Wednesday, June 17, 2009

This is Not America

Occasionally, I'll watch one of the plethora of crime dramas from America that populate a great deal of Japanese cable television. Such shows are so popular that one of the Fox networks here is called "Fox Crime". Despite having a dumping ground for all crime-based programming on that particular channel, I still see plenty of other such shows on the plain old "Fox" channel and "Fox Life". If I had access to "Fox Movies", I'm guessing I'd see a lot more American crime drama there as well.

At any rate, when I watch one of these shows (usually with half an eye and half a mind), I occasionally see the hoary old routine where the police approach an immigrant and try to question him or her about a crime and try to intimidate said foreigner into cooperation by asking about his or her green card. For those who don't know, a "green card" is slang for one's permanent residence card or permission to remain in the country.

For the record, and for those who are not American or have been away for so long that they don't recall their own culture except through the lens of a T.V. camera, this sort of crap doesn't happen very often. This is not America. It's the fictional America which popular entertainment uses as a short-hand for reality because reality is so much more boring than pushy cops and weaselly immigrants who need to be coerced into cooperating in an investigation.

Lately, this topic has been on my mind as I've been following some of the drivel, er, comments attached to my friend Joseph Tame's video interview with foreign rights activist, Arudou Debito. Debito has his own site which he uses to raise awareness of news and issues related to life for foreigners in Japan. It's a place where people who need a platform from which to discuss their experiences can find an audience of supportive parties. Debito's aim is to act as if Japan were a place which should be held accountable for its actions toward foreigners and where the standards of ethics, equality, and morality which tend to be held in most developed countries should apply. He's a funny sort of fellow like that.

Debito's notions that principles that are good for everyone else ought to apply to Japan are not shared by the vocal minority of foreign folks in Japan. That is, there are a lot men from developed countries who think that what Japan does is just fine and justified. The part of this on-line cocktail party debate which concerns my introductory comments about America come in when these parties pretend America is "as bad" or "worse" than Japan when it comes to how foreigners are treated and the expectations of them when it comes to presenting identification.

For the sake of addressing my main point, which is a contrast and comparison between how America and Japan treat their respective foreign residents, I'm going to set aside the logical argument that one country's unethical or poor treatment of it's foreign residents is not in the least bit germane to a discussion of another country's. That's my way of saying that one country's poor behavior isn't a justification of another's. If you used that logic, we could justify anything including ethnic cleansing and religious persecution. If I live in Japan, my concern is how Japan treats its foreigners. The way America treats its foreigners is not the concern of Japanese expats. It's the concern of American expats, but let's set that reasonable argument aside, shall we?

One of the oft-cited reasons for justifying the upcoming changes to their dealings with foreigners is that America requires its foreign residents to carry identification and present it upon request as well. This is absolutely true. However, there is a marked difference in how the authorities in each country use their power to check identification and how they treat those who fail to present it. Japanese authorities abuse that power. American authorities generally use it only as necessary.

In Japan, the police will stop you and request that you offer your gaijin card merely because you look foreign. They can do this simply because they feel like harassing you, are bored, or want to flex a few power muscles. This is racial profiling and random harassment at its finest and it's easy for the Japanese to do because they figure most people who don't look Japanese aren't Japanese.

In America, the police don't go around randomly asking for I.D. for "foreign looking" people. They couldn't even if they wanted to because no one knows what a "foreigner" looks like in a country full of mixed cultural and ethnic histories. Beyond that, America has a long history of habeas corpus which anyone acting in a capacity related to criminal justice must act in accord with and is educated in. Don't know what habeas corpus is? In a nutshell, it's protection from being unlawfully detained by an official or unofficial person or persons. For the record, Japan does not have habeas corpus in its laws (or if it does, it's totally ignored). That means they can detain you for any reason any time. Their system does not operate from this judicial compass.

American police also have to act based on probable cause, not based on whims as the Japanese police do. The shorthand and oversimplified version of this that means the police have to establish that they have a reason to bother you before they can bother you. There are consequences for any authority that decides to randomly harass anyone for any reason. The Japanese police can essentially question you for no reason, drag you into the police station and interrogate you for no reason, and charge you for a crime without evidence. They can also hold you for up to 21 days without charging you for anything if they feel like it.

