“Boku no kotoba wakaru deshou!”
“You understand my words, don’t you?”
It wasn’t a question, more an accusation, and he delivered it in a point blank yell with a thump of the desk for emphasis.
They were literally playing the good cop bad cop routine, and now Bad Cop retired to the corner again, randomly kicking a chair leg for good measure as he did so.
Good Cop leaned over from her own chair across the corner of the desk, all empathy and kindliness, sympathising with me in Japanese about how hard this all must be for me.
Their routine had been going on for some time, perhaps an hour, and quite the most absurd hour of my life. And now, in my sleep-deprived state, she so very nearly got me; I so very nearly replied in Japanese, which would’ve shown I’d been playing dumb all along (not that my Japanese was anywhere even remotely near good enough to be dealing with the situation).
This was all about a bicycle, initially, but what this little scene – the 3 of us in that interrogation room in the massive police station in Tenjinbashi – was really all about was Mr Bad Cop wanting to prove a personal point, namely that I could understand Japanese and had therefore been lying to them.
It had all started some 12 hours earlier as I cycled home from work through Osaka’s Umeda district. This was something I didn’t usually do – the distance was only 10km or so but my bike was a piece of shit hand-me-down left by a friend when he departed Japan, and I usually just took the subway (I generally only used that bike for groceries). But that week I was in the middle of moving back to the neighbouring city of Kyoto, half my stuff already dropped off at the new apartment some 40km away, and when my monthly subway pass ended a few days before I was to leave Osaka I figured I’d ride my bike to work for a few days to save a little cash.
And so that’s how I came to be on my crappy old mamachari (‘mama chariot’) bike in Umeda on that cold winter evening when those 2 bike cops decided to spot check me.
They cycled up alongside as I waited for the lights to change at an intersection, asking to see my ID – something all foreigners are legally required to carry at all times in Japan, whether tourist or resident. He was asking for my gaijin card (my gaikokujin touroku shoumeisho, foreigner registration document), and I didn’t have it – in fact, it was 40km away in my other wallet in a bag in an empty Kyoto apartment (by mistake). Not good. Furthermore, I was riding a bike that wasn’t registered to me, and I had no idea to whom it actually was registered (Japan has a bicycle registration system much like motor vehicle registration systems around the world). Such unregistered (or incorrectly registered) hand-me-down gaijin bikes are common in Japan, and sometimes gaijin get made an example of for riding them, and there was a good chance that was about to be me.
So, as he asked for my gaijin card, I figured my only hope was to in turn play ‘The Gaijin Card’ i.e. pull the dumb foreigner routine. Also known as the ‘gaijin smash’ this basically means getting away with breaking rules, or with some sort of socially frowned-upon behaviour, by being a clueless foreigner – something that non-English speaking officials are very often unwilling to bother dealing with. It’s a douchy move if you’re using it to push in front of a line of people or to get away with not paying some small fee you’re supposed to be paying, and in fact I suppose it was a douchy move to try and use it to get away with riding an unregistered bike while not carrying my ID; but it was cold and I was hungry & tired and just wanted them to not be bothered with this dumb gaijin right here & now, and so I played dumb.
Dumb move. These two cops were working, and they quite literally had all night to do this. While I was using body language and the most broken of Japanese to tell him I couldn’t really understand him, she was checking the registration number stencilled on the chassis and calling it in.
Next thing you know, two more bicycle cops come tearing round the corner, closely followed by two more, all pedalling furiously before jumping off into action postures, ready to spring into crime-fighting action… and there’s little old shaven-headed me, sans beanie (for some reason I don’t recall) and shivering in the cold, surrounded now by 6 cops.
I’m thinking like, hey what’s up guys, got enough of you to deal with me?
To which the answer came in the form of a patrol car hastening along the street, lights flashing, and another pair of cops springing out to help apprehend me.
