Wednesday, February 13, 2008


A police car drives past Koenji station and the flash highlights a curiously neon sign on its side.

(I'd been meaning for quite some time to write something about the police in Japan but never quite got around to it. However, after reading an entry in Helen's blog, I decided the time was nigh. You may want to pop by and read about her experience as it's a typical one.)

Back in the U.S., the situation with the police is generally well understood due to the plethora of police and lawyer dramas which slowly educate us about the power of the criminal justice system and our rights. In fact, we know that we have quite a lot of rights should the police approach us or charge us with a crime. We know that they have to tell us why they're arresting us and cannot hold us unless they have specific charges to raise against us. We know we don't have to speak to t hem and that we have the right to consult with a lawyer. There are also limits to how long we can be detained depending on the crime and charges.

When I first came to Japan, I assumed the police situation was much the same. I've since learned that it very much is not in a great many ways and most of them are unfavorable. It's hard to actually grasp this though when you first arrive and encounter the police as they seem docile and impotent. They ride around on white bicycles, sit in little police boxes on street corners (koban) and tend mainly to give directions and hassle people about their bicycles. If you stop and ask them about something, they're pretty friendly.

Most interactions with the police involve reporting lost wallets and tracking stolen bikes. When you buy a new bike in Japan, it is automatically registered with the police. When one of my husband's many stolen bikes was recovered by the police, they called us to tell us about it and we were able to retrieve it. Additionally, the police come door-to-door and note the inhabitants of all the domiciles in their area. They do this so they know who belongs and who doesn't as well as to help them know the neighborhood. This is all part of the innocuous side of law enforcement here.

The less innocuous part comes along when you make a mistake. Whether it be not carrying your foreigner identification card or breaking the law in some fashion, you can learn pretty painfully that your rights are very different in Japan. For one thing, you can be held for up to 3 weeks without being told anything about the crime you're being hauled in for. You don't have the right to a lawyer before questioning nor do you have the right to make a call. Your guilt isn't a matter of evidence collection so much as a foregone conclusion once you've been accused. The Japanese police do not rely heavily on forensic proof. They rely on confession and can coerce it from you. Prison in Japan is very regimented with conditions regarding meals, hygiene, and behavior that would seem quite oppressive by U.S. prison standards. They exercise strict control over what you do and how you do it as well as when you can do it.

The main danger of the situation with the police in Japan for foreigners lies in the ambiguity of the laws and rights of the accused. In the U.S., we know our rights and the limits of authorities (though we know them less now that ever before with the Bush administration's "help"). In Japan, there is enough wiggle room in a lot of laws to give the police the latitude to give you a hard time when they feel like it and ignore infractions when they feel like it.

One example is the situation regarding riding bicycles on the streets versus the sidewalks. Laws were changed at some point to get bikes out of the streets as traffic increased and it became too dangerous to have them sharing narrow streets with vehicles. Unfortunately, it was never made clear where cyclists were supposed to ride after they were forced out of the streets because it's technically illegal to ride on the sidewalk. This allows the police to selectively enforce whatever "rule" they want as they can point to whichever law they want if they decide to fine you. It seems that if you do something which the police don't like such as ride too fast or recklessly, they can call you on it, but if you don't do anything they dislike, they leave you alone.

Generally speaking, I think the best way to deal with living in Japan is to cooperate with the police as much as you can even when you don't think they have a right to hassle you. It also doesn't hurt to smile and say "konnichiwa" when you pass by one of them so they know your face and see you as a person. One thing you don't want to do is get into physical altercations with Japanese people because of an avoidable emotional confrontation. I've read quite a few stories where a man gets angry and takes a swing at a Japanese fellow only to end up in jail for 3 weeks powerless and traumatized. At the end of their stays, they are often a million yen or more poorer as they pay off the "victim" for injuries inflicted. In all the cases I've read, the foreign person was essentially held until he admitted he was completely at fault and ponied up a lot of money in compensation. It doesn't matter if you're provoked. It's not going to be worth the pain and cost if you end up getting arrested because no one will listen to your reasons.

You can fight this sort of thing when it happens if you have the time, money, and language skills, but ultimately, it's not going to accomplish anything. The ambiguity of the authority of the police will always end any challenge to their actions with the answer of 'they were within their rights to do (whatever).' There are some folks out there who make it their life's work to fight injustices in this area but I've never known one who actually got anywhere. All they end up doing is getting the runaround until their challenges peter out and they have no choice but to drop the ball and move on to the next fight. That doesn't mean that they can't point at the laws and say they have a case because they often do, but rather that it often doesn't matter in Japan whether you seem to have a case according to a piece of paper somewhere. There's every likelihood that there's probably another piece of paper somewhere else saying that the opposite of your document is also lawful and the police are allowed to act in opposition to your documented "right".

The bottom line is that, just because they seem jovial, friendly, and innocuous, you shouldn't take the police in Japan lightly as they have more power to make your life really hard if they want to than police back home do. They also have far fewer compunctions about doing so if you cross them as their notions of your rights aren't nearly as strong as your notions of your rights. Fortunately, they aren't motivated to take advantage of this power most of the time and will leave you alone if you behave yourself and toe the line when they ask you to.


