Monday, June 28, 2010

Racism, Part 2

Last week I talked about an encounter I had with the police, and my thoughts on how foreigners are treated in Japan. Since then I've done some more thinking and talked to several people (Japanese and NJ) about the situation. So today I'd like to follow up and perhaps stir up the hornet's nest, as well.

In Part 1, several commenters pointed out that Japan is not the only country to practice this kind of immigration enforcement - people are stopped and asked to show ID in other countries, as well. This is true, but it doesn't change the fact that the practice (at least in Japan's case) is arguably unjust and unwarranted. As Orchid pointed out, Japan is an island with few points of entry, and illegal immigration is hardly a pressing issue. Japanese police also often act on quotas (ID a certain number of foreigners today or no tea and Mr. Donut for you?), whereas I'm not so sure this is the case in many other countries.

Does this make Japan a racist country? Some might and do say so, but I wouldn't. I think it's important to realize that there can be a gap between the values of individual people and the policies that a government espouses. It may also be a generational thing. I've met (at least) hundreds of Japanese people, and I can honestly say that only a handful have struck me as racist (or more kindly "xenophobic"). After last week's encounter, I mentioned it to several teachers I work with. Two of them (English teachers), after confirming that everything was all right, simply said something to the effect of "Ah yeah, that happens sometimes..." and seemed a little too embarrassed to talk about it any further. Two others seemed genuinely surprised. The conversation started something like this:

Me: 先日は、警察に止まれた・・・外国人登録証明書を見せて欲しかった。
(So I was stopped by the police the other day...they wanted to see my foreign registration card.)

Them: えぇ?なんで?
(What? Why?)

Me: [Shrug] 外国人やから。
(I'm a foreigner.)

Them: えぇ?ほんまに?!
(Huh? You're kidding!)

I went on to explain that we foreigners have to always carry around our ID in case we are stopped by the police. These two teachers (Japanese and social studies) honestly seemed to have no idea. They went on to ask me about Japanese policies on naturalization, permanent residency, and the case that a foreigner wants to marry a Japanese citizen. I don't know if it's just the younger generation, but they seemed surprised and sympathetic.

I didn't talk about this as in-depthly with Yoshie, but she told me she doesn't associate foreigners with crime and doesn't think most Japanese people do either (I didn't push her on that, but I suspect it may just be that she hasn't spoken to many other people about the issue).

Talking with a lot of the Japanese people I know, especially those near my age, about the issue is encouraging. I don't mean that I have much hope for serious change, but I feel like it's the lesser of two evils for these xenophobic policies to survive because of ignorance and/or inaction than out of fear or hate.

Changing gears somewhat -- Oh, look, a can of worms!

In the comment section to Part 1, we also had a few mentions of the law recently passed in Arizona. While this doesn't directly relate to Japan, it does bear relation to the overarching topic of racism and racial profiling, so I think it's worth briefly discussing. I was talking with Dylan about this last week, and he put forward that the Japanese policy of randomly IDing foreigners is not that different from the Arizona law. We argued back and forth a bit, and then I suggested that we both read the actual law (something surprisingly few people with such strong opinions on either side have done). I told him that if I were wrong, I apologize and would not, in fact, support the law at all. So we read it. After having done so, he admitted that the law didn't do what he thought it did.

According to a recent poll, over 60% of Americans support the law. Some media are portraying these people as supporters of racial profiling or as racists. I think the problem here is a mistaken perception of what the law actually does. There are many people who seem to think that it allows police to randomly stop anyone suspected of being an illegal or looking as if they could be (a la Japan). Perhaps this is understandable - legislation is not always the easiest form of writing to understand. However if you read through the whole thing (it's not that long), I think it's fairly clear that police aren't allowed to indiscriminately stop anyone and ID them. They are only allowed to stop people who are suspected of committing a crime (other than being illegal).

So really I think it's more an issue of two sides largely agreeing but interpreting the law differently. I suppose what ultimately matters is how law enforcement officials and courts regard it. I don't think this kind of law is the best fix to the problem. But considering the American-Mexican border is largely unprotected, it does seem an understandable move for Arizona. Again, as Orchid pointed out - the situation in Japan is not the same as the situation in America.

Let the flame war begin?


