Sunday, 27 April 2008

Stop! Police! and Ramblings on Cultural Identity

Three nights a week I have class until 9pm. After class we often go out for dinner and a round or two of drinks with my advisor. I normally get home close to midnight, but I'm not the only one exiting the station and walking home at that hour.

The other night it had gotten suddenly chilly and was raining. Not a very nice night. I just wanted to go home and go to bed as I had to be up and in class early the next morning. I left the station and started walking towards the dorm (a 20 minute walk), passing the police box, as I always do. As I walked by I thought I heard a voice call out, so I looked back. The man standing in front of the police box, with a police hat (protected by a plastic shower-cap) and plastic rain poncho didn't appear to be looking at me, so I kept walking. The voice called out again, and again, so I looked back over my shoulder through the rain. The guy hadn't moved and again didn't appear to be looking at me so I kept going. When I heard the voice again, however, I stopped and lifted my umbrella, and while the officer still didn't appear to actually be looking at me he had left the limited shelter of the police box's overhanging roof and was standing right beside me. The young officer bowed his head to me and asked me if I was carrying my foreigners registration card. He then quoted a certain law or something that allowed him to stop me and ask me for my card. I have been told numerous times that this could potentially happen, but had never actually had it happen, nor heard of it happening out of the blue like this.

I acknowledged that I had my card on me, and the officer asked to see it. I reached into my bag and took out my wallet, opening it to show him my card. He asked me to remove the card from my wallet however, which proved to be a bit difficult. Juggling my umbrella, my school bag and another bag I had trouble getting the card out of the small pocket in my wallet. The officer watched me and waited patiently. I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the situation, however, especially since I couldn't actually see his uniform except for his hat. He was also rather young and the darkness didn't do anything to ease my discomfort. He must have sensed this, as he tried to reassure me that the situation was not dodgy - only making me more uncomfortable! I held onto the corner of my card as I showed it to him. He stared at it intently, reading it multiple times and questioning me about the information on it.

Officer: "Hmm.... So, you are a foreign student?"
Me: "Yes."
Officer: "Hmm.... So, you live in the area?"
Me: "Yes, in the foreign student dorm."

He finally released my card, bowed to me and wished me a good evening, and then he was gone into the night, back to the police box.

I continued walking home, and as I went over the situation in my mind I started getting really upset about it. I realize that the officer in question was polite, that nothing happened, and that plenty of others have had experiences that are actually seriously unpleasant to say the very very least (Korean and Chinese students in Japan have some unpleasant stories of being hassled by police, and visible minorities in North America - especially young black men can tell horror stories of being the victims of racial profiling). In comparison, my brief encounter is really nothing, and I am no longer upset by it, but that evening, walking home in the cold rain, I felt very much singled out because of my skin colour. I felt as if I was being reminded that I am a foreigner, and being made to feel unwelcome in the country in which I choose to make my life.

It did get me to thinking... I talked with a number of different people, about the incident itself and about cultural identity in general. Here are some of my ramblings...

As a tall white female in Japan I stand out. When I first went to the island of Tanegashima in the south of Japan 8 years ago I just about caused car accidents every time I walked down the main street in town! Living in Tokyo these days is different, but I still get looked at. I'm used to it, however, and it doesn't bother me most of the time. Some of the time it ends up being a positive - like when my friends remark about how easy it is to meet me anywhere, they can immediately pick me out of a crowd! And yet, for all that I stand out, I feel that I fit in. While I am sure that my professors treat me somewhat differently from other students, I am a regular student, not an exchange student. My friends tease me that I must have been Japanese in a previous life, and one of my friends has a couple of times, out of the blue in the middle of the conversation, suddenly remarked "huh? Ohhhhh... right, I forgot, you're a foreigner!!" Not that I think I'm "turning Japanese" a la Vapors, but I have chosen to make my life here, not just for a year, but for the foreseeable future. This is where I study, where I work, where my friends are, where my life is.

In one instant, however, I was reminded that however much I may feel that I belong here, and however much those who know me may agree with that and treat me in the same way, I am and always will be a foreigner. Not that that is a bad thing, nor a good thing, it just is. I accept it. I feel that it is something that every non-Japanese person has to come to terms with to live happily in this country. Japan is a country with a strong sense of identity, a strong idea of what it means to be Japanese and who the Japanese are. This is historical, cultural, and linguistic. I don't think you can say it is a purely bad thing, or a purely good thing either. As a Canadian girl, despite the fact that I also have a British passport, I grew up without a sense of cultural identity. Growing up I remember attending the annual Toronto multi-cultural festival and seeing children my age up on stage dressed in traditional clothing and performing traditional dances at the Latvian or Cuban or Greek or Hungarian community centres. I was always jealous, I wanted to have that "culture," that specialness of identity. I thought we were boring, without culture.

It has taken living outside of Canada for the past 5 years to help me appreciate what it means to be Canadian. When asked to dress up in national costume and cook traditional dishes for an international event during my exchange to Japan, I joked that we Canadians don't have clothing or food. Eight years later, however, when asked about Canadian food I will describe poutine, or talk about my uncle who makes maple syrup in his backyard, or mention the delicious fish and fruit plentiful in BC. When asked about national identity I will now proudly talk about official bilingualism, about the Canadian mosaic and the multiculturalism of large Canadian cities, about the range of cultures and languages that make up the average elementary school class.

My name is Sarah. And I Am Canadian! (grin!) Follow the link if you don't know what I'm talking about, and watch a video clip that made it cool to be Canadian...


  1. That experience is the ultimate argument against introducing ID cards in the UK as they are planning to- if the police are given a power, they will abuse it.

    I absolutely agree on being a foreigner but also being at home in Japan. I've become so Japanese that I also stare at foreigners, so I can hardly expect anyone else not to stare at me...

  2. It's funny about police in Japan and the ones back home, as well; Police officers often tend to look down on the members of the society they live in. You know, the old 'I've seen it all before' bit. That officer would probably like to stop everybody walking by that looks like they might be up to no good, but he can't. With you, though, he exercised one of the advantages he has as a police officer, unfair as that is.