Racialized terms thrown about by cops and parroted by news outlets have consequences

Police, media must consider plight of those caught in linguistic dragnet


A national media exerts a powerful influence over the lives of members of its society. For example, rumors or untruths disseminated through print or broadcast can destroy livelihoods and leave reputations in ruins.

This is why judiciaries provide mechanisms to keep media accountable. In Japan, laws against libel and slander exist to punish those who put out misleading or false information about individuals.

But what about broadcasting misleading or false information about groups? That’s a different issue, because Japan has no laws against “hate speech” (ken’o hatsugen). Consequently, Japanese media get away with routine pigeonholing and stereotyping of people by nationality and social origin.

An example? The best ones can be found in Japan’s crime reportage. If there is a crime where the perpetrator might be a non-Japanese (NJ), the National Police Agency (and by extension the media, which often parrots police reports without analysis) tends to use racialized typology in its search for suspects.

The NPA’s labels include hakujin for Caucasians (often with Hispanics lumped in), kokujin for Africans or the African diaspora, burajirujin-kei for all South Americans, and ajia-kei for garden-variety “Asians” (who must somehow not look sufficiently “Japanese,” although it’s unclear clear how that limits the search: aren’t Japanese technically “Asian” too?).

Typology such as this has long been criticized by scholars of racism for lacking objectivity and scientific rigor. Social scientist Paul R. Spickard puts it succinctly: “Races are not types.”

Even hard scientists such as geneticist J.C. King agree: “Both what constitutes a race and how one recognizes a racial difference are culturally determined. Whether two individuals regard themselves as of the same or of different races depends not on the degree of similarity of their genetic material but on whether history, tradition, and personal training and experiences have brought them to regard themselves as belonging to the same groups or to different groups . . . there are no objective boundaries to set off one subspecies from another.”

The NPA has in recent years gotten more sophisticated with its descriptors. One might see tōnan ajia-jin fū for Southeast Asians, chūtō-kei for Middle Easterners, indo-kei for all peoples from the Indian subcontinent or thereabouts, or the occasional chūgokujin-kei, firipin-kei, etc., for suspects involved in organized crime or the “water trade.”

But when the suspect is of uncertain ethnic origin but somehow clearly “not Japanese,” the media’s default term is gaikokujin-fū (foreign-looking).

Lumping suspects into a “Japanese” or “not Japanese” binary is in fact extremely unhelpful during a search for a suspected criminal, because it puts any NJ, or visible minority in Japan (including many Japanese citizens), under the dragnet.

Not only does this normalize racial profiling; it also encourages the normalization and copycatting of stereotypes. I have seen cases where people assumed that “foreigners” were involved in a crime just because they saw people who “looked different” or “acted different” (which has in the past encouraged criminals to adopt accented speech, or blame fictitious foreign perps to throw cops off their trail).

There are two other bad habits reinforced by publicly racializing criminality. One is the creation of a public discourse (discussed many times on these pages) on how “foreigners” in particular are a source of crime, and thus destabilizing to Japanese society.

The other is that any careless typology winds up associating nationality/phenotype/social origin with criminal behavior, as in, “He’s a criminal because he’s Chinese.”

Both habits must be stopped because they are, statistically, damned incorrect.

How should the NPA remedy this?

Easy, really. They should amend, if not outright abandon, any race-based typology when reporting crime to the media. The police and the media should try this instead:

1) When there is a suspect on the run, and the public is being alerted to be on the lookout, then give phenotypical details (e.g., gender, height, hair color) — the same as you would for any Japanese fugitive. Do not reveal any nationality (or use the generic word “foreign”). Why? Because nationality is not a matter of phenotype.

2) When there is a suspect in custody for interrogation (as in, not yet charged for prosecution), then it is not necessary to give phenotypical or nationality details. Why? Because an accusation without charge is not yet a crime statistic, so those details are irrelevant to the case. It is also not yet a fact of the case that this particular crime has been committed by this particular person — innocent before proven guilty, remember.

3) When there is an arrest, giving out details on specific nationality is permissible, as it is now a fact of the case. Pointing out phenotypical details, however, is unnecessary, as it may draw undue attention to how criminals supposedly “look.” (Readers will have their curiosity sated by seeing the inevitable photograph, now also a fact of the case.)

