Amid requests for people to stay at home to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in Japan, instances of tailgating or stones being thrown at cars with out-of-prefecture license plates have been growing in areas that have few confirmed cases of infection.
Some local authorities have tried to put an end to these incidents by offering images that residents can print out and display on their cars to prove they live locally, but their efforts have drawn criticism as fanning discrimination toward out-of-towners.
With COVID-19 cases topping 16,000 nationwide, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined near Tokyo in February, many living in areas with comparatively few confirmed infections are wary that visitors from cities such as Tokyo and Osaka may bring the virus into their communities.
On April 21, Tokushima Gov. Kamon Iizumi ordered a survey of cars with license plates from other prefectures, citing "the danger of traveling" between the western Japan prefecture and areas where there is a high risk of infection.
Tokushima has had only five coronavirus cases.
But the governor told a press conference on April 24 that the message directed at those outside the prefecture may have been "too strong" as it fueled bad behavior toward them.
On April 27, in a move to protect recent arrivals and to prevent their vehicles being targeted, the Tokushima city of Miyoshi uploaded to its website a flyer stating "I am a resident of Tokushima Prefecture" and called on residents via social media to print it out and display it on their car dashboards.
Twitter users were quick to criticize the initiative, however, saying the city is "promoting discrimination" and that the municipality "should clearly state that harassing (nonresidents) is a crime and such behavior can be reported" to police.
After just one day, the city removed the image from its website and Twitter account and switched to handing the flyer directly to visitors to the municipal office, saying it did so for fear that out-of-towners could abuse the initiative by downloading the flyer from another part of the country and pretending to be residents.
"We have no intention to discriminate (against those with out-of-prefecture license plates) at all. There have been some harassment incidents in the city and we created the image in the hope that people would act rationally," a Miyoshi city official said.
The town of Kushimoto in Wakayama Prefecture, western Japan, began distributing on May 1 magnet sheets with the words "I live in Kushimoto." They were so popular that it gave out 300 on the first day.
The town explained that it had received calls from residents who said they were "worried about what other people might think about them" since their car license plates did not identify them as being from Wakayama.
An official in charge has maintained that the initiative does not represent a form of discrimination.
Following Kushimoto's move, Wakayama Prefecture as a whole began distributing documents on Thursday to confirm residency for people whose car license plates are from another prefecture. So far, Wakayama has seen 62 residents infected by the coronavirus.
"It's as if these administrations are saying that it can't be helped if people from outside of the prefecture are being discriminated against," said Shun Ishihara, a sociology professor at Meiji Gakuin University.
"(Distributing proof of residency) is discrimination clothed as anti-discrimination policy. Officials should engage in serious self-reflection," he said.