ThePenguin said...

About the bicycles on pavements thing: it would be interesting to get confirmation on the exact situation, I keep hearing conflicting opinions. One thing I do know is that at the crossing just down the road from where I am the "stop" markings for cyclists are painted on the pavement in a position where they're clearly only of relevance for someone who's cycled along the pavement, implying that this is the behaviour desired by the "authorities".

Shari said...

I think the conflicting information is intentional. In fact, it's the way they want things to be for maximum ambiguity. Several posts ago, I talked about men who compete with my bike and I posted a link to an article in the Japan Times about this. The article mentions a lot of different points and makes the unclear situation, er, clear. ;-)

Many thanks for your comment!

tornados28 said...

It's scary that the laws in Japan are so unclear or ambiguous.

On the other hand, here in the U.S., people often complain about getting harassed by the cops. But it is usually those people who complain that are usually doing something wrong. I always say that if you don't want to get harassed by the cops, then don't break the law and they will leave you alone.

Kanagawa G said...

Unfortunatly I have had a few experiences with the men in blue.

My first time was regarding a parking ticket in Hiroshima. The police decided that my legally parked car was legally parked for too long and ticketed it for exceeding a "time limit" that wasn't posted. The ticket was locked to my car's side mirror and I had to go to the police station to have them remove it. They sent me to every station and koban in Hiroshima looking for the ticketing officer until I finally found him at 2 am, after a six hour wild goose chase. Of course I kept getting the "In Japan we don't park illegally..." lecture from every officer I met along the way which made me want to reply, "I wasn't parked illegally. However, if nobody parks illegally, why do parkting tickets exist?" I decided it best to keep my mouth shut and pay the ridiculously expensive fine.

I've been stopped on my bike a few times to check that it wasn't stolen. It is quite hard to prove that your bike is indeed your bike, especially when the police don't trust the registration sticker because it "could be a fake."

I try to avoid the J-police as much as possible. They seem to be out looking for trouble that doesn't exist.

Shari said...

tornados28: I've heard that people back home get harassed by the police as well, and I'm sure it's true. If you follow Digg and see all the "don't tase me bro" videos they highlight, you know something is going on. However, the situation in the U.S. is far more clear cut and it's easier to define your rights and to deal with abuse of power. It's not "easy", but "easier".

KanagawaG: Your experience with the parking ticket is such a good example of the ambiguity! You park legally, but they claim a time limit that likely only exists when they feel like enforcing one (perhaps needing to fill a parking ticket fine quota).

I have also been stopped about my bike (did I steal it?) and have saved every receipt for every bicycle I've ever bought since the first time it happened. I don't carry the receipt, but it is in my apartment should they insist on proof.

I'd wager the police hassle men more than women (and foreign men even more), though I have no proof of this at all.

Many thanks to both of you for commenting!

badmoodmike said...

I have never had a run in with the police. In fact, the officers that gave me the two speeding tickets in the last 16 years have been very nice and professional.

Other people's opinions differ. Dayton police have stepped up their patrols in the central business district downtown, and are now aggressively enforcing jaywalking and bicycling on the sidewalk. They use a stairwell in our downtown facility as a storage area for bicycles that have been confiscated from those hauled to the pokey.

While some people think they are being really aggressive, the dark part of the story is that there have been a number of people (two since I've worked downtown for 10 years) that have actually gotten run over and killed by buses. They walk out in front of them! There has been many more people hit by cars.

It also differs by jurisdiction and how active the area is. For example, you stand a tiny chance of getting a speeding ticket from the Dayton PO, but other (smaller) towns like Riverside and Oakwood get most of their police revenue from traffic tickets.

Never, never EVER speed through a school zone in Oakwood...they will execute you on the spot. I've heard a lot of horror stories from people, even only 5 mph over...

I think we in the states take our rights for granted many times. It is not all red tape and bureaucracy that keeps justice from being served quickly. The police and courts have to be very careful that people's rights are preserved at all stages. I think it is better, though, that 10,000 criminals go free rather than 1 innocent go to prison.

Chris ( said...

Looks like they are finally getting tough on cyclists:

No umbrellas, music, phone or cycling on the sidewalk....

edel claire said...

Hi Shari,

I was surprised when you mentioned that you had been stopped about your bike. (Has it been more than once?)

I've been living (and cycling) in Japan for 6 years now and I've never received anything but politeness and smiles from the Police no matter where I've cycled (usually road, because to be honest - the streets seem MORE crowded and dangerous).

I have heard stories of people being stopped though, and I always assumed that I might be getting a lighter time of it due to being female and small, and therefore perhaps less "threatening".

Perhaps it's been a help that I *always* smile and incline my head when I see a policeman (it's just become habit), or perhaps it's just the whims of the universe!

Thank you for your interesting post!

Shari said...

Mike: I think we really do take our rights for granted in America. I don't have a problem with police enforcing the laws as written. I just think the Japanese way makes it hard to know exactly what the law is. The situation with bikes here would make it appear that it is illegal to ride them anywhere that a sign saying it's okay to ride them on the sidewalk isn't present...but such signs are rare and the police themselves ride on the sidewalks all the time! I'm actually close to the main ward (like a county back home) police station so I see a lot of police on their bikes.

