Japan is widely regarded as one of the safest countries in the world. Crime rates have been steadily dropping over the last few decades, and violent-crime is at an all-time low. Tokyo is home to the world’s largest metropolitan police force; and with so many officers on the street, it’s easy to imagine that being a Japanese police officer is not the most exciting job. With so many officers, and a globally-low major-crimes rate; officers treat even the smallest of offenses with the highest degree of seriousness. In theory, this can be great for Japan’s residents! This means lost items will always be found, umbrellas returned, and traffic will flow smoothly.
However; a country with a large, bored police force is not always good for its citizens. With the influx of foreign tourists to Japan, and the recent decision to allow more foreign workers to immigrate to Japan—Japan’s police force has had to adapt to the demographic changes in their wards.
How Often are Foreigners Stopped by Japanese Police?
Generally; police in Japan try to have a friendly, neighborly approach to their duties. It’s not uncommon for your local koban (local police office) officer to stop by your house when you move to a new ward, to introduce themselves and give you any relevant neighborhood information. It’s also not uncommon to be stopped by police in Japan, and asked to show ID. Both foreigners and locals alike report these kinds of interactions with their neighborhood officers. However, for foreigners, these visits or stops on the street can feel more targeted.
Since police have more time and manpower to focus on “smaller” crimes, it’s quite common to be stopped on the street in Japan and asked to show ID. These stops are performed for a variety of reasons; if you are a new face in the neighborhood, or if a crime has been reported, if you are riding a bicycle, or seemingly for no reason at all! As a foreigner, you are legally required to carry either your passport or residence card with you at all times. So, if an officer asks you to produce it—you are legally obligated to!
But do the police treat foreigners any differently than Japanese people during police stops? According to a National Police Agency spokesman, it’s a firm “No.” But most foreigners will have their own stories, or anecdotes of others, that seem to point that this is not the case.
One such reason for the disconnect between police and the lived experience of foreign residents, is that Japanese citizens or local community watch volunteer organizations may be more likely to call the police over a complaint regarding foreigners than native Japanese. Many people, especially older generations will be inherently apprehensive or even scared of foreigners in their area and may assume the worst at all times. As Japan modernizes and demographics continue to shift, this is a big area which Japan desperately needs to improve upon for the safety and comfort of its foreign residents.
Just as someone may describe a suspect as “wearing a blue jacket” or “on a red bicycle” oftentimes, potential suspects are described to police as just “gaikokujin” or “foreigner”. This leads to more foreigners being stopped on the street and questioned in regards to an assortment of petty crimes, based just off of bad first-hand evidence.
What are Your Rights When You Get Stopped?
Being stopped by police in Japan can be a shocking, humiliating experience. While residing in Japan you are subject to its laws and will be treated the same as Japanese citizens. As previously stated, you are legally required to produce ID when prompted by Japanese police. If you are stopped for questioning, it is in your best interest to cooperate—Police are legally allowed to seize and arrest you if you try to escape.
Stop and frisk searches or “shokumu shitsumon” while technically illegal, are regularly carried out by the police. The use of this practice is regarded as a “moral gray zone” and is a fiercely debated topic amongst law makers.
The police in Japan are allowed to legally question or detain anyone who they have “reasonable cause” to believe they have been involved in a crime or have information regarding a crime. “Reasonable cause” allows a lot of wiggle room for officers to use their own judgment when making stops, and questioning people. Shokumu shitsumon searches can be a terrifying and humiliating experience for foreigners, and can include intimidation tactics, interrogation, and searches of your body and possessions.
It is important to know that you do have a right to remain silent, and do not have to consent to any searches without being presented with a search warrant. However, police are known to use harsh interrogation techniques, and if you refuse you may be subject to long hours of interrogation and questioning until you allow the search. It is also fairly easy for police to obtain warrants to search your body, possessions, or property under “reasonable cause” for suspicion. Judges are notorious for “rubber stamping” these requests, with almost 100% of requests being approved.
Anyone suspected of a crime in Japan can be legally detained up to two days. During this time, you could be subjected to harsh interrogation techniques to try and get you to confess to a crime (confession rate in Japan is at 99%). Police must present the case to a public prosecutor within 48 hours of detention, or you must be released. However, if you do not confess during this time, and the police still have reason to believe that you are guilty, you could spend up to 21 more days in police holding.
During any time being held in police custody, the police are legally required to inform you of the crime of which you are under suspicion of committing, your right to a lawyer, your right to remain silent, and your right to notify your embassy for assistance.
