Following are a selection of readers’ responses to the July 28 Hotline to Nagatacho column headlined “Pocket knife lands tourist, 74, in lockup.”
Truly a horror story
Brian Hedge’s account of the arrest and nine-day detention of a 74-year-old American tourist for carrying a pocket knife that exceeded the permitted length by 1 cm is truly a horror story. It kept me awake, and I feel compelled to offer my comments.
First of all, if the incident occurred as described, it is not only a flagrant abuse of power by the police, but potentially a case of a police officer on duty having broken the law rather than the hapless tourist, as the incident took place on July 2, three days before the applicable law went into effect.
But apart from that technicality, Mr. Hedge makes a reasonable point: How are tourists supposed to know that carrying a small pocket knife of more than permissible length is a punishable offense in Japan? I have lived in Japan for the last seven years, but I am unaware of this regulation, as I suspect many Japanese are. Everybody is therefore vulnerable to similar treatment.
Are we to expect a response from the relevant authorities to this outrageous treatment of an “old and frail . . . nice, harmless person”? Is that why the column is called the Hotline to Nagatacho? The case certainly seems serious enough for a legal challenge. An apology from the police would be the very least one should expect.
Mr. Hedge’s account does raise some questions. What was the basis for the detention of the 74-year-old gentleman for as long as nine days? Did he ask a lawyer or the U.S. Embassy for help? How did the police respond to the argument that the law on the permissible length of pocket knives was not even in effect?
On one point I disagree with the writer. I understand his shock at what happened, but the behavior of the police officers at the Shinjuku police box must surely be considered an exception. After all, there hardly is a country where one feels more safe on the streets than Japan. Mr. Hedge goes too far by calling Japan a dangerous place for tourists.
Having said that, the incident as described is a serious one. An investigative reporter could have a field day digging up all the facts and confronting the police or “Nagatacho” with their findings.
The law is the law
I feel compelled to write regarding comments made by Mr. Brian Hedge complaining about the police’s decision to lock up an American tourist for nine days for carrying a knife that was longer than the legal limit.
To start with, it is worth noting that the airline he flew with proved very lax in terms of security, having not detected the knife in the first place. However, Mr. Hedge should not forget that everyone, including Japanese, should obey Japanese law when they are in Japan.
It is not Mr. Hedge’s decision to determine if this American visitor should have been punished or not. We should not apply a double standard depending on the nationality of an individual who has broken the law.
I worked in the U.K. for 23 years, and my British wife has been in Japan for 15 years, but I obeyed U.K. law, and my wife obeys Japanese law.
Even if this visitor did not know Japanese law, it does not alter the fact that he was carrying a knife.
I also made a small mistake in the USA because I did not know a local rule, in this case related to car parking. I was not aware of a rather unique law in San Francisco that requires all drivers who park on steep hills to make sure their cars’ front wheels are left at an angle so the car would roll toward the pavement in the event that, for example, the brakes failed.
Such a rule has never existed in Japan, so I parked my hired car illegally on a hill in San Francisco. Personally, I was not happy to pay the fine, but I paid it because I respected the law.
By the same reasoning, this gentleman from America should obey Japanese law even if he was carrying an illegal size knife in public unknowingly, and this should be understood by Mr. Hedge.
I thought Mr. Hedge was rather insensitive in putting his case, particularly considering that people in the USA are even allowed to carry guns, which would be completely illegal in my country.
My wife, a gaijin herself, believes that any gaijin who does not like Japanese law should not be in this country, and that this country should not be ruled by foreign people. It is also worth remembering that an American solder killed a taxi driver in Yokosuka last year with a knife.
I respect any country’s laws, even it they are completely different to those in Japan, and this American visitor, as well as Mr. Hedge, should respect Japanese law.
For the above reasons, I completely agree with what the Shinjuku koban officers did.
Shocked by readers’ views
I read about the American tourist who was arrested for carrying a pocket knife and was shocked. I was more shocked by the insensitive letters (to Readers in Council) defending the police action.
Discrimination should be exercised in all areas of life, even by those who want to throw their oar in about who can be regarded as a likely criminal, or what makes a country pleasant to be in.
It was obvious by Brian Hedge’s very carefully written letter that the old, frail American, visiting his son in Japan for the first time, was perfectly innocent. He comes from a generation that are used to having such objects on their persons, and who probably think half the rest of the world does too. It wouldn’t have occurred to him that it could be regarded as a weapon.
Would anyone seriously wander into a koban (police box) to ask the way if he had dangerous intentions? Hardly likely. The policeman was disrespectful and took advantage of the tourist.
The other day I was in a cafe, wanting to eat a cake. It was heavily packaged in plastic I couldn’t open. When I went to the counter to ask for help, the girl thought I’d just picked it up and rang up the price again on the till.
I wish I’d had a pocket knife on me (for the cake!).
Where was the embassy?
My first reaction to this story is: Why didn’t the officer just explain the rule and confiscate the knife?
My second question is: Why didn’t a senior officer overrule the arresting officer once they got to the station?
And my third question is: Where is the U.S. Embassy when stupid s–t like this happens? I understand that they choose to not get involved when a serious crime is committed, but in this case the man hadn’t even broken the law.
Does the Ministry of Foreign Affairs not realize what this kind of thing does to tourism? If they allow the police to continue doing this sort of thing, in no time at all you’ll find fewer and fewer people wishing to visit Japan.
