France, China, Arizona and Narita all want to see your papers

There are two inspirations for this post. The first is a recent blog post by James Fallows (who is exactly the person I would have become if I became a “real” journalist) at The Atlantic: Essay Question: Is AZ More Like China — or Like France? Amid discussion of the new illegal-immigrant-weeding laws in Arizona, specifically the fact that Americans don’t generally have to carry ID around with them, one Fallows reader in France chimes in:

The French must always have their National ID card on them – for the police can demand to see it at any and all times.

Foreigners, in principle, must always have a piece of ID on them – like a passport. I never carry this with me – in 14 years of living here, I’ve never had my passport on me except when I’ve been on my way to the airport and going abroad. But I’m white and look (sometimes sound) French of Gaullish stock. The police, in the vast majority of cases, stop and demand ID papers from youngish (under 40) males of African or Arab descent, be they French nationals or no.

It is not a well-looked upon practice of the police, but the French aren’t adamant enough against it to seek its abolition. As far as I understand, such identity checks have been a long staple of police work in France going back to the Revolutionary/Napoleonic era wherein the State underwent a reinforcement of its prerogatives over the citizenry.

Japan falls in between the American and French models: Japanese citizens are not required to carry ID, but foreigners in Japan have to carry a passport or alien registration card at all times, and the police have a habit of carding visible foreigners at random. Until last month, this had only happened to me a couple of times when I was bicycling around Tokyo, and one of those times I was able to shake off the cop by simply saying I was in a hurry.

Inspiration number two. Last month, six of my family members flew in from the US for the wedding. I took the train out to Narita to meet them on arrival. Their flight arrived 15 minutes ahead of schedule, so I started hustling quickly out of the station to get upstairs to the arrivals hall. A few seconds out of the station gates, a cop with his partner called out to me in English:

COP: Excuse me–(points at watch) Do you have a minute?
ME: (without stopping or slowing down) Nope, sorry. I have to meet someone upstairs.
COP: Oh, OK!

That was the end of that checkpoint, and I proudly announced my triumph on Twitter.

Fast forward a few days, and my family were headed back home, so again I went to the airport to see them off. They checked in before I arrived at the airport, so I met them in the ticketing hall at Terminal 2, and we sat down to relax for a while together before they left.

Two cops appeared from around the corner and made a beeline for the group of seven white people, saying “Excuse me? Passport check?”

My family all had their passports out already, and haven’t read Debito’s website, so they handed the passports over and the police started copying down their names and passport numbers with pencil and paper. I was about to pop, but tried to keep cool.

ME: Can I ask you guys something? There is no way to get into this airport without showing your ID to someone. Why do you have to check it again?
COP: It’s for security reasons.
ME: So you don’t trust the people checking our ID when we get off the train?
COP: Um, do you know what shokumu shitsumon (“official questioning”) is?
ME: I’ve heard of it.
COP: We just ask these questions. Your cooperation is completely voluntary.
ME: Really? You didn’t make that clear at all to my family.
COP: Errrr…. well, we don’t know how to say that in English.
ME: You work in an international airport and you can’t speak English? OK, whatever. I’m not traveling, I’m just seeing my family off.
COP: OK. Sorry to take up your time.

They didn’t check my passport, so it was a lukewarm victory. The police then hit up a couple of South Asians behind us, and disappeared around another corner without questioning anyone else. My father and sister both laughed and said “I think we were just racially profiled” — a bilingual Japanese lady they were talking to apologetically remarked “I don’t know what their problem is.”

About five minutes passed and another pair of police appeared demanding our passports. At this point I popped.

ME: You dumbf—s just asked them for their passports! Don’t you have anything better to do?!
COP: Oh. Sorry!

Strangely, there was no questioning when my wife and I came back the next day for our flight to Europe, or when we came back a few weeks later — though we passed a couple of white backpackers getting carded before going through the train station gates at the airport. I can only surmise that under Japanese law, an East Asian companion may implicitly substitute for a passport or alien registration card. That said, I would not try any similar stunt with European cops, who all seem to have submachine guns, military experience and serious attitudes, unlike their hapless Japanese counterparts.