What can the embassy do for you? Contacting your embassy can be an invaluable tool when dealing with the police in any foreign country. While your embassy cannot just “get you out”, they can act as a liaison on your behalf between yourself and the justice system. They can also assist with obtaining English-language legal materials or contacting an English-speaking attorney to assist you. Remember, even as a foreign-passport holder, you are under the jurisdiction of Japanese police and are required to abide by Japanese law. There is no immunity or special rules that apply to foreign residents or visitors to Japan.
The role of a lawyer in Japan is similar to that in other countries, with one important exception. Your lawyer is not permitted to be in the room while you are being interrogated or questioned by police. You are allowed to meet with your lawyer, and your lawyer will most likely take meticulous notes to be used in court in the case of harsh interrogation or forced confessions.
Should You Consider Yourself Guilty?
So, you’ve been stopped by an officer in Japan and asked to show your residence card. Are you guilty of a crime? Chances are, no! The most common case of police stops is just routine residence card checks or asking to see your bicycle registration (bicycle theft is a big problem in Japan!).
But what if you have been stopped and questioned in regard to a crime? Should you consider yourself guilty?
Usually, the police will tolerate first-time offenders when it comes to smaller offenses like forgetting your residence card, or failure to register a bicycle. But as a foreigner you will most likely not have that grace extended to you when it comes to crimes like shoplifting, fighting, or theft. Japanese police tend to be harsher on foreigners, as foreigners are expected to behave in accordance to Japanese society while living in or visiting Japan.
If you are not guilty of a crime, do not confess. Often times, you may feel compelled to confess to be able to explain your case before a judge, but it is strongly advised that you never confess unless you are guilty. A confession is very serious right to give up, and the vast majority—if not 100%, of people who confess to a crime are convicted by a judge. If you are found to be innocent by a judge, you must be compensated for your time in detention by the Japanese Government.
So, should you consider yourself guilty? Legally, you are innocent until proven guilty. A jury in Japan is required to release you upon proof of innocence and will not convict unless you are proven guilty. A confession is proof of your guilt, so it should never be given unless you are truly guilty. If you are innocent of a crime, contact your embassy, contact a lawyer, and do not speak to police or sign any document without the presence of a third party.
My Police Experience
Experience with police will vary widely from person to person, region to region. Personally, I have been lucky enough and never had any experience with police in Japan apart from entering a koban to file a report for a missing wallet (and to their credit, the wallet was returned with none of its contents missing!)—Overall a very pleasant experience. Generally, police officers genuinely want to assist you, and are working out of the best interest of the public. Coming up to the Olympics, police officers are preparing and modernizing their facilities to accommodate foreign visitors and residents. More and more police stations are upgrading to include more services in English and other languages, and in major metropolitan areas, it’s common to have at least one officer on duty who speaks at least a little bit of English. In my experience, even when no one on duty speaks English, they are able to call a larger branch and have you speak to an officer in English via the phone. There are also helpful infographics at every police station with simple Japanese phrases, and pictures to help you explain your problem to the police.
However, it is common amongst foreigners to swap stories of terrifying or confusing police encounters. A large, bored police force, and enhanced police presence for the upcoming Olympics can make foreign residents in Japan feel unfairly targeted or harassed. Police have been known to stop people for large periods of time over the smallest of offenses—or at times even to “practice their English”.
Common police interactions amongst foreigners include noise complaints at barbecue beach-parties being turned into all-out investigations of all party attendees, riding a skateboard in a “no skating” zone (all of Tokyo?), being accused of riding a bicycle while intoxicated and being accused of shoplifting upon leaving a store. In my friends and coworkers experience, interactions with police have been annoying at least, and terrifying and confusing at worst.
Remember to Stay Calm If You Are Stopped by Police in Japan!
But what should you do when faced with a police situation? The best advice is always to know your rights. Cooperate, be polite, and it doesn’t hurt to learn a few key phrases in Japanese to assist in communication. Remember to always be truthful, and it is often in your best interest to say less, simply answering questions with a “yes” or “no.”
Generally, most police do not want to simply hassle you. The vast majority of times, you will be asked to produce ID, maybe asked a few basic questions about where you live or where you work, and then sent on your way. In the worst-case scenario where you are detained or questioned, try to keep calm, and insist upon your right to remain silent, and your right to be charged with a crime to be detained. If you are being held without “reasonable cause” being stated to you, you are free to leave.
The most important thing to remember when traveling in Japan to avoid unnecessary trouble is to always carry your residence card or passport. Simply keeping this on you at all times and politely producing it upon being asked can shorten police experiences significantly.