A House of Cards – Japan, Asia

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Foreigners staying long-term in Japan are required to register at local town or ward offices and are given an identity card, a gaigin card. Once the card is issued, you are informed there is a law stating you should carry the ID with you at all times. How serious is this directive? Read on and decide for yourself.

In August, 2005, my Japanese wife and I drove from our home in Aomori to Nakajo-machi in Niigata. The trip to my wife's parents' house was uneventful.

The next day, while driving around town, I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw a police vehicle. Having done nothing illegal, I didn't think much of it. When the light changed, I moved on, hitting the brakes briefly to negotiate a bend in the road. On went the red flashing lights of the trailing car. I immediately pulled over. The officer informed me that the top part of a brake light had burned out. He had me stand behind the car while he hit the brake to make the point. He then asked for identification. I showed the two IDs I had: a Japanese driver's license and an employee card from the Japanese college where I work.

Predictably, these items weren't enough; he wanted to see my gaijin card. I knew I'd forgotten it – something I'd realized half way on the road from Aomori to Niigata. I confessed. (I keep two wallets, one with overseas "stuff" and one for Japan. Most items stay separate, but since the gaijin card is needed in the country and to exit and reenter, it "floats" between the two billfolds. Anyway, the surf wasn't up and the card was in the wrong wallet).

The officer said I had broken the law and he had no choice but to ask me to accompany him to the police station. He sat in the front seat and I drove, while a second cop took the wheel of the police car.
At the station, I was immediately seated in a small interrogation room on the second floor. Two police officials came in and stated they could not release me without special permission from "higher authorities". My wife was called on the phone and came to the station. We met briefly and were then informed that I would be questioned alone.

An interpreter was called in from Niigata City. I was questioned for five and a half hours. They wanted to know, in excruciating detail, where I'd been before I was stopped, where I was going, who I knew in the area, what was my version of the circumstances of being stopped and the like. Later, I found my wife, who I'd imagined was just waiting for me, had been questioned for three hours, mostly on the topics of how we had met, when we got married, and relatives on my side of the family. (I might add that I have been in Japan for 15 years and have permanent residency. Plus, my wife's father is a doctor who the police knew by name. These points were obvious to the attending officers from the start, yet it didn't count for much, as the wheels of justice ground on inexorably).

At the end of the questioning, I signed a statement that explained how and why I had been stopped, why I didn't have the ID; I offered a sincere apology for my offense. My wife and I were then told permission to let me go had been approved.

Is that all there is? Wait, there's more. This was a Friday and I was informed I had to return the following Monday for another eight hours of questioning! In the meantime, my wife had to take the train back to Aomori – a six-hour trip each way and not cheap – to retrieve my gaijin card and passport for the Monday encounter. I was also told not to leave the house we were staying at during the two days.

On Monday, the questions went on for eight and a half hours. The day got off to a bad start when I was asked to voluntarily have a mug shot taken and to be fingerprinted. The idea was to feed the information into a database and provide proof that I had not committed crimes elsewhere in Japan. This unique opportunity was declined.

For the interview I was asked about everything from the name of the elementary school I went to, to details of personal finances. I refused to answer many of the questions, which nobody seemed to mind. (It should probably be noted that at no time during this entire episode was anyone hostile or threatening. The treatment I received was downright hospitable; I was asked if I wanted to take breaks, if I wanted something to drink, etc. Maintaining surface, social harmony is of no small importance in Japan, particularly, perhaps, when the screws are being put to someone).

It's still not over. My case comes up, they didn't say when, before a prosecutor in Niigata who has three options: drop everything, call me in for further questioning or prosecute.

My reaction to all this was a mixture of amazement and disgust. The entire process says a lot about Japan's ongoing lip service to "internationalization", its guilty-till-proven-innocent justice system and its inability to fathom the inscrutable minds of foreigners than it does about any individual's respect for the law. You almost have to laugh at the degree of heavy-handedness and overkill. Almost.

Over two years later, and still resident in Japan, I have heard nothing further concerning the case.

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