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Tuesday, July 8, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Watching the detectives

Japan's human rights bureau falls woefully short of meeting its own job specifications


There's something to be said about Japanese police attitudes towards foreigners.

Police shakedowns of foreigners riding bicycles have become routine in some parts of Tokyo. Kabukichou, due to its high foreign concentration, enjoys Japan's only 24-hour neighborhood-wide cop surveillance camera system.

Most noteworthy are the public service announcements from police departments nationwide warning against "bad foreigner" crime.

Technically, this targeting of the foreign community should not be happening. As the Japanese government reported to the United Nations in October, 2001:

"Japan has been educating public officials, law enforcement officers and administrators about human rights including elimination of racial discrimination, and will continue to make efforts in the future."

Sounds good on paper. But in practice there are bugs. As a naturalized Caucasian Japanese citizen, I am not exempt from the odd bit of racial profiling.

For example, last December I was on my way to Tokyo through Hokkaido's largest airport, Chitose. Far afield from any security zone, up came a cop.

"Hey you. Show me your passport."

When I asked the reason why in Hokkaido dialect, the startled officer demurred, claiming he asks everybody. Dubious, since Japanese don't normally carry "passports."

Any other reason? Nope. So I said, "You only stopped me because you thought I was a foreigner. Surprise. I'm not. In fact, what you just did was illegal under the Police Execution of Duties Act, Article 2, a copy of which I just happen to have in my wallet.

"You are forbidden from asking Japanese citizens personal questions without sufficient suspicion of a crime. I don't think exiting a post office while white will do."

He wasn't in the mood for apologies, so I took it up with his superior, and his superior, and ultimately Hokkaido Police Headquarters. Everyone refused to say sorry, offer any other justification for stopping me (except "December is a high-security month, and we understandably thought you were a foreigner,") or explain how harassment of Japan's international residents would be avoided in future.

All I got in writing (nearly three months later) from the Hokkaido Public Safety Commission was: "We have a job to do, so kindly cooperate." (see www. debito. org/policeapology. html )

What to do in situations like these? Taking a page from the Japanese report above, apparently:

"Human rights counseling rooms are set up to accept inquiries from those who have suffered discrimination. Human Rights Organs of the Ministry of Justice promptly investigate the incidents . . . and based on the results, take proper measures for the case."

Sounded good. So I visited the counseling room at the Sapporo Bureau of Human Rights ("Jinken Yougobu," or BOHR).

Jan. 8, 2003: I appraise BOHR bureaucrats of the altercation with the Hokkaido Police. After taking copious notes, they promise to investigate the illegality of the situation, carry out something called "enlightenment" of the police if necessary, and report back to me.

March 27: After two months of silence, I contact the same BOHR official for an update. He denies ever promising an "investigation," let alone a report. He admits he met a Hokkaido Police representative, who basically listened and left. I ask for material evidence of that meeting. No can do -- the BOHR is legally bound to keep their "enlightenment" activities private.

I doubt that, having received reports from other regional BOHRs in the past, and ask to see that law in writing. He says I must go through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get it.

April 15: I go to the BOHR and through the FOIA formally request copies of the pertinent laws and evidence of "enlightenment."

Late April: The BOHR phones to say I need not have gone through the FOIA for copies of said law.

May 13: Nearly one month later, my requests for information "promptly" arrive: Copies of the law, yes, but the request for material "enlightenment" denied. Reason: The FOIA forbids invasions of privacy of "specific individuals" ("tokutei no kojin"), meaning me. The BOHR was therefore protecting me from myself.

May 22: I march back to the BOHR and, citing the very laws they provided me, demand the release of three documents that by law must be created for any human rights consultation.

June 23: The BOHR answers again: Requests denied, again, to protect me from my invading my own privacy. I can appeal this decision to the Minister of Justice within sixty days, if I so desire.

Hence the BOHR, funded by our taxes, was not doing its job. In fact, it used every means possible to sidestep accountability and to assist someone who was entitled to have their rights investigated.

No jaws are dropping at the United Nations. In a November 1998 report on Japan, the Committee on Civil and Political Rights stated:

"The Committee is concerned about the lack of institutional mechanisms available for investigating violations of human rights and for providing redress.

"Effective institutional mechanisms are required to ensure that the authorities do not abuse their power and that they respect the rights of individuals in practice. The Committee is of the view that the Civil Liberties Commission [i.e. the BOHR] is not such a mechanism, since it is supervised by the Ministry of Justice and its powers are strictly limited to issuing recommendations.

"The Committee is concerned that there is no independent authority to which complaints of ill-treatment by police or immigration can be addressed."

Every good government needs a system of checks and balances. Here is an area of Japanese law where it is sorely lacking -- in redressing police abuses of authority.

What can be done when police bend the laws they are supposed to enforce? Basically nothing.

You are at the mercy of the attitudes of our boys in blue.



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