58 thoughts on “France, China, Arizona and Narita all want to see your papers”

  1. > COP: Um, do you know what shokumu shitsumon (“official questioning”) is?

    職務質問 is for everyone, not just foreigners.
    It is defined in 警察官職務執行法 2, and it needs 疑うに足りる相当な理由.
    It has absolutely nothing to do with passport / gaijin card checks.

    I had thought that they were asking per 外国人登録法 13-2, which does entitle them to request ID specifically from foreigners.

    > COP: We just ask these questions. Your cooperation is completely voluntary.

    That is nice to know.
    If it really is just 職務質問, then next time I will choose not comply.

    Yesterday I was at Narita. I saw a bunch of cops harassing some likely foreigners. I decided to avoid them by going into a restaurant. However, I had time to kill and thought that I would ask them similar questions but they were already gone when I came out. I’m sure that there will be more chances in the future.

  2. Nobody ever demanded my ID when I was walking around, not yet anyway, but driving? That’s a whole ‘nuther story. I drive for work, quite a lot, everyday. And on average, every other week I get “randomly” stopped as soon as the cops see my blond hair. One morning on the way to work I was stopped twice, by two different sets of cops within 20 minutes. That was the only time when I blew a gasket. And yes, they made me late for work that day. To speed things up, I learned to carry my stuff (passport, alien card, driver’s license, work ID) in a plastic see-through ziplock baggie in my purse. I just hand the whole thing over and laugh like a maniac.

  3. The exact same thing happened to me returning to Dubai from your wedding.

    I departed from Haneda airport and changed flights at Kansai International. After going through security to change planes and before getting to passport control and exiting the country, a policeman walked up to me and said, in English, “Excuse me, passport please?” I scowled at him and retored (in English), “No! I’m off to passport control now, why do you want to see my passport?” He raised his hand in front of his face and said, “Oh, sorry!” and slunk away.

    (Important notes here are that, (1) as incompetent service is common in Dubai, I’ve quickly adopted the exasperated pissed-off customer routine whenever anyone comes to me with something I don’t like, and (2) I knew this would be the outcome, i.e. I knew he would give up the instant I said no.)

    I’m a pretty pro-police, pro-authority person in my core. If police received reports of a Victorian Viceroy on the run, armed with a kidnapped child, I’d fully cooperate with any police search of my person. But idiocy like this pisses me off.

  4. One of the reasons some foreigners say they “never get checked” and others seem to often be checked is that being with a Japanese-looking person (whatever that means) is a free pass. The police don’t bother foreigners with Japanese companions because they don’t want to deal with any questions or challenges from citizens who may wonder why they’re bothering foreigners for walking around looking foreign.

    It’s hard to convince those who are married to Japanese people (and who frequently go about their business with them in tow) that those of us who are not frequently traveling with a Japanese companion are harassed on a somewhat more regular basis than they are. They think that every other foreigner is lying or exaggerating, but it really is the case that a Japanese companion is a shield against the police bothering you for identification (or accusing you of stealing your bicycle :-p).

  5. I have been thru NRT more times than the international airport of my home town. Never once been stopped and checked in this manner, nor have I ever seen anyone being checked either. Yet I often see these comments on blogs etc.
    Me… Just lucky I guess.

  6. “One of the reasons some foreigners say they “never get checked” ”

    It probably has more to do with not being in Tokyo.

  7. Whatever. Lots of anecdotal stories, no hard data. For what it’s worth, I’ve been waiting for years to get card checked, so that I can show the surprised cop I’m actually a Japanese citizen. No such luck. Maybe there’s a sixth sense operating that we don’t know about. I imagine Curzon and Joe give off more suspicious vibes than the average gaijin.

  8. In re Wataru’s last comment, I have arrived or departed various Japanese airports countless times, and the aforementioned instances are the only times the cops have asked me for ID (or when I have seen them ask others for it). Perhaps it’s a seasonal thing, but it’s odd that it happened so often in that narrow space of time.

  9. Joe, maybe they had taken up new assignments as of April and were eager to exercise their new authority. Anyway, you managed to fly to Europe and enjoy your long honeymoon without being affected by the Iceland volcano. That kind of bliss doesn’t come easily. Be thankful that the worst things to happen were being carded and getting pigeon poop on your new jacket.