4) When there is a conviction, refer to 3 above. But when there is an acquittal, the police and media should mention the nationality of the former suspect in a public statement, to counteract the social damage caused by any media coverage that may have inadvertently linked criminality to a nationality.

Remember that at any time during criminal procedure, it is never necessary to use the generic word “foreign,” what with all the potential for overgeneralization and stereotyping. In addition, the police should repeatedly caution the media against any tone associating nationality with criminality.

Now, why am I devoting a column to this? Because the media must not only watch the watchers; it must watch itself. I also know that policymakers read the Japan Times Community pages and this column, because they have changed their policies after withering criticisms here.

Remedial actions inspired by this space include the Takamadonomiya All Japan Junior High School English Speech Contests amending their rules to disqualify “native English speakers” instead of just “all foreigners” (Zeit Gist, Jan. 6, 2004), NTT DoCoMo repealing their “security deposit” for all foreigners only (ZG, Aug. 29, 2002), the Cabinet’s human rights survey rewriting questions that once made human rights “optional” for foreign humans (ZG, Oct. 23, 2007) and, most significantly, the National Research Institute of Police Science discontinuing its racist “foreigner DNA” research scheme for crime scenes (ZG, Jan. 13, 2004).

Here’s hoping that the police and media realize what careless reportage does to NJ residents, and start monitoring themselves better. It’s time to make amends for all the social damage done thus far.

After all, both are generally more careful if the suspects are Japanese. Anyone ready to say in public “He’s a criminal because he’s from Osaka”? Thought not. Consistency regardless of nationality or social origin, please.

Debito Arudou’s “Japanese Only: The Otaru Onsens Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan” is now on sale as a 10th anniversary e-book on Amazon for ¥975. See www.debito.org/japaneseonly.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community pages of the month. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Fight Back

    Well-put and well-said Debito! Someone needs to stand up and make a stand when it comes to the backward facing policies of the NPA and the media in Japan. As an NJ, I am constantly dismayed to see my fellow NJ portrayed as criminals by the Japanese, who are always ready to accept any stereotype the media feeds them. Where is the independent, critical thought? I sense people’s eyes of suspicion on me when I am just walking down the street no matter how much I try to intergrate. Debito is right, we must all be referred to as people, not races but I am dismayed that the Japanese may never ‘get’ this.

  • Ned Kelly

    Accurate reporting of names is important too. In many cases, suspects are using an assumed Japanese name but their real name is different. This is often the case with Koreans in Japan, who often use a “Tsumei” fake Japanese name instead of their real names. Media should report both the assumed name or alias and the real name, to help the public identify the suspect or perpetrator. Hiding behind aliases should not be encouraged by the press.

  • http://twitter.com/zoroist 鈴木良太

    See the problem is this, they’re not racializing criminals out of careless ignorance, they’re actively trying to get rid of foreigners because they don’t fit in with the image of Japan being a pure homogenous society. It’s their very policy in the first place; they’re trying to get rid of foreigners by negatively stereotyping them.

    The ideal situation would be the more conscientious citizens (even if it’s a small minority) would get angry about this enough to change the whole situation.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    Ironically Arudou seems to be conflating “race” with “nationality” himself, particularly in his bullet point #1 about reporting a suspect on the run. “White”, “Black”, “Asian” or “Hispanic” are not nationalities. Whilst I have seen nationality explicitly mentioned in reporting of suspects on the run, I can only ever recall seeing it in cases where the identity of the suspect was already confirmed and the suspect’s name, age, nationality and other identifying characteristics were noted. I see no problem with mentioning an unidentified suspect on the run is “Chinese” or “Filipino”, or even “asian” (when the nationality of the suspect is unknown, and yes, I have seen and read news reports where an “asian” was being looked for an upon arrest he turned out to be Japanese!), as a description of “mid-30s, male, dark brown hair and eyes, medium height, slim to medium build” has basically just described better than 50% of all male individuals of that age group and is so generic as to be completely meaningless!

    In fact, such descriptors are perfectly normal, as in this set of pointers from the Chicago Police Department’s website:

    “A variety of general description information about the suspect should be noted:
    Race or national origin
    Age (estimated)
    Height-use comparisons with your own height, a door, or some other standard measure
    Weight (estimated)
    Build-fat, husky, slim, muscular, etc.”

