. "Is everything all right?" I asked. "Did something happen?" I wanted to add, "Do we look like criminals to you?" But I held my tongue. After all, this was almost over and we had to get back to work.

"Ah, no. We are police detectives and this area is in our jurisdiction. We are checking the touroku-shoumeisho of foreigners." Then they both smiled and thanked us. We nodded and walked away without saying anything.

Now I don't know if these two guys were just feeling like giving some foreigners a hard time, but I doubt it. They weren't rude. They seemed like they were trying to be nice. They were probably just following orders and maybe had some kind of quota to fill (hence the notes they took). But what an assignment for detectives. Don't they have some crime they could be investigating, rather than stopping well-dressed white guys to make sure they're not illegal aliens? I guess not.

I've been talking (or Facebook messaging) with a friend recently about immigration and role of foreigners in Japan. Basically, if you're a foreigner in Japan, you must always carry either your passport with visa or your Alien Registration Card, which is basically the equivalent of U.S. Green Card, except not for citizens. If you are stopped and fail to produce one of these forms of identification, you may be arrested. But I've never been stopped, I told him. Ironic - that was just last week I said that.

Now I bet a lot of Japanese people would defend this. I can hear it now - "But the officers didn't know that you were here legally. They were just checking. Sometimes there are illegal foreigners in Japan. Japan is an island." And besides, many foreigners commit crimes. They may not say this, but many Japanese probably think it. This is because the Japanese media and politicians often portray foreigners as dangerous or more likely to commit crime. Which is statistically not the case at all, at least not uniformly.

From Wa-Pedia:

If we concentrate on real crimes, we find a completely different ranking though. Iranians, Russians or Philippinos have been arrested for a much higher number of offences [visa-overstaying, speeding, ect] than crimes [theft, rape, murder, etc], for instance. We also see that Brazilians and Japanese were arrested for proportionally more crimes than offences. Here is the real crime rate :

  • Chinese (0.428%)

  • Brazilians (0.351%)

  • Japanese (0.291%)

  • Russians (0.271%)

  • Philippinos (0.101%)

  • Thais (0,051%)

  • Koreans (0.024%)

  • Britons (0.021%)

  • Americans (0.016%)

  • This portrayal of foreigners as more criminal than Japanese surely feeds the system by which Japan is seemingly destined to spiral, crash, and economically burn in a number of decades. Who wants criminals for neighbors? Hence the lack of serious opposition to draconian Japanese immigration policies.

    And then there is something else about the Japanese mentality that I find very ironic. As Will Ferguson observed in his recounting of his adventures hitchhiking across Japan, Japanese people are either very arrogant or very self-conscious. They care very much about promoting their country and accomplishments, and what other countries think of them. Just the other day in class, one of the teachers I work with was giving our students a lecture on the shinkansen and how some other countries (like Vietnam) are building their own. He concluded with an encouragement that if any of the students go abroad they should tell everyone about the  glorious shinkansen, a wonderful Japanese achievement.

    Well let me tell you what - as a JET, it's my job to be a cultural ambassador. I'm supposed to spread my country's culture, and when I eventually return home I am to recount my experiences in Japan. So yes, I will tell people about the amazing restaurants with conveyor-belts of sushi, and the beautiful Japanese hills, and hidden shrines and temples, and about the kindness I experienced in various parts of the country. But I will also tell how I was stopped and asked to explain myself because I was Caucasian. Does it matter that I could have potentially been a naturalized Japanese citizen? Nope.

    Sure, this is their country. They can make discriminatory laws and policies if they like. But in doing so, they do not foster international relations and cross-cultural understanding. They make a line, a division between them and us. And it isn't mutual understanding they are promoting, but this division.








    1. I guess you've missed it, being abroad, but here in the U.S. we're no better: Arizona passed some legislation so cops can demand to see your papers if you look Mexican.

      Sucks what happened to you, but I think you're just giving yourself a bad day by being indignant about it.

      I wonder how this scenario plays out with actual white Japanese citizens, i.e. born and raised in Japan.

    2. I've read that everyone visiting the US must be able to produce their documentation if asked. Sounds like an SOP.
      The Arizone thing is portrayed as Xamuel says, but I understand the actual law is that anyone who is detained for a crime and there is suspicion that they are in the US illegally they would be asked to produce their documents.

