When foreign children run afoul of the law


My kids generally don’t mind it when I write about them in this column, although on occasion my older son has accused me of exploiting him for professional gain. It happened again when he heard the topic for today’s column. “You’re writing about foreign kids who get in trouble with the police?” He rolled his eyes. “And I suppose you want me to get myself arrested so you can write all about it!”

Actually, that’s one experience I could live without. I hope neither of my kids ever get arrested, particularly in a foreign country. But such things happen. Last year, more than 1,000 foreign juveniles were arrested in Japan. More than half were either Brazilian or Chinese, but kids of many different nationalities were detained. Some get convicted.

Of the 5,809 minors admitted to the Japanese juvenile correction system in 2002, 153 were foreigners. There are currently three U.S. citizens under the age of 20 in Japanese reformatories.

Try to imagine your child has been arrested. In a foreign country. You don’t know the language. You don’t know the system. How are you going to help? With my older son about to enter those high-risk teenage years, I decided I’d better forearm myself with a little knowledge. I figure a kid getting arrested is sort of like a major earthquake: Be prepared but hope it never happens.

Foreigners in Japan are subject to the same laws as Japanese citizens. Your embassy can’t get you out of trouble, and you shouldn’t expect special treatment because you’re foreign. From what I’ve heard from consular officials, the police will treat you pretty much the same as Japanese nationals. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be treated well.

Suspects can be held for up to 23 days without being charged. Interviews with the police are not taped, and often take place without a lawyer present. Suspects may not make or receive phone calls. Visits are restricted and conversations are monitored. If a suspect needs to converse with a visitor in a language other than Japanese, permission for the visit will depend on whether an officer who understands that language is available to listen in. Bail is the exception rather than the rule and is almost never granted to foreigners. If convicted, foreigners generally serve their sentence in Japan.

The tough news for parents is that all this applies to juveniles, too. Police will inform parents when a minor is arrested, and are more liberal about parents visiting. But even if no charges are filed, your child is likely to remain in jail at least a few nights.

Under Japanese law, children under 14 can’t be held responsible for a crime. It used to be 16, but the law was revised in response to a shocking double murder committed in 1997 by a 14-year-old boy in Kobe. He was recently released after six years of rehabilitation in a medical reformatory.

The good news is that it takes a pretty serious crime to land a child in jail. Japanese police try to prevent juvenile delinquency through early intervention and education. Thus, for minor offenses, the police are more likely to issue hodo (guidance).

Sometimes this involves nothing more than a stern verbal warning. More often, the police will take the child to a police box, ask a lot of questions, deliver a lecture and call the parents to come get their kid. Last year, in karaoke parlors alone, Japanese police picked up more than 18,000 minors and brought them in for guidance against smoking and staying out too late.

There are youth curfews in Japan, which are set by local jurisdictions. (It’s 11 p.m. in Tokyo). They aren’t strictly enforced, particularly in big cities where kids attend evening cram schools and many businesses are open around the clock. But police can, at their discretion, issue guidance against shinya haikai (late-night loitering). And while it’s illegal for adults to sell tobacco or alcohol to anyone under the age of 20, minors can’t be charged or punished for underage smoking or drinking.

So your kids aren’t going to get arrested for staying out late, smoking or drinking. The worst that could happen is they get pulled in for guidance.

Drugs, on the other hand, will almost certainly lead to big trouble. Japanese police take possession and distribution of illegal drugs very seriously. This is an important point to impress upon teenagers, particularly if you’re from a country like Canada that has decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Japanese customs check incoming packages carefully for illegal drugs, and foreigners have been jailed because someone mailed them gifts of marijuana.

Kids should also be warned against the so-called “legal drugs” sold openly in Shibuya and other areas where young people congregate. Sellers sometimes misrepresent their wares and foreign kids have been busted for buying what they thought were legal substances.

So what do you do if the police call? First of all, get down to the police box or station right away. Officers have a lot of discretion about how they handle minor offenses. If you cooperate and accept responsibility, the police are likely to release your child to you. Take your child’s passport and alien registration card. (Teenagers age 16 or older are supposed to carry their alien registration card.)

If you can, take along someone Japanese, not only to interpret but also to smooth things along by speaking to the police with the correct level of politeness. Be calm and respectful. Apologize. Express regret that your child has caused trouble. If there were damages, offer to pay for them. Chances are, after giving you a lecture about supervising your child more closely, the police will send everyone home.

If the situation looks more serious, you may want to contact your consulate so they can monitor the case and help you find an English-speaking lawyer. You are entitled to ask the police to call the toban bengoshi, a lawyer on duty for the bar association who will come for one consultation without charge.

Most Japanese parents don’t hire lawyers; 70 to 80 percent of juvenile cases proceed without one. But the police understand that foreign parents don’t understand the system and it won’t prejudice your case to seek legal advice. Lawyers can help deal with the police, and offer advice on how to word a confession if your child is going to make one.

I sat my kids down and explained everything I’d learned. I told them to be polite and cooperative if the police ever stop them. And I said that while it was important they have this information, I sure hope they never need it.

I hope you don’t either.