A small group of foreign and Japanese activists demonstrated Sunday afternoon at the Akasaka police station to seek more information about an incident reportedly involving police and an American ESL teacher who later died in a Tokyo hospital.
Activists said it’s the fifth incident of a death in Tokyo police custody in the past year. Police could not be reached for comment.
Little is known about the latest incident and the American. Japan-based media outlets Tokyo Reporter and Tokyo Weekender last week cited brief Japanese-language reports in Jiji Press and WSJ. The reports say six police officers were involved in an incident at 5:30 pm on Feb. 11, Japan’s Foundation Day holiday, with an American ESL teacher, 29, resident in Setagaya ward in west Tokyo. The reports said the police officers responded to a complaint and restrained the American, who died in a coma three weeks later in a Tokyo hospital on March 1.
The reports could not be confirmed, and Japanese media, which often print stories without sources, cannot be considered reliable.
Many Japan-based foreigners, who consider Tokyo one of the world’s safest mega-cities, applaud police efforts to protect and assist them.
Tokyo has one of the world’s lowest crime rates and one of the largest police forces of any city, with more than 40,000 officers (compared with 14,000 FBI agents and 19,000 mounties in Canada).
Police officers in crisp uniforms are easy to find at little “koban” posts, and they’re usually happy to help you find your way through Tokyo’s maze of streets. Their job also includes handling massive crowds and dealing with extremists and people with various illnesses, addictions, and abusive behaviors. They often work long hours overnight and on holidays, and they routinely deal with death and violence — which would traumatize most people.
Most civilians don’t realize the good work police do behind the scenes. After the 311 disasters, more than 200 Tokyo police went to northeastern Japan to assist overwhelmed local forces. These officers routinely risked their lives entering fragile buildings with hazardous materials.
Given their reputation for dutiful service, recent reports of people dying in police custody are raising alarms among some observers and activists in Tokyo
Some commenters online are wondering why police, embassy officials and Japanese and expat media are not providing more information about the American man, his family, friends, employers or students.
The reports emerged as many foreign journalists gathered at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan to interview a self-promoting mascot.
It’s not known if the Akasaka incident, in daylight on a holiday, is related to right-wing protests on Foundation Day, a national holiday celebrating the accession of Emperor Jimmu. The date formerly coincided with New Year’s Day in Japan before Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1873.
A Tokyo court recently ruled that Japanese immigration officers used illegal means to restrain an African man who died of suffocation at Narita Airport after working in Japan for 22 years without a visa. Others have died in Japan’s secretive “Gaijin Gulag” network of prisons for foreigners.
In a series of emails, an activist who identifies himself as Ed Stamm of the Progressive News Service points to at least five cases of people dying in police custody in the past year.
“A troubling pattern of deaths of suspects in police custody is emerging in Tokyo, Japan. At least five people have died in police custody in the last year, with little publicity or investigation,” Stamm wrote on Facebook. “The names of the victims have not apparently been released, which puts Japan at odds with international norms of transparency and police accountability.
Stamm lists the following cases, which could not be independently confirmed:
–Police subdued a man, 37, allegedly shouting and throwing things in a hotel room May 12, 2014 in Meguro ward at 02:35 am. He was confirmed dead in a hospital at 10:55 pm. Police suspected drug involvement.
–On May 25, 2014, police found a man, 30, convulsing on the street in Nishi Shinjuku at about 6:30 p.m. They bound his hands and feet, wrapped him in a mat, and took him to a police station, where his condition worsened. He died in a hospital two days later on May 27.
–On May 31, 2014, police arrested a man, 37, running around naked at around 4 pm. They wrapped him in a sheet and took him by patrol car to a “special detention room”. He reportedly went limp, stopped breathing, and died at 7:40 pm.
–Four officers arrested a man, 47, at a Shinagawa supermarket on August 25, 2014, according to the Sankei newspaper. They reportedly wrapped him in a sheet, bound his hands and feet, and transported him face down to the Osaki Police Station. He was later found unconscious in an interrogation room, and died in a hospital a week later on September 3, 2014.
“No one should be able to vanish from society and die anonymously,” wrote Stamm on Facebook. “This is not something that is supposed to happen in a democracy. Where there is no information, there is no accountability.”
“The news media have not pursued this story to determine who this man was and why he died.”
His FB posting said the US embassy and Tokyo government have not responded to requests for information.
“This is not acceptable. Foreign residents and foreign visitors in Japan are human beings with human rights, and they should not be injured or die at the hands of the police for “behaving strangely”, and they should not disappear.”
“Governments should not be able to conceal the deaths of foreign residents and foreign visitors by refusing to release their names and the circumstances surrounding their deaths, and the news media should not be complicit in “news blackouts” to conceal embarrassing incidents.”
Activist and Japan Times columnist Debito Arudou has also raised questions about police conduct.