I love Japan, but there are a few things which I really hate about it. The police are one big issue in my mind.
Case in point: Their recent knife kick. I read an outrageous story on Debito’s blog about a 74-year-old American tourist getting arrested for carrying a pocketknife over the maximum legal length (which was recently shortened). It seemed unbelievable until a commenter there pointed out a similar fate for a Japanese manga artist, and then our own commenter Durf shared a story about getting searched for knives.
Fortunately, my few run-ins with the Japanese police have been tame. I’ve been carded a couple of times while biking around central Tokyo, and once got into a spat with a cab driver late at night which the local koban cop helpfully mediated without even checking my papers. Still, reading others’ experiences makes me believe that police here, while helpful when they want to be helpful, also have an undue amount of power and very little responsibility for misusing it.
On paper, this is not how it should be. On paper, there are officials who oversee the police, both on a national level (through the National Public Safety Commission) and on a local level (through prefectural public safety commissions). They are appointed by elected officials (the prefectural governor/assembly or the Cabinet) and serve fixed terms.
But these are woefully ineffectual bodies plagued by systemic problems, as laid out by Japanese Wikipedians:
- Each commission is located on the premises of the prefectural police headquarters and police officers perform its clerical functions, so there is no guarantee of neutrality or confidentiality.
- The prefectural government has no authority vis-a-vis the police, so there is no way for local government to investigate or punish the police without going through the commission.
- The commissions are often packed with local elites who have little experience or interest in police or criminal justice matters.
- This often creates a conflict of interest, because such individuals won’t want to effectively challenge the local police in many instances.
- The police end up being taken more seriously and can effectively dictate policy to the commissions. This happens on a local level as well as a national level (between the NPA and NPSC).
For illustrative purposes, the NPSC currently consists of the following individuals:
- Motoo Hayashi (chairman): LDP legislator and state minister in the Aso cabinet (for disaster prevention, Okinawa and Northern Territories policy, and possibly other irrelevant portfolios as well)
- Yukio Sato: Former diplomat and president of the Japan Institute for International Affairs
- Nobuyuki Yoshida: Senior director of the Sankei Shimbun, responsible for its right-wing editorials
- Yoshiyuki Kasai: Chairman of JR Central
- Mariko Hasegawa: Professor in the School of Advanced Sciences at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies who apparently specializes in sociobiology and has a strong academic interest in the biology of sexuality
- Kenjiro Tao: Chief judge of the Hiroshima High Court (an intermediate appellate court), somewhat famous for handing down the verdict against serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki.