This year — for the first time in its 32-year history — the Rugby World Cup will be held in Asia. On Nov 2, 2019, the International Stadium Yokohama in Japan will become just the seventh stadium ever to host the final of the world’s third-largest sporting event.
While a fantastic time is expected to be had by all involved: hosts, teams and fans; that’s not to say some cultural scrums won’t form. The arrest and detention of Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn last year has shone an international spotlight on Japan’s justice system. This could have some people worried.
Japan is — for the most part — a forward-thinking, modern democracy. It’s justice system, however, still relies on solitary confinement, forced confessions and apologies (with financial compensation to “victims”) for its verdicts. The most worrying aspect of criminal justice in Japan is its detention system (suspects can be held for up to 23 days without being charged) and its bias against non-Japanese detainees.
Stating this is not meant to scare people. Your experience at the World Cup and other events will probably be as fun and enjoyable as you expect, or even more so — whether in Tokyo, Yokohama or farther-flung Kyushu. The locals want you to come and to enjoy yourself at the matches as well as learn and experience the delights of their city and region — police included
But differences in culture and behavior exist. For example, it may be completely normal in your home country — fellas! — to relieve yourself outside, in an alley or on the side of building, whereas here the keisatsu (police) may stop you for defacing private property or indecent exposure. From even minor encounters, major troubles can occur.
This is a no-nonsense guide to what you should do if you are stopped by the police in Japan, prefaced with some common-sense advice to prevent any problems before they might occur.
Before you come
A word to those arriving from overseas: before you leave for Japan, do your research.
Read up online. Visit the website of your embassy in Japan and read its travel advisories. Here they will post relevant information and updates on everything from extreme weather forecasts, natural disasters, pertinent crime reports and lists of prohibited goods you might inadvertently pack.
Websites and resources to check out before you leave:
- Japan Today
- GaijinPot Travel
- World Rugby
- Japan Customs
- Japan Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare
- Japan National Police Agency
- Your embassy or consulate in Tokyo
- Your government travel advisories for Japan
Purchase travel insurance. When I asked representatives at the British Embassy in Tokyo about their recommendations for Brits coming to Japan, this was No. 1 on their list — and it applies to visitors from all countries. If an accident should occur, Japanese hospitals and clinics do not accept foreign medical insurance. We will have more on this in a second installment of this series for visitors to Japan.
To avoid any hassles before you pass Japanese customs at the airport, find out what medications (if any) from your home country might be illegal in Japan. You could encounter problems with pharmaceuticals as mundane as over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief (anything with codeine is prohibited) or certain allergy medications (pseudoephedrine is also illegal). If you do find an OTC medication you use is listed — don’t bring it. There will be a suitable alternative readily available here — and it won’t cause you grief should be stopped by the police and searched.
If you do require specific medication, make sure to bring the prescription with you and don’t bring more than a 30-day supply. And even if you do have a prescription, Jiminy Christmas, do not bring any medicine containing opium, cannabis, amphetamines, methamphetamines and certain medicines for treating attention deficit disorders (such as Adderall, Vyvanse and Dexedrine) as these are strictly prohibited.
If you’re already concerned about what might happen if you’re stopped by the police in Japan — do yourself a favor: Don’t get detained before you even clear customs.
Before you go out to an event
Make sure you have the proper identification on you when you go out for the day. You will be asked for it if you are stopped by authorities.
For tourists, this means that you must carry your passport with you at all times. Failure to do so could result in more than embarrassment — it could mean detention by the police (as proper ID will be the first thing they ask for) and a fine of up to ¥200,000 (U.S.$1,850) may ensue. “Proper ID” in this case does not constitute your driver’s license from back home.
Also, carry the name and contact info for your accommodations. If you’re staying at a hotel, grab a business card (with Japanese and English on it) from the front desk. This is not just to give to peace officers, but it can help you return safely as cab drivers or people you stop to ask for directions may not speak English.
If you’re a resident of Japan — and you should know this — you need to carry your zairyu, or Japanese Residence Card, with you at all times. Any immigration or law enforcement officers in the course of their uniformed duties can ask for it and — by law — you need to have it on your person at all times. Not doing so carries a fine of ¥200,000.
If you get stopped
During the Rugby World Cup, understand that there will be an increased police presence across the country, especially around match venues and fan zones.