  10. Most of the illegal aliens in Japan are either from China or Korea.And you can’t apply them any racial profiling since you can’t tell the difference by the outlooks.Meaning this is all gesture and only annoys foreign residents.I think all these nonsense must be stopped at once.

  11. Ditto M-Bone. Last month was the first time I have been asked for ID at an airport other than at passport control. (I have been stopped on my bike once in Kansai and thrice in Tokyo over the course of 8+ years of residence in Japan, and 15,000kms+ cycled.) As Joe, and people around him and his family, and a commenter on Debito’s facebook, have had the same experience with cops at KIX in the last few weeks, my hunch is that this is some new fad, that may have already flowered and faded or which may be some new thing in town.

    Wataru, how could we obtain or process “hard data” on this topic? Also, referencing the last section of my comment, what do you think about random police checks of this nature?

  12. Rather than being some kind of sinister authoritarian plot, I see it as likely the result of people (police) being unsure of what to do. There have been random police checks in Narita since the day it was opened, because of the protests against the airport itself. Then the terrorism scares came along, compounding the situation. The people in charge place officers on duty and tell them to watch out for suspicious folks, but that’s a pretty vague job description. They feel they have to do something to earn their pay, so they stop people now and then. There’s no need to take it personally. Smile and show them your ID; this is not China or North Korea. Nor is it Arizona.

  13. I cooperated with Narita police authorities if they ever asked me for anything, which I think was only once, but maybe twice.

    No offense, but I have a real problem with people who give these guys a hard time. They are in what amounts to a border area of Japan, and don’t need to be made to feel that they are out-of-line when they are doing their jobs, which is go up to people and ask for I.D. if they look like they might not belong. Unfortunately, in Japan, a non-Japanese could fit that description.

    People who do this protesting, I feel, are inappropriate in what they are doing. Put yourself int their shoes.

    I agree with Debito about 90-10. If it were a police koban that I walk past all the time, yes, frankly, I’d be upset. Once or twice I got that way with my own hometown patrol in America. Because then, it made me feel like they weren’t doing their jobs if they hadn’t seen me before, walking wherever I usually walked. But at an airport that doubles as a border to a country, I am surprised that you don’t see an even more strict presence and less tolerance for mouthing off.

  14. Narita Airport already conducts systematic ID checks of everyone who enters the airport terminal, unlike any other airport in Japan that I know of. If you come by car, they ask for ID at the airport entrance. If you come by bus, the police come onto the bus and check your ID. If you come by train, there are ID checkpoints between the ticket gates and terminal entrances. If you arrived on an international flight, you have already shown your passport to both immigration and customs officials. The only way to get in without ID might be to arrive on a domestic flight, though there may be an ID check upon arrival — I am not sure.

    Anyway, checking ID of random people once they are inside the terminal is a complete waste of time, both for the police and for the subject(s), unless the assumption is that the other ID checks are somehow inadequate.

    Let’s also not call these checks “random” — they seem to be systematic to some degree since we only see the police going after foreign-looking people for spot checks. There are many reasons why this makes no sense at NRT in particular:
    (a) all the people involved in plots or protests against Narita Airport have been Japanese
    (b) the vast majority of terrorists active in Japan to date have been Japanese (Aum, the Red Army, etc) — in fact I think anyone would be hard-pressed to name any foreign terrorists reported to even care about Japan
    (c) as Aceface noted above, most illegal aliens and foreign criminals in Japan are of East Asian stock and visibly indistinguishable from Japanese; even if we accept racial profiling as OK to do (I don’t), the police logically ought to be profiling their own race
    (d) Along the same vein, Narita Airport is on the short list of places in Japan where Japanese nationals are required to have ID, so the “I’m Japanese” defense should not work there

    The most irritating part of this entire story is the fact that the police characterize the ID check as “voluntary” when pressed about it. First of all, this is actually not legally the case for non-Japanese (I was never asked about my nationality). Secondly, the police are not saying that up-front. In short, they are being both dishonest and incompetent.

