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Police accused of racial profiling by questioning foreigners

  • March 15, 2022
  • , The Asahi Shimbun
  • English Press

In a video shot by a man who was born to a father from the Bahamas and raised in Japan, he said he was questioned by police at Tokyo Station on his way home from work.

The man, in his 20s and who has dreadlocks in which his hair is tied in rope-like threads, said he has been questioned by police many times in a similar manner.


In a video provided to Japan for Black Lives, an advocacy group that fights discrimination against black people, a police officer says, “From my experience, people with dreadlocks had drugs on many occasions.”


The Tokyo Bar Association has launched a fact-finding survey to collect input from people of foreign ancestry such as the man who have felt they were targeted for racial profiling by police.

The move comes on the heels of growing concerns in Japan for the act of narrowing down suspects based on their ethnicity or appearance, which has become widespread in the United States.



In the video provided to Japan for Black Lives, the sequence ends in which the police officer searches the man’s bag and finds no drugs.


“Police are way too ignorant about discrimination,” said Naomi Kawahara, head of the group.


After receiving the video, the bar association launched the survey in January to ask foreign people living in Japan such as how many times they were questioned by police, what they were wearing at the time and what they were asked.


Depending on the results, which will be announced in or around fall, the association will consider asking the National Police Agency (NPA) to improve the situation.


“They must not be treated as would-be criminals based on their personal attributes,” said lawyer Junko Hayashi, who is also a member of the association.



A U.S.-born black woman in her 20s who responded to the survey said she has been repeatedly targeted for police checks she felt were unnecessary.


She was also questioned by police in the summer several years ago when she was on her way to a place near a train station in Tokyo, riding her roommate’s bicycle.


The police asked her how long she had been staying in Japan and where she lived, in addition to asking her to show a residence card.


She said she was the only one being questioned by the police in a crowded place in front of the station while other people stared at her.


She said it was really annoying, adding that she wouldn’t have been questioned if she hadn’t been a foreigner.


In December last year, the U.S. Embassy warned in a tweet about a suspected case of racial profiling in Japan.


But it stopped short of providing details for privacy reasons.



As for the questioning of the man in his 20s whose father is from the Bahamas, a senior official of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) said it was not problematic.


Questioning is one of the basic tasks of police work based on the Police Duties Execution Law, conducted to detect and prevent crimes.


Police officers approach citizens on the street to question them when there are “sufficient reasons” to suspect that they have committed or been involved in crimes.


“We make rational decisions based on abnormal behaviors, circumstances and other factors,” an NPA official said, adding that races and nationalities are irrelevant.


An MPD official also said: “We instruct officers to question in a proactive manner when it is deemed necessary.”


In fact, police have detected many cases of robbery, theft, sex crimes, kidnapping and other criminal offenses through questioning, totaling 27,981 cases nationwide (76.5 cases per day) in 2020.


In one case in March 2021, a police officer noticed the driver of a passing vehicle with a license plate of another prefecture looking away in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. The officer asked the driver to stop the car.


The officer found about one kilogram of dried marijuana with a street value of about 6 million yen ($52,000) in the vehicle.


The MPD apprehended the Vietnamese national on the spot.


The arrest also led to the crackdown of an illegal plant factory in another prefecture.


Meanwhile, many police officers receive complaints and are jeered at when they question citizens.


The MPD said officers are instructed to avoid making comments that could be misconstrued as prejudice and discrimination, speak as politely as possible, take as little time as possible and be thankful for the cooperation of the citizens.



One day in mid-January, Yumiko Hirano, 53, an assistant inspector of the community supervision division at the MPD, exited a police car and ran up to a man on the street in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward.


She decided to question him when he appeared on a side street after being spotted by Ryoichiro Hara, 51, another assistant inspector who was driving the patrol car, shortly before on a nearby main road.


In some cases, those who look away from police officers or hurriedly enter back streets have been involved in crimes.


Finding no items suspected of being involved in criminal activity after searching the man, Hirano expressed her appreciation for his cooperation and returned to the police car. 

The duo questioned three Japanese adult men during their patrol that lasted for about four and half hours.


They are experts at questioning and serve as instructors for their peers.


“When I feel something suspicious, I will question anybody. It has nothing to do with races and nationalities,” Hirano said. “Most of them are good citizens, but many things remain unknown until you ask them.”


(This article was written by Eri Niiya, Chihiro Ara and Eishi Kado.)

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