Challenging the norm: The fight against racial profiling in Japan’s policing

A lawsuit seeks legal recognition that racial profiling violates Japanese law.

February 2, 2024, 4:21 AM

TOKYO -- Japan’s justice system, known for strict pre-trial detentions and forced confessions, is facing a pivotal lawsuit against racial profiling spearheaded by a naturalized citizen and two foreign residents.

The case, challenging the National Police Agency and local governments in Tokyo and Aichi, has already put a spotlight on Japan’s approach to its growing diversity population. And with millions of visible minorities in Japan, the lawsuit questions whether the country can shift from its deep-rooted perceptions to welcome a more diverse populace.

The difference with this lawsuit is that it aims well beyond damages and seeks legal recognition that racial profiling violates Japanese law, and presses authorities for formal acknowledgment and action.

Central to this lawsuit is Maurice Shelton, a 41-year-old American personal trainer, and martial artist who, over the last decade, has been repeatedly stopped by police and consistently faced the unsettling question -- “Why are you here?”

During a tense press conference in central Tokyo, Maurice recounted his experiences, noting the scant Japanese media attendance, and told ABC News that his lawsuit was driven not by a single event, but by ongoing discrimination.

“It's been a culmination of many moments,” he explained. “Every day, when I leave the house for work, I witness firsthand the biases directed towards me.”

Motoki Taniguchi, Maurice's lawyer, is taking exception to the myth that non-Japanese are more prone to crime. Using government stats, he says that crime rates don't differ significantly between nationals and foreigners.

"The data tells a different story,” he asserts.

Taniguchi says that only asking for compensation would limit the suit to what happened in the past and that he wants authorities to double down on the illegality of racial profiling. Such recognition, he argues, is crucial for preventing future injustices.

Taniguchi also highlights a troubling norm -- that some police forces routinely profile minorities, despite constitutional prohibitions against racial discrimination.

“It's become standard practice,” he reveals to ABC News, underscoring his belief that this is a systemic issue.

Initially, Maurice kept his last name from the media, fearing a severe backlash once the case went public.

“When you push back, I have to push back harder,” he declared.

Critics, however, question his dissatisfaction in Japan, a country he chose to make his life in.

“Where else would I go? I've built a life here—family, business, connections. Why would I give that up?” Maurice said to ABC News.

The lawsuit, despite minimal local press coverage, has certainly stirred controversy. Critics argue that police methods are key to Japan's safety, dismissing the lawsuit as unhelpful and foreign -- an alien intrusion on Japanese norms.

Maurice, meanwhile, challenges the “love it or leave it” mentality by underscoring diversity's role in Japan's progress.

“The face of Japan can even look like me, too,” he asserts, prompting a reflection on Japan's openness to its evolving demographic in a global context.

His stance is perhaps an outlying one in a nation where some social movements, like Black Lives Matter, have only just begun to make waves.

“There’s a silent minority out there who are terrified to speak up. Once people see him out there doing what he’s doing, they’re going to have his back. He’s not as alone as it may seem," Baye McNeil, a long-time Japan resident and writer, told ABC News,

Elsewhere, Debito Arudou, a well-known activist and commentator on issues of race and discrimination in Japan, shared his thoughts online about the importance of the lawsuit.

“It’s worth doing for the awareness raising. If we can get it on the record that the judiciary recognizes this as 'racial profiling', or even that 'racial profiling' actually exists in Japan as a term and a phenomenon, this will be a big step ahead,” said Arudou.

The fight, however, is far from over with the court set to hear the case in a few months and a verdict that might not possibly arrive come for a year or more.

Said Maurice in support of his case: “What rights do we actually have? Who gets to enjoy those laws that are supposed to protect everyone here in Japan?”

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