Japan is a safe country. Well, if you ignore the fact that you could well die in a natural disaster – an earthquake, a tsunami, a typhoon, a volcanic eruption, take your pick really – then Japan is a safe country. And if you’re not in one of those families that always seem to make the news here because a mother killed her child, or a father his daughter, or a son his father, if you’re not in one of those families Japan is a safe country. Oh, and if you’re not in the path of one of the shuffling weirdos who push people in front of trains, or go on random knife jabbing attacks in crowded areas, then Japan is a safe country. And of course, if you’re not caught out by people gassing innocents on the subways, then Japan is a safe country. Well, yes, of course, it’s not that safe if you are a woman who doesn’t like to be groped on crowded train, but apart from natural disasters, and familial murder, and random nutjob attacks, and terrorism and sexual assault, then, if you ignore all that stuff, Japan is a very safe country.
Actually, pardon my sarcasm, because despite all of these things Japan actually is quite a safe country. Or it feels safe. In all my years here I have never once felt fear walking down the street late at night. Street crimes such as mugging or pickpocketing are still rare. When I walk through the streets of London, or Paris, or Glasgow and see a crowd of youths hanging around outside a shop, I fear that they may rob me of my money, stab me, happy slap me, steal my shoes or give me a wedgie for being bald. My heart-rate and my pace quicken until I am well past them. Here, the most I have to fear is that one of them will yell, “Hello! I am a pen!”
People leave cars outside shops with the keys in the ignition and the engine running, and nobody steals the car. Almost nobody has a burglar alarm on their house because almost nobody needs one. Contents insurance is rare. When I lost my wallet, I clichédly got it back with all the money and cards still there. For your everyday Joe or Taro, Japan is still a safe country. And for that I am immensely grateful. Because, to be honest, the police look a bit rubbish.
Of course, with Japan being quite safe, I have had very few run-ins with the police. In more than a decade here I haven’t once been stopped and asked to show my I.D. on the grounds of being on a bicycle at night with a suspiciously large nose. I was stopped for speeding once but the police were quite cordial about it all. In fact, any time I have had to deal with them personally they have been very helpful and friendly and the perfect example of a good cop. But, usually on those occasions they were giving me directions or popping round to tell me they were the new local bobby for the area. They weren’t being proper police and catching bad guys, and on the limited evidence I have seen, they’re not actually very good at doing that. Maybe they just don’t get enough practice.
The first time I became aware of the local police’s methods for solving crime came when my friend’s wallet was stolen from his car outside his apartment. He hadn’t locked his car and an opportunist had spotted the wallet and taken it. My friend reported the crime, because in his wallet was his Alien Identification Card which all foreign residents must carry at all times. The police came round to his flat. They were polite and friendly. They asked where his car had been parked. My friend told them it had been in is parking space and showed them said space. The police then proceeded to measure the space whilst looking pensive. What, I have wondered since, were they hoping to discover by knowing the dimensions of the parking space?
I’d have thought it was a one-off until a colleague complained that his wallet had been stolen at an onsen. He claimed it had been in the locker when he went for a bath and wasn’t there when he came back. The staff at the onsen had been doubtful, but the police were called. They measured the locker and looked pensive. The wallets in both cases were never recovered.
The farcicality of the police came to national attention several years back when a video emerged of police chasing down a suspected criminal. The suspect was trapped in a stationary car. Two police officers approached the car. The suspect couldn’t go anywhere in the car, so he got out of the car brandishing a stick and ran at the two police officers. They promptly ran away very quickly. The then Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi publicly stated how embarrassing it was.
More recently, a British tourist thought that it might be pleasant to go for a spot of skinny dipping in the moat around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Naturally the police were summoned. There followed a ludicrous pursuit by a gang of Japanese policemen of a solitary naked man who kept them at bay for ages by throwing rocks and brandishing a stick. He even chased a boat load of them away by swimming towards them. Look, you can see it here:
Eventually the man was caught, but it took far longer than it really should have and provided keystone cops entertainment for everyone.
In the last few weeks, the residents in our neighborhood have received notices warning us to be vigilant as there have been a couple of recent break-ins . The fact that every small incident is reported around the houses is perhaps evidence of the still relative scarcity of such events. And long may it stay that way because, quite frankly, the time it must take police to measure entire houses would deeply cut into the time available for much-needed assertiveness training.