I was leaving my apartment a few days before Halloween and had made it no farther than a few steps before I was beckoned. “Sumimasen” (“Excuse me”), came the call from two on-duty cops. I was just running out for some ice cream, but now I’d have to go through an all-too-familiar song and dance of proving my identity.
The police rode over on their bikes and quickly went into their routine. They asked to see my residence card, and I immediately complied. The questions that followed were simple ones and all in Japanese: Where are you from? What are you doing in Japan? Do you live in this building? All of this information is printed clearly on my residence card, mind you, but they wanted me to explain it verbally.
When I told them I live in the building we were parked in front of, they reacted in disbelief, as if a non-Japanese, black 20-something could afford to live in a nice part of Koto Ward. However, based on my history with the cops over the past five years, I doubt it was my presence in the neighborhood that was the determining factor in their stopping me.
I let the officers know that I was just heading out to 7-Eleven, which was within view from where we were standing, to buy some ice cream, but they wanted to do a security check, a pat down just to be safe. I usually comply with the request, but this time I decided not to grant permission. To my surprise, they respected my decision but still insisted on checking my wallet for “dangerous materials.” What ensued was a 20-minute debate regarding the legality of searching my possessions.
The police then refused to return my residence card until I showed them my wallet. Standing up for myself earlier naturally worked to my disadvantage. So, I showed them every item in my wallet and explained what they were in English: cash, the card I use at the dentist, some unused stamps. They returned my wallet and residence card, and delivered a faux “arigatō gozaimashita” — which translates as “thank you very much” but could just as easily mean “until next time.”
Thirty minutes later, I’m in my apartment silently fuming. Most of my interactions with the police are frustrating to the point that I genuinely question whether it’s worth living here. If you’ve been in this situation, you’ll know what I mean. And it’s for you that I want to relay the story of another of my spot checks, one that could’ve been scripted by Hollywood considering how it turned out. It unfolded in Tokyo’s central neighborhood of Azabu Juban, and it’s the story I remind myself of nowadays when I start to get too negative about living in Japan.
An ill-timed joke
I initially moved to Japan in 2014 as a student enrolled at Temple University Japan. Prior to that, I had done a month-long homestay in my junior year of high school with a Japanese family in Yamanashi Prefecture.
There was no guidebook that could have told me what to expect as a black man living in Japan, but my homestay experience was so positive that it quashed any reservations I had harbored. Unfortunately, that feel-good vibe changed in college.
Throughout my time at Temple, I was aggressively harassed by the police — both in my own neighborhood and in the area around my school. At one point, when I lived in Arakawa Ward, I was being stopped twice a week on average on my walk home from Tabata Station. The officers would search my backpack, my wallet and even the tiny pockets inside my phone case. When I asked them why they routinely stopped me, the answer was almost always the same: “You’re a foreigner.”
They never seemed to remember the answers to the questions they asked the previous week: “Are you Nigerian?” “Are you coming from Roppongi?” It was so bad that one time the police escorted me to my apartment and entered, demanding that I show them my passport because my residence card and student ID weren’t good enough. I had never experienced this level of harassment in my life, not even back home in California.
Frustrated and out of ideas on what I should do, I turned to my school to assist me. I was living here via its sponsorship and thought that surely someone there would have an approach to dealing with this problem. Or, at the very least, they might have the contact information of people or organizations I could turn to. Unfortunately, they were unequipped to help me.
I bring this up because, if you are a person of color and you are considering attending university in Japan, I highly suggest looking into whether or not the school offers such kinds of services beforehand. Temple warns its students that it doesn’t offer direct assistance when it comes to matters of police harassment and instead points them to a police website. When I went to a school official in 2016, the person I was dealing with tried to laugh things off. A white man who likely hadn’t had to deal with police harassment back home, he told me with a chuckle, “You should be grateful police in Japan don’t have guns, you’d be shot in America.” I’m all for comedy, but not when I’m the butt of the joke. I can think of nothing else that so perfectly encapsulates the ambivalence to which non-Japanese who aren’t black view the struggles of those dealing with the legacy of racism.
In a country where contact with people of African decent is few and far between, I can’t always be sure nonblack individuals will understand what I’m going through. It can be difficult to rustle up support when you’re a minority within a minority. I learned it isn’t impossible, though. While my attempts to raise awareness of the lack of support I was receiving were initially met with racist vitriol rather than empathy on social media, eventually there emerged a group of non-Japanese students who offered their support by publicizing my case and, of course, other black students who had gone through similar experiences were quick to lend a hand.
I also received help from my Japanese friends, many of whom were appalled by what I was going through. Those same Japanese friends, cognizant of their privilege as Japanese citizens in this country, offered to go with me to the police department to file a complaint. For many of them, my being vocal about police harassment was their first instance of seeing the reality of being black in Japan at close range and they wanted to do something about it.
The surprise ending
In hindsight, there’s no way what we did should have worked, but it was a success. A Japanese friend and I went to the main Azabu police station one night and requested to speak with the chief.
He agreed to talk, and a nearly 60-minute conversation ensued with my friend and I describing the years of harassment I had received, in addition to recounting experiences that we had both had in which Japanese cops had stopped a group of us but only requested identification from the black people present. The police chief listened, apologized for those officers who had acted in an unprofessional manner and told us that he would make the force well aware of the number of students in the area and instruct them to give us the benefit of any doubts. Then, and this is the real kicker, he gave me his personal phone number to call in the event I was ever stopped in Azabu again. For the first time since coming to Japan, I felt like I had made actual progress.
I was watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” recently, and I couldn’t help but think of that Azabu experience again. In his film, Tarantino alters history to allow the “good guys” a taste of bloody revenge, a plot twist that allows his audience to achieve some measure of satisfaction that is normally impossible. I feel like my interaction with the Azabu chief of police allowed me the same sort of catharsis: An outcome in which the “good guys” won against what I thought were impossible odds.
I realize this one instance was by no means indicative of the experiences other black people face here in Japan — including myself. Still, I think it’s a good story to hold on to, that one time where progress was made. That one time that taught me my Japanese friends are there for me and that maybe even the Japanese police are able to see the problem with racially motivated stop-and-frisk policies. And, I’ve never had to use the phone number. I never got stopped again — in Azabu Juban, anyway.
I’m not in a position to make sweeping changes as to how Japanese society is run, nor how the public perceives black people. However, as someone who has become something of an old hand in dealing with the police, I can offer this advice: Keep your ID on you and stay calm during your interactions. Public sentiment may be with us someday but, for now, we’re on our own.