Thursday, April 05, 2007

Safety in Japan

This story, linked from JapanProbe, caught my attention and I thought I should give my take. It discusses the perception of safety in Japan, especially from a foreigner's perspective.

Before commenting on this, I should make you aware:

1. I have never been a victim of crime or discrimination in Japan.

2. I have wandered city and country streets in the middle of the night.

3. I have slept outside on more than one occasion.

That being established, I believe Richard Lloyd Parry has the right idea: many westerners see Japan as this historical, ineffable place that seems to exist outside of reality at times... a world of fantasy, of geisha, of samurai. Nothing hard and grounded. I know that perception ran through my head more than once.

Yet, anyone who spends any time here can tell you Japan is as real and modernized as any other place on Earth. Of course there are women supporting kimono at times. But what do they do? They shuck them off, text message their friends, and go shopping in Parco on days off. It's no different than any other formal attire.

Where does this perception of being 100% safe in Japan come from? We spread it. Foreigners. Every Japanese person I have met warns me to be safe in my travels, to take care of my belongings. Every foreigner tells me not to worry, nothing can go wrong, nothing will be stolen. This may be based on individual experience, but there are other issues:

- The fear of crime in Japan is high, especially among Japanese citizens
- Murder happens. I repeat, murder happens. People are attacked, robbed, assaulted, raped, beaten, and swindled

However... Japan is safer by comparison. But does that mean you should drop your carefully-tuned senses now that you reside in Japan? Of course not. You can leave your luggage in an unlocked place in Hakata Station and expect it to be there in three days; on the other hand, anyone can walk up and take it. What is worth more to you, the relaxed mentality that comes from being in the "safest country on Earth" (said in irony), or the peace of mind knowing that your guard is up, and you are prepared to deal with the real world in Japan?

The former may make you enjoy Japan more, to appreciate this country as a type of refuge you have never seen, and it may never amount to anything; but it is in this condition that I believe we see stories like Lindsay Ann Hawker and Lucie Blackman.

"...I can easily picture her, finishing her coffee with the polite, sweet, shy young man with whom she had just spent an undemanding hour. Perhaps he explains to her that he has forgotten his wallet with the money he owes her. Would she mind coming to his place? He is sorry, but it’s only round the corner. How harmless such a suggestion might have seemed. And then the walk back, and the door closing behind her, and the sudden change in him, and the unspeakable aftermath."
Richard Lloyd Parry

Lock your doors. Lock up your bike. Look around if you hear a strange sound in the middle of the night. Don't follow strangers to an unknown location unless you feel safe with them.

In Japan, I admit these precautions may never amount to anything. But I don't want to you look at it as though I'm afraid of living here, or somehow renouncing the nature of Japanese society. Not at all. It's just common sense, in any country. Don't let yours be dulled in the land of the rising sun. You can enjoy Japan, and appreciate that all your precautions against crime may never be tested.


Ken said...

Well said! I liked this post a lot. I wonder why people don't take precautions wherever they may be, and sometimes seem to just forget that bad things can happen anywhere.

In seven years in Japan I've seen one real fistfight, between a taxi driver and a drunk guy, which was just embarrassingly bad. I saw one guy snatch a purse, and a boyfriend outrun the guy and tackle him, then let him go. And I once, in Gotanda, saw two Izakaya chefs fighting on the street, really fighting, two big guys swinging hard and drawing blood. Not sure if a recipe was stolen or not, but those guys had something to work out...

I was once jumped in Roppongi and got away unscathed, with only a headache. Not sure what led to it, but my own quick reactions (ahem...what I picked up 'somewhere') told me to put my head down and let him break his hand hitting it. Then extract myself from the situation.

It is absolutely safe, but I think the Lindsay case goes far beyond what Mr Parry talks about or has time to discuss. There are so many cultural assumptions and so many 'roles' for people to play. I don't think the police in Gyotoku could have ever expected what they found. I don't think they are bad people with bad intentions - they probably expected to find a guy and ask him if he knew this girl who was missing.

By the way, shoot me an email at

VW said...

I know I have had this same perception since we got here two years ago. Everyone I met when I arrived in Japan told me to "let my guard down" because crime just simply doesn't happen. I've cycled all over southern Japan at all hours of the day with little concern for safety. I rarely lock my car doors unless I'm downtown Hiro. We certainly see this idea being perpetuated because of the vast difference in safety from what we're all used to in the States and elsewhere around the world.

Joel said...

Hey Turner, I just noticed your comment on my blog. I will link to you. Hope you had a good time in Beppu

ターナー said...

Thanks Joel. If you happen to have any pictures of the colored Kannawa steam or the burning hills, could you send them my way?