"We don't think it was you, we're just questioning all foreigners!"
- policeman during a "chat" we had at an Ikebukuro Police Box.
During 1993, Japan learned a new word - "Risutora". It is a shortening of "Restructuring" which is a euphemism for firing people in a corporate culture that had always promised employment for
life. The economic downturn after the bubble economy burst in the early nineties had some companies putting thousands out on the street, in moves that were previously unheard of in Japan's
employment market. But one company got an inordinate amount of publicity for releasing just 35 staff, mainly because of the way it did it. Pioneer selected thirty five medium to high ranking
managers in the 50 - 60 year age bracket, who had been having bad performance reviews for the last couple of years, and told them to resign or face dismissal. This meant that the thirty five
people selected were branded as low performers, which would make it almost impossible for them to find work elsewhere. Within the company, there were many jokes about who was number thirty six on
In December of 1993, the rock group “Deep Purple” were playing in Tokyo, and on a whim I decided to go. Not having bought a ticket in advance, I went to the Budokan arena in the hopes of getting a ticket from a tout. When I got to the Budokan, it was deserted. Realising I had got the dates wrong, I decided do some Christmas shopping so that my trip into Tokyo would not be a total waste. I went to Harajuku, but eventually found nothing that took my fancy. Feeling somewhat dejected, I headed home. As I stepped up to the ticket machine at Harajuku station, a middle aged man asked me if I wanted to go see Deep Purple. I immediately realised I had got the location wrong, not the date! Deep Purple were playing at the Olympic stadium! I asked him how much for a ticket, and he said he had a front row seats for thirty thousand yen. I wasn't willing to pay that, so I told him that was too expensive and started to head towards the stadium. Without missing a beat, he asked me what my budget was, and I said ten thousand. He told me to wait, while he conferred with a colleague. Seconds later he came back to me holding a ticket which he let me have at the face value of eight thousand. Deal done, I headed towards the stadium, eager to verify it was not a fake before he could escape too far away. I got a seat about half way down the arena, on the first floor of the stand seats, three rows from the edge. Not bad, I thought to myself.
I went out to the bathroom, and met a co-worker on the stairs. He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him, and he was even more so when he heard about how I got the ticket, as he had queued for hours, some months previously, for his, only to find that his view of the drummer, whose technique he had come to study, was blocked by the speaker stacks of the PA system. The show itself was excellent. Legendary guitarist Richie Blackmore had quit the band weeks before the tour, so they had to get a replacement at the last minute. This proved to be fortuitous, since the absence of inordinately long guitar solos meant an increase in the number of songs in the set, and the inclusion of some songs that I had never heard recorded live before, two of which were particular personal favourites of mine. Two days later I was back in Tokyo to see U2 at the Tokyo Dome, on the second last step of their Zoo TV tour. I would come back to Tokyo Dome again in the following year I went to see two NFL teams face off in the American Bowl, an annual exhibition event. The most enjoyable moment of this was when, halfway through the game, the girl sitting next to me, a friend of Damian's, asked me if I knew what the rules were. As I explained, I noticed several other people around me were furtively listening in.
In 1994, I began hiking in earnest. When I was young, I would often cycle down the coast and walk along the path that crosses over Bray head. At points this path is less than the width of one person, so it was easy to lose oneself in a fantasy of exploring uncharted territory. I enjoyed being alone, because it was easy to lose oneself in one's thoughts, but at the same time this solitude heightened the excitement of wondering who, if anyone, would come from the other direction. I enjoyed hiking for the same reasons I enjoyed cycling and fishing, the relaxation of not having a complicated schedule, being close enough to nature to enjoy it, and because beer tastes better after a day in the fresh air. Thus it was without hesitation that I accepted Alex's many invitations to join him hiking. Alex used to go hiking with some of the members of his sports club, and I would join them for their day trips. Hiking is popular in Japan among the elderly and retired, as it is a none-too stressful form of exercise. On one trip, we were going up a narrow path when we encountered a group of elderly ladies coming down. We paused and allowed them to pass first, and as each one passed us courteous "Hello"s were exchanged. After a minute or so, Alex asked one of them how many were in their group. The reply was "one hundred and twenty". At that point, we started off again, like salmon swimming against the stream, as courtesy lost out to expediency.
