Home » Racial Profiling in Japan Is Prevalent but Unseen, Some Residents Say

Racial Profiling in Japan Is Prevalent but Unseen, Some Residents Say

by Marko Florentino
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It’s not that there is anything bad about your hair, the police officer politely explained to the young Black man as commuters streamed past in Tokyo Station. It’s just that, based on his experience, people with dreadlocks were more likely to possess drugs.

Alonzo Omotegawa’s video of his 2021 stop and search led to debates about racial profiling in Japan and an internal review by the police. For him, though, it was part of a perennial problem that began when he was first questioned as a 13-year-old.

“In their mind, they’re just doing their job,” said Mr. Omotegawa, 28, an English teacher who is half-Japanese and half-Bahamian, born and raised in Japan.

“I’m like as Japanese as it comes, just a bit tan,” he added. “Not every Black person is going to have drugs.”

Racial profiling is emerging as a flashpoint in Japan as increasing numbers of migrant workers, foreign residents and mixed-race Japanese change the country’s traditionally homogenous society and test deep-seated suspicion toward outsiders.

With one of the world’s oldest populations and a stubbornly low birthrate, Japan has been forced to rethink its restrictive immigration policies. And as record numbers of migrant workers arrive in the country, many of the people tidying up hotel rooms, working the register at convenience stores or flipping burgers are from places like Vietnam, Indonesia or Sri Lanka.

But Japan’s foreign-born residents say social attitudes toward them have been slow to adjust. In January, three of them sued the Japanese government and the local governments in Tokyo and Aichi, a nearby prefecture, over the conduct of their police forces. The plaintiffs said they had been regularly subjected to random stops and searches because of their racial appearance.

It’s the first legal case in Japan to argue that officers routinely rely on racial profiling in policing, a systemic issue that the plaintiffs and experts say the Japanese public is largely oblivious to.

Each of the three plaintiffs — one naturalized citizen and two longtime residents — said they had been stopped for questioning multiple times a year. One of them, a Pacific Islander living in Japan for more than two decades, estimated that he’d been questioned 70 to 100 times by the police.

Motoki Taniguchi, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said that perceptions in Japan had been slow to catch up to a reality that the country was already living.

“Many Japanese are still in the illusion that we are such a homogenous country, that we shouldn’t take immigrants because they will break society,” he said.

His clients’ experiences conflict with what Japan’s National Police Agency said it found in 2021, after Mr. Omotegawa’s video caused enough of a stir that the United States Embassy in Tokyo issued an alert warning Americans of racial profiling. The year before, the police said, there had been just six cases of racial profiling in a country with about three million foreign residents. Police officials defended their officers, saying they had acted without any “discriminatory intent” — even in the six cases — and that officers are trained to question people only with reasonable suspicion. It declined to comment on the lawsuit and said that it did not have more recent statistics on profiling.

The lawsuit, which seeks monetary damages of about $22,000 for each plaintiff and a court ruling confirming that racially discriminatory police questioning was against Japanese law, said that some internal police guidelines explicitly encourage profiling. As an example, it cited a 2021 police training manual from Aichi that encouraged officers to use laws on drugs, firearms or immigration to stop and question foreigners.

“Anything works!!” said the manual for junior officers cited in the lawsuit, which was reviewed by The New York Times. “For those who appear to be foreigners at first glance and those who do not speak Japanese, firmly believe that they have, without exception, committed some sort of illegal act.”

The Aichi police said it “couldn’t confirm” the specific manual is currently in use.

In a 2022 survey by the Tokyo Bar Association, roughly six out of 10 foreign residents in Japan said they had been questioned in the past five years. The survey polled only foreign residents and did not give comparative figures for average Japanese citizens. Several foreign-born residents said in interviews that police profiling feels universal.

Upadhyay Ukesh, 22, came to Japan from Nepal as a 14-year-old with his father. He was still a teenager in 2017, he said, when he was stopped on his way to school and four officers had him raise his hands and searched his book bag. They found only pencils, an eraser, notebooks and textbooks, and sent him on his way.

Profiling has since become a regular nuisance, said Mr. Ukesh, who now works at a hotel in Osaka and oversees about 50 part-time workers, many of whom are not Japanese. Recently, he said, he was waiting for his girlfriend on the street when two officers asked to search him.

“I just let them check, but I really don’t like them checking my belongings without reasons,” he said.

Tran Tuan Anh, 35, a grocery store manager in Tokyo who first came to Japan from Vietnam as a language student a decade ago, said that he is stopped once or twice a year by the police. Once, officers cornered him as he rushed to transfer trains. He said they seemed to suspect he had been involved in a recent stabbing.

“They thought I was a foreigner and chased me,” he said. “One officer stood in front of me and another behind me so that I couldn’t escape.”

Akira Igarashi, a sociology professor at Osaka University, said that even as individual attitudes change in Japan, bureaucracies like the police can be more sclerotic. Officers appear to act based on an incorrect presumption that crime is more prevalent among immigrants, he said.

“Japanese police don’t know that this is discrimination,” he said.

Such encounters can be particularly jarring for the small but growing number of Japanese nationals, including Mr. Omotegawa, who are of mixed race or have been naturalized.

Lora Nagai, 31, who was born to a Sri Lankan mother and a Japanese father, said that the police repeatedly stopped her for questioning on her way to work as a fitness instructor, making her late. Her boss and colleagues didn’t seem to believe her, incredulous that it was happening so regularly.

She said she learned of the term racial profiling from news reports about the recent lawsuit, allowing her to name the unsettling experiences she’d had for most of her adult life.

“I think normal people in Japan don’t know this is happening,” Ms. Nagai said.

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