  1. "They are only allowed to stop people who are suspected of committing a crime (other than being illegal)."

    That is pretty much what the law says in Japan too. In theory they cannot stop you to look at your ID unless you are suspected of committing a crime in Japan. That is why people are concerned about the Arizona law - it allows far too much interpretation to be put in the hands of the authorities (the police in this case) who will not be accountable for their actions - This is the essential problem - authorities anywhere in the world will tend to overstep their boundaries and that is why citizens should be concerned about such laws. I guess the main difference is that in the US some people are kicking up a fuss about this and rightfully so. In Japan, like you mention, people are largely unaware. If would be interesting to see if explained properly whether 60 percent of US and Japanese supported the law.

    As for whether or not the law is justified due to the US' immigration problem vis-a-vis Japan - I think that is a bit weak and selective - especially given the fact that the US prides itself on upholding civil rights no matter what. I am not apologising for the Japanese law - I dislike it greatly also. But let us be honest with ourselves also.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Sigma. I think one of the big differences is that in Japan (as far as I'm aware), the police don't need any reason to stop you and check your ID. When I asked the officers last week, they said there was no problem (which would be a lie if we were indeed "suspected of committing a crime"). In Arizona, a police officer must be able to explain himself and cannot just offer up some lame excuse like "he looked foreign."

  3. But that is what I am saying - the Japanese police do need that excuse. The reason why they say what they said to you is because they know under the law that they cannot truly be accountable. All they need to say is "I suspected them of committing a crime". That is the end of it. And that is what WILL happen in Arizona. To believe otherwise would be naive in my opinion anyway.

  4. I think that people are misreading the AZ law as something other than what it is, and it is a reflection of the age gap in that state compared to other states. AZ has the largest concentration of old people in the U.S., and it is their fearfulness that drove that law, not any sort of overall thinking in the U.S. It is, essentially, a generation gap made into law.

    In regards to asking Japanese people about their perceptions of foreigners, you must always keep in mind that they will tell you what you want to hear. As foreigners, we can never be sure that we are being told the truth. Japanese people lie to each other or hide their true feelings from one another when they think the truth will cause a disruption in the relationship. The level of sensitivity they display amongst themselves clearly indicates that when you ask the average person, "do you associate foreigners with crime," there is a very high chance they will not answer frankly to you as a foreigner. It isn't only that they are reluctant to offer honest opinions, but also that they wouldn't want to insult you.

    So, take whatever experiences you have with Japanese folks with a grain of cultural understanding. They may or may not agree with carding foreigners, but they'll never tell you either way.

    I have been told that other Asians (Chinese, Koreans, etc.) are responsible for most of the crime in Japan. I guess this allows my acquaintances to say it is foreigners, but not "my type" (Caucasian, Western) of foreigner. :-p

  5. It seems like police here aren't held accountable for much, whether it's dealing with foreigners or with just carrying out their daily duties. Cops in America are way too aggressive in most places and cops here are just clock watchers for the most part. I got stopped for the first time after 5 years of living here. The officer was pretty cool and chatted with us a bit after he checked our IDs. On a side note: the most aggressive I've seen police in Tokyo be was toward bike riders... There's a regular night bike stop event every weekend in Nishi Shinjuku near the park. Most of the people getting stopped seem to be Japanese.

  6. I sometimes wonder how ,much difficult it will be for a black guy in Japan in white folks have to deal with this.

  7. Loco has some thoughts on that:

  8. I just wanted to add a good experience I had with a Japanese cop. I dropped my house key last week somewhere and went to the police station to report it missing. The police officer there was incredibly polite, he smiled, and he literally ran (well, jogged) into the other room to get a chair for me so I could sit down. I was confused at a couple parts of the lost item form and he was happy to help me through them, always using very polite Japanese or English, when he could. I've met good cops in America, but I've never had the police give me what amounted to good customer service.

  9. Billy - Yeah, I've noticed in general that police here tend to be pretty aggressive with bike riders.

    Joe - I've had good experiences, too. Mostly good, in fact. I think some of the kindest people I've met have been Japanese government employees, as counterintuitive as that is.

  10. Wait, what? Kind government employee counterintuitive? What?

  11. Oh come now - you know the image of the (stereo?)typical DMV or airport employee back in the States.

    You are excepted. =P