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What to do When Stopped by the Police in Japan

Police can stop you for questioning and seize you if you try to escape but you have no obligation to answer their questions.

By 4 min read 15

Returning a friend’s bike around 9:45PM, an unfamiliar voice resonates behind me… “Good evening.” Who is talking to me, and why!? I turn my head to investigate the peculiar voice. It’s a male cop trailing me on his bike! I awkwardly return his greeting.

“Please stop. We need to ask you some questions,” he says. A second police officer appears a few meters behind him. We all come to a stop.

I’m wearing running sweats and a t-shirt — pretty minimal for a late night out. Luckily I remembered to shove my ID deep inside my zip pocket. Warily coming to terms with the situation in front of me, I get ready for his questions, and our conversation goes as follows:

Police: Where are you going?
Me: To a friend’s house to deliver this bicycle.

Police: Where is your friend’s house?
Me: Uhh, let me check.

I look at my phone’s navigation. Coincidentally it is either the building right in front of us or the building adjacent. It looks like it’s right here. Maybe this building. I’m not sure.

Police: Do you have an ID?
Me: Yah, here you go.

Police: So this isn’t your bike?
Me: Uh… no. I borrowed this bike from my friend so my other friend who was visiting would have a bike to ride and now I’m returning it since my friend left the other day.

Ah man! My explanation makes no sense and it’s way too long. He’s gonna think I’m a thief.

Police: Hmm… Let’s check the bike registration to make sure it’s not stolen.

Police: You are a teacher?
Me: “At one point I was.”

Why are all foreigners teachers!?

Police:What schools do you work at?
Me: “I used to work at [SCHOOL NAMES OMITTED FOR PRIVACY], but now I do other work.”

Police: But your visa says “education.”
Me: “Yah. I have an additional status too. Look at the back of my ID. Also my visa status is being changed. It says ‘new application processing.’”

This is getting spooky.

Police: Hmm…
A minute or so passes, until finally…

Police: Okay you’re free to go. Have a good night. Enjoy your stay in Japan.

And just like that I’m free to go. Heart beating, I forget that my destination is right in front of me and end up riding a few more blocks before doubling back. My adrenaline finally begins to subside. On a side note, I love that he ends with “enjoy your stay in Japan,” a naively kind gesture that renders me but a visitor, a sightseer in a country that I’ve resided in for most of my adult life. At any rate, I’m just happy that the police have moved on. Further down the street they’re now detaining another nervous bicyclist.

Based on the anecdotal accounts of friends, given my 5 years residing here meant I was long overdue for a “shokumu shitsumon” (rough translation: stop and frisk). Most men who have ridden their bikes down the street have had at least one of these encounters. Under the guise of preventing bicycle theft, preventing intoxicated cycling, and ensuring general public safety, the cops regularly conduct such searches.

The Police Duties Execution Act of 1948 contains the regulations for these searches.

Police can stop you for questioning and seize you if you try to escape. You have no obligation to answer their questions. They can ask you to go to the police station but they can’t force you. Frisks are in the gray, as they seem to be regularly carried out but may not technically be legal (source). The only thing you should be responsible for is to have your residence card on hand, as you are legally obliged to show it to cops if they ask.

Some non-Japanese feel unfairly targeted by police. While this has not been my experience in Japan so far, the anecdotal accounts of friends living in other regions suggests that certain police bureaus are more rigorous in their approach to foreigners on the street. If you’re interested in protecting your legal rights during a “shokomu shitsumon,” activist/writer Debito Arudou provides some guidance on measures one can take.

For me, I’ve accepted that it’s an unfortunate encounter I will have to deal with every couple of years or so. While I don’t like dealing with the police, I no doubt feel safer in my dealings with them in Japan than I do in other parts of the world.

One thing I am conscious of when dealing with authority figures in Japan is to beat them at their own game. Speak more politely than the person speaking to you, assume an air of stoic indifference, treasure the power of silence and a simple nod over animated and loud proclamations, and don’t say more than you have to. Now if only I’d followed my own advice when I ran into the cops the other day!

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  • Jeime Dayao says:

    When I was walking on my way to my part time job I was suddenly stopped by a police, he asked me some questions, checked my bag and cards( Id etc.). After all that he then write something in his what seem to be a log book ir something. Should I worry about that?

  • @Gouki_in_Japan says:

    Arudo, David Aldwinckle, is a punk. He is constantly fishing for trouble and relishing any instance of “victimization.” Before he bemoans the pain of prejudice, he should try being Korean in Japan… or black anywhere.

  • Esther Lai says:

    Last year in Korakuen (Tokyo), I was hit by a crazy guy’s twice when I cross the road with my friend, we called the police and captured the guy’s appearance. We also had witness. But two uniformed police came after 30min and said nothing could help!!!!