    3. Hi,

      xamul, you watch too much television. The new Arizona law does not allow police to contact you if you look like a foreigner. Please educate youself before making wild statements. The Arizona law simply allows state/local police to enforce federal immigration violations

      On another note... I guess this means I should start carrying my passport with me when I'm out and about in japan!

    4. Wow......So thats why the Nintendo DSiWare is only transferable on the Japanese version of the Nintendo DSi.

    5. Once I get to Japan, I never carry my passport. I am usually with my Japanese wife but sometimes I go for walks by myself. What would happen if I did not have my passport with me?

    6. Same thing happened to me a couple of months ago. I was on my bike, cycling along, and a cop stopped me. Not the other cyclists, of course, they looked asian. He wanted to check if my bike was stolen, which, of course, it wasn't. Then he asked to see my gaijin card, and then my bag. Asked where I was going and who I was seeing. In other words, he was a racist mother fucker, wasting my time.
      But what can you do, right?

    7. Xamuel - As I said, I intend to talk about America in Part 2. And I'm afraid there aren't enough white (or black, or brown) Japanese citizens for it to be any kind of serious social or political issue amongst the citizenry. As I said, this sort of thing just doesn't affect most Japanese people.

      Zen - Yeah...most of the time it's fine. When I go running I don't carry any ID on me. But in that off-chance that you're stopped, I guess there could be trouble.

      George - Uh...yeeeeah.

      Tornadoes - If you were stopped without your wife or your passport, I doubt you'd be deported or anything. But the police would probably at least take you back to a police box and question / detain you until they could verify your story (probably by contacting your wife and having her bring your passport).

      G Dawg - Yup, I've known people who have been stopped and asked about their bikes, as well. Although to be fair, I've also heard of Japanese people being stopped. By the way, I didn't forget about your art, but looks like you're leaving soon, huh? Good luck with the move!

    8. I've heard of gaijin card stories, but none that have the precursor of discussing never having been "carded" before said carding. ;) Feel free to give Chris a smack on the head, though it'll probably be a few hours off! He totally sent you bad karma, never mind that I was the one who brought up the card business!

      Japan has always appeared to be extremely xenophobic to me. It's a shame, such a lovely place with a deep sense of culture... yet a refusal to share it with anyone. The same can be said for other places, too, though.

    9. Wow, this is quite the coincidence. Did I give you some bad luck or something?

    10. I found this article through a link on a friends facebook. Maybe its just me but I don't really see the huge issue. The cops stopped and asked for some ID, they didn't seem to give you a hard time and ask for anything to outrageous. If they wanted to cavity search you or take you to the station that would be a different story. To me it seems like they were just doing their jobs.

      I do agree that being ethnocentric and somewhat racist is not uncommon in Japan (I was not given a hotel room when I was there because I was American) but that can happen in a lot of countries. It might not be right but sadly thats the way of the world sometimes.

    11. Ash - Heh...well, if I relay the smack to you, it will get there quicker, no? I wouldn't exactly say that Japan doesn't want to share its culture. Actually they are very proud of showing it off. It's just that they don't want it diluted. Guests are okay, but new additions...not so much, in general.

      Chris - Damn you and your jinxing.

      Hey Greg - Long time no talk! Hope all is well. You may be right that it's not uncommon, but that doesn't make it right. I guess I take issue with the cops' job being to stop foreigners and make sure they're not here illegally. What if we were Japanese citizens and didn't have ID on us? We would have been wrongfully arrested.

    12. If you're a foreigner in Japan you'd have to be crazy to not carry your ID with you. I absolutely always have it, even when I jog I always carry my ID, health insurance, and 1000円 and I suggest everyone else does the same. This weekend was the first day in 2 years I didn't have my card on me while outside since I had it locked in a locker while I played some sports. I wasn't too worried but of course the next day Paul here gets carded. Now I'll just always keep it with me no matter what.

    13. I'm sorry you had a bad experience.

      The one time I was stopped (in my first week here) I pretended I couldn't speak Japanese. I did the same a few days ago when I was stopped while driving.

