By Edward Shaw
Edward Shaw is an I-OnAsia consultant and Japan country expert. He is a retired FBI Agent and former Tokyo Legal Attaché. I-OnAsia regularly provides support to Olympic visitors.
Just about any American who visits Japan for pleasure enjoys one of the best travel experiences possible. But sometimes an American is arrested in Japan due to an innocent mistake.
HOW TO FOLLOW THE LAW IN JAPAN
How can an American avoid arrest while in Japan? First and foremost, behave as a lawful citizen in the U.S. and you will be fine 99.99999999% of the time. However, some activity that is not a crime in the U.S. is a crime in Japan or could be perceived as a crime. Below are some of the most common situations that might lead a law abiding American to be arrested in Japan.
1. FIREARMS: Possession of just one round of ammunition in Japan is a criminal violation equivalent to a felony.
• An American once travelled to Japan and used luggage which he had previously used during a hunting trip in America. Japanese customs officials found the one round of ammunition in his luggage and he was arrested.
• In addition to ammunition, possession of any part of a firearm (e.g., an ammunition magazine, custom hand grips, etc.) is also a serious crime.
• Possession of a fake but authentic looking firearm is also a crime.
2. KNIVES: Japanese law forbids possession of a pocket knife with a blade longer than 6 centimeters. Lots of Americans always carry a multipurpose pocket knife or a pocket sized multipurpose tool that includes a knife. Don’t take those to Japan.
3. TATTOOS: Men, if you have tattoos, dress in a manner that covers the tattoos.
• In Japan usually only Japanese mobsters (Yakuza) have tattoos.
• If you have visible tattoos (especially if you are an ethnic Asian male) you do face the risk that the Japanese police will mistake you for a Yakuza criminal suspect.
• Japanese law allows any business (restaurants, pubs, etc.) to ban any guest, man or woman, with a visible tattoo. This is how these businesses avoid gangster customers. If you have a visible tattoo you can be lawfully ejected from a business.
• If you don’t follow the employee instructions to leave, you could be arrested.
4. HERO: The writer knows from personal experience of two incidents when other foreign national men in Japan came to the assistance of a “damsel in distress”.
• In one instance an American man saw a thief snatch a purse from a woman and the American chased the thief. Simultaneously, the victim was able to tell a nearby policeman of the crime.
• The policeman saw the American running from the scene of the crime, assumed he had snatched the purse, and arrested the American while the actual thief escaped.
• If you see a crime while in Japan, report it but do not intervene.
5. MEDICINES: Be careful with your prescription medications. Especially if you plan to travel to Japan with a supply of a medication that is heavily regulated in the U.S.
• In 2015 Julie Hamp, then a Toyota executive, secretly shipped oxycodone to Japan. The shipment was discovered and Hamp was arrested. More information about her arrest can be found here. Japan Arrests American for Drug Violation
• Here is a link an article with more information on taking your prescription drugs to Japan: How to Carry Personal Prescription Drugs to Japan
HOW TO ACT WHILE BEING ARRESTED IN JAPAN
Let’s suppose, to borrow a title from a popular 2004 movie, you encounter a Series of Unfortunate Events and you are arrested in Japan. How should you react?
1. Don’t resist arrest.
• More so than in the U.S., in Japan most arrests are made by uniformed police officers. For a variety of reasons very few arrests in Japan are made by law enforcement officers wearing civilian clothes. In Japan criminals rarely impersonate a Japanese law enforcement officer and attempt to arrest someone.
• If you resist arrest the police will quickly use overwhelming physical force to take you into custody. You will likely suffer injuries, possibly severe.
2. Do promptly comply with all instructions of the arresting officer(s).
• Due to language barriers communication may be difficult. Eventually what the police expect you to do will be made clear to you.
• In the meantime, don’t make any movement that is not explicitly authorized by the arresting officers (e.g., don’t take any steps, don’t move your hands, don’t move your head to look around the vicinity, don’t shift your body into a crouch, etc.).
• Be quiet and passive and follow all officer instructions.
3. Do ask to contact your embassy.
• But wait until it is clear the arresting officers are able to focus on your request. Badgering them about contacting your embassy before you are in custody could be construed as the crime of resisting arrest.
• Japan is the world’s most culturally homogeneous country and it will almost always quickly be clear to the arresting officers that you are a foreign national.
• According to the writer’s experience at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, police throughout Japan generally contact the embassy of a foreign national who has been arrested.
4. Provide your identification (usually your passport) to any Japanese law enforcement official when it is demanded.
• As a foreigner in Japan, always carry your passport when you go out in public; Japanese law requires this. If you don’t want to always carry your passport with you, at least carry a copy.
• If you have your passport or a copy when you are arrested it will help the police positively identify you and notify your embassy.
5. Realize the arresting officer(s) may be nervous, perhaps even more nervous than you are during the arrest.
• They will be worried about being able to communicate with you.
• The police know how a Japanese person will act during an arrest but since you are not Japanese they will worry about what crazy things you might do.
• They will worry you will attempt to escape, especially if you are significantly taller than an average Japanese police officer. If you are a young male and 6 feet or taller your size will worry the average Japanese police officer.
• They will worry the arrest will draw critical media attention that will damage their career prospects.
• The arresting officer(s) may find your body odor to be noxious.
• The more nervous the arresting officer is, the more there is a chance of a misunderstanding that will lead to the use of physical force against you.
6. Only answer questions about your identity, nationality, and urgent personal needs.
• At some point during or after your arrest the police will ask you questions and you should truthfully answer questions about your identity, nationality, and any health conditions or other urgent personal needs that concern you.
• Until you can talk with a lawyer answer NO other questions. Japanese law gives you the right to remain silent but the police may not inform you of this right.
7. Do not admit guilt before talking with a lawyer!!!
• Most Japanese convictions are based upon confessions. And Japanese police apply tremendous psychological pressure to detained suspects to get a confession.
• Japanese police have told the author that some suspects are not prosecuted simply because they refuse to confess.
8. Realize you could be detained for days or weeks.
• Japanese law allows lengthy detentions of arrested suspects and bail is rarely granted.
• The U.S. Embassy has extensive information about what an arrested person can expect and do. That information can be found here: Americans Arrested in Japan. Citizens of other countries will find this information helpful as well.
AVOID ARREST AND ENJOY EXOTIC JAPAN!
The writer has lived in Japan a total of 15+ years. Nine of those years he worked as the FBI liaison at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. That was a unique assignment where he saw just about every type of law enforcement mishap an American in Japan can experience. Those mishaps are extremely rare. A law abiding American who travels to Japan can look forward to a wonderful experience. A journey to Japan should be on every American’s bucket list!