Friday, 18 July 2008

Close Encounters Of The Worst Kind

"Hey!" the middle-aged housewife in front of me cried, "I was next!"

The line at the post office was depressingly long; both the woman and I had been waiting in it for at least fifteen minutes. I had a package I wanted to send to the States for my sister’s birthday, and when the man suddenly appeared from nowhere and cut in line, I’d thought of saying something too. But my Japanese wasn’t up to it, so I held my tongue -- which turned out to be a good thing.

He was a big, florid fellow, well dressed, in a tailored grey suit. He looked eminently respectable: roughly fifty, clean shaven, with a salt-and-pepper crew-cut and expensive-looking shoes, and there was nothing in his appearance to send off any alarm bells in my mind. Obviously, the woman who’d complained about him cutting in front of her hadn’t sensed any danger either; if she had, she was foolhardy or had a death wish.

What happened next was completely unexpected. Instead of muttering an excuse or apology or simply ignoring the woman, the man began to shout and kick at her. He shoved her against the postal counter with bone-breaking force, then began to kick her repeatedly in the chest. Throughout this attack, he shouted and cursed, presumably voicing his rage that she should have dared to complain about him cutting in front of her.

All of us who had been standing behind the woman watched in horror as this large, strong man continued his vicious attack on a woman half his size.

I don’t know who summoned the police, but mercifully they were there within thirty seconds. Both the man and his victim were taken to the station police box. Still shaking from the shock, I managed to post my sister’s package.

I couldn’t imagine how the woman was feeling; I couldn’t stop thinking about her. What if I’d been the one he’d cut in front of? I would absolutely have said something. I might not have been as sassy as she was, but I’d have said something all the same. The woman had a right to be angry, didn’t she? You were supposed to wait your turn in line, not push in front of others. You learned that in kindergarten, for God’s sake! And this was Japan, after all – a place where manners and etiquette mattered!

"That was awful!" I commented to the postal employee. "Poor woman!"

"Mmm," he murmured noncommittally, fixing a postal strip on my package. He would not meet my eyes.

On my way to work after this incident, I passed the station police box. I expected to see the man being arrested, the woman being comforted and her injuries treated. Instead, I saw that the man was sitting, holding forth in a loud voice. The policemen even seemed to be listening to him as though he were a reasonable human being and not a vicious thug who had attacked a defenceless person smaller and weaker than himself. The woman, too, was being questioned – and none too kindly from what I could see. She was protesting and gesturing, her voice quite hysterical, the tears streaming down her face. What bothered me the most was that the policemen listening to her account were shouting back at her almost as though she was the one who had started it all.

At work, I told Asano-san, the school secretary, what I had seen. She was suitably horrified.

"How old was he?"

"About fifty."

"And what did he look like?"

"Well, that’s the amazing thing! He wasn’t scruffy at all, he was dressed really nicely – in a tailored suit!"

"Good haircut too? Kind of stylish? Dark glasses?"

I nodded.

Asano-san narrowed her eyes. "Oh man, Mary, that was a yakuza."


"Yeah. Gangster. Listen, if you ever see guys like that, don’t ever think about doing what that woman did. She was crazy-crazy."

"But he cut in front of her!"

"I don’t care what he did. You let yakuza do what yakuza want to do. You don’t say Hey cut that out to yakuza, it’s like sticking your arm in the bear’s cage. I mean it."

A short time after this, I was taking a bus to Kamioka Station to do some shopping. There were about twenty people on the bus, a handful of housewives, high school students and retired people. I was staring out the window watching a group of giggling high school girls in their navy blue uniforms as they flirted with a group of boys, so I didn’t see the drunk board the bus. But I certainly smelled him.

The man looked like a day laborer, one of the really poor ones you sometimes saw sleeping it out in the station at night. Japan’s homeless population has grown considerably in the past decades after the bubble burst, but even during that first year I sometimes saw obviously poor people, badly groomed and in threadbare clothes. They would spread cardboard or newspaper on the ground on which they would then sit, their shoes always placed neatly side by side on the ground outside the cardboard or newspaper, the heels just touching the edge, for all the world as though they were in the genkan of a house and not on a cigarette butt strewn, chewing-gum studded patch of concrete at the station. There was something about that detail – the way the shoes were carefully placed outside that little home-space the vagrants made for themselves with their cardboard or newspaper – that always got to me.

This man’s longish hair was matted and his eyes were bloodshot and wild. Drunk out of his mind, he was wearing cheap work trousers and a filthy shirt and he reeked of stale tobacco and alcohol. As he passed the people in the aisles, he muttered angrily, causing them to quickly avert their eyes. I made myself as inconspicuous as possible. Gaijin are often magnets for drunks and crazies, and I was anxious not to stand out any more than I already did. But the man wasn’t interested in me; he was obsessed with his own demons and holding an animated conversation with them.

