Three foreign-born Japanese residents have sued national and local authorities for alleged racial profiling in what their lawyers said was the first lawsuit of its kind, amid a reignited debate over what it means to be Japanese.
The three long-term Tokyo residents allege they have been subject to repeated accounts of illegal questioning from police — which they believe stems from racial bias — in a violation of the Japanese constitution, which bars discrimination based on race.
The plaintiffs, who are of Pakistani, Indian, and African-American descent, say that their appearances lead to repeated questioning by police, causing them distress, and are each seeking 3 million yen (around $20,000) in compensation.
“There’s a very strong image that ‘foreigner’ equals ‘criminal’”, the BBC quoted one plaintiff as saying.
Foreigners face ‘unconscious bias’ by police in ethnically homogeneous Japan
While Japan has attempted to counter its declining population by bringing in more foreign workers, the country still sees a low rate of immigration into its ethnically homogeneous society, where foreigners make up just 2.4% of the population, The Japan Times reported.
Foreign nationals are subject to “unconscious racial discrimination from police”, with 63% of respondents of foreign heritage in one survey saying they had been stopped by officers in the previous five years.
A police manual from Aichi prefecture even contained instructions for officers “to check people who look like foreigners”, according to an NHK news clip posted by a Japan expert on X, which garnered hundreds of comments.
Beauty contest triggers debate over ‘Japaneseness’
The recent decision to crown Carolina Shiino, an ethnically Ukrainian Japanese citizen, as Miss Japan 2024 triggered heated debate over whether being Japanese is a matter of appearance or nationality.
Some observers defended her win, due to her naturalized status and fluent Japanese — while many said the crown belonged to an ethnically Japanese contestant, DW reported. Shiino, who moved to Japan at age five, said she had “often had to fight against obstacles that prevented me from being accepted as Japanese.”
Meanwhile, half-Japanese, half-Haitian tennis player Naomi Osaka, who represents Japan at tennis, is regularly subjected to questions about her Japaneseness, owing in part to having spent most of her life in the U.S. and in particular, speaking poor Japanese. “The real problem here is the entitlement some people feel to policing the racial identities of others,” wrote journalist Victoria Vouloumanos on Medium.