Risks will factor in next visit
It was with more than just slight interest that I read Brian Hedge’s submission to the Hotline to Nagatacho column in the online version of The Japan Times today. I have a similar story, although with a thankfully different ending. I too am an American, and was at the time of this story visiting my daughter who was living in Niigata Prefecture, and I had taken a day to go to Tokyo.
In 2007, while shopping in Akihabara I was stopped on the street by a plainclothes Tokyo Metro Police Department officer who was accompanied by a uniformed officer, and asked if I was carrying a knife. My initial and immediate response after the shock of being stopped had passed was to say “no,” because at that moment I didn’t believe I was carrying a knife.
I am pretty certain that this was the first time in my 50-plus years on the planet that I had ever been stopped on the street by law enforcement, not counting traffic violations of course. Shortly after my initial response, I did remember that I was carrying one of those small utility tools, the kind that fold out into a small pair of pliers, a nail file, screwdriver, and of course a knife blade!
Upon realizing this, I indicated to the officers that I actually did have a knife, and displayed the tool to them. I was courteously informed that carrying a knife of any type or size anywhere in Japan was not permitted. I had no idea.
I offered the officers the small tool, explaining that I had no real attachment to the thing, nor any significant investment in it, as it was purchased for about $4.99 at Wal Mart. Again, in a very courteous manner, the officer simply reiterated the violation, refused to take the tool, and told me to put it in my pocket until I was back in Niigata, put it my suitcase once I was there, and not remove it until I had cleared Japanese airspace.
A couple of bows later and I was on my way, breathing great sighs of relief as I contemplated the what-ifs of having to call my daughter and explain that I had been arrested in Tokyo.
Of course, this seemed preposterous at the time, but reading Mr. Hedge’s story now makes me realize how precarious my situation may have been. Thank goodness I was not subjected to the same ordeal as the gentleman in Mr. Hedge’s column.
To this day I cannot fathom why I was stopped. This occurred on the main street running through Akihabara, moments after I walked out of one of the shops. The officer said that someone in one of the shops I had visited had notified the police that I was carrying this tool, and all I can think is that it was just significant enough to have set off one of the anti-shoplifting devices in the store.
I certainly agree with the sentiments expressed in Mr. Hedge’s submission, and while I have never had any reason to be fearful while visiting Japan, this gentleman’s experience will certainly give me pause to contemplate the potential risks in my next visit to this wonderful country.
Thank you for a very informative article.
Still waiting for the full story
I’ve lived in Japan for about 13 years now. I am a foreigner, and have had probably more than 50 interactions with the police here in Japan, and I cannot even imagine that a police officer would ask someone “Do you have a pocket knife?” in response to the question “Where is Kinokuniya?”
Is this an accurate account of what happened? At any time did this elderly gentleman do something that would cause them to ask the question “Do you have a pocket knife?”
All in all this tale seems difficult to believe. As a foreigner in Japan, I am of course worried about many things (discrimination being foremost), but police asking me if I have a pocket knife is certainly not one of them.
Also, my (albeit short) research into this shows that the legal length of a knife is 15 cm. Is this correct? Was his pocket knife longer than 15 cm (almost 6 inches, which is longer than a U.S. dollar)?
In any event, as a reader I felt compelled to respond. If this is not, in fact, the complete story of what happened, I would like to see the actual story in print.
If indeed it is the complete story with no parts omitted that may change one’s perception, I truly feel sorry for the gentleman.
The old double standard
What? A harmless elderly American gentleman, who spent so much of his retirement money to visit Japan, was sent to a detention center for nine awful days? No air conditioning. Poor food. Poor conditions. Bullying cops and jailhouse inmates!
Why didn’t the officer simply confiscate the knife after telling the uninformed tourist that such knives are not allowed in Japan? Why wasn’t the knife taken at the airport when the man was boarding his airplane? The knife was OK on an airplane despite concerns about possible in-flight terrorism, but the knife was not OK in Tokyo?
I recall one night in Roppongi, after having had coffee at Starbucks at 1 a.m., I was walking back to the parking lot to drive home when suddenly an obnoxious English-speaking “Koban Krazy Kop” stopped me on the street and asked where I was going. I had not been drinking. I was walking quietly to my car, but the guy wouldn’t stop hassling me.
He walked alongside me for 10 minutes or so asking questions about where I live, what I did for a living, asking to see my gaijin card, of course. He then asked if I had a knife on me, or any drugs.
If I had had a knife, no doubt he would have arrested me on the spot.
What if I had been shopping and just bought a kitchen knife with a long blade for cutting up fish fillets? Would I be arrested?
What about a box cutter? A very lethal weapon in the wrong hands!
The Japanese police under Liberal Democratic Party rule have become far more aggressive toward all non-Japanese recently, yet it was the same Tokyo police who failed to investigate the brutal murder of Lucie Blackman. And it was the Chiba police who failed to arrest the sick pervert psycho who tortured and murdered Lindsay Ann Hawker, the Nova teacher. But a little pocket knife in the hands of a frail 74-year-old American tourist? Cuff him and send him to detention.
Meanwhile, every self-respecting yakuza member carries a knife of some sort, razor-sharp, but the police never stop them.
The old double standard.
Watch out for a followup story on this issue on the domestic news pages this week.
Send comments on this issue and story ideas to email@example.com
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.