The National Police Agency issued an advisory to all prefectural police forces in December to avoid questioning people in a way that could be perceived as racially motivated, according to agency officials.
The advisory came after the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo tweeted on Dec. 6 that it had received reports of "suspected racial profiling incidents" with several foreigners "detained, questioned and searched" by police.
Racial profiling refers to law enforcement officers deciding based on ethnicity that a person is likely to be involved in criminal activity.
The written advisory read that when choosing who to stop and question, police officers "should not base their decisions solely on how they look, such as appearance and clothing."
When asked at a press conference about the U.S. Embassy's tweet on the day it was posted, top government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno said police questioning is not carried out based on race or nationality, and officers approach suspicious people in accordance with the law.
Conversely, the preliminary results of a Tokyo Bar Association survey of police treatment of people with foreign roots, released earlier this year, showed that 62.9 percent of the 2,094 respondents reported being questioned by police in the preceding five years.
Complaints regarding discriminatory treatment of people with foreign roots living in Japan are increasingly visible on social media.
Moe Miyashita, a lawyer and expert in human rights issues related to foreigners, said, "People do come forward about the racial profiling they have endured in Japan, but the government does not clearly recognize its existence, and debate on the issue is at cross-purposes."
The NPA advisory, issued during a push for greater crime detection over the year-end and New Year's holiday period, was aimed at preventing questioning being misconstrued as motivated by discrimination or prejudice.
It cites race, religion and nationality among the factors that could be taken as subject to prejudice or discrimination. It also calls for consideration of LGBT people and other sexual minorities, reading, "We want comprehensive training to ensure inappropriate and inconsiderate words and actions are strictly refrained from."
In January 2021, an English teacher with a Japanese mother and Bahamian father was left stunned after police in Tokyo explained they had questioned him because "in our experience many people with dreadlocks carry drugs." An inspection of his belongings confirmed he had no drugs.
The experience stayed with him. "Even though I've done nothing wrong, now whenever a police officer passes me I tense up. I think police work hard to keep the peace, but I feel like if you're not 'pure Japanese' then you'll always be seen with suspicion," he said.
Lawrence Yoshitaka Shimoji, a sociology researcher at Ritsumeikan University and author of books including on Japanese people with mixed parentage, said discriminatory treatment of people whose heritage is linked to other Asian nations or Africa is particularly marked.
He also said there are countless cases of police confirming addresses or searching bags when people cannot produce identification such as residency cards.
Shimoji called the NPA advisory "an important first step" but added the problem would not be solved until it is "understood at the level of local police boxes."
The government does appear to be moving toward treating the issue with greater seriousness. In March, an opposition lawmaker asked during an upper house committee meeting for the government's opinion on a racial profiling case in which police stopped a man's car and asked to see his license because it was "strange to see a foreigner driving."
National Public Safety Commission Chairman Satoshi Ninoyu, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, condemned racial profiling in his response, saying, "It is unacceptable for police questioning to be done for reasons such as race or nationality."
He also cited the large numbers of people with foreign heritage living across Japan in stressing the need for a nationwide fact-finding survey on racial profiling.
Miyashita called for the government to gather data on suspected racial profiling cases and look into them, but she also stressed robust prevention mechanisms are needed.
"What is ultimately required are legal provisions to forbid racist treatment, and the establishment of an independent, third-party body to review what is appropriate in specific cases," she said.