Talking to the policeman
Some foreigners complain of being racially profiled and targeted by Japanese police and stopped frequently on their bicycles for identity checks. It has happened to me many times, plus I know many people who have had this experience, and I have heard even more apocryphal tales of encounters with Japanese police by foreigners. For me, accusations of racism seem a little too easy. But other accusations of a warped Japanese perspective of law enforcement, or misallocation of police resources, or skewered crime statistics seem more interesting to me.
Instead of pursuing major crime Japanese police do indeed seem to spend a lot of time stopping foreigners on their bicycles just to check to see if they are riding stolen vehicles. (Bicycle and umbrella thefts are among the most common crimes in Japan. Other common crimes include habitual running of yellow or red lights at intersections, smoking in designated non-smoking sections, urinating in public, etc.) It lends itself to the idea that the police must be trying to fill a quota of some sort in order to boast about greater efficacy. But it is no secret that crime, including serious crime, is under-reported and under-prosecuted in Japan, and that their manner of investigating, prosecuting, reporting and measuring crime and the security of society are quite different from what many Western foreigners would recognize as legitimate.
As for me, I have been stopped twice only minutes apart in the same neighborhood. I have been stopped as I pass the scene of a motor vehicle road accident by police officers on the scene. I have been chased by a patrol car whose driver thought I was riding suspiciously fast, as if fleeing the scene of something naughty.
On Sunday, November 9thI was stopped and questioned by a policeman for the fourteenth time since living in this neighborhood. I was on my way to the local Peoples video and DVD rental shop. I was stopped at the south corner of the Nakano Dori/Omekaido intersection, waiting for the traffic lights to turn green so that I could cross the street to the video shop on the north side. While waiting on the corner I could see the policeman on his white patrol bicycle in the public park behind me on that south corner. I figured that because I am a foreigner he was probably checking me over from behind my back. As it turned out, that’s exactly what he was doing. I know it because when I got off my bicycle at the video shop across the street he passed me, turned around, and then backtracked straight to me. I mean, he deliberately followed me. I was surprised that it took him so long, because it seemed to me that the best place and time to stop me would have been on the south corner when he first saw me, where I was stationary for a full minute waiting for the lights to change. If I had been inclined to flee, then I would have had less time and space to do it while waiting on the south corner. But once the light turned green and I was on the move again the dynamics of stopping me became more complicated.
“Excuse me,” he said in English. “Do you speak Japanese?”
“Just a little.” And that’s how this fourteenth installment of the Grant-versus-the-police story began. Our conversation proceeded in Japanese.
“Does your bicycle have a key?” (meaning, a lock on the rear tire, which is common).
My bicycle lock rusted and fell off months and months ago, and I have been making due with a removable chain lock from a dollar store (¥100 shop) ever since. So I reached forward into the basket directly under the officer’s nose and without saying a word I held it up and dangled it in front of his face. Just for emphasis.
“Does Japanese law say that I need a bicycle key?” I asked.
“No, the law doesn’t say that you need it.”
“So, No Problem!!” I said in English, holding my hands up to indicate that the illogic of him stopping me on the grounds of the bicycle lock was just too absurd to discuss any further. Technically, Japanese police are not permitted to stop and question people unless they think the people are acting “suspiciously.” But since suspicion is totally subjective, it is well nigh impossible to successfully protest the action.
“What’s your name?”
He told me his name, but it went in one ear and then right out the other, because I wasn’t really interested in his name, after all. I know that I was being an asshole, but my intention was just to parry each of his inquiries with an inquiry of my own because I was innocent of any wrongdoing. Neither was I acting “suspiciously.” And, frankly, I am tired of being stopped on my bicycle by the police.
“Can I see your Foreign Registration Card?” (The “gaikokujin torokuzumi shoumeishou,” a plastic card about the size of a credit card bearing my photograph and other identifying information that all foreigners - registered foreigners, meaning those of us who have lived in the country longer than six months [the duration of a tourist visa] - must carry on their person when they are outside their homes.)
“Can I see your Police Identity Card?” (That is, his “keisatsu techou.” Japanese policemen do not wear their badges, serial numbers, or names visibly on their uniform like what Canadian police officers do. In Canada you can see the officer’s name and his/her service number just by looking at the badge pinned to their uniform blouses. But Japanese policemen carry their identity cards in a small case in their breast pockets, like how I carry my identity card in my pocket
We exchanged cards. I looked at his card while he looked at mine. I can’t read Japanese, but that wasn’t the point. As before, I just wanted to parry each of his inquiries with one of my own. The photograph on his identity card seemed to match his face. Maybe he thought the same about me. I pretended to read and examine his card closely.
“May I check your serial number?” (Many bicycles are registered with the police. It’s a crime prevention measure, an owner identification measure, but not a legal requirement.)
“Go ahead” I said, knowing what was coming next, because the bicycle is not mine, it is my daughter’s, and registered in her name.
He spoke into the radio transmitter pinned to his shirt epaulets, reading the registration numbers aloud. I could hear the answering muffled voice from police headquarters coming through. He looked at me strangely, and I knew why. The bicycle’s owner’s name that he had just been told did not match the man standing in front of him.
“Did you borrow the bike from a friend?”
“It’s my daughter’s.”
“What’s your daughter’s name.”
“Okay. Very well then. Good evening.”
“Thank you and be careful. Don’t talk to strangers,” I called out with a cheery disposition. And then he rode away. I went in to the video shop to return my DVD of David Lean’s Bridge Over the River Kwai (starring Alec Guiness, William Holden and James Donald) which I feared was overdue. In fact, it wasn’t overdue at all, which was especially lucky because it left me with enough change in my pocket to rent another DVD.