    14. "It's their country" is the lamest justification for racism that anyone can offer. By this logic, the poor Japanese fellow who accidentally wandered onto someone's lawn one Halloween and was shot and killed as a trespasser (something which is legal in the U.S.) when he didn't understand what was being said can be explained away as "it's their country." This pathetic logic only applies to Japan and is never offered to explain poor treatment of foreigners in the U.S. Japan gets a free pass because people are so keen to apologize for their racism (for reasons I can never fathom).

      The U.S. has issues as well, but the AZ law is an exception to overall policy. As a country, the U.S. does not endorse pointless harassment of foreigners. U.S. officials have to act with some sort of probable cause or suspicion. The Japanese police act randomly based on arbitrary quotas or racial profiling. Period. The U.S. also shares a common border (a long one) with a country that frequently has illegal immigrants entering the country. Japan has few ports of entry and is an island. The chances that illegal foreigners are streaming into Japan in the manner in which they do so in the U.S. are zero. Japan does not need this level of scrutiny. The U.S., arguably, does.

      I don't think there is any value in pointing at America when discussing Japan's racist policies and laws. The countries have very different immigration issues due to geography, history, and culture. America is inclusive and diverse and has a great many protections in place for foreigners who are mistreated. There are laws and support networks. Japan has none. Racism is everywhere in the world, but Japan is one of the few highly developed nations that creates more and more laws to use against its foreign population. Except for the recent case in AZ, a case which I shall point out has had many of the other states in the U.S. isolating AZ economically as "punishment" for this law, America has created laws that protect people's rights.

      And I would encourage anyone who thinks, "it hasn't happened to me" as a reason to believe such treatment doesn't concern them consider that your luck doesn't mean there isn't a problem. I've been stopped, accused of stealing my bicycle because I didn't carry a receipt for it with me at all times, and had my I.D. checked and I'm a middle-aged white female who no one could imagine was a threat. It happens. It happens more than people think and just because it hasn't happened to you doesn't mean it's okay or fair.

    15. Joe - That's smart. I actually would like to carry more stuff when I run, but it's kind of cumbersome. Do you have like one of those lanyard-sheath things for your ID? I don't have any pockets in my running pants!

      Sixmats - Thanks, man. Heh, yeah - I have a couple friends who have done that, as well. Generally seems to work.

      Orchid - Thank you for your thoughtful comment (which I've come to expect from you)! Of course there is a limit to how far "it's there country" can be taken. What I meant is that each country must decide its own immigration policies, and there is no international or (non-religious) moral imperative that compels any country to enthusiastically accept and welcome immigrants. The reason this logic is never used for the U.S. is because, as you pointed out, we are a country of immigrants.

      I agree with you wholeheartedly - I don't defend racism in any country.
      What Japan is doing is self-destructive, whether people realize it or not.

      My girlfriend brought up this post yesterday, though, and if she is any indication of the younger generation, there are plenty of young Japanese who are uncomfortable with these policies and how foreigners are treated.

    16. Blue Shoe,
      I fortunately have pockets in my running pants. In there I keep my 1000yen note folded around and binder clipped to my two cards. I also carry my cell phone with me when I run. It sounds like a lot but I don't even notice it. And if I get hit by a car or fall into a gaijin trap I'll be glad I have that stuff. I'm a bit of a worrier about what-if situations though...

    17. Blue Shoe - Yes, I suppose Japanese people do occasionally get stopped on their bikes too. btw, has anyone heard of it's a totally badass blog run by this dude who naturalised in Japan in 2000. It is choc-a-bloc with all kinds of info, in particular, our rights as gaijins with the whole id-check thing. Here's a link to his site:
      and to the id-check article in particular:
      This website is essential knowledge for gaijin living in Japan.
      And I'm sorry to say, mr Blue Shoe, but I've already left! Old G Dawg's back in England, and I sold all the paintings I had in Japan. I didn't want to take them back with me in case of damage, so I had to. Still, if you're interested, keep checking the blog.

    18. So they stopped you because you were caucasian. They were probably only following orders and had to achieve a certain quota as you said. Does it matter that they asked you? If it was their job to check alien cards, then of course they'll ask you! It doesn't mean they suspect you of anything - they are doing their job. You should respect that and live in the knowledge that they are - if only on paper - attempting to cut down on illegal immigrants who do create bad feelings and bad reputations for us legal aliens. Whether you are in Japan or anywhere else in the world I believe the police should have a right to ask anyone for something which they should, by law, have on them. Its not an invasion of privacy, its their job and hopefully in your best interest at the end of the day. People in London are always moaning that the police are racist and only stop them because they are, for example, 'black males'. Consequently, the police are afraid to stop black males for fear of being racist. Consequently some crimes that could have been stopped aren't. --I'm not racist, I don't care what nationality you are or what colour you are, I just want to live in a safe environment and (maybe naively) hope the police are working hard to achieve this. But how can they if we moan everytime they try to do their job?

