The Simple but Questionable Role of Japan's Men in Blue

The Simple but Questionable Role of Japan’s Men in Blue

An eager young cop kits up, does his hair, knocks back a not-so-fresh brewed café latte from 7/11 and trots off to Tokyo Station, where a day full of adventure and enforcing law awaits him. By 3pm, however, he’s completed his fifth lap of the Imperial Palace gardens. His only dose of action saw him whistle and yell at an Australian traveller who j-walked, and was completely oblivious to everything around him. He also refined his tacky tourist photography game by taking the same picture of more foreigners in front of that same old gate.

Welcome to the life of a Japanese policeman.

Meanwhile, I wake to an obnoxious siren on a cold Saturday morning in Tokyo. Not quite sure if it’s an earthquake or if someone has pressed the siren button instead of play on their newest J-pop album, I look out the window to see another police car whizz past, as if The Tokyo Drift Club were back in town causing a ruckus. No need to get all worked up, I think. It’s most likely just an unchained bicycle stolen, without a trace, by some drunk Yank looking for a joy ride after missing the last train.

I make it to the historic Imperial Palace that day, and spend the morning taking it all in. I spot a young officer and wonder – like me – did he always want to be a cop, especially in a country with so little crime?  I then stop and, upon further inspection, realise he’s been staring down and kicking that same pile of ice on the ground for almost a minute. I watch the feud a little longer. Still puzzled, I eventually grow impatient, walk over and force conversation.

Officer Hipeo Kurata is colloquially known as Omawari-san (Mr Walk-around). His polite warm smile eventually peels off and grows emotionless after I ask what he would be doing with himself in another life. Hipeo had goals of becoming an engineer in school, but the 25-year-old found himself suddenly enrolling as a man in blue. Three years have gone by, and like his fondness towards me, his dream grows ever so faint.

Japan may well be one of the safest places on earth. It records among the lowest rates of street crime, drug felonies and violent crimes. No wonder poor Hipeo is depressing to talk to. So, no matter how stupid, bad at planning and keeping track of your belongings you are, you’ll be alright! Your wallet will have every last Yen you left in it as it waits for you behind the bar you left it in last night.

But are Officer Kurata and his colleagues really so bored they take it out on snow while on duty? Surely some of the ‘Mr Walk-arounds’ could get up to more than just strolling through parks?

Maybe. Japan’s Finest seriously lack efficiency when it comes to investigating in two departments: sexual assault and murder. Chika (perverts) are a huge problem, and are widely reported. Yet the few victims that actually report sexual assault, and even rape, aren’t always taken seriously by the police.

The Japan Times explains that their government figures show that more than 95 per cent of rapes aren’t even reported to the police, and until July 2017 the definition of rape excluded oral and anal penetration. However, when sexual assaults were investigated by Japan’s police, numerous international victims endured shocking experiences. Victims have been forced to reenact the scene, photos have been taken of them in their underwear and of the used condom, victim blaming has occurred, police have refused to take victims to the hospital, victims have been forced to accompany the police to find their rapist, and have even been given the advice, “If you don’t want to get raped, you shouldn’t invite men into your apartment.”

When these traumatised victims should be receiving care and support, they are instead forced and controlled by the police, who display an astonishing lack of compassion. No wonder no one reports sexual assault.

Inconclusive homicides are another grey area in Japan’s crime statistics, and are reportedly dismissed as suicides unless “fronted with clear evidence”. The National Police Agency of Japan (NPA) stated that only 10 per cent of suspicious deaths result in an autopsy. Some have linked this to the fact that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The cultural resistance to handle the dead and lack of budget for pathologists in police departments also contribute to the minimal investigation. But, in an article by the LA Times, former cops, doctors and pathologists all argue that police culture in Japan is all about keeping the statistics low and looking good to the people. Ex-cop Hiromasa Saikawa explained that you can get away with the perfect murder in Japan, as the body may not even be examined.

While these issues open a big fat can of worms, the police of Japan seem to concern themselves with pettiness.

The generally well-behaved people of Japan make any visit pretty stress free (aside from railway line navigation and choosing the right ramen place). Tokyo also has the largest police force in the world – a quarter larger than the famous NYPD. Their busy streets are flooded with ‘Mr Walk-arounds’ who are always on the lookout for something to do. But, be aware that baka gaijins (stupid foreigners) committing the common faux pas – J-walking, eating on the street, skating and walking on the wrong side of the path – are often easy targets for these bored policemen.

So, before you laugh off the slap on the wrist you received from an Omawari-san, consider this conspiracy, the people it has affected and whether it will ever change.

Cover by Alex Martinez