Since most of Japan's mountains were once active volcanoes, and many of them still are, their peaks are a totally different landscape from the world below them. I have walked in craters so big that it seemed we were on a different planet, with ash and stones for soil, and no foliage visible as far as the eye could see. I have been caught in freezing fog so thick that I could barely see my own feet, and walked along cliff paths with a sheer drop to their side, where if you lose your balance there is nothing but stones to roll with you as you fall down the slope, unable to stop yourself because there is no branch or tree to grab on to. I have stood on mountain peaks and looked around at a panorama of hills covered with trees and snow, sights so great as to make you wonder how the little problems of your life could possibly seem important when there are views such as these to enjoy.
The Japanese have a very good relationship with the nature around them, they admire it enough to want to be close to it, but respect it enough to preserve it to some extent. Hiking paths are delineated, and rarely strayed from, so that the intrusion of mankind into this natural beauty is restricted. Rubbish is brought home, rules of safety are observed. At one hiking lodge where we stayed on the top of a mountain, it was not possible to predict the number who would stay each night, since when bad weather changes plans there is no changing back, and consequently it is not possible to turn anyone away, since there was no other shelter available. Thus in the busy season, they had to plan for a maximum number of people arriving, and so people were required to cram up to twelve people into a single room, to ensure there would be space for any who arrived later. Since over half the people in our room were snoring, sleep was difficult. One of our party got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and never came back. He told us the next morning that on the way back from the bathroom he noticed that the next room was empty, presumably because there had been no late arrivals, so he went to sleep in there instead. The bathrooms in that lodge were simple trenches, where there was no running water. To reduce the smell, there were lids for the Japanese style toilet cavities. Sometimes people from the city do not know about these lids, and do not bother to check, or fail to notice them in the dark, so in the morning there is a very nasty surprise awaiting the cleaners.
After Alex left Japan, I lost contact with the other hikers, and have only been hiking once since. The last time I went hiking was to climb Mount Fuji, which I will recount in a later chapter.
In September 1994, my brother visited Japan for the first time. He was only here for eight days, but I kept him busy. I let him look around Tokyo on his own for the first day, which he handled quite comfortably, walking around Shinjuku and Ginza. Then I took him to Kyoto for one day, where we met up with Eamon, who did a great job of chatting up two girls at Kiyomizu Temple. The temple has two stones set in the ground, and it is said that if you can walk from one to the other with your eyes closed, you will find true love soon. Eamon managed it perfectly, and when he opened his eyes, there were the two girls standing in front of him, so he asked which one of them was his true love. They joined us in sightseeing for a while, and weeks later one of them posted me copies of the photos they had taken with us. We got back to Tokyo in time for my birthday, on which we went to see a sumo tournament before having dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe in Roppongi. We were lucky that the sumo tournament was decided on the day we went, the second last day of the fifteen it spans, and there was a great roar when crowd favourite Wakanohana defeated his opponent to take the overall championship. Paul didn't share my enthusiasm for it though, as he fell asleep during the early afternoon matches. I probably should not have taken him there for a whole day! At the Hard Rock, I got a birthday treat, we met up with other Pioneer people, and my brother met his school friend Eamon Rooney, who worked at Tokorozawa factory, for the first time in ten years.
