Ja­pan: no safe coun­try for for­eign women

A Toky­oite re­assesses her view of Ja­pan af­ter an­other vi­o­lent en­counter is ig­nored by passers-by, po­lice

Business Sphere - - From the Editor-in-Chief -

I’ve lived in Ja­pan on and off for sev­eral years, and I’ve al­ways felt safe on my bi­cy­cle here, par­tic­u­larly as I of­ten see young and old women alike bik­ing at all hours of the night. But af­ter an event a few weeks ago, I feel as if this false sense of se­cu­rity has been stripped away. Cy­cling home at 8:30 p.m. on a well­lit street in Tokyo, I sensed an­other biker by my side, so I slowed down to let him pass. At that point he sud­denly cut over, trapped me against a parked car and grabbed my tire. He be­gan yelling at me in Ja­panese, but the only thing I could clearly un­der­stand was “You stole this bi­cy­cle!” I in­sisted that I had not and tried to pull away, but the man was strong and con­tin­ued yank­ing on my bike. I bought it from a shop brand-new, so I knew it wasn’t stolen. I also didn’t be­lieve that it was my bi­cy­cle he wanted. I yelled, both in English and Ja­panese, “Help! Call the po­lice!” Many people ob­served the fra­cas but did noth­ing to help. He pulled me across a street full of traf­fic, briefly block­ing cars, but al­most ev­ery­one just seemed to ig­nore it. It felt like hours of strug­gling, but then a young woman on a bi­cy­cle ap­peared. By now I must have had tears stream­ing down my face and my voice was al­most gone. She said to me calmly: “I know this man. You stole this bi­cy­cle. I’m call­ing the po­lice.” Were this man and this girl work­ing to­gether? Or was it just so be­liev­able that a for­eigner could have stolen the bike that she in­stinc­tively be­lieved him? And if they were a team, what did they want? A mama chari worth $100? I didn’t think she was ac­tu­ally call­ing the po­lice, but I had no idea how to de­scribe my ex­act lo­ca­tion to call them my­self, and I didn’t want to wait to see what would hap­pen next. My in­stinct told me to get out of there as quickly as pos­si­ble. Notic­ing the man had loos­ened his grip on my bi­cy­cle, I pulled it out of his hands and took off, with the sound of the pair yelling fad­ing be­hind me. I biked away so quickly that they couldn’t catch up, to a con­ve­nience store about 10 min­utes away. My arms and head were throb­bing. See­ing a po­lice car pull up at a red light, I waved and yelled at them. Some­how the of­fi­cers didn’t see me and drove away, so I met up with my boyfriend, who hap­pened to be nearby, and we went to a k ban (po­lice box) to­gether. At the k ban, the po­lice of­fi­cer’s re­sponse went as fol­lows: “Wow, that’s strange. Were they Ja­panese? Well, I can’t re­ally do any­thing be­cause I’m here by my­self and they’re prob­a­bly not there any­more. You’re a young girl, and maybe you shouldn’t be out by yourself alone at night.” No de­tails about the in­ci­dent were recorded. Not only had ev­ery by­stander ig­nored my pleas for help, but the po­lice had also given me a ter­ri­bly dis­ap­point­ing re­sponse — ba­si­cally, “Sh ga nai, ne?” (“What can you do, eh?”). This was not the first time that some­thing like this had hap­pened to me in Ja­pan. The last time was in Osaka one morn­ing, around 10 a.m., when a stranger picked me up and tried to carry me into a love ho­tel. Then, I kept kick­ing and punch­ing un­til he dropped me. I tried to run away, but he was much taller than me and kept catch­ing up. Our strug­gle went on for at least 10 min­utes, and none of the many on­look­ers helped or even ap­peared con­cerned. Fi­nally, I saw a po­lice of­fi­cer down the street and screamed at my at­tacker, “Look! Look! It’s the po­lice!” That seemed to frighten him, and at that point he walked over to a

