Thursday, 30 August 2007

My Night in the Yokohama Suijo Police Station

Obviously, I didn't set out to spend the night in a Japanese police station. When I got to Yokohama Station's Keihin Tohoku line and saw the doors of the last train closing, my first thought was that it couldn't be happening. Surely there was some mistake; it couldn't really be that I'd missed the very last train.

But I had. I watched the train rattling down the tracks and the shock and disappointment hit me like a fist in the stomach. I'd been so certain I was going to make it, despite everything that had gone wrong.

My flight from Seoul, where I had gone to pick up my long-awaited Japanese work visa, was delayed an hour because of a storm. Then it had taken ages for my luggage - including several bulky cushions I had bought on impulse - to arrive. Before boarding the train to Yokohama, I'd stopped to help another American who was having trouble getting his reservation confirmed - very much the blind leading the blind, but compared to someone so fresh off the boat I was the one-eyed king - and finally I stopped at a kiosk for a bowl of noodles. I'm notorious for cutting it fine when it comes to time, but I usually manage to catch the plane, get on the train, make the date. This time I was fresh out of luck.

The station employee stood rigidly at attention until the train had disappeared, leaving only echoes behind. Only then did he relax his posture. He passed a finger around the circumference of his collar and performed a little stretching, neck-cracking maneuver – and yawned. He looked like a man who knew that his work was over for the night, who could now go home to a couple of beers, a hot bath, and a cooked dinner. If he saw me there, dismay and dejection all over my face, he didn’t give the slightest sign.

As he pulled down the metal shutters and listened to my tale of woe, I could see him take a quick peek at his watch. He crossed his forearms in front of his chest to show me that I had missed the last train. "Rasuto wan," he said firmly and often, misinterpreting my look of chagrin as dull-witted incomprehension.

I was well and truly screwed. I hadn't bothered to stop at the bank for more money because I reasoned I would have more than enough for the trip home. Which I would have, had I managed to catch that last train. In those days before 24-hour automatic tellers, if you were out of money at that hour, you had to make do without it. The 600 yen I had on me was just about enough for two cups of coffee - not that any coffee shops were open at that hour. The next train wouldn't be until 6:00 in the morning, and my apartment in Konandai was far enough away that taking a taxi was not an option. I felt like sitting down and weeping, but instead I went to the police box.

Japanese police boxes really are box-shaped. This one was brightly-lit but blue with cigarette smoke and an overpowering smell of air freshener that only succeeded in making the fuggy air even denser. Unfortunately, the station police didn't know what to do with me either, and no sooner had I told my story to one policeman than another would enter and I would have to go through it all over again. Four separate policemen had to be told that no, I hadn't anticipated that I would miss the last train, and yes, it would have been far wiser for me to prepare for that contingency. Anticipation and contingency planning – the two things my mother was always trying to drill into me. Small comfort that she was not there to witness my shame.

My policemen conferred, then one explained that he was going to give me a ride somewhere. I was hopeful: was there perhaps another train station not far from Konandai that I was unaware of? I’d only been in Yokohama a few weeks and the train system was vast and complex, so this did not seem too far-fetched. Was I to be given a ride to a station where there was an even later last train. Or might someone be driving in the general direction of Konandai, so I could hitch a ride? Whatever the case, I was relieved to be leaving Yokohama Station. At least I felt as though I was making progress.

When the driver stopped the car fifteen minutes later, however, I realized that he had merely taken me to a larger police station. My heart sank.

Even though it was after midnight, the telephones at the police station hardly ever stopped ringing. I was introduced to a young sergeant and my predicament was explained. He nodded and stroked his chin and explained to me that my only option was to wait in heated safety and relative comfort until the trains started up again at 6:00 a.m. With self-conscious chivalry, he escorted me past rows of grey metal desks - and the interested eyes of the men who sat behind them - to a battered Naughehyde sofa in the back of the room. The young sergeant spread his hands. "Please. Sit."

With as much dignity as I could muster, I tried to stash my three twine-and-paper wrapped Korean cushions under the sofa, but no matter how I pushed, they wouldn't fit. The cheap brown wrapping paper had suffered a lot in transit - especially when I had gotten caught in the rain - and much of it was peeling off in long, wet strips. Gallantly, the young sergeant took them from me and stacked them in a corner. I shrugged off my backpack and sat down.

I was acutely aware that I had become, if not quite the center of attention, certainly an object of great interest. Several of the men cast furtive looks in my direction as I fumbled in my bag for my Japanese homework. I had a reading comprehension test in three days and my weekend trip to Seoul had put a dent in my preparation time. I had a lot to catch up on, and if I had to lose a night's sleep in the police station, at least I could manage to get some work done.

