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Japan: Foreign-born residents sue government for alleged racial profiling

Three foreign-born residents in Japan have sued the country’s authorities over alleged racial profiling.

The plaintiffs say they have suffered distress from repeated police questioning based on their appearances.

“There’s a very strong image that ‘foreigner’ equals ‘criminal’,” Pakistan-born Syed Zain told reporters.

The lawsuit filed on Monday aims to confirm that racial profiling is illegal and to seek 3m yen ($20,250; £15,740) in damages for each plaintiff.

This is the first such lawsuit in Japan, according to the men’s lawyer, Motoki Taniguchi.

Mr Zain, who is a Pakistan-born Japanese citizen, has lived in Japan for two decades, went to school there and is fluent in Japanese. The 26-year-old told a press conference on Monday that he has often been stopped, questioned and searched by police.

“The time has come to rethink the way police questioning is handled.” he said.

The UN defines racial profiling as “the process by which law enforcement relies on generalisations based on one’s race, skin colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, rather than objective evidence of individual behaviour, to subject people to stops, detailed searches, identity checks and investigations, or for deciding that an individual was engaged in criminal activity”.

Another one of the plaintiffs, Matthew, who is of Indian descent and a permanent resident in Japan, claimed that he has been questioned by the police at least 70 times since he arrived in Japan in 2002. He said he now avoids going out, Japanese newspaper The Manichi reported.

“I never knew what social withdrawal was until recently… I feel like every time I finish work, I’m hiding in my house,” he said. Reports said he declined to provide his last name for fear of harassment.

Maurice, an African-American who is a permanent resident in Japan, told the newspaper he has also been questioned by “regular Japanese people”, including some who have asked if he is overstaying his visa.

“Even if we lose… I want people to understand that this is an everyday occurrence, an everyday thing, and that we have to do something to prevent that for the future generations,” he told reporters.

The three men have filed their case against the National Police Agency, the Tokyo metropolitan government and the Aichi prefectural government at the Tokyo District Court.

It has come on the heels off a renewed debate on what it means to be “Japanese”, after a Ukrainian-born model was crowned Miss Japan last week. While some see her victory a nod for diversity, others have said she does not look like a “Miss Japan” should.

In December 2021, the US embassy in Tokyo warned citizens of “suspected racial profiling” of foreigners by Japanese police.

“The US Embassy has received reports of foreigners stopped and searched by Japanese police in suspected racial profiling incidents. Several were detained, questioned, and searched,” it said on Twitter then.

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