nearby vend­ing ma­chine, bought me a wa­ter, said “gomen na­sai” (sorry) and walked away. At that time I had few friends in Ja­pan, and ev­ery­one I told said first, “Was he Ja­panese?” and sec­ond, “Things like that never hap­pen in Ja­pan.” (I hadn’t even thought about his eth­nic­ity; he was Asian and had spo­ken to me in Ja­panese.) Ev­ery­one made it seem like it was such a ran­dom ex­pe­ri­ence that I al­most, in fact, felt ashamed, think­ing I must have done some­thing to pro­voke this bizarre be­hav­ior. When this sec­ond in­ci­dent oc­curred, I started to sus­pect that these events weren’t un­usual. I posted a de­scrip­tion of what had hap­pened on Face­book and asked if people had had sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences. The re­sponse was overwhelming: sto­ries of be­ing at­tacked while jog­ging, be­ing stalked by male and fe­male stu­dents, be­ing groped on the street in broad day­light, men mas­tur­bat­ing on trains, at­tempted kid­nap­pings. All of these sto­ries came from strong women who put up a vi­cious fight but still walked away with psy­cho­log­i­cal (and some­times phys­i­cal) in­juries. In all of these sto­ries, the vic­tims had been in a “safe” pub­lic place but no one tried to help them or call the po­lice. If this is so com­mon, why does Ja­pan main­tain a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing so safe? And is this im­age of safety ac­tu­ally fa­cil­i­tat­ing these in­ci­dents? Many say Tokyo is the best place to host the Olympics be­cause it is safe. And in many ways it is: For­eign­ers are as­tounded to walk into Star­bucks and see iPhones left unat­tended on a ta­ble to re­serve a seat, for ex­am­ple. When I lived in Barcelona, my phone wasn’t safe even in my pocket. Still, the two most ag­gres­sive at­tacks in my life hap­pened in Ja­pan, not in “un­safe” coun­tries I back­packed through alone and at a younger age. Thus I don’t think Ja­pan is as safe as the im­age prop­a­gated about the coun­try sug­gests. It seems that just about ev­ery for­eign woman I know has a ter­ri­ble story to tell. I have no way of know­ing if this num­ber is as high for Ja­panese women, be­cause only for­eign women shared their sto­ries with me. Some of us do won­der: Are these types of at­tacks more preva­lent among for­eign women? It is hard to tell, but per­haps for the at­tacker such a tar­get could be less risky. Many for­eign women would not know where and how to re­port such an in­ci­dent. Even in my case, hav­ing a Ja­panese boyfriend to go with me and trans­late, the po­lice still didn’t record any in­for­ma­tion or search for the people in­volved. More­over, since for­eign­ers are of­ten as­so­ci­ated with crime, by­standers might be less likely to in­ter­vene or call the po­lice. Af­ter all these years, I clearly re­mem­ber anti-grop­ing cartoon posters in the Fukuoka sub­way de­pict­ing a man with dark skin touch­ing a white woman. Even at the time, I thought it re­flected a still-preva­lent view in Ja­pan: Crime and crim­i­nals are nonJa­panese. When a crime hap­pens, people al­most al­ways ask, “Was (s)he Ja­panese?” Of course, Ja­panese people too com­mit crimes, and “oth­er­ing” the vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors only makes it eas­ier for crimes to go un­ad­dressed, thus mak­ing so­ci­ety less safe for both for­eign­ers and Ja­panese. As I’ve men­tioned, for all I know these types of at­tacks are just as com­mon among Ja­panese women. Rather than jump­ing to con­clu­sions, I’m sim­ply hop­ing to start a di­a­logue that might help bring about so­lu­tions. I have al­ways known that Ja­pan had per­verts — like any­where — but un­til re­cently they had seemed fairly be­nign. As a mi­nor­ity in Ja­pan, for­eign women do re­ceive a lot of male at­ten­tion and are of­ten of­fered work as hostesses. They also com­plain to me about how they feel ob­jec­ti­fied in Ja­pan. White mod­els and man­nequins are seen every­where, even though white women rep­re­sent a tiny per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion. In a way, white women be­come plas­tic here: im­ports with­out feel­ings — strange, ex­otic dolls. And if we are dolls, per­haps the grop­ing, leer­ing, stalk­ing and at­tack­ing is some­how jus­ti­fied in the per­pe­tra­tor’s mind as a game rather than a crime. When I first moved to Ja­pan, I tol­er­ated the star­ing, fol­low­ing and per­sis­tent nampa (pickup artists), but af­ter be­ing as­saulted twice in pub­lic, they have taken on darker un­der­tones. I now know I can’t rely on the good­will of strangers, as I have in the past when I was ver­bally ha­rassed in coun­tries such as Mex­ico. In­ter­est from strangers that I could have dis­missed as in­no­cent cu­rios­ity a few years ago now gives me the chills. De­spite its many stereo­types and in­con­ve­niences, I love Ja­pan. So do a lot of the women who shared their sto­ries with me. I am at­tracted to Ja­pan be­cause it’s so dif­fer­ent from my cul­ture. I want to keep liv­ing here and un­lock­ing the mys­ter­ies I en­counter ev­ery day, but I have ideas about how it could be made a safer place. Just be­cause I love this coun­try, it does not mean I have to love it un­con­di­tion­ally and ig­nore those things I might dis­agree with. Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing these in­ci­dents and hear­ing other women’s sto­ries has al­tered my daily be­hav­ior. I have vowed to be more care­ful as I cal­cu­late risks in my daily life. I carry Mace. At night, I take roads that have lots of k bans on them, and I know how to ex­plain my route should I have to talk to a po­lice of­fi­cer. I’m not para­noid, but I also won’t let sur­prise be a weapon.

(G.R. KHAT­TAR)

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