    Or merely read the police reports in any local newspaper wherever you are.

    I would also like to point out that despite Mr. Arudou’s attempted slur, “chuugokujin-kei” and “firipinjin-kei” mean “Chinese” and “Filipino/a” respectively, not people “involved in organized crime or the “water trade”. Similarly, “Brajirujin-kei” means “Brazilian”, not “South American”, “South American” is rendered as “Chuunanbeijin-kei”, and Japanese media does differentiate even if supposed human rights activists apparently can’t be bothered to.

    Finally, when it comes to giving the public a negative impression of, for example, Chinese as criminals, who should we properly blame for that? The Japanese media reporting the facts, or those Chinese who are committing crimes? Let’s put the blame where it lies, Mr. Arudou.

  • Masa Chekov

    This is a rather ridiculous article. Don’t give any description of nationality when reporting a suspect on the run? You mean, don’t give out what might be the most distinguishing feature about this person because someone might possibly make an association with foreigners (sorry, I am not using David’s preferred “NJ” acronym) and crime? How ridiculous.

    A (for example) Vietnamese national might speak Japanese with a non-native accent (if at all), so knowing this suspect is Vietnamese might help someone in identifying him. Saying he is 170cm with fair skin, between 30-40 years with black hair and brown eyes alone may not really do that, right?

    Unless you just want to identify the language that someone speaks or their accent while speaking Japanese without identifying their nationality, which is PC to the point of ludicrousness.

  • Ken Yasumoto-Nicolson

    Mr Arudou says: “the police should repeatedly caution the media against any tone associating nationality with criminality.”

    However, Article 21 of the Constitution says:”Freedom of […] speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed. No censorship shall be maintained […].”

    It is most certainly not the police’s role to advise newspapers on what they should or should not print, and although there are no hate speech laws, this newspaper has reported on both French people and women who have sued Shintaro Ishihara for offensive comments he made against them as groups, not individuals.

  • Fight Back

    What Debito wrote about the power of this column and others to effect social is inspiring. Mr Arudou himself is probably the leading figure in Japan at applying ‘outside pressure’ or ‘gaitsu’ to policy makers in the government, but of course he is not alone. And it would be even more inspiring if many posters here stopped trying to portray Debito negatively and instead focused on effecting positive change themselves.

    Apologists do nothing but deny, deny, deny and it’s only a reflection on themselves. It’s known as Stockholm Syndrome, please look it up. Siding with your oppressors just makes it worse when we could move forward as NJ together, with Debito as our guiding light.

  • jim

    Debito really hit the hammer on the head with this article and its really unbelievable that in 2013 we still have to talk about these things because the GOJ/Spineless ABE should of already done like for example making a law against any hate speech and another law against discrimination. If japan want to be seen as a first world nation then they need to stop acting like a third world nation in regards to human rights and until that time frankly speaking they can kiss the TOKYO OLYMPICS goodbye!

  • Sam Gilman

    This is just some old news mixed in with the author’s own subconscious problems with race.

    The initial proposition is correct. Police reports that systematically neglect to mention the ethnicity of a suspect if they’re a member of the majority group lead to a highly exaggerated public impression of minority ethnicity involvement in crime. Of course, this is not a newly discovered problem, and it’s certainly not limited to Japan.

    What is “new” is Debito’s suggestion that the police should never refer directly to a suspect’s ethnicity, but instead be encouraged to use insinuating phrases about distinguishing racial features – what he refers to as their “phenotype”. So, we’d have a whole host of racialised codewords in police and media reports! I’m not sure he has thought this through. In many other countries that have addressed this issue, the solution has been to make sure ethnicity is always mentioned, even if the person is a member of the majority group, to avoid systematic bias or stereotyping.

    It’s correct to say that race is not a genetic category, but again, this should not be a revelation. Race is a social category, as has been stated by geneticists for decades. Ironically, Debito doesn’t quite seem to grasp the whole of this. He scoffs that Hispanics are “lumped in” with “hakujin” in Japan. Of course, in the US the white/Hispanic distinction is currently considered important, just as white/Irish/Polish distinctions used to be, but these are not universal or objective categorizations. Barack Obama is considered “black” even though half his genetic origins are “white”. That’s an illustration of what it means for race not to be genetic, or a biologically distinct “type”, but a social category. Debito’s persistent use of the word “phenotype” (meaning your physical form, including your internal organs, limb count, and nervous system as determined by your genes and how they interact with the environment) where one would normally say “appearance” suggests he hasn’t fully understood this. And in general, he really needs to stop viewing America as the default universal “correct” condition for racial politics. It has its own particular history and warehouse of problems that don’t always suit export elsewhere.

