March 8, 2013

Throughout my time here in Japan, I have fortunately had very few encounters with the police. However, the other day I witnessed a policeman interacting with a citizen, and the whole scene left me more or less dumbfounded.

Naturally, I wanted to share.

And just as a note, although it seems like there are scandals involving police here every other day, I never keep up with that sort of news. So this post is based solely on what I have experienced or observed first hand.

Before I get to what happened the other day, I have a few stories to share.

My first time talking to a Japanese police officer was during winter vacation when I was an exchange student. A friend and I had decided to head Kyoto for some sightseeing. Neither of us had been there before, and neither of us were too good with directions. On the subway, an older man took interest in us, and made it his mission to guide us to where we were going. I should add that he really had no clue on how to get where we were going, and that we never asked him for help. He gave off a bit of an old man creeper vibe.

After much humming and hawing, the man decided to take us to a “koban” (交番), which in English is often referred to as a “police box”. It’s basically a tiny police station where officers hang out. They’re in every neighbourhood, and honestly I don’t know if they really do a lot there, but if you need help they’re generally quite easy to find.


The three of us went into the police box, the old man leading the way and explaining to the officer what was going on (basically, we needed directions). I guess the officer could sense that as much as we appreciated the old man’s help, we weren’t super comfortable with him hanging around. He got rid of the man pretty fast, ushering him out the door and on his way. The officer and one of his co-workers then pulled out some maps, and gave us concrete directions on how to find the play we were looking for.

From that experience my impression of officers here was that they were friendly, and helpful. The next time, they weren’t nearly as impressive.

It was a lovely summer day, and I was walking down the street on my way to meet a friend. Suddenly, two officers stopped me. Only one actually spoke to me, I guess the other was just the muscle. Because you know, I’m pretty threatening. When they stopped me I was definitely surprised. I had no idea why they wanted to talk to me.

 You’re not Japanese, are you?
 (Feeling completely bewildered by the question. I am clearly not Japanese) No, I’m Canadian.
 Can I see your foreign registration card?
 (Digs through purse, and hands him the card).
 (Studying the card) What do you do?
 I’m an English teacher… (Note that this is written on my card)
 At [school name] (Where I work, and the address is also written on the card)
 (Continues to study card)
 It’s just over there. (Oddly enough I was near my school, so I pointed to it)
 And you’re from Canada?
 Yes. (Not only did I already say that, but hey, it’s on the card)
 Okay. (Hands back my card) That’s all.

After I just kind of stood there for a minute.

The old "Foreign Registration Card" and new "Residence Card".

The old “Foreign Registration Card” and new “Residence Card”.

I realise that the policeman was probably confirming that I wasn’t Japanese in the off chance that I did have a Japanese citizenship, however, at the time I was totally taken aback by the question. I also understand that the questions were likely to confirm my identity, but really, the photo was clearly of me, and I told him from the start I was Canadian. I felt like the whole “conversation” was just a total waste of time, especially when I was merely walking down the street. I’d have understood if I had been doing something suspicious, but I hardly think walking down the side walk en route to meet a friend is questionable.

That was the only time I’ve ever been stopped, and I have friends who have lived here longer who have never been asked for identification. Maybe it isn’t rare, but in my experience it has been. My boss said that maybe they just wanted to talk to a foreign girl, and if that’s the case, then stopping me on the street to check my documents is pretty sad. Who knows, maybe they thought I was a hostess staying here illegally. Or perhaps I gave off the impression that I was a mail-order-bride who offed her fiance, and continued living here. I don’t know.

On the plus side, everything checked out okay and I was able to carry on.

The incident that spurred this post happened down town. We were waiting at a cross walk, and a guy was sitting in his car, also stopped at the light. He had his windows partially down, and his music just a little too loud. A policeman on a bicycle approached the passenger window, and tapped on it to get the driver’s attention. The guy glanced over, and the officer asked him to please put on his seatbelt. He did, and rolled away in his car.

Three things surprised me.

First, the fact that the driver wasn’t fined. If you’re caught in Ontario without a seatbelt you get a $200 – $1000 fine, plus two demerit points if you’ve been caught more than once. With Japan’s drinking and driving laws being so strict (everyone in the car is charged for drunk driving if the driver is drunk), I figured the seatbelt laws would be just as tough.

They are not. I looked it up online, and apparently while everyone in the car should be wearing seatbelts, penalties aren’t usually given except for on expressways. Drivers caught without a seatbelt on local roads generally get off with a warning.

The second thing was the nonchalant attitude of the driver. He didn’t turn the volume of his music down to be polite, nor did he even acknowledge the officer by looking in his direction. The only way I knew he had actually heard the policemen was because he put his belt on.

The third was that the police man didn’t even give the guy a warning. It was a “tap tap” on the window, followed by a “Please do up your seatbelt”. And that was it. No lecture, not even a “tsk tsk”.

This whole situation may not have been so odd to me if a few months ago I hadn’t seen an officer ticket someone for dropping their cigarette butt on the ground. It just seems a little backwards, although I suppose a nasty cigarette butt bothers more people than someone not wearing a seatbelt. And if you park your bicycle where it should’t be, WATCH OUT. Towed (do you tow bikes?) and fined.

When I told my boyfriend how surprised I was that the guy didn’t get a fine or even a warning, his reply was “Japanese police are weak”. I’ve heard this sort of opinion on police here before, but I never really thought much of it. You would think that ideally, police and weak don’t really belong in same sentence.

I turned to the Internet, and asked other people from Japan what they thought of the police force, and these were the some of the answers. Please note these do not necessarily reflect my opinions. It’s just what random strangers on the Internet replied with.

  • Weak.
  • We pay them but they do nothing for us.
  • 警察は僕らの敵です。 (The police are our enemy) [Pretty sure this one was a joke, though]
  • 大事な時に行動しないと思います。 (They don’t do anything when we need them to).
  • クソだと思いますよ。 (I think they’re shit.)
  • 優秀でしょう、間違いなく!! (They’re excellent, without a doubt!!)
  • I thought the replies were pretty interesting. Out of six replies, five were negative. And I’m not even sure if the last guy was serious (the rest of the conversation was just weird).

    When it comes to Canadian police, from the very few interactions I’ve had with them, they’ve been friendly, firm, but fair. Then again, when I think of Canadian police, I always think of Mounties. I don’t even know why I think of Mounties. I’ve seen more “regular” police officers than I have RCMP officers. Really, we usually only see them at special events and so forth. I just remember seeing them do their parade at the Royal Winter Fair.

    An RCMP Officer. Image from the Wikipedia. I sadly don't have any Mountie photos of my own.

    But I digress.

    Maybe it’s because Japan is a generally peaceful country, so the officers don’t feel the need to be strict. Or maybe they really are just “weak”. Either way, although my first experience was pleasant, the last two had me feeling that something was lacking. That said, I’ve never felt unsafe in Japan, and I’ve lived here incident free (knock on wood). So hey, maybe they are doing their job.

    If you’ve had any interactions with the police in Japan, how did your experience leave you?

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  • Reply Midori March 13, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Never been stopped for anything. Koban are helpful if anyone is actually THERE… Half the time, they’re out harassing people on bicycles or something.

    I did have to work with the police when I pressed charges against the guy who stole my money and they were all very nice, so I personally dont have any bad experiences, but with so many negative stories in the news….maybe I was just lucky.

    • Reply Adrienne March 14, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      Haha, true. I live down town, so they’re usually around, but in Nikko we never saw anyone there.

      I guess just like with everything, there are great officers, and not so good ones. You just never hear about the ones that are doing a good job, since that’s not really an interesting story.

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