Visible minorities in Japan are in a tough spot in a country where the police have a lot of arbitrary power and few enforceable checks (as we’ve been witnessing recently with the Carlos Ghosn case). As a result, we are facing two decades of police-promoted narratives of “the foreigner” as a visa overstayer and criminal.
What follows is my advice on what to do if you face a sudden ID check on the street — that is, assuming you don’t want to simply surrender your zairyū kādo (residence card) and eventually get on with your day. This is just a brief outline, you can find more details online at debito.org/whattodoif.html.
Ask why you are being stopped: Ask if this is a “shokumu shitsumon” (police questioning of personal details). If yes, the law requires probable cause that a crime has been or is about to be committed, and the display of POLICE ID upon your request. If it is not, ask if you may leave.
Ask to see their ID: “Sumimasen. Keisatsu techō o misete kudasai” will do. Write it down and/or take a picture of it. This will no doubt agitate, but without this record there is no personal accountability.
Use your phone (or ask a friend) to start recording: You do not need consent and, even if done surreptitiously, a recording is admissible in court. They will tell you to put the phone away, but at least leave the audio on. No recording may result in a “he-said, she-said” outcome and nobody is likely to believe your side. It may also preemptively temper the cops’ behavior somewhat, but there’s no guarantee it won’t go the other way.
Ask if compliance is optional (nin’i desu ka): If they ask to go through your backpack, pockets and wallet, you have the option to refuse the search without a warrant (reijō). Try: “Reijō ga nakereba, kekkō desu.” (“Without a warrant, no thank you.”)
Above all, remain calm and polite, and never raise your voice: That can be difficult when surrounded by a phalanx of suspicious cops. But, as in other societies, the threshold of “resisting arrest” in Japan is arbitrary, and a judge will take the police officer’s word over yours in custody.
Arm yourself with the requisite vocabulary. Demonstrating some fluency with your statutory rights will also act as a natural check on abuses. Cops around the world take advantage of the ignorance of their targets, so if you come off as informed and confident, things might go smoother.
There’s no surefire means of getting out of an ID check (except perhaps getting your own personal chief of police to vouch for you), but doing a few of these things might help you feel less powerless afterward. Good luck.