"During the rugby, we are expecting people to be stopped or arrested for boisterous behavior considered minor in the UK or at least in [other] rugby countries," says Marion Auclair, consular sporting liaison officer for the British Embassy in Tokyo. "That can get you detained for up to 23 days in Japan." Nudity — like we mentioned above about answering "when nature calls" — is one of those behaviors.
Is it possible you may be stopped simply because you’re a foreigner? Absolutely.
Is there any reason for you to be unduly worried about it? I would say no.
By and large — especially at an international sporting event — police are deployed to assist the public, keep the peace and look for anything suspicious or unfamiliar. Foreigners quite often tick the “unfamiliar” box. They’ll ask you some questions about where you’re from, what you’re doing in Japan and where you might be coming from (or going to). I mean, it depends on how morally outraged you’d like to be about the situation. Contrary to the discussion board hoopla you’ll find online, there is no need to get your back up. This is not #blacklivesmatter. Nobody is going to shoot you because of the color of your skin. In fact, the police in Japan rarely use their firearms.
You are, however, in danger of causing yourself and your companions more trouble than it’s worth should you decide to escalate the situation — and the perception of “escalation” in Japan is quite different than it might be in the West. Here, even raising your voice can be interpreted by Japanese police as noncompliance or obstruction. It’s why you’ll often see Japanese citizens stopped by law enforcement stand perfectly still during an encounter all the while speaking in a non-hysterical voice. The cops as well. No sudden moves. No surprises. Nobody goes to jail.
Raise your voice indignantly, though, and you risk being seen as obstructing police duties. Reason enough for them to ask for your identification, search your person and even ask if you’d like to come "downtown" to the koban (police box). You do not want to do this.
The police in Japan have every legal right to stop you and ask to see your ID. You, in turn, have the right ask them why you’re being stopped. Best to politely pose the question and then submit to their request when they tell you the reason. They’ll note your registration card or passport information, ask you a few more questions and — most likely — you’ll be on your way.
A quick note if the situation does escalate and you find yourself being detained. It’s important to know that in Japan you do not get to make a phone call. By international convention — assuming your country has signed this bilateral agreement (not all have) — if you are held by the police in Japan, they will inform the consular department of your embassy about your arrest.
The British Embassy, for example, would then send the detainee a prisoner pack with a list of lawyers and check if they want a consular visit.
"If so, we automatically visit," says Auclair. "Then we assess together what kind of assistance [the embassy] can provide to them."
To avoid this in the first place — use your common sense.
"Because I think fundamentally everybody knows the things that are illegal, right?” says Emma Hickinbotham, the British Embassy’s head of media, communications and marketing. “That you shouldn't smuggle drugs. That you shouldn't steal things. Those things — they're universal. It's more the nuances of the cultural differences. That is, you might not get arrested but [the situation] could potentially escalate and if you don't speak the language — maybe in Tokyo it's different — but out in some of the regions where the rugby is being played, if the local police don't speak English and they are asking you nicely to put your clothes back on or whatever, it might be [a good idea]. If you don't understand anything they're saying, then you might respond and if you're being too loud, they might misunderstand that as aggression. So, it's really trying to stop any of those kinds of misunderstandings happening where people may end up getting in trouble for very minor things that are just avoidable.”
To put it in perspective, while many people of all nationalities are stopped daily in Japan, the number of foreigners arrested is significantly small.
So how many UK citizens are arrested or detained in Japan in a year? “I would say about 50,” says Auclair.
Auclair adds something all embassy staff and Japanese people are likely thinking. “We want people to have fun, in the end. We actually want them to enjoy the rugby because we also are very excited about the rugby. [Laughs] You know, we are rugby fans ourselves, so it's more about: ‘Yeah, just pay attention.’ Have some common sense. Maybe don't moon in public, that might not be as well received as in the UK.”
For more information on being culturally aware, Auclair and Hickinbotham suggest visiting the UK government's advisory page with tips for fans traveling to the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan.
The more you know before you head out to enjoy a match — whether live at a stadium, in a fan zone with friends or gathered in a bar with strangers — the better time you will have and the less chance of having a bad experience with the police.
Most of it, though, is just common sense — like not urinating on private property or mooning people in public.
In the second part of this series, we’ll look at what to do if you injure yourself or require medical assistance while visiting Japan.© Japan Today