It all started when an American tourist asked a police officer for directions to the Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.
The Californian, 74, could never have imagined the officer would reply to his question with: “Do you have a knife?”
He could never have dreamed, either, that his possession of a pocketknife, which he calls a “customary personal item,” would be illegal in Japan and lead to 10 nights in detention, the man told The Japan Times during a recent interview.
“It was unpleasant and disappointing,” he said.
The actions by police, including asking the man if he was carrying a knife, are questionable, lawyers said.
In particular, they say 10 days in detention is problematic — although unfortunately in Japan not uncommon.
“I seriously doubt the man needed to be detained at all,” said lawyer Kazuharu Suga, who has been assigned to defend the American.
“Police should have confiscated the knife and released him after getting answers for why he came to Japan, where and how long he plans to stay in Japan and how he got the knife,” Suga said.
“Unfortunately, in cases like this, 10 days of detention is not unusual,” he said, adding that a foreigner could be held longer if police have linguistic trouble communicating with the suspect.
The American, who asked not to be named, came to Japan on a pleasure trip to visit his son, a longtime Japan resident. The tourist had no criminal record whatsoever here.
When he asked a couple of police officers on patrol for directions near Shinjuku Station at around 4 p.m. on July 2, one of them asked if he had a knife.
“Yes,” he said, showing them the knife he had carried from the U.S. He was subsequently arrested for alleged violation of the Firearm and Sword Control Law, which prohibits possession of a knife with a blade 5.5 cm or longer.
One Shinjuku Police Station officer involved in turning the tourist over to prosecutors told The Japan Times the arresting officer’s official crime report noted the blade was 8.6 cm long.
But the tourist’s son, who later responded to an inquiry from The Japan Times, claimed the blade’s cutting edge was only 5 cm long, although it had an additional serrated edge that, he argued, cannot slash anything.
When the tourist was released July 12, prosecutors did not indict him and gave no reason for not doing so, the son said.
No competent interpreter was available for the initial police questioning, according to the tourist. One interpreter was later assigned by a lawyer association, he said.
Judges tend to automatically let prosecutors hold suspects because their investigative rights trump suspects’ human rights, the lawyers said.
“Without good interpreters, police tend to quickly send suspects to prosecutors, who can detain them longer for investigation,” Suga said.
Spokesmen for the Metropolitan Police Department, the Tokyo District Court and Tokyo Public Prosecutor’s Office declined comment, saying they do not normally talk about individual cases.
Fumito Morikawa, a Shinjuku-based lawyer at People’s Law Office, echoed Suga’s claim that prosecutors and judges fail to consider suspects’ rights.
Morikawa was not an attorney for the tourist.
“The problem is that prosecutors and judges do not think independently. They don’t question what police bring them,” Morikawa said. “The judicial procedure is often automatic, and of course can be unfair to suspects.”
According to the Criminal Procedure Law, police must either release suspects or turn them over to prosecutors within 48 hours of arrest. If prosecutors conclude suspects should be kept in custody, they must ask a court within 24 hours for permission to hold them.
If a court approves the detention, prosecutors must issue charges within 10 days or release their suspects. Prosecutors can also ask courts for a 10-day extension. By law, police and prosecutors must release suspects immediately if they conclude they do not need to be held.
Suga said judges rarely turn down prosecutors’ requests for detention.
Lawyers also criticized the officer for asking, “Do you have a knife?” in response to the tourist’s inquiry about directions to the store.
“Technically, it is not illegal for the officer to ask the question, but it was bizarre,” Suga said.
Being a foreigner may have led police to ask the question because Shinjuku is also home to the Kabukicho red light district, which attracts a plethora of shady characters, including foreigners, the two lawyers said.
The son also claimed the police actions after the arrest were neither quick nor respectful. Police told the son that his father was arrested on the evening of July 3, the day after the actual arrest. But prosecutors did not let his son see him until July 7, the son said.
When the son was finally allowed to see his father, officials at the prosecutor’s office asked that the son speak to his father in Japanese because there were no translators available at the time, the son said. The father doesn’t speak Japanese.
“I’m sure the police (and prosecutors) did everything according to procedure, but holding a 74-year-old in jail for 10 days for such a petty offense is beyond ridiculous,” the son said.
“I also think not contacting me until the night of the second day was very inconsiderate and unlike any treatment I’ve experienced in Japan.”
An official at the U.S. Embassy visited the tourist at the detention center and told him and his son that two other U.S. citizens were arrested the same day in Tokyo for violating the same law, his son said.
However, neither police nor the embassy would confirm this.