    Today, when I was making a transit from metro to JR train station at Takadanobaba station, two plainclothes men hid near the entrance gate. Suddenly and secretly they accosted me and want to spot-check my id. I was wearing sport suit with a backpack after finishing yoga class, nothing special. They were very sneaky and looked like molester in my point of view. I didn’t believe they were police and disputed with them but they didn’t understand English… So annoying!

    According to debito.org, we as a foreigner have rights to protect ourselves.
    “Just being a foreigner is insufficient probable cause, and without a good reason a policeman’s arbitrary questions to a stranger are against the law.”

  • Jenn J says:

    I live in Kanazawa and was walking at a casual pace by the main JR train station on a Saturday morning. I wasn’t wearing anything weird or acting weird. Suddenly a policeman stopped me and asked to see my ID. It seemed odd that he would notice me because the JR station is always full of tourists so it’s not like I stood out. It was no big deal, but I couldn’t figure out why I would arouse suspicion in such a place. Do policemen have quotas for checking ID cards? That’s the only explanation I could think of.

  • Ariel Basnight says:

    I haven’t moved to Japan yet, but I did spend the summer over there. In my brief time I never had any dealing with the police. At one point though, I was walking around with one of the friends I made there and we were lost. We saw some cops and he wanted to ask them directions, I wantes to steer clear of them because they were in the process of harassing and frisking a group of about 5 people. He couldn’t understand my aversion to talking to the police, especially when they were busy.

  • Ross Pendragon says:

    Digression…I went to visit a friend who wasn’t home, got kind of lost and by chance missed the last train home. I had almost no money and was stuck. So I went to the local police box and they allowed me to sit there until the first train next morning. We chatted, they served me coffee, showed photos of our families and offered me a bed upstairs in the police-box for a nap. Next morning they took me in their police car to the station, saluted and waved good bye.They couldn’t have been nicer or more understanding!

  • John says:

    I’ve been stopped twice in my 13 years in Japan. I just be calm, answer question (don’t over divulge), sometimes play stupid, and above all, DON’T GIVE ATTITUDE. If you act like an ass to the cops, they will more than willing to bring an attitude calibration with them

  • mbrandse says:

    I think it also depends on the area you are living in. In the 4 or so years that I have lived in Fukuoka, I have never had a single shokumu shitsumon, and I biked a lot. Now that I have been living in Tokyo for a little more than 7 months, I have already had 3 of them. I don’t think they were specifically targeting foreigners in those cases; my route to work just happens to be a route a lot of students use as well (I have already lost count of the gazillion “bike safely” initiatives along the route).

  • Federale says:

    Hhmmm, you acted as a Japanese would, but claim you wanted to act like an outsider. But your outsider thinking confirmed that you’re not aculturated to Japan yet, confirming what Japanese think of gaijin, always the outsider.

  • Franck says:

    I wouldn’t say “I love japanese police”
    But I never had to complain against them, they are very polite and kind.
    I was a motor bike driver in Japan and had some stories with cops.
    on a very busy traffic day, on a 4 lane street, I decided to switch line just before a traffic light.
    As you may know it’s not allowed to change Line at that place.
    But just in front of me a police control, I almost ran over the cop and stopped my bike just few centimeters from him!!!!
    What did he first told me?
    大丈夫ですか?are you ok?
    I almost ran into the guy and he asked me if I was OK
    On which I instantly replied “are you ok?
    Then he told me about the yellow line I passed when switching line and told me to be more careful and let me go, just like that!

  • Kiyoshi Parker says:

    Unfortunately I too was WWF (walking while foreign). It was not a pleasant experience, but I suppose it could have been worse.

  • 餅ちゃん says:

    Well, you live in Osaka, it’s bound to happen, I have been stopped a few times, but nothing more than “Where are you going?May I see your ID.” Then either “Please take care of the pickpockets” (weirdly enough it was when I lived in an area with many foreigners) or “Please take care of the bike accidents” (there has been a bad accident around my area.)

  • Anon says:

    shokomu > shokumu in the latter half.

  • wmcj says:

    first time here, I know some people in japan that says such situations are so hard to face.
    some cops can sound “xenophobic”. they are always looking for foreigners to stop them and ask a lot of things.
    I don’t know its true, but in my view it makes japan safer. not a paradise, but do not try ( really, never try this )to see how the brazilian cops approach people. omg.
    by the way, I know toursts can rent bikes in tokyo. how this approach works in this case?

  • Burton says:

    When I visited Tokyo I only had one incident with “shokomu shitsumon”. An officer asked for my id in Roppongi, he saw that it was for the US apoligized and let me go about my business. I think he thought I was Nigerian. It was a lot less unpleasant than dealings I have had with police in NY!



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