For the next five minutes or so, the drunk muttered to himself and occasionally his voice would rise to a shout. His stink was so powerful, that a few people actually got off the bus; I was tempted, but I was also in a hurry, so I remained in my seat. All of a sudden the man lurched to his feet with a roar and made his unsteady way to the front of the bus.

“Lemme off,” he ordered the driver, none too politely. We were nowhere near a bus stop.

“I can’t,” the driver said, concentrating on the road ahead of him. “You’ll just have to wait until we get to a bus stop.”

Reeling, the drunk leaned closer to him. “Lemme off the bus! NOW!”

Even from where I was sitting, the man’s stench was almost overwhelming. I pitied the driver from the bottom of my heart.

The driver did his best to concentrate on the road ahead of him. “Sit down! You know you’re not supposed to bother the driver!”

Now the drunk leaned in closer still. “STOP THE BUS!” he roared. We were in fact now almost at a bus stop. Several people had risen from their seats and made their way to the rear exit. I got the feeling that this wasn’t their stop, but they knew trouble when they saw it and wanted off.

Just as the bus driver was getting ready to pull into the bus stop, the drunk began to strike him about the head. The bus driver turned to fight him off and that was when it happened: the drunk vomited. Copiously, all over the driver.

To this day I give the driver credit for managing not to lose control of the bus – and so much more. The drunk continued to retch and heave, and the vomit flowed down the aisle of the bus in a long, reeking stream. Somehow the driver parked and set the hand brake.

At this point, almost everyone on the bus got to their feet and made their way to the exit. Three of us remained. We watched as the bus driver, now beside himself with fury, lurched out of his seat and grabbed the drunk by the collar. The drunk was larger than the bus driver, but the driver had the advantage of being sober. And mad as hell.

The driver, covered from head to toe in vomit, strong-armed the drunk off the bus, then climbed back on and shut the door. We could hear the drunk’s oaths and curses interspersed with the splash of his vomit even as the driver started the engine and we roared off.

If I’d had the words for it, I would have commiserated with the driver and complimented his driving skill under such extreme conditions. All I could do was give him my most sympathetic smile as I finally got off. He didn’t see me, though; he stared straight ahead, his face the picture of long-suffering misery, his formerly pristine bus driver’s uniform stained with the drunk’s vomit. Even the poor man’s white gloves were spattered with it.

I still find it amazing that those two incidents occurred during my first two months in Japan. In all the years after that, I never saw anything to match the yakuza in the post office or the violent drunk on the bus.


Charles Gramlich said...

Man, that's horrible about the line cutter. And how the police seemed to be handling it. Poor woman.

If I'd been that bus driver I think I would have let the guy off. Gross.

Alice said...

How absolutely frightening! My exposure to violence has been pretty limited and I don't know how I would have handled the PO situation. Peed myself maybe?
I'm a big ol' weenie at heart.

Kim Ayres said...


Tigermama said...

Wow! I lived in Japan for 6 years (in various places) and never saw anything like that. The Yakuza incident is especially disturbing!

Carolie said...

Oh MY. I'm speechless. What extreme, terrifying experiences! In both cases, my eyes are prickling with tears for the victims (the woman in line, the bus driver). Powerful stories, Mary!

Katie Alender said...

What a great early impression of the country! I'm glad it got better, or we might not get so many good stories out of you. ;-)

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- I agree, but I'm guessing the bus driver hadn't been around a lot of kids. Once you've spent time around kids, you know what someone who's about to throw up looks like.

Alice -- It was scary all right, and I am a big weenie at heart myself. For a split second, I hated myself for not kicking the man back, but the smarter part of me reasoned that two people would get kicked that way.

Kim -- Yeah, I know!

Tigermama -- It was odd that I saw those two views of Japan so early on. But I saw little to rival that in my next sixteen years there.

Carolie -- It seemed so unfair that this woman, whose only crime was to be a little unwise, should have been the one to get yelled at. The yakuza ought to have been locked up and horsewhipped, but he obviously had friends in high places.

Katie -- I'm glad it got better too, and thank you for the compliment. So many of my experiences in Japan were overwhelmingly positive, so I felt I needed to have a few negative ones to balance things out. I don't want to give people the impression I'm some kind of Pollyanna.

Kappa no He said...

Yea, people are really starting to "kireru" more and more it seems. Those nicely dressed yakuza are the worst. The ones who LOOK the part are usually peons.

Anne Spollen said...

Truth is stranger than can't make this stuff up.

manager mom said...

Wow...but those two incidents were quite an unorthodox welcome. Especially the yakuza...

Carole said...

Craziness. You think America has cornered the market on it and then you find out, geography aside, people are often time a country's worst advertisement.

Susan Sandmore said...

