"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?"
"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?"
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.
Friday, 18 July 2008
"Hey!" the middle-aged housewife in front of me cried, "I was next!"