What It’s Like Being Black, Japanese, and Constantly Stopped By Police For No Reason

A filmed police encounter ignited a conversation about racism in Japan. And then nothing happened.
February 16, 2021, 2:47am
Alonzo Omotegawa
Photo: Courtesy of Alonzo Omotegawa

Alonzo Omotegawa is Japanese. It’s the only identity he’s ever known, the only passport he’s ever held. He’s lived abroad for a total of one year, the rest of his life spent in Japan. Alonzo’s friends would laugh when he does something “so Japanese,” to which he would shrug and respond, “Yeah, I am. There’s no denying it.” 

But he said he was forced to defend his own identity one evening last month when two police officers picked him out of a rush-hour crowd in Tokyo Station and demanded to search him.

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“People with dreads, and who are fashionable, tend to have drugs on them,” one of the officers told him, in an exchange that Omotegawa filmed.

The Jan. 27 stop-and-frisk was just the latest instance where 25-year-old Omotegawa was singled out for law enforcement scrutiny for his style of dress and his physical appearance.

He shared the most recent encounter with Japan For Black Lives, a nonprofit aimed at educating people about racism against Black people in a country where race is rarely discussed.

Racism and xenophobia is often dismissed as a non-issue in Japan, even as a government survey in 2017 suggested that 30 percent of foreigners had been discriminated against.

Omotegawa is not a foreigner, but he said he felt like one when the officers approached him last month when he was minding his business in the train station.

“They asked to search my bag. I said ‘Why?’ They said ‘You acted kind of suspiciously, like you were spooked by us.’ And I said ‘Of course I’m spooked, you came out of nowhere from the corner of my eye,’” Omotegawa told VICE World News.

But the officers wouldn’t have it. After interrogating Omotegawa for 30 minutes, the officers searched Omotegawa and his bag and found nothing.

The video Omotegawa took has gone viral on Japanese Twitter, but he has little hope that it would cause lasting change in a country where racial incidents are often waved off or denied.

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He decided to film the incident because he wanted proof of his experience. When he was stopped by the police a few weeks prior, he believed he was targeted because of the color of his skin and regretted not recording the police’s actions.

One of every 30 children born in Japan has a non-Japanese parent, according to data from the Ministry of Health. But the discriminatory experiences of mixed-race people in Japan, such as 2020 Miss Universe Japan Aisha Harumi Tochigi, basketball player Rui Hachimura and tennis star Naomi Osaka, are often doubted by those who claim to be “colorblind.”

Omotegawa said Japanese media does not adequately cover these issues. “This is a type of country where it’s only news if it benefits them on social media,” he said.

After he posted the video, Omotegawa, too, received questions about the legitimacy of his proof.

“Some of these comments said, ‘It’s always the foreigner because you guys dress a certain way, or your hairstyle,’” he said. 

Some also questioned whether Omotegawa was legally allowed to post a police officer’s face on social media. 

In Japan, non-mixed Japanese people are sometimes described as jun japa (literally “true Japanese”). Omotegawa is used to being marked as a foreigner. 

“If not with the officers, I get the same treatment from everyday people anywhere. I never felt like I was treated as a Japanese person unless I completely speak Japanese for the next 5 minutes,” he said. 

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Terry Wright, a professional dancer who grew up in Brooklyn and has lived in Japan for the past 15 years, said being Black in the United States and in Japan is a different but similarly precarious experience.

Recalling how he was stopped by police in New York, he said, “You think, ‘Oh, well today could be that day. It could be that last day.’ I’ve had police guns drawn on me.”

“But then when you come here, the fear isn’t exactly the same kind of physical fear. But in my case, I know that Japan has a 99 percent conviction rate, which means that if they want me to go away, I can go away. If they want to, they can take my home, my kids, everything away from me, just like that. Maybe I’m not going to die, but that’s a different kind of death,” said Wright, who also advises Japan For Black Lives.

Though George Floyd’s killing and Black Lives Matter protests ignited some discussion in Japan, the momentum for change died down quickly. A marcher in Tokyo told VICE World News that onlookers were not at all interested in showing solidarity.

“I can’t forget the look in the eyes of people seeing our march. They were ignoring us,” the marcher said.

On the handful of times he visited the U.S., Omotegawa recognized there’s no welcome mat for him either. “When I go to America, I become a terrorist. I’m not an American, but I speak American English. I have a Japanese passport, but look fully Black.”

“I could be a spy I guess. I’ve been to America six times. I’ve been through immigration smoothly once. My normal is that I get stopped for 2 to 3 hours,” Omotegawa said.

“It’s 2021 and these things are still happening. I don’t even know if my grandkids can change it.” 

Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.

Correction: This story originally misspelled the name of basketball player Rui Hachimura as Rui Nakamura. We regret the error.