Having opened my textbook, I took out my pens and Japanese-English dictionary and began to study. The young sergeant came back and placed a steaming cup of green tea in front of me. He glanced at my homework.

"You are studying Japanese!"

"Yes, I am."

"So that's why you can speak it - because you are studying it!"

Comments like this always threw me. Should I acknowledge that I could speak Japanese? This was arguably true, but only just. And agreeing with such a statement struck me as arrogant. I settled for a cautious qualification. "I speak a little Japanese."

"Oh no - you are fluent! When we first saw you, our hearts sank. We felt certain that we would have to speak English - and no one here can speak English! We were all so relieved to know that you could speak Japanese! And no wonder you can speak it, because you are studying it! That is truly commendable!"

By this time a small crowd had formed around us as one by one, almost every man in the station - there were no policewomen - had gotten up from his desk to come see what I was doing.

"She is studying Japanese!" enthused my young sergeant, pointing to my textbook and dictionary. I cringed.

"So she is, so she is! What are you studying?"

Blushing furiously, I surrendered my textbook. I was, in fact, studying a fairytale, Urashima Taro, the Japanese Rip Van Winkle who rescues a turtle and is rewarded for his kindness with a trip to the Dragon's Under-the-Sea Palace.

"Hey, Urashima Taro! We did this in second grade!"

That was it in a nutshell: they'd done it in second grade. I had a pretty good idea how far from fluent my Japanese really was. What I knew of the language didn't begin and end with Urashima Taro scaled down for second-graders, but it was a close thing.

"Why is she here?" I heard one policeman asking another. He had obviously been out earlier when I'd been brought in.

"Missed the last train. The station police brought her here because she had nowhere to go. And she didn't have enough money to take a taxi back to her apartment in Konandai. So she's going to spend the night here."

My so-called fluency in Japanese notwithstanding, when the station police had first explained to me that I would be spending the night at the Yokohama Central Police Station, I had not fully grasped what was happening.

The new policeman stared at me. "How'd you manage to miss the last train?"

I felt my face growing hotter. "My flight from Seoul was late because of the typhoon."

"Heh. What were you doing in Korea?'

I tried not to sigh. I'd been through this half a dozen times already and wished to God that I didn't have to go through it afresh for every new person who asked.

"Getting my working visa at the Japanese Consulate there."

"Heh. So you're working here. What are you doing?"

"Teaching English," someone told him. "And get this: she speaks Japanese!"

The newcomer looked impressed. "Really?" he asked me. How could I answer this? Surely it should have been fairly obvious that I read at least some Japanese: my textbook was still lying open in my lap, Urashima Taro still very much unread.

This was a phenomenon I was becoming all too familiar with: a foreigner learning Japanese was either assumed to be a linguistic genius or a complete dullard.

"Didn't you have enough money for a taxi?" the new policeman wanted to know. Again, I tried not to sigh.

"I didn't think I'd need it. I thought I'd have time to catch the last train back." This was true. And if I hadn't bought the Korean cushions as a spur-of-the- moment purchase, I would have had enough money for a taxi - but they didn't need to know that. The cushions, which had seemed like such a nice idea in Seoul, had turned out to be a pain in the neck. I should have had the sense to realize how awkward it would be to carry three bulky, twine-bound packages from Seoul to Yokohama. But I wasn't to know that a typhoon would delay my flight, or that they would take their time coming through on the baggage console when I arrived in Tokyo. Or that when I got caught in the rain, the brown paper they were wrapped in would turn into mush and peel off.

"Have you learned any Japanese songs yet?" asked a different policeman, a younger one who was cuter than the rest.

I shook my head. I had, but I wasn't planning on singing any of them here.

The young policeman took a step closer. "Want to hear one?" he asked shyly.

I started to answer him, but another policeman placed something in front of me. It was a pale, shiny lavender and looked very much like a section of plastic egg carton. "Here, have this - you must be hungry."

The young policeman who had asked me about Japanese songs began to sing one himself, very softly. Another one joined him. They had beautiful voices, one base, the other tenor.

"Go on," said the man who had given me the purple egg carton section. "Try it!"

I thanked him and began to prise open the plastic container. It looked awful.

"No - no! You don't open it - just pop the whole thing in your mouth, it's all edible!" He watched eagerly while I did this.

"How is it?"

With all my heart I wanted to say that it was delicious, but it was exactly how you might imagine the texture and taste of Styrofoam. Inside there was some sort of paste that must have been over 90% sugar. Somehow I managed to swallow it all down and murmur my thanks.

"Did you like it?"

I couldn't say no. I nodded with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.

"Good! Because there's plenty more!"

The young sergeant who had brought me tea handed me back my textbook and asked me The Question: "Why do you want to learn Japanese?"

I took a sip of my lukewarm tea and got ready to give him my stock answer. An answer which, although it might not have been the whole truth, was as close as I could get to it given my linguistic limitations: Because I've always wanted to learn it.

