National / Media | Japan Pulse

Social media conversation on ID checks in Japan reflects shifting awareness

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

It’s not unusual for foreign residents in Japan to be asked for identification. 

It can be problematic for police officers to make such requests because, while foreign residents are required by law to carry their residence cards with them at all times, certain conditions must exist before they demand to see some identification. The simple fact that foreign residents don’t “look” Japanese in and of itself isn’t sufficient grounds.   

Well … imagine if you are subjected to one of these seemingly arbitrary ID checks if you’re a Japanese citizen?

Zain ul Aladdin found himself in such a situation recently but instead of simply shrugging it off, he tweeted about his frustrations. Aladdin wrote that he always cooperates with such checks (four and counting), but expressed annoyance that the officers typically begin the conversation with a warning that failure to produce a residence card or passport could result in his arrest.

You see, Aladdin doesn’t have either forms of identification — he’s a Japanese citizen.

His tweet attracted attention right away.

Some citizens sympathized with his plight, with others jumping in to recount their own stories or incidents they had heard from others. Anecdotes poured in on Twitter, ranging from those who claimed they couldn’t ride a bicycle without being stopped to those who claimed police officers had questioned their ability to speak Japanese.

User @rion_PUBG shared a photo of himself to further illustrate the point of who Japanese authorities zeroed in on, while others offered Aladdin more practical advice on how to file a complaint with the authorities

Online news outlets soon started sharing Aladdin’s story as well, offering up relatively straightforward summaries of what had happened to him and the response online. Aladdin himself gave a brief interview with a fledgling video service. 

Over the past decade, the internet has become a space for people to follow changing notions of what being Japanese is all about. Whereas traditional media tends to treat the issue with kid gloves, publishers such as BuzzFeed Japan and the opinionated Wezzy have been at the forefront of online outlets looking at issues about the changing face of Japan. Individual users have also taken to platforms such as Twitter and Note to share their perspectives. None of that is new, and Aladdin’s posts on social media have helped to reinvigorate awareness on the issue.

However, joining him in venting about his treatment were plenty of Japanese people who don’t usually experience this. Many shared Aladdin’s tweet and described how they had seen foreign friends experience the same thing, while others called it outright discrimination. As is often the case in politically charged conversation, a few netizens with decidedly nationalist views have chimed in on social media as well, but most people seem to believe Japan can do better.

It comes at a time when Japan seems to be more accepting of Japanese nationals hailing from diverse backgrounds. Change moves slowly, but it does move. Much of this is playing out in the world of sports, where athletes such as Naomi Osaka, Abdul Hakim Sani Brown and Rui Hachimura are celebrated by the general public. It helps that such athletes have recorded impressive accomplishments in their respective sports. It’s maybe not the best criteria for social progress — think of people who can’t dunk! — but it’s a shift nonetheless.

The best example of this in motion at present, however, comes via the Japanese national rugby team and, as the squad has gone on a surprising run during the World Cup, people have become even more fired up about them. Many members of the Brave Blossoms hail from outside of Japan, a fact that initially stirred up some regressive posts in more nationalistic leaning corners of the internet before the tournament started. 

Now, though, Twitter users are creating comics about a rugby team that accepts non-Japanese members and gushing over footage of them practicing the Japanese national anthem. A snippet of an interview with Michael Leitch quoted the team captain speaking about how the squad represents the future of Japan, highlighting how it can help diversity evolve further in the country. 

If this becomes the new assumption insofar as the authorities are concerned, perhaps those arbitrary ID checks will occur less frequently.

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