Bicycle Thieves and the Japanese Police

Although Metropolitan Tokyo is a very modern City with the best transportation I have ever seen, people enjoy travelling by bicycle to go shopping or to commute for work or for schools to nearby train and subway stations. People leave their bicycles in parking lots by the stations to pick them up upon returning back home. Seemingly many bicycles are stolen and one main duty of the Japanese police is to check on the riders and find out whether they have the proper documentation to prove that the bicycles are registered under their names. Foreigners, to be exact young Asians, are one of the main targets of the police investigation.

Let me tell you a shocking true story. Last December 7, the local police in Tokyo arrested a young Vietnamese Jesuit student and humiliated badly him for 4 hours and all without reason. What provoked the arrest was that a Vietnamese friend was riding on his back, but, in fact, the reason for the arrest was that he did not know under whose name the old bicycle was registered. He had just arrived to Japan for the first time and was studying Japanese. He was living in the same Jesuit religious house where I live with another 15 young Jesuits.

When NGUYEN (anonymous) was taken away by 2 policemen to the nearby police box they asked for his identity. They took his “residence card” and made a copy of it. His address, name and visa status, etc. were included there. A few policemen surrounded him, but nobody knew the Vietnamese language and there was no way to communicate in English either. Of course, he did not understand Japanese either. After an agonizing hour, they asked him to lead them to his residence, the Jesuit Theologate, but NGUYEN was new to the place and all he knew was a bicycle road. Four policemen took him by a patrol car that has certainly a navigation system but, on purpose, they did not use it. The result was that it took them about one hour and a half when they could have reached the place in less than 15 minutes.

The Jesuit Theologate is big (can accommodate 23 persons) and although it has just been built, the Jesuits have been on that property for over 40 years. Two patrol cars arrived there with 6 police surrounding the “suspect” NGUYEN. Then, they started taking photos of the placard outside the front door asking the young Jesuit to point at it to have a photo taken. Again without a warrant the 6 policemen came into the building and when the Jesuit minister of the house was informed, he told them to go to the visitors’ room to hear what had happened. Four policemen followed him and the two others asked NGUYEN to lead them to his room. They continued taking photos and giving him orders to point at doors and especially at the door of his room with his name written at the entrance. In the meantime the other 4 policemen that gathered with the Jesuit minister downstairs were able to ascertain the name of the Jesuit that registered the bicycle years ago. Finally they gave back the bicycle confiscated at 2 o’clock and asked to sign a document affirming that the bicycle was given back and another paper saying that the Jesuit minister was the custodian of NGUYEN.
What a stupidity and nonsense!! It was already 6:00PM when they left without any apology.

This and similar cases I have experienced reminded me of a famous film I watched when I was a little boy. Its images are still vivid to me. The title of the film was “Bicycle Thief”. That was an Italian film (Ladri di Biciclette”) of a famous director, Vittorio de Sica, who presents the postwar situation of Italy (1948).

The actor of the movie, Ricci, an unemployed that has finally found a job, has to prove that he owns a bicycle and is able to use it to go to work. Although Ricci is poor he gets a bicycle and starts working sticking posters on walls in the streets. The very first day in his job, somebody steals his bicycle and Ricci loses his job and income. He makes a claim to the police, but without result. Nobody helps him to get his bicycle back.
In 1970, the film was considered one of the 10 best in film history.

[By Ando Isamu, SJ from Tokyo Jesuit Social Center, Migrant Desk]


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