Getting randomly stopped by the police is an unfortunate reality that many foreigners face during their time living in Japan. Requests to show your residence card or personal belongings can feel unnerving, invasive, and often discriminatory.
These experiences reveal deeper complexities about rights, prejudice, and the relationships between police and immigrant communities in Japan. By understanding the context behind these encounters, foreigners can better navigate them while pushing for greater accountability.
Stories of Police Profiling in Japan
1. A foreigner was stopped on the street without any suspicion of a crime. She effectively halted a police search of her bag by disclosing what was inside. The officers, seemingly embarrassed by the contents she revealed, opted to abandon their search. The whole incident was captured in her TikTok video, which went viral.
2. A user on Reddit detailed their uncomfortable encounter with Japanese law enforcement after moving to the Kanto region. After living for several years in Niigata and Miyagi where they hadn’t faced any form of police intervention, the Southeast Asian user experienced being abruptly stopped by a police officer who was allegedly suspicious of their multiple U-turns near a station. The police officer proceeded to commandeer and search the user’s wallet and card case in a seemingly unprofessional manner, much to the user’s dismay. The user felt this was an unjust violation of their privacy, casting a negative light on their day and their experience of living in Japan.
3. Another user on Reddit narrates the shocking ordeal of a six-year-old girl and her mother after the child accidentally stole an eraser from a stationery store. Upon discovery of the item, the mother returned to the store and made her daughter apologize.
But instead of accepting the apology, the store owner – a man in his early 30s – called the police and mentioned alerting her school. The mom and child were escorted to the police station where the girl was treated like a serious offender – subjected to an interrogation, writing a confession and even having a mug shot taken.
The child’s non-Japanese father, expressed his anguish and stated he was “reassessing” raising his daughter in Japan after the incident. Despite being deemed legally non-culpable, the child’s file is being retained by the local police station in case of future incidents, leaving the family anxious.
4. Similarly, in a Reddit post shared by a foreign resident in Japan, he shared his encounters with local law enforcement and offers advice to others on how to handle similar encounters.
Based on his experiences, the resident emphasizes the importance of refraining from projecting negative assumptions onto police officers during interactions, highlighting that this can potentially escalate the situation unnecessarily.
His first encounter with the police, which occurred while waiting for a friend in Toyama, was surprisingly pleasant and ended with a friendly chat about baseball. Yet, in a later incident, he admitted his irritation at being stopped while en route to work resulted in a less positive experience.
5. A Reddit poster experienced an unsettling encounter with the police in Akihabara, where he was stopped for an ID check. Three police officers surrounded him and blocked his path while they demanded to see his residence card.
Unease grows as he struggles to navigate the unfamiliar laws of a foreign country. The policemen continue to ask him questions, displaying what the man identifies as “smiles of intimidation.” As he hands over his driver’s license, one begins to write down his information while two others continue to question him.
He reflects on the manipulation and the sense of intrusion as he recognises the policemen are prying for personal information under the guise of fake smiles. Despite advice from a local friend assuring him this is a normal occurrence that he can reject, the incident leaves him feeling discriminated against for the first time.
This unsettling experience has opened his eyes to the unspoken reality of racial profiling and has impacted his feelings of security when walking the streets of Japan.
6. A foreigner living in Tokyo shared his frustration about being frequently stopped by the police for no clear reason. He pointed out, that it is not an isolated experience and that the police seem to have started stopping foreigners more often.
This particular incident took place while he was waiting for a friend at a cafe near a station and was stopped by two cops asking for his ID, even though he usually just shows them and moves on. He expressed his annoyance as this happened several times within a week. He also expressed concern over the seeming lack of any action against discrimination or social injustice in Japan, including racial profiling by police.
7. In a controversial Reddit post, a user ignited a spirited debate over the recurring issue of police seemingly nonchalantly violating search and seizure laws in Japan.
The user took umbrage at the ease and frequency with which police in Japan could halt an individual, subjected them to an unwarranted and detailed examination of personal items. This disregard for privacy is, according to him, a blatant defiance of Article 35 of the Japanese constitution meant to safeguard against the very acts he described as unjustified searches and seizures.
However, it was the insidious penalty of refusing such searches—often leading to dire consequences—that left him questioning the real purpose of such laws, if they are intrinsically intended to favor law enforcement agencies.
The Law Often Enables Profiling
Under Japanese law, all foreign residents must carry residency documents at all times. Police have broad authority to request to see them at any time, without suspicion of an actual crime.
For citizens, police can only request ID during questioning if the person is a suspect. But for foreigners, ID checks based solely on appearance are condoned.
This enables profiling, as police target “visibly” non-Japanese individuals at much higher rates. People report frequent stops after moving to Kanto regions, indicating directives to target foreigners. Darker skin tones, Muslim garb, “suspicious” bags, and speaking foreign languages can all invite more stops.
Bag Searches Exist in a Gray Area
Police also frequently request to search the bags and belongings of foreigners they stop. However, consent is technically required for these searches during random stops.
So officers cajole and pressure foreigners to “volunteer” for searches, knowing full refusal brings hassle and confrontation. They use roundabout phrasing, asking “May I take a look in your bag?” versus a direct order.
Technically, foreigners can refuse cooperating with these “voluntary investigations.” But in practice, police will persist and make refusals unpleasant. So foreigners must weigh their principles against pragmatism. Refusing may earn you an hour-long interrogation.
Rights are More Limited for Foreigners
Japanese constitutional law prohibits unreasonable search and seizure for citizens – in theory. In reality, citizens are pressured to comply with police, too.
But for foreigners, protections are weaker, as residency status remains conditional. Japanese officials assert more powers over immigrants, who also have less recourse against mistreatment.
Foreigners trying to exercise search refusal rights have found themselves detained for “obstructing” police duties. So understanding legal rights offers incomplete protection.
Good Cop/Bad Cop is Complex
Are police just trying to harass foreigners and meet quotas, or doing their duty ensuring public order? Stories go both ways.
Some officers explain procedures kindly, apologizing for the inconvenience. Others bark orders without explanation. Some diligently record ID details, while others take IDs to interrogations rooms, leaving foreigners uneasy.
In isolation, any officer can seem professional. But taken together, systematic excessive targeting of minorities reveals biases embedded in law enforcement.