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Japan is safe? HA!

I was recently the victim of a random act of violence. To set the scene: I was traveling home in the sardine can known as the Odakyu line on a weeknight around 9:30 p.m. The commuter in the seat next to the door had decided that getting a seat wasn’t enough — he also wanted the metal railing next to the seat as his elbow rest. When I entered the train, I was jostled and pushed, and eventually settled into the space by the door, my back to both the metal hand railing and the commuter with the well-rested elbow. Unfortunately, my position meant that my rear end intruded upon his elbow rest space.

The commuter expressed his dissatisfaction with a few vicious elbow jabs throughout our 15 minute train ride. I was completely unable to move away, or to communicate with him due to my squished, immobile position. When the train came to his stop, he gave me two particularly vicious final jabs before standing up to get off the train. As he passed me, he pulled back, punched me in the face, and quickly exited.

Needless to say, everyone was rather surprised. The other commuters around me were torn between shock, intense curiosity, and valiant attempts at pretending that they hadn’t seen anything. Only one man dared acknowledge the incident by digging into his wallet and thoughtfully (albeit impractically) offering me two rather old band-aids for my then-bloodied nose.

As for me, I stood with my mouth agape. A couple of elbow jabs in the butt was one thing — but a punch in the face?

I had no idea how to proceed. My first reaction was to run after the guy and retaliate. But the little voice in my head that keeps me out of prison reminded me that in that case, I would most likely be the one penalized. Instead, I considered reporting it to the station staff or police. I began to formulate in my head what I would say, but realized that I lacked the language necessary to communicate the situation. I study Japanese, and I can definitively state, with conviction, that yes, the book is on the table; however, the grammar to express “That psycho over there just punched me in the face” was unfortunately left out of my current text.

As I was trying to decide what to do, the train doors closed — and with them, any opportunity to seek justice.

In fact, this was my fifth accidental run-in with violence since arriving in Japan one year ago, albeit the most serious. It makes me laugh now to think about how many times I had been told that Japan was a “safe country.”

Speaking to friends about these experiences, the knee-jerk reaction seems to be to chalk it up to xenophobia. Call me an optimist, but I’d like to believe that this isn’t the case (or at least not always). In the most recent incident, for example, the commuter probably had no idea that I was a foreigner.

Acts of violence are becoming more and more prevalent in Japan. The news is full of beatings, suicides and murders. According to the Metropolitan Police Department, violent acts drastically increased between 2002 (8,666 violent acts) to 2006 (11,253). Specifically, non-lethal, less-serious acts (such as those that I experienced) more than doubled over that same period (from 2,677 to 5,635).

One problem, I feel, is that people in Japan face too much pressure with too little positive release. The stress that causes people to jump in front of trains or to decapitate their parents is probably the same type that prompted the commuter to punch me in the face. So, in that light, I guess I should be glad that my injury was only a punch.

The other problem is that no one wants to get involved with these kinds of situations. Nobody, for example, moved in to help me with my attacker. In fact, my own first reaction was decidedly Japanese; I didn’t even step up to defend myself. After the incident, I asked several Japanese people what they would do if faced with a violent person or “chikan” on the train, and almost all said that they would do nothing more than switch train cars.

So, what can we do? The answer, I guess, is not much. The police, by and large, are ambivalent about these kinds of crimes—and seemingly even more so when foreigners are the victims. 

Instead, we need to help each other out. If you see something fishy on the train, don’t be afraid to step in and intervene. But also, be cautious and take measures to protect yourself. I, for one, will be investing in a mouth guard.

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