Wednesday, February 13, 2008
(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.