By ALICE GORDENKER
My kids generally don't mind it when I write about them in this column,
although on occasion my older son has accused me of exploiting him for
professional gain. It happened again when he heard the topic for today's
column. "You're writing about foreign kids who get in trouble with the
police?" He rolled his eyes. "And I suppose you want me to get myself
arrested so you can write all about it!"
Actually, that's one experience I could live without. I hope neither of my
kids ever get arrested, particularly in a foreign country. But such things
happen. Last year, more than 1,000 foreign juveniles were arrested in
Japan. More than half were either Brazilian or Chinese, but kids of many
different nationalities were detained. Some get convicted.
Of the 5,809 minors admitted to the Japanese juvenile correction system in
2002, 153 were foreigners. There are currently three U.S. citizens under
the age of 20 in Japanese reformatories.
Try to imagine your child has been arrested. In a foreign country. You
don't know the language. You don't know the system. How are you going to
help? With my older son about to enter those high-risk teenage years, I
decided I'd better forearm myself with a little knowledge. I figure a kid
getting arrested is sort of like a major earthquake: Be prepared but hope
it never happens.
Foreigners in Japan are subject to the same laws as Japanese citizens. Your
embassy can't get you out of trouble, and you shouldn't expect special
treatment because you're foreign. From what I've heard from consular
officials, the police will treat you pretty much the same as Japanese
nationals. But that doesn't mean you'll be treated well.
Suspects can be held for up to 23 days without being charged. Interviews
with the police are not taped, and often take place without a lawyer
present. Suspects may not make or receive phone calls. Visits are
restricted and conversations are monitored. If a suspect needs to converse
with a visitor in a language other than Japanese, permission for the visit
will depend on whether an officer who understands that language is
available to listen in. Bail is the exception rather than the rule and is
almost never granted to foreigners. If convicted, foreigners generally
serve their sentence in Japan.
The tough news for parents is that all this applies to juveniles, too.
Police will inform parents when a minor is arrested, and are more liberal
about parents visiting. But even if no charges are filed, your child is
likely to remain in jail at least a few nights.
Under Japanese law, children under 14 can't be held responsible for a
crime. It used to be 16, but the law was revised in response to a shocking
double murder committed in 1997 by a 14-year-old boy in Kobe. He was
recently released after six years of rehabilitation in a medical reformatory.
The good news is that it takes a pretty serious crime to land a child in
jail. Japanese police try to prevent juvenile delinquency through early
intervention and education. Thus, for minor offenses, the police are more
likely to issue hodo (guidance).
Sometimes this involves nothing more than a stern verbal warning. More
often, the police will take the child to a police box, ask a lot of
questions, deliver a lecture and call the parents to come get their kid.
Last year, in karaoke parlors alone, Japanese police picked up more than
18,000 minors and brought them in for guidance against smoking and staying
out too late.
There are youth curfews in Japan, which are set by local jurisdictions.
(It's 11 p.m. in Tokyo). They aren't strictly enforced, particularly in big
cities where kids attend evening cram schools and many businesses are open
around the clock. But police can, at their discretion, issue guidance
against shinya haikai (late-night loitering). And while it's illegal for
adults to sell tobacco or alcohol to anyone under the age of 20, minors
can't be charged or punished for underage smoking or drinking.
So your kids aren't going to get arrested for staying out late, smoking or
drinking. The worst that could happen is they get pulled in for guidance.
Drugs, on the other hand, will almost certainly lead to big trouble.
Japanese police take possession and distribution of illegal drugs very
seriously. This is an important point to impress upon teenagers,
particularly if you're from a country like Canada that has decriminalized
possession of small amounts of marijuana. Japanese customs check incoming
packages carefully for illegal drugs, and foreigners have been jailed
because someone mailed them gifts of marijuana.
Kids should also be warned against the so-called "legal drugs" sold openly
in Shibuya and other areas where young people congregate. Sellers sometimes
misrepresent their wares and foreign kids have been busted for buying what
they thought were legal substances.
So what do you do if the police call? First of all, get down to the police
box or station right away. Officers have a lot of discretion about how they
handle minor offenses. If you cooperate and accept responsibility, the
police are likely to release your child to you. Take your child's passport
and alien registration card. (Teenagers age 16 or older are supposed to
carry their alien registration card.)
If you can, take along someone Japanese, not only to interpret but also to
smooth things along by speaking to the police with the correct level of
politeness. Be calm and respectful. Apologize. Express regret that your
child has caused trouble. If there were damages, offer to pay for them.
Chances are, after giving you a lecture about supervising your child more
closely, the police will send everyone home.
If the situation looks more serious, you may want to contact your consulate
so they can monitor the case and help you find an English-speaking lawyer.
You are entitled to ask the police to call the toban bengoshi, a lawyer on
duty for the bar association who will come for one consultation without
Most Japanese parents don't hire lawyers; 70 to 80 percent of juvenile
cases proceed without one. But the police understand that foreign parents
don't understand the system and it won't prejudice your case to seek legal
advice. Lawyers can help deal with the police, and offer advice on how to
word a confession if your child is going to make one.
I sat my kids down and explained everything I'd learned. I told them to be
polite and cooperative if the police ever stop them. And I said that while
it was important they have this information, I sure hope they never need it.
I hope you don't either.
To learn more about arrests and jail in Japan, visit the "Safety and
Security" section of the American Citizens Services page on the Web site of
the U.S. Consulate in Japan: www.tokyo-acs.com
The Japan Times: April 15, 2004
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