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.
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!