I've heard that speeding enforcement in the U.S. is highly variable (and places like Florida are the worst).

Chris: I'm very glad they're cracking down on cell phones and umbrellas (as well as double-adult riders). People are so reckless even without those things. Personally, I think a lot of cyclists are too fast and aggressive and I always try to deal with pedestrian traffic very respectfully (though I didn't always, I'll admit). I also avoid the bell and don't ring it aggressively when I have no choice but to use it.

Unfortunately, pedestrians don't always treat me with the same regard. They act as though they can walk into me or walk in front of me and don't even accord me the same respect as other pedestrians in this regard.

edel claire: Hi there. This is your first comment, isn't it? Yes, I was stopped. In fact, both my husband and I were stopped as we rode to the local library and we were told (when I asked) that only foreigners were being stopped and checked.

I think men are more likely to be bothered than women and non-Japanese-looking people even more so, though I am told that Japanese people are stopped on occasion as well if it looks like something on the bike is amiss (registration numbers rubbed off or removed).

I was only stopped once and it wasn't in my neighborhood. I think the police in my area know my husband and I pretty well since we've been in the same spot for so long. They bother you less if they know your face (hence the reason I recommend a smile and a greeting when you pass them).

Many thanks to all for the interesting comments!

edel claire said...

Hi Shari,

Yes it's my first comment - I should have mentioned rather than just greedily diving in :">

I was directed to you blog about a week ago by a friend of mine, and have been delightedly playing catch up ever since.

It is so interesting to me how the lives of various foreigners (who can even be quite similar in outlook) can be both similar in many senses and different in others.

Thank you for all your hard work in keeping up this blog!


CMUwriter said...

Shari I dugg your post up for the "Don't tase me, bro!" reference. Who did that cop feel about you taking his picture, or did you do it on the sly?

gaijinalways said...

Wow, we were just talking about that a week or so ago, how Japan is a bad place to have a fight witha local as guess who is likely to be missing work the next day? That being said, I usually find the police ignore me as they go about their business. Most of the Japanese I have seen stopped were driving something bigger, namely a motor vehicle.

As to some people making a difference, there have been changes here and there, but yes I agree, Japan is not an easy place to change from the inside, and certainly less so if you're a foreigner. That's why it seems very easy to some foreigners to adopt the 'things are okay' in regards to life here, with them 'conveniently' forgetting that a lot is not the same here (as compared to their home country) and your rights are a lot fewer than a local in many cases.

Shari said...

CMUwriter: Hi there, long time no hear! ;-) The picture is a bit misleading. It was actually a much wider shot and cropped to mainly focus on the police car so there's no way the cop felt the picture was being taken of "him", but rather of an entire intersection.

I'm not sure how the police would react to having their picture taken if it was obvious they were the main object of the shot. It's an interesting thought, but I think it'd depend on the fellow and what he thought the intent was of the picture.

gaijinalways: The police don't tend to bother me either, though I seriously try to be careful about anything that will get their attention and I always carry my gaijin card.

That being said, other folks have been hassled, but I think all of them have been male. I think that certain things are more likely to get you bothered - being out after midnight, being reckless on your bicycle, being loud, carrying objects which cannot be clearly seen in the dark or being obviously drunk. It's not that hard to steer clear of the police, but sometimes you can get stopped and questioned for reasons you couldn't have predicted.

I never think "everything is OK" in Japan because I constantly keep in mind that this is not my home country and they have different rules. I've learned a lot about the criminal justice system here because of a student who is studying that subject at college (and I learn about it to help her and from her). Frankly, it's a very scary system compared to the U.S. and I'd do anything it took to keep my husband and I out of tangling with it.

CMUwriter said...

Shari: The reason I ask is because due to my job I am often taking photos of police and other things, where people may not want me to. I have had to get used to it over the years. Some people get irate, but others don't notice.

Anonymous said...

I'm not quite sure, but I have traveled a bit and found that police around the world although authorized with a somewhat more omnipotent and ambiguous power are actually much easier to deal with and less willing than the average North American cop. I found even in Japan, although fines are strict and the law tough that they are less inclined to go as far imprisonment or brutality. I remember one evening in dreaded roppongi where I was with some young British engineers, we had had a few to many drinks and had stolen some very flash red jumpsuit sported by the local karaoke bar, where after about 1hr, some back ground checks and a few laughs latter, we where on our way, (we were a mixed cast of locals, travelers and work visas). But it was all rather civil and far, as we had technically robbed the karaoke place. Where as at home I remember more than one instance where I or friends have been brutally beaten, pepper-sprayed, or tasered for far more legal incidences, from picking up friends at after the pub, to going for a late night stroll along the river. I am Canadian, but our legal systems aren’t vastly different and in fact my city and the American police are closely related.

But other than that I have just found and enjoy your blog, I by no means live in japan, and have probably only lived in japan for a year in totale, but I commiserate with some of you opinions in my short and generally great experiences