When two police officers stopped and searched a young Black English professor of Japanese descent in a train station in Tokyo on January 27, he decided to film them. Alonzo Omotegawa says his video, which has been circulated widely on Twitter, shines a light on the “polite racism” that characterises Japanese society.
The persistent racism experienced by some minorities in Japan has been getting much-needed attention in the Japanese media over the past few months. In mid-December, the CEO of cosmetics giant DHC made disparaging statements about Koreans, sparking widespread criticism. A few weeks earlier, Nike Japan launched a commercial highlighting the daily discrimination and bullying faced by minorities in Japan.
“I want straight, silky hair,” reads this poster advertising hair products, which features a Black woman with a striking afro. Many people express shock and outrage over the racist imagery and, facing a storm of criticism, the company pulled that advertising campaign.
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and the activism of 23-year-old tennis champion Naomi Osaka – who is Black and Japanese – some Black and mixed heritage people in Japan have come together to speak out about the rampant racism in Japan.
‘It’s my third police search in six months’
In the spirit of this movement, Alonzo Omotegawa, a Black English teacher of Japanese descent, decided to take out his phone on January 27 when he was stopped for the umpteenth time by police. Omotegawa says police often stop and randomly search him, behaviour he believes is motivated by racial bias.
He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about this incident:
I was heading home after work and changed trains at Tokyo Station. The station is really packed [Editor’s note: 245 million people travel through the station each year] and so, because of the pandemic, I was on guard. At a certain point, I felt someone getting closer to me and so, as a reflex, I tried to move away. The man said he was a police officer, asked for my identity documents and searched my bag.
That’s the third time I’ve been searched in six months, ever since I got dreadlocks. Before that, I was only stopped and searched once and that was when I was in junior high. I’m convinced that the police associate my skin colour and hair with criminality. That’s why I got my phone out to film the interaction, so everyone could see their behaviour.
When I asked why they were searching me, the officer admitted that my appearance influenced his decision.
Thirteen seconds into the video, the police officer says that, according to his experience, “people wearing stylish clothes and dreadlocks tend to carry drugs.”
The video was posted on the Japan for Black Lives Twitter account the day the incident occurred. By February 3, it had garnered 243,000 views and had been retweeted 4,300 times.
For me, the only explanation for this search is the officer’s bias. Japanese society is rife with prejudice and I’ve paid for it since childhood, suffering all kinds of remarks at school especially. Most Japanese people don’t even realise this is an issue. When I told my Japanese grandparents what had happened to me, they were shocked and didn’t understand why. That shows that they are not at all aware of the issue.
‘I’m always afraid of being deported’
Artist et activist
Terry Wright is a Black American artist and activist who has been living in Japan for the past ten years. He said that he has frequent encounters with racist police officers.
Lots of Japanese people think that racism doesn’t exist in this country. But that’s not true. Of course, it’s not like the United States where an encounter with the police could be deadly, especially for Black people. But there is real fear here, especially amongst foreigners like me. I don’t have it on film, but police officers have admitted to me that they decided to search me because of the colour of my skin.
If you get arrested in Japan, the conviction rate is 99%. I started a family here, with my wife and my children. I am constantly afraid of being deported because I know that police target Black people. I never go out without my identity papers, even if it is just a quick trip to the convenience store right by my house.
This Twitter user spoke out about the frequent police searches he is subject to because of the colour of his skin.
Baye McNeil, an American media consultant and columnist who has been living in Japan for the past 16 years, is an expert on this topic. He says that even though discrimination towards foreigners is illegal, Japanese law doesn’t have procedures for punishing this crime.
“This situation means that landlords can systematically refuse to rent to foreigners without being investigated”, he told the FRANCE 24 Observers.
“If I have an issue one day, I won’t file a complaint”
Alyse Sugahara is a freelance translator who has been living in Japan for 10 years. She says that police don’t treat foreigners equally and that it makes sense to be fearful in this context.
If a foreigner gets into a situation that involves another Japanese person and the police, like a bike accident, for example, then they will systematically be blamed and the officer won’t believe them. If I had any kind of issue with a Japanese person, I don’t think I would report it because I know the police would never be on my side.
The problem is that very few people in Japan speak out about this kind of behaviour. Most people will actually believe that it is justified and is perhaps even the reason why there is a low rate of criminality here.
— zain ul aladdin (ゼイン)星恵土 (@zainulabaden) September 28, 2019
In this tweet, a Japanese citizen of Pakistani origin spoke out about how frequently police stop and search him because of his appearance.
Japan has one of the lowest rates of criminality in the world. For example, in 2017, the rate of homicides per 100,000 citizens in Japan was 0.2, versus 1.3 in France, 1 in Germany and 5.3 in the United States.
Alyse Sugahara says that this racism is also ingrained in Japanese culture:
I was one of the founding members of the Black Lives Matter group in the Kansai region (this central region includes the towns of Osaka and Kyoto). We worked together to identify stereotypes that are perpetuated in films, television and other aspects of pop culture.
This Japanese social media user is asking people to sign a petition to stop publishing the racist book “Little Black Sambo” in Japan.
For example, there is a children’s book that features the character Little Black Sambo, who is an offensive caricature, and there is a persistent culture of using Blackface. In Japan, some fans of hip hop or RnB will actually paint their faces Black in an attempt to “pay tribute” to Black culture and their favourite musicians [Editor’s note: even though this is misguided and offensive].
In 2017, McNeil spoke out about a man who appeared in Blackface on Japanese television during prime viewing hours.
In June 2020, Japan’s public broadcaster NHK broadcast a cartoon about the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in the United States after George Floyd was killed by a police officer. The cartoon portrayed protestors as muscled rioters and looters, who were setting cars on fire and denouncing economic inequality. The cartoon made no mention of how Floyd was killed by an officer who knelt on his neck.
In the wake of the scandal generated by this cartoon and condemnation from the American ambassador in Japan, NHK decided to take down the clip.