I was just kidding around about the yakuza elsewhere in the blogosphere. I think I'll stop kidding around about the yakuza. Also... ick to the drunk. Had to stop reading. I knew what was going to happen...

Christy said...

Yikes! What a welcome to the country. The drunk is just sad but the yakuza makes me livid. That sort of injustice ought not be tolerated. The woman wasn't crazy-crazy to protest. There is police corruption everywhere, but it's pathetic and unacceptable.

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- I agree about the well-dressed yakuza. The tattily dressed ones are just small fry chimpira, but the ones in the nice suits are scary. The whole kireru thing is worrying because it's so unpredictable and unexpected.

Anne -- The fact that these two men came across my path within weeks of each other was what made it so odd. And I did not need to embellish these stories. If anything, I've left out details.

MM -- I got a better welcome from others, fortunately! But in a way, it was good for me to see things like this. It gave me a more well-rounded view of Japan.

Carole -- America and Japan both have a good chunk of the craziness market. I used to feel that the Japanese were more anxious to cover theirs up; I am always struck by the fact that few people outside Japan have heard of some of the worst Japanese crimes, such as the Sarin gas attacks on the subway. But we are all human, and as far as I know, all humans are subject to craziness.

Susan -- Yakuza do dress and act in a way that makes them LOOK like figures of fun, so I can see why people lampoon them. My kids watch a Japanese TV program about a teacher raised by a yakuza family on the computer. They swear it is great, but I worry that it trivializes the whole yakuza world. And some of those guys are even scarier than that post office bully.

Christy -- I absolutely agree. It burned me up that this woman was not allowed to protest -- that the police should have treated her so harshly just for speaking her mind. But after 17 years in Japan, I found myself hushing up around people who looked even the slightest bit volatile.

Anne Spollen said...

Sorry, Mary - I never meant to imply that you were embellishing
anything. I didn't think that. I know weird stuff happens like this, but what I meant (in my probably too terse comment) was if you WROTE this, an editor would say, "Meh, not likely," yet I know this is how life works. It's just weird like that.

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- I've just reread over my comment and it sounds like I've taken your comment the wrong way, but I didn't! I really did get what you meant: that this reads like it's far-fetched even though it actually happened. I bet an editor would believe it if I toned it down a bit...

(Hmm...maybe that's why I'm still not published?)

Tabitha said...

Wow, this happened in your first two months and you stayed? I think many would have been heading for the hills, which illustrates your bravery. :)

Angela said...

Wow! Thank goodness you didn't say anything. It's terrible though how even the police are willing to let the baddies run the show.

I have shivers, because I probably would have said something. Yikes!

Ello said...

These are just awful stories. The yakuza story really upsets me terribly. It is unbelievable that the Japanese government does not work to protect their citizens from them. But so many in the government are funded by them - corruption at the highest levels there.
Poor bus driver. I would have felt so bad for him.

Mary Witzl said...

Tabitha -- I'm not brave! I just witnessed these two events, after all. If I'd been either the woman who got beaten up or the bus driver, I'd have applied for emigration.

Angela -- You and me both. I only didn't say anything because I wasn't sure how to say "Hey buddy, wait your turn." If I'd been able to say that, I would absolutely have said it -- and I doubt I'd be here to write this.

Ello -- My heart went out to him. I can't even stand it when my kids throw up, so imagine having that happen? Sure, he should have seen it coming, but he was trying to concentrate on the road.

Although I didn't personally witness it, I heard other stories about the police protecting yakuza. A student from the same exchange program I was on got beaten up by yakuza along with his taxi driver; when he called the police to protest, they asked him for his address, right in front of the yakuza. He obviously declined to give his address given the circumstances and they refused to file his complaint. Sad, isn't it?

Danette Haworth said...

How violent!

I have politely made cutters (or "butters", haha!) aware of the line in which the rest of us have been waiting--it's only fair! But OMG, definitely not worth assault and battery.

Tabitha said...

Ha! The bravest among us are always the ones who claim they are not. :)

As for packing up if you'd been the assaulted one, well, that's just common sense. :)

Kanani said...


First ticket out of there would've been mine!

Mary Witzl said...

Danette -- I do this too -- and I always try to be at least a little, to give the offender the benefit of the doubt. The yakuza incident really made me think before just mouthing off -- once I got to the point where I could, that is.

Tabitha -- Really, I am seriously a weenie! And sadly, I have not always had a surfeit of common sense either.

Kanani -- There were enough pleasant things around me to make me feel like sticking around. It did seem odd that both of these events happened so soon after I arrived, though.

Barbara Martin said...

Oh, my, what trying tales. Good thing I wasn't in line at the post office; I would have tried to help the woman. It truly is a wonder why when others see something violent happening to another that they just stand there and watch. All it takes is a small group to overpower a large person. But local customs seem to persevere.