“Am I the only one who gets frisked five times a year?” was a question posed on Facebook by a black man living in Tokyo late last year, as he related the systematic and apparently racially motivated harassment he’s received at the hands of Tokyo’s finest over the course of his 10 years here.
The post distressed me. Though I haven’t found myself on the business end of undue police attention anywhere near the frequency he has, I felt his humiliation vicariously. I also happen to know the gentleman personally, and if his isn’t the name on top of the Metropolitan Police Department’s list of Foreign Citizens Beyond Reproach, it ought to be.
By any profile aside from a racialized one, it would be unlikely that Jesse Freeman would ever find himself in the cross-hairs of law enforcement. He’s a 32-year-old native of Baltimore who has spent his time here tirelessly putting his mind and talents to creative use. In addition to being a filmmaker who has held numerous standing-room-only screenings of short films he’s directed and produced, he’s an extortionate fee away from becoming an ikebana shihan (Japanese artistic flower-arranging instructor). He has even fashioned his own style of minimalistic ikebana, which he has displayed in exhibits in Tokyo.
Freeman’s an upstanding citizen: smart, funny, easygoing, more apt to comply than complain — basically a role model for foreigners of any color living here is what I’m saying. So when he shared his account of what took place that day, and takes place regularly, it was difficult to retain impartiality.
“My first incident with the police here was back in 2008,” he recalled. “Back in my eikaiwa (English conversation school) days. I was working in Kameari, which is ironically home of that famous manga, ‘Kochira Katsushika-ku Kamearikoen-mae Hashutsujo’ (‘This is the Police Box in Front of Kameari Park, Katsushika Ward’), about a police officer. There’s even a statue of the character in the town.
“That day, I was coming out of Matsuya when two cops rolled up on me,” he continued, referring to a popular Japanese fast-food chain. “They asked could I speak Japanese. At the time my Japanese was piss poor, so I said no. Then they said they wanted to see my ID, and I asked why. They said they’d been having a problem with Africans and I said, ‘Well, I’m African-American.’ I gave them the ID and they asked could they search my briefcase for dangerous items. I told them I don’t get why. I let them do it so I could get on my way, cause I was in a hurry. Then when I tried to leave they started being all apologetic, saying stuff like they like the Yankees and whatnot. I told them that this is very embarrassing and I have to get to work!
“This first time wasn’t so bad,” Freeman said. “But it got to be annoying cause this wasn’t a onetime thing. They were doing some kind of crackdown at the time. They kept saying they were looking for Africans and for dangerous items, but they wouldn’t specify. It happened three or four times … and each time I was wearing a suit.”
I was curious why he thought his attire would be pertinent here.
“It’s a huge part of it back in the States,” Freeman explained. “So I tried not to wear hoodies or even wear black, cause I’m black and they might get scared. I tried to look less aggressive, you know? So coming here, and wearing suits every day, I wasn’t expecting to have this happen. But I don’t wear suits anymore ’cause I’m more of an artist these days. My fashion is more self-expressive.”
All told, since 2008, Freeman says he’s been stopped over 30 times by police in Tokyo.
The incident I read about on Facebook occurred on a Friday night, Sept. 27, 2016, in Shinsen, Tokyo. Freeman was walking home from work and stopped along the way to text a friend when he noticed a patrol car drive by, occupied by four police officers.
“They were eyeing me and I just knew they were gonna stop. And sure enough, they did.”
The four officers approached him politely with greetings and such, but their intent was clear, Freeman says, from the way they fanned out to encircle him: They weren’t going to allow him to go about his business.
“Right off the bat, they hit me with, ‘We wanna check your bag because we believe you might have something dangerous in it.’ I asked why. I was trying not to speak Japanese but I couldn’t hold back and wound up speaking it. ‘I’m just standing here. I don’t get it. There are a lot of people standing around here. Why me?’ I looked around and I was the only black person in the vicinity.”
Many Japanese-speaking foreigners I’ve spoken to over the years have told me they’d sooner not speak Japanese, or speak it poorly on purpose, than divulge their capacity in such situations, usually as a ploy to get out of the predicament. Freeman’s reasoning was a little different, though.