Overkill it is then…
So there I was, sat on the saddle of a shitty old bike at 10pm in Osaka with a light rain starting to fall in the night chill, surrounded by 8 cops making sure I didn’t go anywhere and getting stared at by all the passers-by. But still none of these cops spoke English, and I gathered we were waiting for further reinforcements to bring the big language guns.
And then indeed along came one more car, this one unmarked, two plainclothes detectives now taking charge.
Seriously guys? No Yakuza to investigate this evening? No sex pests or human traffickers or murderers to investigate? Two detectives and 8 beat cops scrambled to deal with a gaijin on an unregistered bicycle? Really?
Yes, really. My bike was impounded and I appeared to be under arrest; first stop was a visit to my school (just around the corner) which by now was thankfully closed so there weren’t any students there to see me in such disgrace. Also luckily it wasn’t yet quite so late that the staff were gone – we caught the managers just before they left for the night, so they could confirm who I was. Unfortunately though they couldn’t show the police any copies of my IDs as the staff there at the time didn’t have access to the necessary system.
So then I found myself sandwiched between 2 burly cops in the back seat of the unmarked car with the two detectives up front, on our way to my apartment. I would spend the rest of the night dealing with these four guys, before the Good Cop Bad Cop scene next morning with the original two who’d stopped me.
They were driving me to my place so I could prove who I was, even though they already knew exactly who I was. I’d given my name and employer to the first two cops, my workplace had verbally confirmed my identity, and anyway when the two detectives first arrived they already knew full well who they were dealing with. The guy had a clipboard, and he was short and careless enough that I could easily read it – he asked my name, address, number, etc, but he already had it all written down. The foreigner registration system in Japan enables them to pull all of this up easily, but they were still insistent I show them photo ID. As my gaijin card was in Kyoto we were heading to my Osaka apartment where I hoped I could show them my passport (but had a bad feeling it was also in Kyoto).
It was quite an odd scene in that car as the English-speaking detective turned back from the passenger seat and suddenly got all pally, wanting to know what my hobbies were, where I went on my last holiday, did I like Japan, typical small talk stuff. I’ve since heard that this is a common tactic to prep a suspect for questioning by getting them actively participating in a question/answer routine while establishing some rapport.
Anyway thankfully my passport didn’t turn out to be in Kyoto so I was able to prove I was me, but when I tried to wish them goodnight they said they were taking me in to the station.
“Ah ok, I’m getting fined for the unregistered bike then? Can’t you just ticket me here?”
No, they couldn’t – I wasn’t being fined for an unregistered bike, rather I was to be questioned for bike theft.
Turns out that bike had been reported stolen by a Chinese student. My British mate didn’t nick it, but God knows how it got from that Chinese student to a mate of a mate before eventually being given to me. Typical gaijin hand-me-down; it occurred to me later that I should’ve asked them when exactly it was reported stolen – there was probably a good chance it was before I was even in the country.
But anyway, I thought of that far too late. As we stood in the open doorway of my apartment the detective explained I was in possession of stolen property and they didn’t believe my story about a friend giving me the bike, so they needed to take me in for questioning.
It was well after midnight at this point, I was cold, pissed off, and hungry, and I had a bowl of curry udon waiting for me in the fridge. I just wanted to heat it, eat it, shower and sleep, and get a decent kip before getting up again for work.
So I decided I wasn’t going with them if I had a choice in the matter. I wasn’t entirely sure what the legalities were, but Japan isn’t like the People’s Republic of China where the law says whatever a given official wants it to say at any given time – Japan has rule of law and the police can’t just do whatever they want.
So I told them the only way I was coming with them now was if I was legally under arrest, and asked if they were in fact intending to formally arrest me. I even offered my wrists to them for cuffing, haha, bit dramatic maybe but seemed I’d sussed the situation correctly – they wanted me to come to the station, but they couldn’t make me and didn’t appear to have legal grounds for a formal arrest.