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15 comments:

Kim Ayres said...

My stepson has been down to visit this week and brought with him a linguaphone course on Japanese he got from the library. I don't think he plans any trips to Japan anytime soon, but he sees it as a way of stretching himself.

Christy said...

"...assumed to be a linguistic genius or a complete dullard." I wish those were always opposites. I quite often manage to be both.

So - the big question - do you still have the cushions?

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- I'm sure your stepson will have the sense to stay out of police stations. Let me know if he wants to practice his Japanese, though, and I'll be happy to help.

Christy -- I like to think I can manage to be both myself, and in fact I can. But I'm not saying how much of the former as opposed to the latter...

I do still have one of the cushions; two are now owned by my sister in Arcadia. I also have a thin nylon 'carpet' (very light) I bought on the same trip, of garish pink, green, blue, maroon, white and yellow stripes. It is really something, and I treasure it.

Kanani said...

Ah, that's nice Mary.
There's only one school in the region here that teaches Japanese. They started it because a lot of the high school kids really like manga and anime.
I love that they were curious and enthusiastic. Not what you'd expect from you initial arrival!

Carolie said...

Thanks for this lovely story...it's amazing how living here for just a year and a half helps me immerse myself into the story so much better than I would've been able to before! Now, I am twice as determined to go to the tiny police box at the top of my street with American chocolate and a smiling introduction!

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- Years ago, the Japanese teachers at SFSU were very negative about anime and manga and actively discouraged students from spending time on them. The feeling was that they were too light weight and took the place of decent Japanese literature. The problem is, though, decent Japanese literature is a pain in the neck to read if you are learning the language, whereas anime and manga are not impossible for the beginner. I can say with complete confidence that if it hadn't been for anime and manga, I could never have persuaded my kids to keep up their Nihongo. Until they got into these, it was like pulling teeth, only harder, just getting them to read Harry Potter in Japanese.

Carolie -- I can't imagine that the police would turn down a smiling woman with chocolate, though you may find they ask to see your gaikokujin toroku shomeisho! I used to get asked to show this when I stopped to ask for directions; friends swore that they probably just wanted to find out my age.

On a separate occasion, I once had eleven Japanese policemen in my 4 1/2 mat room in Hakuraku, Yokohama. I was living in a girls' boarding house at the time; that may have had something to do with the fact that so many answered my call... Someday I may have to write about that!

I really do appreciate the fact that so many of my blog pals actually READ this; I am long-winded, and though I trimmed it down, this is really too long for a blog entry.

My (redundantly) grateful thanks to all!

kathie said...

Great story Mary. Your life--sharing it with us--makes me smile. Thanks for putting it out there for us. PS, I just realized I haven't blogrolled you...excuse the oversight and my slowness at realizing I'd not included you!!!

Mary Witzl said...

Thanks for blog-rolling me, Kathie -- my entries won't be quite so long from now on. Why is it I haven't mastered the knack of saying a lot in a few words? I blame the fact that I was a middle child and never managed to get a word in edgewise.

Carole said...

“Saita, saita, turipu no hana ga naranda, naranda, aka, shiro, kiiro.”

Do you recognize this song? If not perhaps your children know it. And I also look at people in awe that can speak any language besides the one I know. I can see why the men in the police station were impressed. I speak English, and that not very well, and that is all, so I think anyone who is versed in other languages is next door to God.

Mary Witzl said...

I do know this song, Carole, though the version I remember is about lotus flowers. A translation is roughly:

"They're blooming, they're blooming, the tulips are blooming; red, white and yellow all in a row."

If this is the same song, it has a really haunting melody, and it progresses from blooming to fading to dying -- and then to blooming again. Sort of a 'Sunrise, sunset' song, and very poignant.

These men, bless them, would have been impressed with just about any foreigner who could string together a few words in Japanese. The people who amaze me are the Dutch, who are not only multi-lingual but can flit from one language to another effortlessly.

Carole said...

You have the right song. Missionaries we support tried teaching it to our church kids. The kids loved it.

DaviMack said...

Do you find that, although people may bad-mouth their own country, they flock to you as a foreigner, and are proud of it? That they really, really want to be proud of their country / language, and it's somehow easier to do with a foreigner?

Mary Witzl said...

Yes, absolutely. There is nothing more fascinating than a foreigner who wants to learn your language and culture. And watching him or her struggle with your language and learn about your culture, you get an entirely different perspective of it yourself.

Katie Alender said...

How funny. I was afraid they were going to stash you in a cell for the evening!

Mary Witzl said...

One of them acted as though he wanted to lock me up, but by and large they were a nice bunch of men and the worst thing that happened was that I had to eat two of those purple Styrofoam things.