“Because I’m not confident in my ability,” he said. “I can catch some of the things they say, but if at a certain point I don’t understand, and I’m like ‘Hai, hai, wakannai, hai,’ it seems they just run with it like they know I understand. It’s easier to just speak English, smile and nonaggressively inch away.”
Having repeatedly found himself the target of police harassment, I figured Freeman must have done a little research into his rights in these circumstances, what police can and cannot do and so forth. And following a particularly upsetting incident in Takao, Tokyo, when the police were rude and aggressive, he had indeed done a little investigating of his own.
“The police can’t detain you without evidence of a crime, and certainly can’t search you,” he said. “So, I was really staunch about not being searched during the incident in September. I told them, ‘Nah, I’m not gonna consent to that because this is really embarrassing. Enough is enough!’ ”
For the sake of expedience though, Freeman relented and handed them his residence card, but when he requested it back they tightened the circle around him and refused to return it. Two of the officers were very shaky and jittery and the other was condescending, he recalled.
“So then I reached out to retrieve my card.”
When he said this, I cringed. A residual survival instinct embedded in me from growing up in a community where any movement that even approached anything resembling an aggressive action might have you slurping your meals through a straw till your dentures were ready, your last meal with your natural teeth being a cop’s blackjack. Or worse, leave you pushing up daisies.
“Damn,” I said, knowing personally the kind of righteous frustration that could lead an upstanding law-abiding citizen to fall into a culpability trap in a deliberately escalated situation.
“Immediately, one of the cops started frisking me roughly and another grabbed my bag and started searching it. They claimed to be looking for something dangerous but they were obviously not looking for weapons or bombs or anything. The way they looked in every nook and cranny of the bag it was clear they were looking for drugs. Naturally, they didn’t find what they were looking for.
“Anyway, it turns out that I hadn’t registered my new apartment’s address, even though I had a month to comply and it had only been three weeks. And I’d told them I’d just moved. They gave me my stuff and let me go finally but threatened me as I was walking away, telling me that I need to register it or else, ’cause these are the rules here and I better be careful or else — stuff like that. In a Japanese way, though, not with malice like in America, but authoritative, you know?
“I was humiliated. There were lots of Japanese people around, club kids and couples walking by. Why me out of all these people? With the frequency of these incidents, it was pretty obvious to me that it was racial profiling. That was the last straw for me.”
I was surprised to learn that being targeted so often hadn’t had a detrimental effect on his perception of Japan as a whole, being that law enforcement is a community-oriented service and often a reflection of that community’s values and ideals to an extent. But Freeman hasn’t let these incidents sour him on Japan. He doesn’t hold Japanese people responsible. Only the police.
“I’ve gone back to that American mentality where I feel guilty, or rather I feel more aware that they may be perceiving me as guilty, and I have to take extra precautions,” Freeman said. “Like if a cop car goes by, I take off my hood, even if it’s cold. And I won’t engage with them at all! Before I used to speak Japanese to them. Now I won’t.
“And certain areas I just won’t go to now. And if I have a beer, I won’t drink it in public. Anything that would make me look sketchy or stand out any more than I already do, I won’t do. I feel like really little stuff like that can make a big difference. I never thought I’d have to do that kinda stuff here, though.”
“Why did you think that?” I asked.
“Just because, you know, I don’t know … I really don’t,” he said, and laughed.
“Seriously, though …”
“I mean, here it’s like, you’re Japanese or you’re not,” he said. “And that’s kind of the end of it. But, after I gave them my ID card, which says that I’m not a dangerous person, that I’m legit, I’m employed, I’m a taxpayer, and they saw everything was in order, I thought that would be enough. But it wasn’t.
“The worst thing for me, though, is the humiliation,” Freeman adds. “I’m here trying to break whatever preconception America has given them of us, trying hard to do some good here, and these random stupid little incidents undermine that. They always seem to happen close to my job, or close to my home, where people know my face. And when Japanese people see a black person with a cop, I know they’re thinking ‘Yappari!’ (‘Just as I thought!’), because a stereotype is being reinforced.
“Then when they see me with my ikebana, I get asked am I lost or something. And I have to explain that this is my art. And you can see their eyes opening. But every time they see me get stopped by a cop, their eyes close.”