If you’re a foreigner in Japan, at some point you’re probably going to have a run-in with the police. This might be because they think you look suspicious (for justified reasons or not) and want to check your residence card, pulled you over because you violated a traffic law, or maybe you lost your wallet and need to file a lost report/are lost and need to ask directions at the nearest police box (kōban).
Having just gotten pulled over for a traffic offense, and considering the police climate Stateside, I thought I’d write a short bit on what to do if and when you encounter the police in Japan.
If you’re a minority it seems like you never know what kind of reaction you’re going to get from a police officer, and this fairly applicable in Japan as well. Japanese police officers are notorious for putting in long hours, and I’ve heard more than once that they have strict low crime quotas to meet. That’s often not the best combination for dealing with potential suspects or demands made on their time, especially when dealing with minorities that may or may not speak Japanese. Japan is also country where police officers don’t need any kind of proof, arrest, or warrant to detain you for an extended period of time. Therefore, it’s in your best interest not to piss them off.
Much like that infamous Chris Rock video, the first thing you should do is always obey the law. Have a basic understanding of the laws before you vacation or live here. Some laws, like those against drug usage or drinking and driving, are much more serious than their Western counterparts. If you’re driving, especially on an international license, make sure you’re familiar with most traffic laws.
If you get stopped for an infraction, be polite. Humility goes a long way in Japan. Superiors, especially police officers, don’t like hearing excuses even if they might be somewhat legitimate ones. If you do something wrong, just apologize for it. I mentioned getting pulled over the other day, right? I made an illegal turn to get out of the way of this piss poor driver in front of me. Ultimately though, two wrongs don’t make a right. And because I admitted my mistake right off the bat and sincerely apologized for it, the officer had leniency on me and only gave me a warning. I’m not saying politeness is a get out of jail free card, because they can’t just give everyone a free pass. However being polite never hurts, and most of the time the police are just doing their jobs anyways. If you do get a ticket, make go pay it at a bank or post office by the due date. Fortunately for us Americans, traffic fines here for small offenses are much cheaper than U.S. ones.
If you’re in a wreck, unless you’re willing to admit full responsibility, just be polite. Don’t make any unnecessary apologies until after the accident ruling. Most accident rulings in Japan are never 100% one person’s fault. Except in rare cases, usually the blame is split between both parties.
Unfortunately, you might get stopped even if you didn’t do anything wrong. Still, be polite. Some foreigners might get a little cocky or aggressive over a random residence card checks or police grills because they can often be or seem discriminatory, but acting that way usually won’t help your case. And since Japan is the land of the passive aggressive, you can often get your point by killing them with politeness and instead saying something like, “Nanika ikenai koto wo shimashita ka?” (“Did I do something wrong?”) If you’re studying abroad at or attending a prominent university in Japan, name dropping can sometimes help your case, too. Don’t be afraid to let your student ID card slip into view.
Lost your wallet or need directions? There’s usually a police box nearby to help you out. Filing the endless loss claim report paperwork or waiting for the officer at the box to try and find the place on you’re looking for with his big book of maps that are likely 10 years out of date can be an arduous process, especially if your Japanese is rusty and the officer isn’t too over the moon to deal with you, but ultimately they’re still trying to offer you their service so again, be polite even if they aren’t.
Oh, and by the way, a lot of retired police officers tend to work at license centers (the Japanese equivalent of the DMV), so be patient and polite there, too. 😉