    Sure, perhaps they are trainees, but why train cops by harassing random non-Asian people and unnecessarily spreading their personal data in the process? I don’t know what they did with the names and passport data of my family, and have no way of knowing who has that sheet of paper now.

    As Curzon said, if there is some probable cause for police questioning, it makes complete sense. These airport patrols, on the other hand, are unjustified nonsense. I have no qualms about being uncooperative with bad policy that is badly implemented, especially if the police are willing to swallow my uncooperativeness and move on to a more willing target.

  15. “One of the reasons some foreigners say they “never get checked”… is because there are a significant number, perhaps a majority, that don’t. I’m not in Japan nearly as much as I would like to be now, but I have been through Narita on a number of occasions in the last year, sometimes with large groups of foreign looking people and it hasn’t happened to me yet. I actually want it to happen so I can see what all the fuss is about.

    I’m with M-Bone on the Tokyo thing.

    By the way, Joe, that police officer was wrong, wasn’t he? Showing your ID is not a choice if you are not a citizen.

  16. ““One of the reasons some foreigners say they “never get checked” ”

    It probably has more to do with not being in Tokyo.”
    Seconded. I’ve been asked by police exactly twice to show my gaijin card, and one of those times they apologized to me saying that they had been asked for no good reason to check foreigner IDs during the G8 summit. Just 2 or 3 days ago I was biking home and had forgotten to turn on my light, and was randomly stopped by the police and they didn’t even ask to see ID.

    “(b) the vast majority of terrorists active in Japan to date have been Japanese (Aum, the Red Army, etc)—in fact I think anyone would be hard-pressed to name any foreign terrorists reported to even care about Japan”
    I don’t think it’s even the vast majority – I think it may be 100%. Is there even a single case since WW2 of a foreigner committing a terrorist act inside Japan?

    It’s also worth saying that if you falsely tell the Japanese police that you’re a citizen when they ask for ID (outside of an airport, that is) there’s literally nothing they can legally do to prove you wrong and you’re free to ignore them.

  17. You’re an idiot. For global security and safety, why wouldn’t you want EVERYBODY to carry their IDs? What are you trying to hide? Do you not have any respect for the security and safety of people and places around the world, Mutant Frog? I suppose the only time you’ll ever learn anything is something terrible happened to you or one of your loved ones when somebody nefarious did not have his or her ID and that somebody was never found, because that person’s ID was not checked, was not registered, and therefore the person could disappear without a trace. How would you run a respectable society without IDing people? It’s not some sort of racial profiling, you idiot, it happens in the US all the time. If you are an honest, decent citizen of any nation and are a good human being, then you should have no problems carrying your ID with you everywhere you go. IT IS WHO YOU ARE.

  18. This has little to do with the current discussion and is just a point of historical interest – back when the JCP and some affiliated groups declared armed struggle against the Japanese government during the Korean War, North Korea connected Zainichi were involved with about a dozen terrorist attacks (firebombings of police boxes, etc.) – one of these incidents is depicted in the film “Chi to Hone” (Blood and Bone; very good).

    It also depends on your def of terrorism (one of the most abused words in English) – there were some Zainichi involved in violent attacks on police stations in day laborer areas in Tokyo and Osaka in the 1960s.

    Also, while I’m not into the “North Korea scare”, I think that it would be naive to assume that there are any less than several hundred North Korean agents in Japan with standing orders to carry out terrorist attacks if there should be any major international incident.

    Nothing to do with Narita ID checks, however, which given the mandatory checks on both ends seems to be akin to giving random breathalyzer tests in a bar.

  19. Does anyone know why Narita has rent-a-cops checking passports and IDs when you go into the airport? I’ve always assumed it is because of all the resistance to building it.

    When my wife, kids, and I drove my mom to Narita they checked my mother’s passport at the gate but didn’t ask to see my ID or my wife’s. Seemed pointless.

  20. When I was working in Chiba in the 90’s,there were occasional attack on the house of airport officials by far lefts.And Chiba prefectural police spends huge time on counter terrorism(“guerrila attack”as they puts it)investigation.

  21. M-Bone: While I wouldn’t really call Zainichi Koreans ‘foreigners’ they certainly are (by definition) foreign nationals, so systematic ID checks would apply.

