Racial profiling had never struck me as a personal issue. I am a Japanese woman living in Japan after all, where less than 2 percent of the population is foreign. And even among that sliver of a share, the majority is Asian. How could racial profiling exist if most everyone looks the same?
I was awakened from such naïveté a few years ago when I started getting pulled aside by police, apparently to see if I was an illegal immigrant. On three occasions, officers sidled up to me at busy train stations, flashing their badges and asking me where I was headed. When they concluded I was a Japanese national, they sent me on my way.
Earlier this year, two officers approached me as I was exiting Tokyo Station and asked to see an ID and the contents of my purse. I refused their repeated requests while demanding an explanation until one of the officers finally told me, “You are tall and dark-colored and look like a foreigner.” He then added, “Every day we catch four to five overstays this way,” referring to immigrants with expired visas.
I was stunned by the officer’s blatant profiling of me based on what I perceive as my only slightly unusual features: a bit taller than average height and a shade of a sun tan. But microscopic vision for sniffing out differences is a common trait among the Japanese who are often uncomfortable with dealings outside of their familiar zones.
The officers who approached me on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant were presumably acting on Japan’s Police Duties Execution Law. It states: “A police officer may stop and question any person who has reasonable ground to be suspected of having committed or being about to commit a crime.”
The Japanese law is broader than the controversial legislation in the U.S. state of Arizona that goes into effect this month, which allows police to confirm someone’s immigration status only after stopping the person on other grounds. “The same thing as in Arizona has been in place in Japan for a long time without much criticism,” says my cousin and lawyer Genichi Yamaguchi.
Most Japanese are unaware of these racially motivated checks. But even if they knew about them, it is questionable how much they would object. Profiling is a common practice here with casual exchanging of personal information. The details collected from a business card or queries such as asking where one attended university or what blood type one is serve as clues to allow people to predict how each party will behave.
As a single parent who has lived overseas and is blood type A, I am stereotyped as hard-nosed enough to have decided to go it alone, blithe from surviving dealings with all sorts of people and having the seriousness attributed in popular beliefs here to people of my blood group.
Such typecasting takes on racist overtones when applied to foreigners. “Chinese don’t know train manners,” I overheard a man say recently in response to a Chinese woman talking loudly on her cellphone in the compartment. On a bus tour of the Western city of Nara, several Japanese passengers complained that the Filipinos aboard who had trouble keeping up with the rushed sightseeing pace “don’t understand ‘dantai kodo,”’ or group behavior. When one of the Filipinos went to the restroom, a Japanese woman grumbled that she should have held back in deference to the group schedule. Such intolerance — when the government is on a major campaign to increase tourism to the country, and just this month eased visa application requirements for Chinese visitors.
There are even disturbing signs that Japanese increasingly don’t want to bother trying to understand the unfamiliar territory beyond their borders. Only one student from Japan entered Harvard University’s freshman class last year, bringing the total number of full-time Japanese undergraduates to five, compared to a total of 36 from China and 42 from South Korea.
A 2007 Web-based survey by the Nomura Research Institute revealed a growing reluctance to live overseas among younger Japanese. While 33 percent of men and 23.9 percent of women in their 60s and older said they would have some aversion to either themselves or their spouses going to work overseas, the share of people with that sentiment reached 42.9 percent and 38.9 percent respectively for people in their 20s.
The next time a police officer stops me, I plan to explain that suspecting me of a crime simply because I look foreign constitutes racial profiling. Only there is no term for the practice in the Japanese language.
Kumiko Makihara, a writer and translator living in Tokyo.