There were a couple of down sides to his visit though, as after a night's drinking he threw up in my bathroom, making a hell of a mess which it took me two hours to clean up. But what really spoiled his visit was an incident in Ikebukuro, Tokyo one night. As we were on our way to a bar in that area, we were stopped by two policemen and asked to accompany them to a local police box. They said there had been an incident in the area, a fight between two foreigners, and they wanted to ask us some questions. We were given little choice but to comply, as they had already requested our passports for inspection, and were refusing to give them back, and so we spent about twenty minutes at the police box being asked about our names, addresses, shoe size (which I insisted was ten, an English shoe size they could not understand), workplaces, and other personal details. Paul was terrified, and I was outraged. I complained that they were questioning us just because we were foreigners, that they had no concrete evidence to link us to the incident, and that they had even seen us come out of the ticket barriers at the station, so they could not possibly think it was us. When one of the officers responded that they didn't think it was us, they just had to check all foreigners as part of procedure, and they were going to throw away the reports they were filling out when they were done, I went livid. Even more so when he tried to reassure me by telling me the people they were looking for were black! After they let us go, we were in no mood for a drink so we went home. The next day I was still so mad I could not concentrate on my work, so I spent the morning composing a letter to the Japan Times, which was published the next month. The letter is given below.
A saddening view of Japan's police.
Having lived happily for five years in Japan, I have come to admire the safe and reasonably crime free society in this country. However, any respect I may have had for the Japanese police was
lost on Sept. 21 1994 as a result of an incident which has left me disgusted and enraged.
After living in Japan for five years, I was happy to have my brother over for a visit. We had finished a long day touring Tokyo, and as we came out of Ikebukuro Station at about 10p.m. to go for one last drink before heading home, I noticed two policemen ahead of us. I commented to my brother, as their presence had reminded me, that he should be sure to carry his passport at all times, since the police are given to asking for it without good reason. As soon as I had said this the two officers moved to intercept us and asked for our passports. My brother, who was visiting Japan for the first time, gave his and I surrendered my Alien Registration Card, which permanent residents are obliged to carry instead of their passports.
The officers explained that they were investigating a disturbance that had occurred on the other side of the station between two foreigners and were questioning possible suspects. I pointed out that we had just stepped off a train and they agreed immediately that we were not the people they were looking for, since our appearance didn't match the very rough description they had been given by witnesses. Regardless of this, they insisted we accompany them to the nearby police box for a "chat". On arrival at the police box we were taken into a back room and the officers began asking for our personal details, from name and address to shoe size and blood type and refused to give any reason for doing so, other than it was procedure. As this went on I became more and more infuriated and eventually refused to answer any more questions, advising my brother to say nothing as I could not translate for him while being questioned myself. They eventually seemed satisfied, or maybe they gave up when I insisted my shoe size was ten, which it is, but I should have been saying the Japanese size which is twenty seven. I asked them what would happen to the information they had taken down, which was all noted in a form I could only identify from the upside- down characters as a "Foreigner Description Sheet". They assured me that it would be destroyed, so I asked them why they had bothered taking it down in the first place, and again they assured me they were only following standard procedure. We left the police box in a rage, and my brother then informed me that he had not heard my assurance offered earlier that it was just routine harassment, and that he was convinced we were going to be charged. We had one drink to calm our respective nerves, and then went home without further hindrance.
The officers involved were courteous, polite and even apologetic about the whole exercise, but that is what angered me most. This was not a lone xenophobic policeman acting out his own little power fetish over two people he feels are unsuitable to live in the same society as himself, but two officers of a metropolitan police force implementing what I assume to be official policy and procedure, i.e. in case of an incident involving non-Japanese perpetrators, approach and question all non Japanese spotted in the area, regardless of their similarity to witness reports. I find it difficult to believe that had the disturbance involved two Japanese, the million or so commuters who pass through the station daily would all be led off for questioning.
It saddens me that my brother, on his first and probably only visit to Japan, will leave with a distorted image of this country as a police state where foreigners are harassed on a regular basis. I continue to find the Japanese to be a generous and friendly people, and it is a great injustice to them that their police are portraying such a different image to visitors. Moreover, it scares me to think how my brother would have reacted had this incident happened to him on one of the days he was touring Tokyo on his own.
Many excuses may be offered to justify such discrimination but it is unforgivable that one tourist, when thinking of Japan in years to come, will remember most vividly not a country of beauty and culture but 20 minutes of fear and confusion in a small room near Ikebukuro Station.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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