    Aceface: I do remember the Narita attacks although I had kind of forgotten about them the other night. Whether you can fairly call them terrorism or not, I do think it provides a good explanation for why Narita is the only airport in Japan to have extra ID checks – because it’s the only airport in Japan that actually has a history of being attacked. Except of course, the attackers were all Japanese citizens.

  22. Just curious… Since there are so many ways to imply in Japanese that someone is a dumbf**k, what exactly did you say? I can’t imagine you called a cop something like ばかやろう.

  23. See the Wikipedia article on NRT which has a pretty well-done history section.

    I have no problem with showing my ID to get in given the existence of so many nutjobs opposed to the airport’s existence. Actually, in contrast to Y-Front’s loony post above, I don’t really have problems with a national ID system either, though I think Japan’s police need some serious structural reform before it can be implemented. I do have a problem with the fact that Japanese citizens, East Asian foreigners and non-East Asian foreigners get such different treatment when it comes to personal ID. Any such system should apply equally to everyone and should be competently administered in a way that protects our personal data.

    Incidentally, I think that photo ID should be required more often in Japan. The only kind of photo ID that Japanese citizens commonly have is a driver’s license, and many never bother to get one. Sometimes they will have a photo ID from their school or company, but this is not nearly universal. One can use a non-photo ID like a health insurance card for almost any purpose requiring ID, which makes fraud and identity theft seem incredibly easy.

  24. softbanksucks: I am paraphrasing, of course. I said something similarly curt and rude to them, but don’t recall exactly what it was.

  25. This seems to be the topic of butthurt for many expats over there.

    What happens if you simply say you don’t have your passport on you? Will they take you down to the station and tentacle rape you or what?

    I ask because here in China, it is law that all foreigners have to carry their passports on them, but in reality no one/very few do. And in the rare occasions that the fuzz do ask (ie Expo, Olympics, drunken bacchanals), you can always say you forgot it at home, etc. and they leave you alone. Those that are paranoid can also get away with passport photocopies. This applies to Caucasian looking people, I have no idea about, but I suspect the darker skinned folk get much worse treatment.


    The situation in Singapore is as follows:-

    The National Registration Identity Card (abbreviation: NRIC, or colloquially IC; simplified Chinese: 身份证; traditional Chinese: 身份證) is the identity document in use in Singapore. It is compulsory for all Singaporean citizens and permanent residents who are fifteen years of age and older to have their NRICs.

    It is not compulsory for bearers to hold the card at all times, nor are they compelled by law to show their cards to police officers conducting regular screening while on patrol, for instance. Failure to show any form of identification, however, may allow the police to detain suspicious individuals until relevant identification could be produced subsequently either in person or by proxy. The NRIC is also a required document for some government procedures, commercial transactions such as the opening of a bank account, or to gain entry to premises by surrendering or exchanging for an entry pass. Failure to produce the card may result in denied access to these premises or attainment of goods and services.

    The National Registration Act of 1965 (last amendment in 2001) legislates the issuance and usage of NRICs. Section 7 indicates that all registered persons of the national registry are to be issued with the identity card.[1]

    Also indicated on the front side of the card, are the holder’s name, race, date of birth, sex, country of birth, and a colour photograph. On the back of the card is the NRIC number and its bar code, a fingerprint, issue date of the card, and the holder’s current residential address. The nationality of permanent residents is indicated on the card as well; this field is absent for citizens. Any change to the information on the card has to be reported to the authorities, or it could be considered an invalid identification card.

  27. I would be afraid to do anything even slightly out of the ordinary at all in Singapore, with that Michael Fay thing having happened and all.

  28. I’ve been told NOT to carry my passport around in foreign countries, because of the risk of losing it. I basically only carry it when travelling between hotels. I have a US drivers licence (the defacto national ID card in the US) and a military ID and when I have had interactions with the police in other countries so far they have been happy with that.

    What is the purpose of a national ID? Is it to counter illegal immigration, by making everyone carry around proof of citizenship or proof of residency (green card). I’m fine with that, and I think you can use an ID card for that purpose without loading it up with all sorts of biometric data, or by having police stop people at random and check on them. Just require people to show their ID when they have any transaction at a government office, when they rent a hotel room or a car, when they get hired for a job, or when they buy a plane, train, or bus ticket. You can be in the country illegally as long as you don’t do any of these things.