So I stood my ground and asked them to leave my apartment unless they had a warrant. But they just would not fuck off. They really, really wanted me to go with them, and applied all the pressure they could… Simon-san we’re the police, you have to co-operate… no I don’t, arrest me or leave… but Simon-san, we’re the police, you should do as we ask… but legally I don’t have to and I intend to eat my dinner and go to bed, so please leave my apartment… but Simon-san, we’re the police…
And round & round in circles we went. This went on for ages, me stood in my genkan (the entrance area where you remove your shoes), the four of them crowded in my doorway which they were keeping held firmly open, the night air getting even colder but at least I had a beanie on now. It was well after midnight by this point, and I wasn’t going with them; but they wouldn’t leave. We went round in circles for an hour or more, and at one point the detective called back to base and put me on the line to someone there with exceptionally good English – I would later meet this individual, clearly one of the senior ranking officers in the station, perhaps the city – but he didn’t actually have anything of further substance to make me go to the station.
So finally we negotiated a compromise – they’d leave me to my dinner & bed, if I agreed to voluntarily attend the station first thing in the morning.
“Ok, that’s fine” I figured, “I’m working at 12 so how about I come in at 9? That’s plenty of time right?”
“Simon-san, the subway starts service at 5am! Surely you can come then?”
Haha fuck that, it was already knocking on 2am by now! So with further negotiation we eventually agreed that I’d be there at 7:30. That already meant a 6am alarm, so once they left me in peace I devoured my dinner and grabbed a quick shower before collapsing into bed for 3 hours sleep…
…2 hours later I was woken up by a vigorous banging on my door, and then my good friend the detective shouting through the mailbox.
“Simon-san, ohayo gozaimasu! We’ve come to give you a ride to the station!”
So I ran around and threw my work clothes on, no time for breakfast or caffeine, and once again found myself in that unmarked car, this time en route to the station. That awkward car ride was followed by them leading me to an interrogation room and taking my statement about how I came into possession of that bicycle, and that proved to be the last I saw of the two detectives who then left me to sit there for what felt like an age by myself. And then finally in came the two bike cops who’d stopped me in the first place; I guess they must’ve stopped me right at the start of their night shift, and now were coming to question me at the end of it.
So they proceeded to question me in Japanese while playing their good cop bad cop routine. Now, while it was true I’d been pretending my Japanese was worse than it really was, it is also true that my Japanese was completely inadequate for dealing with police questioning and I was probably only understanding ten percent anyway. So I just kept on saying I couldn’t understand them, and he kept on yelling and striking furniture, and she kept on smiling understandingly and trying to coax some Japanese out of me.
After what, 30 minutes, an hour of this, she so very nearly got me to slip up.
This must be very difficult for you, you must just want to go home? And I very nearly replied that yes it was and yes I would love to, catching my tongue just in the nick of time.
They didn’t even seem genuinely interested in the bike or my explanation which they said was a lie, or whether I’d actually stolen it or not; it really did seem like they had one single goal, to catch me out and prove I understood Japanese better than I’d let on, a battle of wills for personal satisfaction.
It gave me no satisfaction whatsoever when they finally gave up. When they left the room, Bad Cop giving the desk one final slap and glaring at me all the way as he made his way out, all I felt was relief.
Quickly followed by trepidation – what happens next? I was once again sat by myself in a police station in Osaka, not knowing what was going on.
Someone came and led me out of that room and along a bunch of corridors to sit and wait (unattended) outside an office door; on the other side of the corridor there appeared to be a gymnasium in which I could hear cops practising their kendo. It was weird just sitting there listening to the clacking of wooden swords, yells of exertion, and stamping of feet, but it was a shitload better than the good cop bad cop routine.
Finally the office door opened and out came an absolute bear of a man. The guy was huge, not far off retirement, and probably could have been a lower weight division sumo wrestler in another life. Turned out this was who I’d spoken to on the detective’s phone earlier on, the high ranking officer with excellent English.
He was actually really sympathetic and jovial, assuring me everything was fine, explaining that he realised I must be really tired and frustrated, assuring me everything will be fine just as soon as I sign this here document… this legal document written entirely in Japanese that I could barely read.