    19. G Dawg - Yeah, I sometimes read Debito's stuff in the Japan Times online. Good link. And I shall keep up with your blog!

      Karekora - Your point is well-taken and I can see where you're coming from. However in this case it is still a problem. Even were I to agree with you that police have every right to stop any foreigner for no reason and check his or her ID, they would be presuming that because we are white, we are foreigners. We could be naturalized Japanese citizens, in which case we would be wrongfully apprehended if we were caught out for a jog without any ID. It is the duty of any just society to protect the rights of its minorities, too.

    20. I've personally never had difficulty with this. Some police officers did come to my apartment, but they were telling everyone to keep their doors and windows locked when they leave their apartment. Just a safety thing, and they never asked me for my ID.

      I have a former co-worker who has been stopped. He's former American military, but is now a teacher in an elementary school in Tokyo. He gave a little bit of advice. Never follow a police officer into a koban. Once you do, they are able to hold you there without charges. If you're talking with police, stay outside, and there's nothing they can do if you have a valid gaijin card.

      Anyway, one of the students at my school is a police officer. Nice guy.

    21. Orchid64 nailed it for me so I won't repeat the obvious. Why some people defend clearly poor behavior and then cite an American policy is laughable. This is Japan. This is where most of us are. That is why it's the topic. It's a nice place but it is terribly flawed in some ways. Accept that reality and stop citing other countries examples. Why the author needs a "Part 2" seems to be an attempt to appease those people. This blogger is living in Japan am I correct?

    22. Yes Chris, I do live in Japan. Hence how I was stopped by some Japanese police this week and asked to show them my Alien Registration Card.

      I want to write a Part 2 to address some follow-up thoughts, and yes, I will probably talk about what's going on in America. But as this is a personal blog and I happen to be American, I don't see why that should bother anyone or be seen as an appeasement of some kind.

    23. When you live in an area with a low crime rate, sometimes the police have time to stop and talk with people who are just going about their daily business, for no particular reason other than "we're just checking". If it's not foreigners, it'll be someone else, because sometimes they really DON'T have anything better to do (which is actually kind of a good thing, considering the alternatives).

      Back here in the US of A, I was once stopped by a police officer because I was (get ready for a real serious offense here) up and about (specifically, walking to work) early in the morning, when most people were still in bed. Yeah, I guess that's almost as sinister as being in the minority ethnically. The officer asked me a couple of questions, called in my SSN (which I happened to know off the top of my head; I didn't have ID with me at the time), found out I have no police record, admitted she already knew where I was going as soon as she stopped me based on the uniform I was wearing, and sent me on my way. No big deal. The whole thing took maybe three minutes.

      I'm not saying it's right for them to pick out and check foreigners specifically because they look like foreigners. Ideally, people who "look like foreigners" should be treated like everyone else, in a perfect world. Granted.

      What I am saying though is that it's a relatively small thing, an occasional minor inconvenience, and definitely not a good reason to avoid a particular country. I suspect similar things happen in a lot of countries.

      > in that off-chance that you're stopped,
      > [without ID] I guess there could be trouble.

      I suspect it would be relatively minor trouble, of the "we're really going to have to insist that you get your ID and show it to us" variety. Could make you late for work, though.

      > they would be presuming that
      > because we are white, we are foreigners

      Presuming? Or are there sufficiently few naturalized whites in the area that the police can easily know every single one of them by name? Where I live, in a small town in central Ohio, I can just about count non-white locals on my fingers. If what I've read about Japan is anything like true, it's even MORE ethnically homogenous than the Midwestern US. The police might very well not be presuming squat. They might legitimately *know*, by process of elimination, that you are in fact a foreigner.

      Again, I'm not saying it's right for them to stop you just because you're a foreigner. But I do think it's a relatively minor offense.