    Is the purpose of the national ID to counter terrorism? How does it do that exactly? How do random checks by police on whether people have their papers counter terrorism? I’m genuinely curious (though I suspect the answer is that no, it doesn’t).

    I worry about proposals about introducing national IDs in the US because I suspect that it will be used as a sort of trojan horse by busibodies and authoritarian types to sneak in all sorts of unwarranted surveillance on US citizens. I realize these are the norms in other countries and there are ways to implement this where it would be genuinely a good idea.

  29. I’ve been in Japan 7 years, never been ID-checked. I think my secret might be wearing headphones 80% of the time.

  30. Nate: In 5 years I’ve been checked twice. The odds of being stopped and carded on a short trip are extremely small.

  31. …unless you’re my family, in which case you can get carded twice in about 10 minutes.

    I don’t really agree with random checks either — that’s way too much discretion for the authorities to harrass people. Systematic checks in certain contexts requiring more security — air travel, employment, large financial transactions — make sense. In that case, having one card is preferable than having many cards. The latter system opens up too many opportunities for fraud, particularly when some non-official forms of ID are extremely simple. I would wager that anyone capable of printing on plastic can make a passable Japanese health insurance card, for instance.

  32. ”In 5 years I’ve been checked twice.”

    I don’t blame the cops.All this came upon to you since you keep that Trosrkyist-like beard and moustache.

  33. Joe:

    “Narita Airport already conducts systematic ID checks of everyone who enters the airport terminal, unlike any other airport in Japan that I know of. ”

    For what it’s worth, that’s a more thorough ID check than Erbil International Airport in Kurdistan.

  34. I’ve been coming and going in and out of Japan fairly frequently for about 7 years now, and have spent over half that time living there. I’ve never been stopped in an airport (KIX or Narita) and have only ever been stopped by the police in the street once. To be fair to them, it was early in the morning, I was coming home drunk from a birthday party the night before, and I happened to be walking past a murder scene.

    The police officer stopped me, asked if I was OK and if I lived nearby, and then asked if I had seen anything suspicious in the last couple of days. When I answered no, he waved me on my way with a friendly “ki wo tsukete ne!”.

    To put that into perspective, in the year and a half since I was last in Japan, I have been stopped by the British police three times, had my details taken each time and been treated rudely and patronisingly whenever possible. Two “random” (read: youngish and wearing a hoodie) stops, and one under the Terror Act, where the police officer informed me “Well, we’re not actually looking for ‘terror’, just knives, but whatever it takes to make the public feel safe, right?” When I answered that it didn’t make me feel safe, his response was “Of course you think that, but that’s because you’re innocent. But if we don’t stop the innocent ones, how are we going to catch the guilty?”

    Compared to PC Plod, I think the Japanese police are a massive improvement.

  35. I have been caught in this dragnet just about every time I have gone through Narita. Since I have always had time and nothing to hide it’s always been kind of fun to watch the officers struggle with English and then breathe a sigh of relief once they know I understand Japanese. It kind of reminds me of the kids at tourist spots who interview me as part of a homework assignment for their school trip.

  36. Wataru: For what it’s worth, I’ve been waiting for years to get card checked, so that I can show the surprised cop I’m actually a Japanese citizen.

    What on earth do you carry about on your person at all times that you could use to show such a thing? A passport? A 戸籍謄本?

    I don’t have any stories of spot checks at Narita. (Haneda and Chitose, yes, but that was during the G8 summit period and the cops practically fled while apologizing abjectly when I pulled out the official summit pass thingy I had at the time since I was doing translation for MOFA.) I do get carded once every month or two in my own neighborhood, though, generally while on my bicycle. If my light is off or broken, that’s given as the reason; if my light is on the cop tells me a tale about the fact that the carabiner on my backpack is a hallmark of people who like dangerous things like knives, so he must search my belongings. Useless crap that accomplishes nothing in the way of protecting the public.

