Trial begins in Japanese civil lawsuit alleging racial profiling by police

A civil lawsuit alleging racial profiling by Japanese police commenced Monday with emotional testimonies from plaintiffs describing incessant, unjustified stops and interrogations.

The suit, filed in January by three Japan residents with foreign ancestry, including an American citizen, contends that their treatment amounts to discrimination, violating their fundamental rights.

Currently lacking anti-discrimination laws or guidelines prohibiting racial profiling, Japan’s government and police deny discrimination, asserting they are merely fulfilling their duties. They have yet to furnish details of their defense, anticipated for the upcoming court session in July. A verdict is expected within the year.

“We are conveying our emotions, our firsthand accounts, and our perspectives,” stated plaintiff Syed Zain, a Japanese citizen of Pakistani descent, addressing reporters after his appearance in Tokyo District Court.

Zain recounted being treated as a criminal despite residing in Japan for two decades, attending local schools, and possessing fluency in the language. He aspires to be recognized as Japanese and contribute to Japan’s progress.

The lawsuit targets the national government and police, as well as prefectural police in Tokyo and Aichi.

This trial may serve as a watershed moment for Japan, attracting extensive support and focus in a society known for its amicable “community policing” and low crime rate.

It underscores the challenges faced by a culture renowned for its insularity as it navigates the recent influx of international residents. The number of non-citizens residing in Japan recently reached an unprecedented high of over 3.2 million.

The plaintiffs seek punitive damages of $20,000 each for “unconstitutional and unlawful” treatment, along with attorney fees totaling 300,000 yen (approximately $2,000) per plaintiff.

According to Motoki Taniguchi, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, police frequently target individuals based on race, skin tone, or ethnicity, disregarding objective evidence.

A 2022 Tokyo Bar Association survey encompassing over 2,000 foreign-descended individuals residing in Japan revealed that 62.9% of respondents had been questioned by police within the previous five years. Some reported comments from police regarding “suspicious” hairstyles or attire.

Recent government data indicate no disparity in crime rates between Japanese citizens and foreign residents.

Maurice Shelton, the American plaintiff, shared that he has been stopped by police approximately 17 times during his decade in Japan, despite his permanent residency and Japanese family ties.

“As a Black American coming here … it’s quite disheartening to know that I’d have to face the same struggles and battles here,” he expressed. “But I believe in Japanese society’s potential to rise to the occasion. I didn’t come here to be let down.”