Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ask for Directions in Tokyo and get arrested

Photo by: Allan McDaniel
A funny thing happened the other week as I was walking down one of the main shopping districts in 
Tokyo.  Like many travelers around the world being dazzled by the sites, sounds and the bustling city lights I found myself disoriented as to where I was and where I needed to go.  Little did I realize that in the next couple of minutes I would commit a crime that would see me detained for three hours in a Japanese police station.

My crime, as innocent as it may seem, was to accept assistance from a police officer by asking for directions.  Well perhaps it was not actually asking for directions that landed me in hot water but, it was the catalyst that would send me on a journey which included interrogation, a strip search, being lost in translation and a lesson in penmanship.  The police officer, as part of his role in protecting the Japanese public and to promote tourism in his nation, was to verify identity and ensure that the country is free of illegal aliens.  

I, like most travelers, once you clear immigration and customs usually lock up your passport in the hotel safe or leave the document on board your cruise ship as your passport is the most valuable possession you have when you are on the road.  To lose or have your passport stolen is a nightmare. It effectively clips your wings and prevents you leaving the country. To get a replacement passport can take days/weeks depending on where you are.  However, in Japan, it is the law to carry either a Passport or your Alien Identity Card at all times.  It is your responsibility to know this law as it is not documented on the landing cards for Japan, nor is there signage or communication about this law at Customs and Immigration upon arrival.  You just have to know.

According to the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo a Consular advisor responded by saying “...[it] is a rare but not uncommon occurrence for foreigners residing or visiting Japan [for being asked for identity documentation and/or being detained]. From previous experience, the best course of action in this situation is to be cooperative and to give the police no grounds to prolong their check. If a person resists, is confrontational, or refuses to cooperate, the individual may find themselves at a police station for several hours or a couple of days. Police can detain people for up to 3 days "on suspicion" and we have had several reports of Canadians detained simply because they refused to present their identity documents and resisted the Police. Regulations concerning non-nationals are sovereign rights-of-states; as such, Japanese police officers are authorized to ask foreigners to produce their passport or proof of residency in Japan as part of their responsibility to protect Japan’s safety and to enforce Japan’s immigration laws."

Is Japan an isolated incident or is this more common than I had thought?  As it turns out Foreign Affairs reported: “There are a certain number of countries that require foreign nationals to carry either their passport (original or photocopy, in accordance of the local laws) or an identification issued by the local authorities in case the said foreign nationals reside in the country.  Examples of such countries are: France, Germany, Belgium, and Thailand. If that is the case, Department of Foreign Affairs Travel Advisory indicates so in its “Laws & Culture” section Travel.gc.ca. We would also suggest people register with Registration of Canadians Abroad (ROCA). It is a free service offered by DFATD that keeps Canadian travelers connected to Canada in case of an emergency abroad such as an earthquake or civil unrest, or an emergency at home." For details as well as on-line registration, please refer to:  http://travel.gc.ca/travelling/registration 

So as you plan your sun, beach or mountain escapes this Fall and Winter, make sure you take the extra time and visit travel.gc.ca and review your destination’s “Law & Culture” section so you can skip the added tourist site of inside a prison cell and the behind the scene tour of a foreign police station.  Though the experience of spending three hours with the police waiting for my passport to arrive at the station, being interrogated by five different officers and having to write an apology letter to the Government of Japan promising to always carry my Passport at all times while in Japan was interesting and makes for a good story, it is not something I would recommend.