    For this is one of the main problems with Debito Arudou’s columns on racial issues. The targets are often good ones, but he ruins his attacks by assuming that he, by virtue of his self-declared image as a crusading liberal outsider, is immune from prejudice. Alas, it seeps out of the corners of everything he writes. What does “garden-variety Asian” mean? Tame, ordinary, controllable? (unlike some ideal-type assertive westerner?) Why talk about them like a species of plant or animal? Why, in a list of ethnicities indicating greater recent sensitivity on the part of reporters and police to differences between people, does he apropos of nothing highlight Filipinos and Chinese as being suspects in organized crime and the sex trade? Isn’t this exactly the problem with what he says the police do? If reference to racial appearance and stereotype is so bad, why, in a previous column did Debito call his foreign critics “white-faced hornets”? Why did he feel confident enough as a wealthy-US-born majority ethnic individual to “satirically” label nikkei south American immigrants as “cockroaches” and Chinese as “wasps” with (get this) “yellow jackets”, and in general compare East Asians to hive insects? The “satire” wasn’t welcomed by those it was supposed to defend.

    A second major intellectual problem is that Debito never distinguishes between systemic and individual problems of racism. I’m sorry, but police naming a suspect’s ethnicity or nationality is not hate speech. It’s something the police may need to do if they want a suspect identified. The systemic, or institutional, racism comes in when police or media, neglect to mention a suspect’s ethnicity if they’re from the dominant group. Thus, no one individual need be assertively racist for a racially problematic situation to occur. The problem is at least in part systemic. Greater awareness and sensitivity – something the columnist himself could do with – is a large part of the answer. A failure to understand systemic issues of racism tends to result in the irony-failure of accusing an entire ethnic group of being racist, as some of Debito’s devotees have already managed to do in other replies to this column.

    At the end of the day, I want to know if this particular problem of racial stereotyping in crime reports by police and media (one that is found all over the world) is currently getting better or worse in Japan. What are the data like? Curiously, despite his writing at length, that’s something that Debito failed to look at. Isn’t that rather a curious oversight, particularly in a newspaper?

  • Jameika

    I find the comments here quite an overreaction. The take-home from this for me is that in reporting a crime suspect, the police (and by extension the media) should be using descriptive terms, rather than group identities. Group identities are different for different people. If the goal is to make public what a possible criminal might look like, then height, hair color, and other actual descriptive language is helpful. Broader categories that have definitions which vary from person to person are distinctly not helpful since they distract people from looking for what the person actually looks like. This is why racial profiling has such a terrible success record.
    I think the article lays these things out pretty well, but the comments seem bent on attacking the author based on other things he does for whatever reason. I don’t quite get it.

  • Franz Pichler

    masa chekov is spot on! The usual Arudo Debito banging about… a lot of fuss about nothing… last time I heard his wife divorced from him and he left the country… not being here doesn’t however stop him banging about…. May I suggest he visits multicultural Europe, Sweden is right now a good point to start …. I strongly recommend Husby …

  • PRosdiufos

    Yes I completely agree with this article. Japan should have laws against hate speech, otherwise what will self important useless “professionals” such as journalists have to do with themselves. As a NJ, non Japanese, I have an expectation that when I commit my crimes I should enjoy privacy by not having my race/nationality revealed. Of course Japan should change this terrible practice of correctly using the short cut of race labels to help catch criminals. Language, which doesn’t really exist in the physical world, is much more important than crime. Oh and definitely Japanese culture should change in spite of the fact that it produces excellent outcomes in terms of education, social relations, fair and equitable distribution of wealth across society. How dare these people labels us trouble making and ignorant outsiders as NJs and continue to enjoy a constructive Übermensch culture. Let’s break their goddam superior culture apart through forcing them to change their language, on top of what we do with Hollywood. Inferior western trash unite!