    24. Interesting blog- one of the things that has surprised me most about reading blogs/books from Westerners living in Japan is the accounts of xenophobia and racism. Afraid I have nothing to add except that I just finished the Will Ferguson book last week and it was one of the best and funniest things I've read in ages! Your writing style reminds me a little of his. If you liked Hokkaido Highway Blues you might like 'Adam and Joe go Tokyo' (whole series is on YouTube)- a hilarious and often cringey look at Tokyo culture and the doomed attempts of two gaijin to become 'big in Japan'.

      Keep up the good work!

    25. Nice post and many thoughtful comments. However, if I may add, it's not only in Japan that this sort of thing happens. My husband is Japanese and he was stopped for an ID check in the following European countries: Sweden, Germany, Poland, France and Belgium for no other reason than looking "grungy", as one cop explained it.
      Oddly enough, they were not stopping any white people who spoke the local language and looked even grungier.

      I'm not trying to justify what happens to many foreigners in Japan (though it hasn't happened to me yet), but I just want to point out that it does happen in other places, as well. And possibly, more often than we'd like to admit.

    26. I wouldn't bother showing my registration card in Japan if I was asked politely. The number of naturalized foreigners is still so low, that you can hardly accuse them of not thinking of the possibility that you might be naturalized.
      That Japan is keeping naturalization levels so low is another topic of course...

    27. Jonadab - You're right that it shouldn't be sufficient reason to discourage people from visiting Japan, and that's not what my aim is. To my knowledge, the naturalization process does not entail a police screening, or passing on one's "file" to the local police department. So unless a naturalized citizen has been in trouble with the cops, there's no reason they should be known to them.

      Craner - Thanks much for the writing style compliment! I'll be sure to check out Adam and Joe.

      Anna - I believe that it happens in other places. Japan is not the only (mostly) homogeneous society in the world, nor is it the only one with strict immigration laws. I think I'd be rather surprised if Japan were the only country in which this sort of thing happens. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Franzi - Each to his own. It's not like showing your ID is such a horrible thing in and of itself. It just feels unjust to be targeted and treated differently because of how you look. Is that reality? Of course. Does that mean it's something that we need to like? By no means. Thanks for commenting.

    28. Blue Shoe, what synchronicity!

      My daughter is writing her senior thesis on how foreigners are treated in Japan, and while googling, I ran across "Racism,
      Part 1." Could she interview you for her research paper? It needs to be 30 pages long.

      What is the best way for her to contact you? Her name is Alex Wolfe. (Actually, her name is Martha Alexandra Wolfe; you can see why she goes by Alex!)

    29. Hi Miss Ivonne,

      Oooh, "synchronicity," good word!

      Sure, I'd be happy to answer some questions for Alex. She can email me at

    30. Thanks a million, Mr. Cyrus!

      It will probably be a few weeks. She's a go-getter and has started work, but she won't be back at school until the end of this month.

      Again, thanks a million!!

      Cheers, Ivonne

    31. Hey guys,you should not believe the ridiculous crime rate ranking.
      And the deference between Crimes and Offences makes no sense for the police (and Japanese people) when they do ID check.

    32. Thanks for the comment!


      And I'm not saying that anyone should be profiled and stopped for no reason, but it makes less sense to stop a Westerner than a Japanese, according to Wa-pedia.

      Looking at crimes by nationality, Japanese people in Japan commit 10x more crimes than Westerners. So while the police are at it, why not stop random Japanese people and see what they're doing?

    33. Anonymous, I just work with what information I can find.


    34. I once showed this same info to a student that was worried about the local American base. We are stat wise about the least likely to commit crimes. A Japanese person is MUCH more likely to be victimized by a fellow Nihonjin than an far.

      Image and Reality.....sometimes they are not even close!

    35. I guess some preconceptions die hard.

    36. By the way, police in Japan are not allowed to stop you for no reason. They require "suspicious activity" in order to stop someone. I've confirmed this with 2 former public prosecutors and a private attorney. Next time you're stopped, demand a reason. If he won't give you one, file a complaint and ask for the reason why you were stopped. As a free person in a free country, don't you think you deserve a reason for being stopped by the police?

    37. Hmm...that's what I'd think, yeah.

      When I asked them at the time, they simply said they were checking foreigners' ID in the area, as if that was a good enough explanation.

      Thanks for the info, though - will keep it in mind if I am ever stopped again.