Japan is not without its random, unpredictable crimes, but in general it’s one of the safest countries in the world. Rates of theft and violent crime are comparatively low, and with 24-hour-staffed “koban” police boxes every few blocks, it’s easy to feel protected here.
However, foreigners in Japan sometimes report being stopped by the police and asked for ID, a practice which can seem shocking and unfair, especially if you’re not sure why it’s happening. With the police in Japan having less violent crime to deal with, they’re often tasked with handling smaller matters like bicycle theft, lost items, and simply giving directions to passers-by. They also sometimes pop by your house on their rounds to leave a friendly note in your mailbox letting you know where your nearest koban is. In short, the police in Japan have quite an approachable image, and are often addressed by members of the public as “Omawari-san“, or, literally, “Mr./Ms. Walk-Around.”
So, why do they stop foreigners? Well, firstly it’s important to note that they also stop Japanese people and ask to see their IDs as well. Being stopped by the police in Japan doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done anything wrong at all. If you’re an unfamiliar face in their patrol area, they may just want to know what you’re doing there.
When I was working in a small rural town in Kyoto Prefecture, I was stopped in my first week there by a pair of officers who asked to see my ID (this was during the days of the "Gaikokujin toroku"/alien registration system, and not the residence system that’s in place today). I produced my ID, and then we had a really nice chat about the town and where all the best drinking spots were. They even told me about the town festival that was happening that weekend. Nothing to worry about, right?
Of course, the police sometimes stop people for more serious matters, including checking foreigners’ residence cards or passports to make sure they’re not illegally present in the country. Also, if a crime has been reported in the area, they may stop people randomly. If you’re riding a bicycle, they may stop you and ask to see your bike registration (since bike theft is a big issue in Japan, each bicycle must be registered at purchase.) If a police officer asks for your ID, you are legally obligated to show it. It is illegal to walk around in Japan as a foreigner without either your passport or residence card on your person. However, if you’re stopped by a plain-clothes policeman, it’s probably a good idea to ask to see their "keisatsu techo" (police badge) as well.
But how often do people get stopped by the police in Japan? YouTuber That Japanese Man Yuta conducted a survey of his viewers asking exactly that question. The results are quite reassuring. Yuta also describes his own personal experiences of being stopped by the police in the video, which you can watch below.
As Yuta’s initial survey shows, you’re only likely to be stopped by the police once every three years in Japan on average! Of course, it seems that some people get stopped far more often than others, though it’s not exactly clear what the main factor is. Yuta’s survey is ongoing so head over to this link if you’d like to share your personal experience!
Source: YouTube/That Japanese Man Yuta
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