Twice this year I have been stopped by police cruisers for random ID checks. Both times happened within a month of each other, one time in July in Canada, and one time in August in central Tokyo. I haven’t had this much police attention since university when Kingston City Police in Ontario stopped me a couple times every month because I looked suspicious. (Despite having two major universities Kingston is a small, provincial city and half the people there look suspicious. Of course, half the population consists of inmates residing in the five local maximum security penitentiaries. Happy days!)
In Canada I was driving my son to Niagara Falls on Saturday, July 26th in my mother’s white Toyota. I always drive Mom’s car when I’m on holiday. How else is a guy supposed to get around? Ken wanted to go on the Maid of the Mist and although it doesn’t particularly turn me on it is, admittedly, an iconic attraction. He was the only student in his class who had such an adventure to report to his classmates when school resumed in September. At Clappison’s Corners, Ontario just as Highway 6 descends the Niagara Escarpment into the city of Hamilton there is an intersection with some gas stations and a Tim Hortons donut outlet. I drove through the intersection at 8:00 a.m. and a police cruiser immediately closed in on my tail with its strobe lights flashing.
“Shoot! It’s the police!” I had never been pulled over by a patrol car before.
I had seen a few police cruisers out and about on the highway so I was being careful about my speed. I was absolutely confident I was not speeding. I thought quick and hit the right turn signal to enter the Tim Hortons’ parking lot. When I did so I checked my rear view mirror hoping to see the cruiser pass on by on the highway, after someone else ahead of me in traffic. But no, it turned into the parking lot with me, still right on my tail. It was me he wanted. So then I pulled into a parking space, turned down the window and turned off the engine.
It turned out that the copper was conducting random license plate checks on his on-board computer. He chose my car at random and discovered that it was registered to an old woman (Mom). I ain’t no old woman, so he stopped me as a security check. Maybe I was a car thief. I had all the necessary documents, and my story was sound, so he explained why he stopped me and let me go. He was very polite. But it reveals a truth that too few people worry about, that the government is monitoring our movements. The apology that it is a security and preventive law-enforcement thing is not a legitimate reason. And the observation that if I’ve done nothing wrong or have nothing to hide then I have nothing to fear is so stupid and wrong that it’s not even an argument. Only idiots say half-baked things like that, and they don’t warrant being addressed. First of all, everyone has something to hide. That’s one of our human features. Second, fearing the casual abuse of police powers and the deterioration of my civil rights iare very great and real fears indeed.
The second recent police check came in Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku district on Sunday, August 25th. I was walking alone when a patrol car passed me on the street. I noticed it but ignored it. I was engrossed in my cell phone as I walked, deleting old E-mails. The officer in the passenger seat hopped out and pursued me. Why? Because I was the only foreigner in the immediate vicinity? Because I was suspiciously dressed all in black on a hot summer day? Did my shoulder bag look suspicious? Maybe it was my rolled up sleeves, revealing body art, or my folding fan stuck in my belt like a dagger. Japanese don’t go for tattoos, and knives are serious business.
Anyway, he asked for some ID. Thank God I remembered to carry my Foreign Registration Card, which all foreigners over the age of 16 and in country for longer than 90 days are required to have on their person at all times outside their homes. If I could not produce it there would be difficulty. I dug it out of my bag and showed him the card. Now the officer’s partner, behind the wheel of the patrol car, backed his car up and got out, trapping me with a vending machine behind, a police car in front, and two officers one on either side. No way out of it now. This is almost exactly what the Kingston police used to do.
The two officers never failed in their politeness. We communicated in a mix of Japanese and English. Fortunately I could answer their questions adequately in Japanese. This was a random knife check. They asked for permission first to pat me down, then to search my shoulder bad. I resisted both options.
I said, “Trust me, I don’t have a knife. How about that guy over there [pointing to a passing Japanese pedestrian]. Maybe he’s got a knife.”
“We want to confirm.”
Now, I know I wasn’t doing anything either suspicious or illegal. I was in the clear. But I had a personal item of a latex variety in my bag and I did not relish the idea of the police searching me or my bag on the public street. The only other option was to be taken
into custody for questioning at a police station. So I said, “Okay. Show me some ID.”
“You want to see our techou?”
They produced their photo ID police badges. I pulled a pen and pocket calendar out of my bag and quickly jotted down their names, the date and place. I wanted them to see that I was making a note of it.
Then I said, “Inside the patrol car.”
“In the patrol car?”
Now voluntarily getting into a police car is a very risky thing, but I hoped my demonstration of trust plus my ability to communicate adequately would mollify them.
I didn’t want to watch them as they searched my private stuff, so I sat there with my eyes closed. They asked for more permission every time they picked something up. What was I gonna do, say no? They wanted to see more identification, something with my name on it. Luckily I always carry my passport with me. Plus I had my Japanese health card, my Canadian Driver’s License, credit card, recording studio membership card, marriage certificate, AKB48 fan club membership card, etc. all bearing my name.
Then they wanted to see my pockets. I already refused a body pat-down. God, this was just like an elementary school show-and-tell.
Finally they were convinced not just of my banality but of my good citizenship, even though I’m not a citizen. One of the officers helped me out of the car and they both politely thanked me. I was free to go. I deliberately resisted thanking them in kind. Thank them for what? The entire 15-minute operation was probably a direct violation of half a dozen Japanese statutes.
Now, on the spot checks by the police in search of knives are not uncommon. I have never been subjected to one is all. In recent years here there have been several abominable random killings on public streets in daylight hours by knife-wielding men. Because guns are so tightly controlled and restricted most heinous crimes in Japan feature kitchen knives. The government has begun restricting the size of legally available knives. Japanese take knives very seriously. Pretty lucky I left mine at home that day.