Racial Profiling by the Japanese Police: An Interview with Austin Freeman
In December 2017, TUJ added a new section to their Student Handbook titled Public Safety and Encounters with Law Enforcement (pages 21-23), "TUJ does not assume obligations for students’ off campus behavior or for their interactions with Japanese law enforcement personnel or the criminal justice system."
The UPRIZINE Team is currently working with Austin, to create a draft of a pamphlet (referred to in this article) to present to TUJ for consideration. Ideally, this would be something that TUJ begins to implement in their student orientations. Please contact us if you have any concerns, or would like to contribute to this project. Any help, advice, and/or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
I sat down with Austin to discuss what happened to him on October 18th, 2017, and the events following that day. This is what he had to say.
On October 18th, I was walking to school from Azabu-juban Station crossing the largest crosswalk. When I got to the end, two police officers stopped me and pulled me to the side. They went through the basics of asking me where I was from, what I was doing etc. I answered all of their questions.
One of the officers asked me whether I was coming from Roppongi to which I responded no. It was 10AM, I had just come from home, and was on my way to class. Then, he asked me whether I was Nigerian and I told him that I was not. I'm African-American, but I am not African.
They asked me whether they could search my bag and I was hesitant to say yes because I had a class in 15 minutes but at the same time, I didn’t want to get arrested and then be held for 23 days, so I complied. They started searching my backpack and went through all of my things including my text books, my glasses case, and all my little pockets. They asked me what things were, in Japanese. They asked me if they could go through my wallet so once I agreed, they put on their gloves and at that point, it was very clear to me that they were looking for drugs. There was no reason to be looking through nooks and crannies of a wallet, unless you were looking for some type of substance.
While all of this was going on, multiple foreigners including TUJ students passed by, watching all of this happen. Nobody intervened. The majority of the people who passed me during this time were Japanese, but the non-Japanese TUJ students that passed me, were all white. TUJ does have a lot of students that aren't white, however, to put it bluntly, nobody who looked like me passed by while this was happening. So in that respect, I was most definitely the only person with a darker skin tone there as this was taking place. The search took around 15 minutes.
"To put it bluntly, nobody who looked like me passed by while this was happening."
The policemen let me go but I was livid because not only was I now running late for class, but it was extremely embarrassing to be put on the spot like that. All my personal belongings were strewn out on the street, while the officers sifted through it for drugs using flashlights in broad daylight.
What was odd to me, was that the police have stopped me multiple times in Japan, but that was the first time I was stopped by the police in Azabu-jyuban, so near school. It was really off putting because Azabu is a very multicultural district with embassies and consulates and English schools. So there are different kinds of people who go through Azabu on a day to day basis, and as someone who has gone to TUJ since 2014, I'm no anomaly. My presence here shouldn't be a cause for concern, especially when you take into account the dynamic of the Azabu area.
After this happened, I decided to construct a Facebook post in the TUJ Student Group since this happened so close to the university. Since I was asked whether I was Nigerian, I assumed that the Azabu police were targeting anybody who looked black or had darker skin, so I decided I wanted to warn people about this. By people, I did it as a Public Service Announcement primarily to incoming black students and other students of darker skin color. I wanted them to be aware of what to expect as they moved into Tokyo since they may or may not be prepared to deal with being racially profiled. Especially in a foreign country, it can be scary when they don't speak the language and don't know all of the customs.
I made the Facebook post because I wanted to bring awareness to the issue and to most importantly, educate and prevent the same thing from happening to other students. Worse case scenario, making sure they knew what their options were, should they find themselves in the same position that I found myself in. The post soon conjured up many inflammatory comments, and was shut down by the moderators without a chance for me to respond to the comments made by some students. I specifically had to reach out to the moderators. This is not only a very sensitive issue, this is my life, and a little goes a long way so I would've appreciated it if even one moderator came up to me explaining their decision to take down the post, instead of just taking action the way that they did.
"This was a PSA to those who look black, because I felt that they were the ones at a higher risk of being stopped. Some people chose not to realize that."
My post was meant as a PSA towards students who look a certain way. If you don't look black, the problem that I was addressing did not apply to you. I got stopped that day because I am black. (Law enforcement saw my dark skin as an indication of being Nigerian, despite the fact that these area specific policemen interact with black people on a regular basis and should be able to make the distinction between an African-American and a Nigerian). So, this was a PSA to those who look black, because I felt that they were the ones at a higher risk of being stopped. Some people chose not to realize that.
This has been a known problem for many years. Many students privately came up to me or messaged me, thanking me for the Facebook post, because they had gone through the same thing I had.
I first addressed this issue of racial profiling by the Japanese police through email with the Offices of Student Services (OSS), in November of 2016. I was then directed to General Council, Tom Dreves, and I met with him in person in December of that same year. In the end, the conversations we had produced no changed results, so when I was stopped so close to school on that day, I decided not to go through the institution, but to go straight to the student Facebook page in order to begin an open dialogue.
When I spoke to General Council at the end of 2016, he suggested I smile more, in attempt to make the Japanese police feel more comfortable. You have to be very very privileged to think that smiling at somebody who thinks you're suspicious because of your skin color, is going to help them. When I first came to Japan, I did smile a lot, but people got awkward; it's a cultural difference from America. In Japan, you don't really do that, even more so towards the police. After explaining this, I was told that I should be thankful I’m in Japan instead of America, where I’m more likely to be shot. Never did I think that the most obtuse and disrespectful commentary in regards to my situation would come from someone working for the institution. Just because Japanese police do not carry guns, does not mean that my legitimate fear and anxiety that accompanies being racially profiled should be dismissed.
There were comments made on the TUJ Facebook post that I could've dressed differently to make myself look less suspicious, and again, smile more, which brings me back to the point that the police officer stopped me because to him, I looked Nigerian. There's no clothing I could wear or facial expression I could make, that would make me look less black.
"There's no clothing I could wear or facial expression I could make, that would make me look less black."
The orientation that TUJ gives at the beginning of each semester, does not touch upon anything that would prepare a student of color to deal with racial profiling by the Japanese police. I propose for a pamphlet to be given out during these orientation sessions.
In addition to having actual tidbits of knowledge on Japanese laws, for instance, how many days you can be held, whether or not you’re allowed to refuse a search etc., the pamphlet could also include phrases in Japanese and Romaji for the incoming students who don't know any Japanese saying things like "I would rather not be searched" or "I'm a student". Helpful things so that if they're put in the situation, they could at least have some Japanese ability. I don’t expect TUJ to make an entire point and speak book for when you get racially profiled or get stopped by the police. However at the very least, students should have information on their rights and what they can say if they are ever stopped, so that they're not caught like a deer in headlights.
I also think that TUJ should play a much bigger part in advocating for their students of color, because TUJ prides itself on its diversity very much so in their advertising. TUJ boasts about how many different countries students come from and how many different languages people speak and while that's true, that's not put into practice when those students of color face difficulties for their diversity and the institution looks the other way. I feel as though it's even more important because as TUJ continues to grow, this is going to be a recurring problem, no matter where the TUJ students are. Whether they're in Azabu or around the new campus in Sangen-jyaya. It is obviously not realistic to stop Japanese racism within the Japanese police force, but I believe that mitigating it, is an achievable goal.