I wasn’t too keen to do that, but there didn’t seem to be much choice. I mean, I could have refused to, but then I’d have been waiting in custody until whenever consular assistance could be arranged – the police in Japan can actually hold you for weeks without charge, without notifying anyone, and you don’t get a phone call. It’s a pretty fucked up system and I didn’t want to be in it. But I didn’t want to sign something I couldn’t read.
He said that was understandable – but I could deal with this the easy way by signing it or the hard way by refusing. He promised that if I signed it, I’d then be free to go to work and there’d be no further repercussions so long as I never got in trouble with the police in Japan again – but also that were I to get in trouble again, I’d be hit with this on top of whatever else I’d gone and done.
I suppose it was probably a confession to bike theft, though I don’t really know. But I signed it anyway, against my better judgement. Big Bear then surprised me with a goodbye bear hug, and I was led to another room where they took my fingerprints, mug shot, height and weight. So yeah, I reckon I probably signed a confession and probably now have a Japanese criminal record.
But with that done, I could finally be on my way… except no, actually, I couldn’t. Not quite yet. Turns out there’s just one more thing that needs doing – they need my area manager to sign off too. But of course. And naturally, this involves the humiliation of being walked into my place of work by four uniformed officers, two sticking at my sides while the other two spoke to him. And it was only through sheer good luck that he happened to be there at the time – he wasn’t usually, and had he not been they’d have had to call head office, which he later told me would probably have cost me my job. But he was, so he signed it without fuss and made sure there weren’t any knock-on effects.
And so that was finally that. I was back at work just in time for my first class at noon after having left at 10pm the night before and having spent most of the intervening 14 hours dealing with the police. I wasn’t a happy bunny! So what’s the moral of the story? To be honest there isn’t one really, this was just some stupid crap that happened while I was living in Osaka. Well, maybe the one moral I can pass on is don’t bother getting a bike in Japan unless you can make sure it’s properly registered! Which means either buy it new, or get it from someone who has the papers and is willing to go with you to sign it over. They do sometimes check, and they will make an example of you if you’ve done it wrong.
Photo credits mamachari: Bell and Jeff, police car: jpellgen, police bicycle: Pietro Zuco, all used under Creative Commons
I am sorry to hear your fucked up story in Japan. In fact, it is really fucked up in Japan for making a fuss out of utterly trivial things. I see you were treated like a serial killer for riding a worthless bicycle and faced weekly detention risks for that bullshit. It could as well happen for littering, jaywalking, or any other bullshits. It is Japan. They have a totally rigged police and legal system and they use it to the fullest for any little cat shits. Fuck Japan man.
Hi, well I actually like Japan a lot overall, despite this shitty experience and a few other issues. So I can’t agree with “fuck Japan”. But I would say fuck the Japanese approaches to bureaucracy and policing – that said, those things are far worse in a lot of other countries than they are in Japan.
Sorry to hear about your shitty experience. I agree the judicial system is screwed up in a country where they treat you with the guilty-unless-otherwise-proven-so regard. I often heard they even force suspects to admit to crimes that they never committed. But that’s only because the interrogator wants to please his or her boss, which imho is utter bullshit.
I heard the local cops tend to target foreigners over locals for routine questioning. One of my friends who’s a German National got stopped by a cop when she was on her way home from the station. She was just about to pick up her bike at the station when a cop approached her for questioning. They took her to a koban to make her explain about the bike, which belonged to her hubby. The locals surely wouldn’t be treated like this, and the cops probably did a thorough background check on the bike’s record just because the “suspect” was not Japanese.
Cheers Toru, and thanks for adding your perspective. I didn’t mention it in the post, but I also got stopped by the police multiple other times e.g. when I was just walking to the conbini at night, but on those occasions I could show them my ID so just had to answer a few questions and then no problem. As your German friend also experienced, it’s very common for the police to randomly question foreigners.
And like you say, convictions (99% guilty rate) often rely solely on confessions made under interrogation, which is problematic to say the least. I do love Japan overall, but not the policing and judicial systems!