On Saturday, demonstrators in Tokyo’s bustling central youth district, Shibuya, took to the streets against racial discrimination and police brutality in a message of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement happening across the United States. Some 500 protesters descended on major roads and marched on once tightly packed shopping strips chanting slogans in Japanese and English with some inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests. The demonstration was carefully chauffeured by a heavy police presence and headed by a police van with police officers holding loudspeakers directing traffic and pedestrians.
With Tokyo embracing its second week since the coronavirus state of emergency was lifted, all protesters donned face masks while calling for the police to apologize for violence and for a change to a police force that can protect human life. During a smaller gathering of demonstrators in Shibuya, which later joined the street march, speakers paid tribute to black victims of U.S. police violence such as George Floyd, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, while foreign residents and mixed-raced nationals spoke out about their experiences of racism and fear of the police in Japan.
Mass protests have gained momentum in big and small cities in the United States, capturing the world’s attention. In Japan, the latest protest made renewed demands for action to fight racial discrimination against underrepresented minority groups such as members of the LGBT community, mixed-raced nationals, and foreign residents.
Professor Shuichi Furuya from Waseda Law School and the International Humanitarian Fact Finding Commission says there are many issues of discrimination plaguing Japan in addition to problems with Japan’s criminal justice system. Furuya says that while there have been legal gains in the past five years targeting hate speech, discrimination against the ostracized Burakumin group, and the exploitation of vulnerable trainee migrants, there are no comprehensive laws prohibiting direct or indirect discrimination by public authorities and private entities. Furuya explains that Japan has yet to adopt subparagraphs (a) and (b) under Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which criminalize the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority.
The demonstration on Saturday followed from an earlier protest on May 30 against unfair police violence and the racial profiling of foreigners. According to local media reports, on May 30 200 protesters gathered outside Shibuya police headquarters after a video circulating online showed a Kurdish man being held down by police in Shibuya after refusing to allow the police to search his car. The 33-year-old Turkish national, who holds permanent residency in Japan, said he suffered injuries to his neck, which took one month to heal. He says he was pulled over by the police without explanation and was questioned unfairly based on his appearance. The man was released on the same day without charge, but the video sparked outrage on Twitter over unjust police violence and unfair police questioning.
Japan’s criminal penal code has also come under international media scrutiny since the arrest of former Nissan executive Carlos Ghosn in November 2018. Furuya says one of the biggest contradictions between Japan’s law and international human rights standards is that there is no right to have lawyers present during criminal interrogation – a situation that is made worse by Japan’s allowing suspects to be detained for 23 days without charge and legal assistance.
Furuya says it is important to note that the number of foreigners arrested in Japan is relatively low in proportion to the population of Japan, with just 54 visiting foreigners and 55 foreign residents arrested in 2018. Among foreign residents the majority of arrests relate to illegal entry, visa overstays, and drug-related offenses, while most arrests of foreign visitors related to theft and injury or assault. However, “it is true that foreigners are more likely to encounter more random stop-and-searches based on a suspicion of immigration offenses,” he says, adding that “incidents of intimidation or assault could escalate quickly in instances where a foreigner may not be able to speak Japanese so well.”
In Japan it can be shocking to encounter signs outside some eateries and bars that refuse entry to foreigners or read “Japanese Only.” Equal access to housing, restaurants, and camping grounds are just some of the obstacles facing foreigners, as such discrimination is exempt from criminal punishment. Meanwhile, during Japan’s escalating coronavirus infections in March and April, some media reported a rise in posters excluding entry to foreigners due to coronavirus.
Professor Kiyoteru Tsutsui, the director of the Center for Japanese Studies and director of the Donia Human Rights Center at the University of Michigan, specializes in human rights movements by minorities in Japan. He highlights that international human rights norms are lacking for foreigners in Japan, and says that accusations of unfair treatment toward foreigners not only damage Japan’s reputation as a holiday destination but also undermine the government’s campaign to attract more inbound tourism. “This adds to the impetus for the government to address the issue,” he says. “But if activists are to exert foreigners’ rights in Japan, they should look to the history of how Burakumin, Koreans, and Ainu have leveraged global human rights for policy gains since the 1970s.”
Tsutsui says Black Lives Matter protests in Japan are an interesting phenomenon, particularly since Japanese people have a much more favorable view of the police compared to in the United States. The police are seen more as “caring guardians” who check up on the elderly and children, give directions as well as managing lost and found depositories. This in turn makes it easier for the Japanese public to feel offended about police brutality in the United States — and makes it hard to believe police brutality against foreigners in Japan. He adds that similar to the case of George Floyd, the spread of video footage would help attract more Japanese people in support of stopping police brutality against foreigners.
A central demand of the protest on May 30 called for violent police officers to be dismissed and for police violence to be abolished. One man was arrested on charges of trespass after angrily entering the police headquarters. The demonstration was picked up a handful of local major media outlets such as Mainichi Shimbun, TV Asahi, Big Globe, and Niconico. However, as the global Black Lives Matter movement takes center stage in the international news agenda in Japan, the lack of diverse media coverage on local issues relating to xenophobia, racial bias, and excessive police force demonstrates that meaningful public dialogue has barely scratched the surface.