Around noon on Aug. 13, in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, a local apartment manager notified the police that a “suspicious foreigner” was hanging around the nearby JR train station.
Police officers duly descended upon someone described by the Asahi Shimbun as a “20-year-old male who came from the Philippines with a Japanese passport.”
When asked what he was doing, he said he was meeting friends. When asked his nationality, he mentioned his dual citizenship. Unfortunately, he carried no proof of that.
So far, nothing illegal here: Carrying identification at all times is not legally required for Japanese citizens.
However, it is for non-Japanese. So the cops, convinced that he was really a non-Japanese man, took him in for questioning — for five hours. Then they arrested him under the Immigration Control Act for, according to a Nikkei report, not carrying his passport, and interrogated him for another seven.
In the wee hours of Aug. 14, after ascertaining that his father is Japanese and mother foreign, he was released with verbal apologies.
That hardly suffices. If any of you have ever undergone Japan’s “voluntary questioning” and/or 23 days of interrogation after arrest, you know how harrowing it can be.
And this isn’t the first instance. On Feb. 25, 2006, a 28-year-old foreign-looking Japanese woman was arrested in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, for not carrying a foreign passport.
Grounds for suspicion? According to the Mainichi Shimbun, she was carrying an envelope with Portuguese writing on it. Unable to talk because she was reportedly “not good at speaking to strangers,” she was released when they finally contacted her family after more than a full day of interrogation.
Milder cases are more commonplace: The New York Times (July 8, 2010) featured the account of a Japanese writer-translator who had been pulled aside repeatedly by Tokyo police officers for being “too tall and dark-colored,” and had even been asked to show the contents of her purse.
I too have been stopped and asked the personal questions reserved only for criminal suspects (shokumu shitsumon) on numerous occasions, but fortunately talked my way out of getting arrested for being a Japanese without a “gaijin (alien registration) card.”
As The Japan Times has been chronicling for years, the people particularly vulnerable during Japan’s perennial mission to smoke out “illegal foreign visa overstayers” are those who “look foreign.” That leads us to the point of this piece: Japan desperately needs a new concept to account for Japanese who don’t look it. How about visible minorities?
This concept and term has gained currency in minority studies. For example, the Canadian government uses it when referring to the treatment of people who may not at first glance “look” like the majority population.
Of course, it’s tough to discuss minority issues in allegedly “homogeneous Japan.” Our government has long denied any domestic minorities exist (see www.debito.org/japanvsun.html) You still get the occasional politician doing so (such as a Sapporo city assemblyman on Aug. 11), despite Japan’s parliament formally recognizing the Ainu as one in 2008.
But that hasn’t deterred Japan scholars from studying the Ainu, as well as the Okinawans, the burakumin historical underclass, Zainichi Korean and Chinese generational foreigners, South American workers of Japanese descent, and the 2 million registered foreign residents.
Yet Japanese studies have generally overlooked how physical appearance plays a part in Japan’s racialization dynamics. Even recent work, such as Kyle Cleveland’s insightful chapter on ethnic minorities in the 2013 book “Critical Issues in Contemporary Japan,” does not mention physical appearance or skin color as an issue in discrimination. He describes minorities in Japan as “invisible.”
I disagree. And those detained for looking foreignly suspicious, singled out for bullying for being “half” or “gaijin” in schools, and denied entry to “Japanese only” establishments, might also.
Moreover, unlike other minorities, visible ones cannot “pass” as Japanese in terms of physical appearance, and thus face different forms of discrimination. Further, visible minorities also include Japanese citizens, bringing in issues of guaranteed equal protection under the law.
It also leads to the fundamental question of “What is a Japanese?” As my doctoral research demonstrated, “Japaneseness” is linked to physical appearance by Japan’s laws, law enforcement, public policy, jurisprudence and media messages. And as seen in the Ushiku, Tokyo, Sapporo and Saitama cases above, you have to “look Japanese” to be treated as such.
Overlooking the existence of Japan’s visible minorities must stop. Thousands of Japanese children have been born to international marriages. Thousands have naturalized. Nearly half of Japan’s entire registered non-Japanese population are permanent residents. Well over half of those again (the regular permanent residents, as opposed to the Zainichi) are people who came from overseas. There is enormous diversity that is being under-analyzed.
In fact, let’s go one step further: Permanent residents should claim their minority status themselves. After all, if you can stay here as a permanent part of a society, you can qualify as a minority. That includes the foreign scholars of minority issues, who despite decades living in and researching in Japan, don’t appear to consider themselves members of a minority.
That’s the big-picture stuff for this month. Now let’s turn to some concrete policy measures the government can take to reduce the chances of people getting wrongfully detained.
First, if the Japanese police must go gaijin hunting, then train them properly in immigration law.
Any Immigration Bureau official knows that: a) foreigners are not required to carry a passport at all times (that’s why gaijin cards exist) unless they are unregistered tourists; b) naturalized Japanese exist; and c) dual nationality is legally possible until the day you turn age 22 — and, in any case, it is not grounds for suspicion, detention or arrest.
The Ushiku police in particular should have known all this. Ushiku hosts one of Japan’s biggest foreigner prisons, the East Japan Immigration Control Center. Then again, conditions there are so harsh that detainees carried out hunger strikes and even committed suicide there in 2010. So maybe this is how Ushiku police are trained.
Law enforcement also needs to let go of the narrative that “foreigners are suspicious.” If some old crank busybody calls the cops on some kid waiting for his friends, officers should demand more grounds than just his or her “foreignness.”
But, above all, the authorities need to acknowledge Japan’s diversity by accepting the concept of visible minorities, and start making policies to protect the Japanese who cannot “pass.”
Once again, that means creating that Holy Grail of a racial discrimination law. However, we can start off small by officially depicting Japaneseness as a legal status, not a bloodline-determined mystical concept entwined with racial purity. Fat chance under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, I know, but it must happen someday.
Ultimately, Japan’s visible minorities are the canary in the coal mine. How they are treated is a bellwether of how Japan will handle its inevitably increasing diversity. Otherwise, if you — or your kids — happen to be too tall, dark or scary, you had better start carrying your Japanese passport around.
Debito Arudou’s “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants to Japan” is available on Amazon as an ebook. For more details, see www.debito.org/handbook.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause usually appears in print on the first Thursday of the month. Your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org