I'm not saying that the authorities never ask for the identification of foreign residents in America. I'm sure they do. However, they don't ask unless they have a reason to ask like you are a criminal suspect (for which they must have some evidence that you are connected to a crime, not simply that you look like a foreigner) or you are at a checkpoint for sobriety testing (at which every person is checked, not just those who look a certain way). What is more, any foreign resident in America who is mistreated already has a base of power from which to operate if he or she wants to lodge a protest. Even illegal immigrants have powerful support networks in the United States. I know this because I used to work at a community center which was for the Hispanic people in a particular area of California. I shared an office with one of their advocates. In Japan, we have no such support or power base if we are randomly mistreated.

So, yes, foreigners in America have to carry their foreign registration cards all the time, but the chances that they will be asked for them merely for walking around while looking foreign are exceptionally low. Could it happen? Sure. Does it happen on rare occasions. I'm sure it does. Does it happen often? No.

How can I reasonably conclude the latter? Well, besides the fact that the ethnic composition of the American population would make the same sort of random harassment you receive in Japan damn near impossible and that the laws in America are set up to protect everyone from such racial discrimination, I did some research. If you check forums for those holding green cards in America, what you don't find are discussions of being singled out and asked for I.D. pointlessly. You find talk about people who committed crimes and are worried they might be deported. You find information about paying taxes and citizenship hearings. You don't see anyone saying they were stopped and asked for I.D. for no reason at all.

The situation which Debito addresses in Joseph's interview with him isn't even about the current situation where police are asking for I.D. for no reason or subjecting foreigners disproportionately to bicycle theft checks. It's about the fact that the singling out of foreigners for carrying I.D. with computer tracking chips and punitive measures should they fail to carry their alien registration cards at all times is going to get harsher. If the new laws are passed, any foreigner who happens to walk out and forget his wallet can be fined 200,000 yen (that's $2,000 U.S. dollars) for not having his card. In America, if you don't have your card, you can bring it the next day or so. There's no fine or arrest. In Japan, you currently get hauled to the police station for questioning and are detained until a third party can deliver the card. That's the situation now. In the future, you can be held like a criminal and have to pay an exorbitant amount of money if you forget to take your card everywhere you go. So, forgetting your wallet or misplacing your card could be a terribly expensive and emotionally stressful mistake.

And lest you think the police don't give random checks, let me say that I've been randomly checked as has my husband, and we are very non-threatening-looking people who rarely go out at night (let alone late at night), don't drink alcohol or drive. We're very boring middle-aged people. My brother-in-law also told us early on in our stay in Japan that he had a coworker who stepped out in front of his apartment in his bathrobe to grab his mail and he was asked to present his card. After a great deal of persuading, the cop let him go step back into his place to retrieve his card. Needless to say, I don't take one step outside without my card. Every time I take out the trash in the morning, I have to take my wallet for fear that I could be at risk for being hauled off for detention and questioning. Having to make sure I never forget to take my wallet even for a brief trip to the trash pile about 20 paces from my door and directly in front of my building is a reminder to me each time I put a toe out my front door that I could be treated as a potential criminal.

(Part 2 to come)


Alex said...

Do you have numbers or any other information to cite to support this, because as far as I remember - Racial profiling is a huge issue in the States.

I'm not arguing that because it exists in the States that it should exist in Japan, but I think this write-up is a little too detached from reality.

goinglocoinyokohama said...

I agree, Alex, but America is a big country where different areas actually can have different realities.
I've been in Japan 6 years and I've been stopped twice on my bicycle...and I am, by Japanese standards, a threatening looking person, but they were so polite and I can hardly call it harassment though I did get offended and defensive initially.
The last time, I was on a bike that wasn't even in my name (they was still in the name of the girl I'd bought it from) and it had a broken light. They told me where to get it fixed and where to shift the registration to my name (of course after I had presented my Gaijin Card) and sent me on my way. Not even a slap on the wrist. More like a love bite on my neck (-: (compared to NY anyway)

Girl Japan said...

I have to agree with Alex a little on this one, I think it also depends on the person's own experience as well, growing up in NYC and I can relate the the recent TV shows... does that make sense?

But for each State in America are very different realities from one reality to the next...

Turner said...

I was afraid to depart for a daily run without the card too:

Doubtful the cops could have caught me if I decided to flee, but still...