U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan last month triggered a barrage of security measures in Tokyo. Lockers and garbage cans at major train stations were taped shut and throngs of solemn-faced police officers appeared to be everywhere.
During this weeklong period of tightened security, the police also beefed up the use of one of their more controversial tools: “shokumu shitsumon,” or police inquiries.
Here are some questions and answers about the routine commonly referred to as “shokushitsu.”
What does the routine involve and why is it controversial?
Shokushitsu inquiries typically start off with innocuous identification checks but can evolve into intimidation tactics, humiliating strip searches and hours-long quarrels.
While defended as an important police tool for spotting and deterring potential crime suspects, those on the receiving end are often subject to brusque, if not illegal, questioning by arrogant, unprofessional officers that can be considered harassment.
The legality of the stop-question-and-frisk approach is also a hot issue in New York City, where race plays a significant factor.
How does the law define shokushitsu?
According to the Police Execution of Duties Law, police are allowed to question someone when they have “reasonable cause” to suspect the person has committed or is about to commit a crime, due to “erratic behavior” or other circumstances. They can also stop and question people suspected of having knowledge of such past or future events.
Lawyer Hiromasa Hasegawa, who works at the Tokyo Bengoshi law office in Chiyoda Ward, warns that the law stops short of explaining exactly what circumstances constitute “reasonable cause.” This lack of specifics grants each officer great autonomy in deciding what kind of behavior, appearance or circumstances makes people worthy of higher police scrutiny.
Also, the phrase “crimes that are about to be committed” allows the police to list “vigilance against possible crimes” as the main excuse for pulling people aside, effectively giving them a way to justify the routine in nearly every situation, Hasegawa said.
The police, he added, are not legally bound to explain what the “reasonable cause” for suspicion was.
What else can you expect when questioned?
Aside from the barrage of questions, you can expect the police to request permission to frisk you and search your belongings. You can refuse requests for invasive searches of your pockets, body or bags if they there is no search warrant, but doing so will likely elicit more pressure.
So the pat-downs and property checks can only be performed on a voluntary basis?
Yes. But the police explain it differently.
“The basic understanding is that we’re asking citizens to kindly cooperate with our effort to prevent crime. So we’d like to assure you that these are being done completely on a voluntary basis,” said a National Police Agency spokesman, who declined to give his name, citing policy reasons.
But, he said, the reality of the situation is not as straightforward.
If there is anything about one’s behavior that has aroused the suspicions of a police officer, “We won’t let you go easily. We’ll do everything we can to keep you,” the spokesman said.
A 1978 Supreme Court ruling defended pat-downs as a part of police duties needed to “prevent and quell the outbreak of crimes,” concluding that “it is unreasonable to understand the pat-downs are absolutely forbidden without consent.” The same ruling said the police should be allowed to frisk citizens, even without consent, but only if performing the pat-down is deemed helpful to “serve a greater good for society.”
Could the police ever resort to the use of force during shokushitsu?
The law states the police can question citizens while “stopping” them. So they may literally try to stop you, mainly verbally but sometimes physically, if you ignore them or run away.
Past court rulings show the police, in an attempt to stop citizens who were about to walk or drive away, were found not guilty after performing the following acts during shokushitsu: grabbing the person’s shoulder from behind; switching off a vehicle’s engine by turning the ignition key; standing in their way and grabbing their wrists; directing people toward the side of a road if they are riding a bike.
Are there any cases where the police have been faulted over excessive questioning?
In 2011, a 42-year-old Tokyo man was taken to Shinjuku Police Station. There, officers removed his shoes and clothes — without his consent or a court warrant — so they could carry out a urine test.
He tested positive for drugs, but the Tokyo District Court, citing the “illegal” nature of the inspection, not only declared the results null but acquitted the man the following year.
Do the police treat foreigners any differently than Japanese when frisking?
The NPA spokesman seemed to pick his words carefully when he emphasized that the answer is an absolute “No.”
“Under no circumstances do we target and question passers-by solely based on the fact they’re foreigners,” he said, adding that he’s keenly conscious doing so would amount to racial discrimination.
“The exception may be made, for example, when there is a witness account that says a robber on the run looked foreign. In such a case, we would target our search for foreigners whose appearance matches the witness’ description.”
What would happen if you refuse to be frisked?
The questioning could drag on for as many as “two to three hours” if you refuse to be frisked or let the police check the contents of your baggage, said a spokeswoman for Kyuen Renraku Center, a Tokyo-based human rights organization that provides lawyers for political prisoners.
The spokeswoman, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said the group has traditionally received phone calls from citizens seeking help while being “harassed” by tenacious police officers during shokushitsu.
When such stalemates drag on, police sometimes go to courts for warrants so they can, for example, forcibly search the body of the person being questioned, to, for example, extract urine for testing, to determine if the person is under the influence of drugs. Japanese courts are notorious for rubber-stamping such requests. According to 2011 statistics released by the Supreme Court, a staggering 99 percent of police requests for such “body search” warrants were approved.
Why are the police so obsessed with questioning me?
The spokeswoman from Kyuen Renraku Center pointed out that police officers are under heavy pressure to meet their arrest quotas.
In testament to this allegation, a 44-year-old police officer stationed in Tokyo’s Ota ward shot himself to death in February after being branded “incompetent” by his boss because his questioning of people had produced few arrests.
What’s the best way to respond to shokushitsu?
Lawyer Hasegawa acknowledges that some police officers can be plain rude and disinclined to show any appreciation to those who cooperate with their requests.
“If they just learned to say they’re truly sorry (for taking your time), bow deeply and pat you down with genuine care for their human rights, then surely nobody would disobey unless they’re in an extreme hurry,” he said.
“If you say no, they will stop you for at least 20 to 30 minutes. Unless you’re game to play along with such a disadvantage, my advice is this: Embrace their request in a businesslike manner, even though you might not agree with it.”
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