Once a year I go back to the United Kingdom, which means that once a year I come back to Japan and have to go through customs and immigration. It’s usually not too much of a problem – a couple of questions, these days a photograph and a fingerprinting and then I’m on my way. It wasn’t like that the first time though.
On that occasion, I had the misfortune to stand in the line manned by a customs officer with the annoying traits of having both atrocious English and a seemingly strong determination to prove it. He smiled and asked where my country was. I resisted the temptation to tell him it was still just above France, and said that I was British. Then he asked if I had any drugs. I thought that only a very poor smuggler would have been caught out by such a direct question, but I assured him I didn’t. He didn’t look convinced as he said, ‘No drug?’
‘No drugs,’ I confirmed.
‘Are you sure?’ he asked.
Again, I wondered, what sort of a person might have answered, ‘Well, no, I’m not sure, but I don’t think I’ve got any.’
‘I’m sure,’ I said. And then he took a small book from under his counter, and said, ‘Please.’ Maybe he had a target to reach and was desperate for me to admit I was carrying contraband.
He opened the book to a page with illustrations of pills and plants and said, ‘Please, you have these?’ as if expecting me to suddenly realize that why, yes, I did have some white powder that looked like that, and one of those pretty plants!
‘No,’ I said again.
He asked me to open my bag and he had a good rummage, taking out some photographs of my family and friends. He had a good look through them, and singling out one of a female friend asked, ‘Girlfriend?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘A friend.’
‘Do you like Japanese girls?’
I didn’t know how to answer. To say ‘yes’ would have him thinking I was some kind of sex tourist here to try my luck with the locals, and to say ‘no’ would have just looked rude. And a bit gay. In the end I laughed nervously and probably came across as a pervert giggling at the mere thought of Japanese girls.
‘Do you have porno?’ asked the man.
‘Sorry?’ I thought I’d heard him correctly, but customs officers are supposed to ask if you are carrying any ‘obscene publications’ or perhaps ‘some materials that could be deemed pornographic in nature’. This chap asked as if he was a friend hoping to borrow some.
‘No,’ I said.
‘Are you sure?’ he asked again and I rather hoped he had another book under his counter to help me understand fully what exactly he was looking for this time. He didn’t, though, and after another quick look through my case and flick through my photos he told me that my female friend was very pretty, and sent me on my way.