    I think it’s probably because the individual cops are boneheads who don’t really know what they should be doing, and not because of some sinister MOJ directive to harass whitey.

  37. Durf, the only thing I’m likely to carry is my (国民健康)保険証, along with assorted credit cards, all with my Japanese name on them.
    Thanks for agreeing with me about the underlying factor being not knowing what to do. Being a cop on the beat is a lowly profession, right down there with garbage collectors and 芸能人.

  38. Garbage collection is a noble profession! I’d trade every 芸能人 on Japanese TV for a few more of those guys to keep the local bins empty.

  39. Please allow me to join Durf in praising garbage collectors. I had to toss a dead crow in the burnable garbage pile the other day. Sure, it was in a bag, but I am ever so grateful that people are around to take things like that off my hands.

  40. It’s true what Adamu and Durf say about garbage collectors, but at least as true of cops on the beat, who have to pick up after people at all hours and under all kinds of conditions. I say give them some slack; I was using the word “lowly” only in the sense that their work is low-reward and high-stress. Some may question whether 芸能人 belong in the same sentence; but entertainers, other than the elite ones at the top of the heap, do tend to have rotten working conditions.

  41. I have only been asked for my ID by the police three times in 36 years all times when I had committed a traffic violation – and no, I don’t always travel with my Japanese spouse.

    My son has been stopped for 職務質問 - totally Japanese in appearance, middle of the night in Akabane. Police called us to tell us our teenage son was out. When we asked if he had been on a bicycle, he said that he wasn’t that stupid – the police stop everybody on a bicycle after a certain time of night.

    So I went into a university class I teach and asked the students if they had ever been stopped for 職務質問.While none of the females had, every one of the ten (Japanese) guys had been, the winner having been stopped 17 times.  So it might not be a foereigner thing.

    I don’t know about the airport – will ask friends who work there.

  42. Interesting – if street checks are overwhelmingly a night bike in Tokyo thing, it would explain why people like me (never biked at night in Japan, never lived in Tokyo) have never been stopped.

    In a way, I think that discussions of this online often end up rigged from the beginning – if the topic is “gaijin card checks” rather than 職務質問, that foreigners are being singled out becomes a priori logic.

  43. “I had to toss a dead crow in the burnable garbage pile the other day. ”

    You could’ve kept it in your fridge and send it to the Tokyo governor’s office next time he blurt out something not-gaijin-friendly.Adamu.

    The cops on the beat is the salt of the earth.Their lives are kinda stressful too,you know.

  44. “In a way, I think that discussions of this online often end up rigged from the beginning – if the topic is “gaijin card checks” rather than 職務質問, that foreigners are being singled out becomes a priori logic.”

    It’s true – I know Japanese guys who, as Angela said, have been stopped by the police biking around Kyoto more than any foreigner I know here. It doesn’t seem to me, based on all the anecdotal reports I’ve heard, that random gaijin card checks are a very big problem outside of certain parts of Tokyo – but the fact that the law exists is still in and of itself a problem. On the other hand, we also don’t know how aggressive the police may be using these same powers to harass say, Brazilian or Chinese migrant workers, or Japan-born Koreans in their own neighborhoods.

  45. “Japan-born Koreans in their own neighborhoods.”

    Since the Zainichi organizations are such large (and loud) lobby/interest groups, I think that we would have heard something about this.

    Chinese probably wouldn’t care very much because this sort of thing is expected back home.

    Anyone up on the Brazilian situation? (nudge, nudge)

  46. It will take a while, but I will ask. I have recently started volunteering at a project to help mainly South American youth who have accompanied their parents to Japan learn Japanese so they can do better in the public schools. The parents work in local factories. They live in a danchi where more than 10% of the residents are from South America. It will take a while before I am familiar enough with various youth to ask about their experiences with the police.

    One of the interesting things I have been told by three leaders of different volunteer projects is that the prefectural police agency is the most proactive in pushing for study opportunities and interaction opportunities for the foreign workers in the factories because the police think that integration and education is the way to prevent both crime and also trouble with/from the majority population. According to these leaders, city and prefectural offices are all talk – or more preciesely, all reports – but the police actually push to get results from actual projects.

