When two police officers stopped and searched for a young black English professor of Japanese descent at a train station in Tokyo on January 27, he decided to film them. Alonzo Omotegawa says his video, which has been widely circulated on Twitter, highlights the “polite racism” that characterizes Japanese society.
The persistent racism experienced by some minorities in Japan has received much-needed attention in the Japanese media in recent months. In mid-December, CEO of cosmetics giant DHC made derogatory statements about Koreans and sparked widespread criticism. A few weeks earlier, Nike Japan launched an advertisement highlighting the daily discrimination and bullying of minorities in Japan.
“I want straight, silky hair,” says this poster advertising hair products, which features a black woman with a striking afro. Many people express shock and outrage over the racist images, and in the face of a storm of criticism, the company withdrew 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 heirs in Japan have come together to talk about the nasty racism in Japan.
‘This is 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 fifth time by the police. Omotegawa says the police often stop and randomly search for him, behavior that he believes is motivated by racial prejudice.
He told the JowharObservers team about this incident:
I was on my way 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 because of the pandemic I was on guard. At one point I felt someone coming closer to me and 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.
This is the third time I have applied in six months, ever since I received dreadlocks. Before that I was only stopped and applied once and that was when I was in junior high. I’m convinced the police associate my skin color and my hair with crime. So I got my phone out to film the interaction so everyone could see their behavior.
When I asked why they were looking for me, the official admitted that my appearance influenced his decision.
Thirteen seconds into the video, police say that in his experience, “people who wear fancy clothes and dreadlocks tend to wear drugs.”
The video was posted on Twitter for Black Live’s Twitter account the day the incident occurred. On February 3, it had received 243,000 views and had been retweeted 4,300 times.
To me, the only explanation for this search is the officer’s bias. Japanese society is full of prejudices and I have paid for it since childhood and suffered all kinds of comments at school, especially. Most Japanese do not even realize that this is a problem. When I told my Japanese grandparents what had happened to me, they were shocked and did not understand why. It shows that they are not at all aware of the problem.
‘I’m always afraid of being deported’
Artist and activist
Terry Wright is a black American artist and activist who has lived in Japan for the past ten years. He said he often meets with racist police.
Many Japanese believe that racism does not exist in this country. But it is not true. Of course, it’s not like the United States where a meeting with the police can be fatal, especially for black people. But there is real fear here, especially among foreigners like me. I do not have it on film, but police have admitted to me that they decided to search for me because of my skin color.
If you are arrested in Japan, the conviction rate is 99%. I started a family here, with my wife and children. I’m constantly afraid of being deported because I know the police are targeting black people. I never go out without my identity documents, even if it’s just a quick trip to the convenience store right next to my house.
This Twitter user talked about the frequent police searches he is subjected to because of his skin color.
Baye McNeil, an American media consultant and columnist who has lived in Japan for the past 16 years, is an expert on this subject. He says that although discrimination against foreigners is illegal, Japanese law does not have procedures to punish this crime.
“This situation means that landlords can systematically refuse to hire foreigners without being investigated,” he told Jowharobservers.
“If I have a problem one day I will not complain”
Alyse Sugahara is a freelance translator who has lived in Japan for ten years. She says that the police do not treat foreigners equally and that it makes sense to be afraid in this context.
If a foreigner ends up in a situation involving another Japanese person and the police, such as a bicycle accident, they will systematically blame and the officer will not believe them. If I had any kind of problem with a Japanese person, I do not 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 talk about this type of behavior. In fact, most people think it is justified and perhaps even the reason why there is a low crime rate here.
す は パ キ ス タ ン 系 日本人 で す.も も 日本 で す.す は こ れ で も 日も な ん で す.す 質 に は 協力 し し す す.It’s not a bad thing, it’s not a bad thing at all, it’s a bad thing.す り ま す
. 本人 確認 書 類 の 提示 提示 を お い し ま 」が 適 す 本人 す 本人 本人 本人
– zain ul aladdin (ゼ イ ン) 星 28 土 (@zainulabaden) 28 September 2019
In this tweet, a Japanese citizen of Pakistani origin talked about how often the police stop and look for him because of his appearance.
Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. For example, the murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants in Japan was 0.2, compared with 1.3 in France, 1 in Germany and 5.3 in the United States.
Alyse Sugahara says that this racism is also embedded 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 cities of Osaka and Kyoto). We worked together to identify stereotypes that are stored in movies, 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 with the character Little Black Sambo, which is an offensive caricature, and there is a persistent culture to use Blackface. In Japan, some fans of hip hop or RnB will actually paint their faces black in an attempt to “rent” the black culture and their favorite musicians [Editor’s note: even though this is misguided and offensive].
In 2017, McNeil talked about a man who appeared in Blackface on Japanese television during prime time.
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 demonstrated demonstrators as muscular rioters and looters, who set fire to cars and condemned economic inequality. Cartoon did not mention 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 to Japan, NHK decided to take down the clip.