Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Racial profiling, discrimination in Japan far more serious than stats reported by police

Lawyers with the Tokyo Bar Association's Committee on Protection of Foreigners' Human Rights and others announce the findings of a racial profiling survey on Sept. 9, 2022. (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

TOKYO -- The actual nature of racial profiling in Japan was glossed over in a recent police report, which claimed that across the country there were six cases of "inappropriate and thoughtless" questioning by officers based on national and racial stereotypes in 2021. The Mainichi Shimbun delved into the reality of police discrimination by examining specific cases where foreign residents were the targets of abusive language, body checks, and other unjust actions by authorities.

    Racial profiling, or the use of race, skin color, ethnicity, and other factors to suspect that someone is involved in crime, or target them for a police investigation, is a serious problem worldwide. In 2020, The United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has recommended countries to formulate guidelines to prevent racial profiling.

    The six incidents of racial profiling were acknowledged in a report announced by the National Police Agency (NPA) in November. The officers involved were from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in Tokyo, as well as the prefectural police forces of Miyagi, Kanagawa, and Osaka. In one case, a biracial man in his 20s with Japanese and Black roots was approached by a police officer who searched his belongings. The officer apparently said, "Based on my experience, there are many cases where a stylish person with dreadlocks like yours has drugs."

    Meanwhile, the Tokyo Bar Association carried out a survey between January and February this year targeting foreign residents and those with foreign roots. According to the results disclosed in September, of the 2,094 valid responses, 62.9% said they had been subjected to questioning by police in the past five years. Among them, 85.4% said that officers approached them while acknowledging that they were someone with foreign roots based on "physical features" and other factors. Among those who had been questioned, 76.9% believed that there were no other factors than them being "a foreigner or someone with foreign roots" that prompted the police officers to approach them.

    Such residents described cases that were clearly acts of discrimination, such as "They were brutal and rude the whole time, and I was suddenly forced to strip off my pants and expose my lower area." According to another respondent, police said they approach people they "think are suspicious," but never reveal the basis for their suspicions. The individual said, "I can't think of a reason other than my appearance that would make them suspicious." Another person, who was born and raised in Japan, shared that police yelled, "You foreigners go back to your countries, foreigners don't deserve human rights! Go home! Take your family and go home!"

    While the NPA acknowledged in its report that there were some cases of "inappropriate and thoughtless" acts of questioning by police in 2021, it told the Mainichi Shimbun that "they had no intentions of discrimination based on prejudice against certain races or nationality."

    Naomi Kawahara is seen in Tokyo on Nov. 8, 2022. (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

    Regarding racial profiling in Japan, the U.S. Embassy warned Americans staying in Japan of suspected cases through its Twitter account in December 2021.

    Naomi Kawahara, an activist who founded Japan for Black Lives, a platform to educate Japanese people about African American culture and address racial discrimination, said, "Of those I know with African roots, there are people who say they began to be questioned by police from middle school. Some say that even when they were right in front of their homes, and had their keys, the police weren't convinced."

    The NPA claims that it's given reinforced guidance to senior police officers nationwide, as well as the prefectural police forces involved in the six cases, following the racial profiling probe. However, Kawahara remains skeptical, pointing out that while she had heard of such cases since at least 10 years ago, nothing has changed during this time. She said, "Instead of just discussing this internally among police bodies, I think the victims of discrimination as well as experts on these issues have to also become involved to change this reality."

    -- Everyday reality of racial profiling and distrust of police

    This Nov. 17, 2022, photo shows the park in Tokyo where a South Asian mother and child were apparently mistreated by police in June 2021. (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

    "Can you really not speak Japanese?" "You're the one who kicked him anyway, right?" A police officer allegedly hurled such accusations toward a 3-year-old girl playing at a park in Tokyo in June 2021. A Muslim woman from South Asia, aged in her 40s, and her young daughter were verbally attacked by a man nearby, who claimed that the girl kicked his son. The man also called out "gaijin," a term often used pejoratively to refer to foreigners, and "Show your residence card," toward the mother who was wearing a hijab. Six police officers arrived on the scene afterwards, and according to the statements of another man who happened to be there, one of the officers hurled the abusive words toward the mother and child.

    After answering questions for around two hours at the park, the mother and child were taken to a police station where they were kept for another long period of questioning. It has also emerged that the police provided the man behind the verbal attack with the woman's personal information, including her phone number and address. The woman has filed a lawsuit demanding a total of 4.4 million yen ($32,000) in damages over the discrimination and mistreatment by police.

    Hirokatsu Nakajima, a lawyer representing the mother and child, said, "The woman who was being harassed by the man at the park thought that because the police came, they'd help her. But, in reality, the police made her feel helpless that she can't receive public support due to her minority status."

    Another lawyer Atsuko Nishiyama commented, "Looking at the NPA's response to police questioning toward those with foreign roots, I get the impression that they're reprimanding officers to prevent potential trouble, and there's no education stating that their responses based on racial prejudice are in fact human rights violations."

    Another case of racial profiling occurred in May 2020, when a Turkish man who was driving was stopped by a patrol car in Tokyo before two officers got a hold of his arms and dragged him down to the ground, apparently resulting in him spraining his neck. The man, who has Middle Eastern features, said that before the incident, he made eye contact with an officer inside the parked car.

    In a June 2022 hearing of a damages lawsuit launched by the man, the officer claimed that suspicions of illegal drug possession and the like prompted a search of the man's vehicle, but nothing was found. Material from an internal probe by police, which was obtained by the plaintiff in legal procedures, showed that the police officers' superior marked their actions at the time as being "partly inappropriate." However, in the hearing, one separate officer stated, "If I were in the same situation, I might have done the same thing."

    The NPA claims that officers "do not have discriminatory intentions" to justify their actions of racial profiling. However, an act is considered "racial discrimination" if it has the "purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms," according to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, in which Japan takes part. The flood of online comments and derogatory terms used to defend police actions prove that racial profiling in Japan clearly has the "effect" of spurring discrimination.

    (Japanese original by Jun Ida, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media