  47. Angela, if you hear about stops by cops, can you also ask about the circumstances? As you mentioned above – kids out late at night getting stopped seems far from a gaijin thing. I’d be interested to hear about any experiences of daytime stops. (BTW, it sounds like you have some amazing experience to share – great to hear from you in these comments).

  48. A few nights ago I was at a bar and heard a Swedish girl complain about how a cop had stopped her earlier to warn her about her bike light being out, and then checked the registration number – but hadn’t checked her ID. This was nearly on the same street where the cops had stopped me for forgetting to turn on my bicycle light perhaps a week earlier.

    Literally one minute after leaving that place on the way to another, I passed a cop stopping what looked like most likely a Japanese girl, whose bicycle light was out.

  49. “The odds of being stopped and carded on a short trip are extremely small”…

    Unless you’re riding a bike that is. I spent two weeks in Tokyo last month and was stopped twice.

    Does the police receive bribe money from some kind of “big taxi” lobby to discourage people from biking home in the evening? Those checks make so little sense that it would seem to be the only rational explanation…

  50. It seems to happen WAAAAYYY more often in Tokyo than anyplace else. I have yet to ride a bicycle in Tokyo, but when that day comes I’ll keep track of how long it takes before I get stopped and quizzed.

  51. That’s more to do with bicycle thieves.

    My son’s bike got stolen in February.Didn’t think it would come back,but nonetheless we went to the nearby police box and gave them the info on bike.Three weeks later cops caught 21 years old riding my son’s bike.They stopped the bike guy during mid-day.

  52. @Wataru – another good example of how a lot of the Western expats in Japan don’t really have any idea how people not from the same highly privileged background as themselves have to live. For the umpteenth time, that doesn’t mean that extra police attention for foreigners in Japan isn’t a bad thing, just that it isn’t remotely comparable in scale to most other countries.

    If it’s 9 times more in NYC, imagine how many more times it must be in Arizona…

  53. Just got off the phone with my sister. We had quite a discussion about what papers our kids should carry with them when they go through Arizona this summer to visit Grandma in New Mexico.

    Sister and I are of the white sort – my three are brownish of the Japanese variety, all adopted, my niece is olivy – Thai father, and my nephew is darker Thai variety -Thai mother and father, adopted, ages range from 26 down to 17.

    My sister and I went to a lot of trouble and money to get U.S. citizenship for them several years back (Bless Ted Kennedy wherever his soul may be), so all possess U.S. passports in addition to Japanese or Thai passports.

    We have made an annual trip for several years over the border to Mexico to visit friends in Chihuahua. Inevitably, the kids get questioned at U.S. immigration coming back into the U.S. – never white grandma or my sister or me. Last September they held us up for 20 minutes while they took my 20-year-old son’s U.S. passport away and came back and forth to ask him questions about his relation to us, etc. (same last name on the passport as mine.) Must be the Mexican illegal look to him (actually of Korean ethnic descent.)

    My Thai nephew has been living in Oregon for the past few years – he has become accustomed to being mistaken for Mexican and has learned how to answer the police quite politely.

    With the new Arizona law, we concluded that the kids should carry both their passports with them when in Tucson so that they can prove that not only are they legal American citizens, but also that they aren’t from Mexico (to avoid any accusations of faked passports,etc.) Being mothers, we are more concerned about keeping our (grown) children safe than starting any campaigns – but we are not happy campers about the new law in Arizona.

  54. I understand all your parental instincts, Angela, but it bothers me that you’re giving in to state authoritarianism just to keep your kids from getting into trouble, especially when they are fully grown and aren’t doing anything illegal. If it were my family being affected by this, I would want them to know the letter of the law, keep the police on their toes, and (most importantly) document everything that happens for the benefit of groups like the ACLU and NAACP who will undoubtedly want evidence in order to mount constitutional challenges in court. Giving in and adjusting just allows the authorities more leeway to harrass more people.

    At least in the US there is strong civil rights jurisprudence, and there are effective ways to sue the government for discriminatory behavior. Japan doesn’t really have either: you can win a constitutional case here with a lot of effort, but it amounts to a tap (not even a slap) on the wrist for the government.

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