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Visible Minorities: Racial Profiling at Japanese Hotel Check-Ins

SNA (Tokyo) — It’s dehumanizing to be denied service somewhere, not for what you did, but for who you are, and to realize that discrimination is real.

In Japan, your first experience might be with your apartment search—realtors may deny you a home simply because “the landlord doesn’t like foreigners.”

Sadly, there’s little you can do: racial discrimination is not illegal in Japan, even in 2019. You could report what happened to the Ministry of Justice’s Human Rights Bureau (which will generally do nothing), or take them to court where you’re at the mercy of a judge susceptible to narratives of “foreigners are different/difficult, so refusing them is okay,” which is known legally as “rational discrimination.” Still, you will need a place right away to call home.

Eventually, after getting an interlocutor to negotiate or an employer to vouch for you, you find one. You’ll forget about what happened. Something like this doesn’t happen every day, right?

But it may occur the next time you want a hotel room. Given the tourism boom and hosted international sports events, racial profiling and discrimination have become widespread in Japan’s hoteling industry. This is particularly insidious because it’s not just the occasional bigoted landlord calling the shots; this time it’s the Japanese police.

It begins when you arrive at a hotel and try to check in. Clerks are trained to demand a passport from any customer who “looks foreign” as a precondition for service. This includes Non-Japanese Residents of Japan, even though Non-Japanese Residents are not required to carry their passport, and even though the law says hotels cannot do it.

Explicitly stated in laws related to hotel management is that if you are a Japanese or a Non-Japanese with an address in Japan, you merely enter your name, address, contact details, and occupation into the guest book. No ID is necessary.

If you are a tourist with no address in Japan, however, the law is different. In that case, you must display your passport to the hotel clerk, have your passport number taken down, and (under some prefectural ordinances) have your passport photocopied in case the local police want to see it.

Overseas governments discourage such practices. The Canadian government, for example, makes it clear: “Never give out personal information from your passport or your passport application unless you’re sure it is for a trusted organization or individual. This includes photocopies. You take all responsibility for giving information in your passport to a third party.” So if you check in and become a victim of identity theft, that’s your own responsibility.

But here’s where hotel practices get racialized: Some require “all foreign guests,” regardless of residency, to display ID.

People who refuse to comply can be, under some prefectural ordinances, denied entry into the hotel, and sometimes the police are to be called. And how do clerks tell who a “foreign guest” is? If they have a foreign-looking face or name, of course. Hence the racial profiling at check-in.

But what happens to residents, Japanese children of international marriages, and foreign-looking citizens, such as myself, who brave the harassment and inform them of the actual letter of the law? Clerks will then claim the local police are demanding all foreign guests produce ID. Sometimes they even pull out a handy-dandy multilingual poster produced by those police saying as much. Nevertheless, that’s not what the law says.

I’ve been following this issue since 2005, when I encountered my first hotel ID checkpoint while attending a conference. After more than a decade of these shenanigans (and official confirmations from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, local police agencies retracting erroneous posters, and even the US Embassy that ID checks only apply to overseas tourists), it’s clear that the Japanese police are deliberately making up law to enlist hotels in their racial profiling.

Why do the police keep lying? Because, according to their posters, they’re looking for terrorists. (Naturally, Japanese cannot be terrorists, never mind Aum Shinrikyo or the Japanese Red Army.)

So here’s the bottom line: If you live in Japan with a Japanese address, you check in like any other Japanese citizen. You should only need to write your name and contact details in the guest book and get your key. No ID is necessary.

But since the Japanese police prioritize their power over actually following the law, it’s likely your protest about being treated like a terrorist will fall on deaf ears.

In fact, the cops have doubled-down. For example, the Shizuoka police recently issued yet another poster making up a rule that everyone must show their passport. (As if that’s going to apply to Japanese guests?)

Most people, tired at the end of a day, are probably not in the mood to fight the casual racial profiling at the hotel counter, or deal with a phalanx of paranoid cops. Claiming your legal rights might mean that you lose your room for the night, or at worst mean you enjoy a couple of weeks of hospitality at the local police detention center.

The ultimate solution is for some brave soul to suffer these indignities and to sue the hotel and police for damages, and to make it clear that this practice is not grounded in statute.

This is what happens when you encourage multitudes of overseas tourists come to a place like Japan, a society hobbled by strong xenophobic narratives and a weak system of checks on police power, without preparing the legal and social groundwork. Even after all these years, Japan’s officials and law enforcement still haven’t cottoned on to the fact that some people who look like tourists actually live here. Once again, Japan’s Visible Minorities get snagged in the dragnet. Unlawfully.

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