Reality Check: Are You Safer Abroad?

By Maurice D. Valentine on November 9th, 2016
BootsnAll

“Whoa, man.” I looked past my cousin in the darkened park before us. It wasn’t very big; only about 50 meters square, sparsely populated with a few large black trees. The street lights around the park cast weird shadows, these black stripes of varying lengths and thicknesses crisscrossing out infront of us. Creepy. It got me apprehensive.

But what REALLY got me apprehensive were the teenagers. The park was chock-full of them, and they were all drunk out of their minds this Friday night in Ikebukuro, Tokyo.

“Going back and forth in loud, slurred Japanese, these kids were doing what millions of kids around the world do on a Friday night; buying liquor, getting drunk – and overall just ‘bugging out’ as we used to say back in the Bronx.”

Will your next trip include Japan?

I gave my cousin ReJean a look. “So…is it safe for us to go in here man? I know that might sound ridiculous from someone like me coming from The Bronx and all…”

He didn’t miss a beat, taking a swill of beer that we’d bought a few moments before at a 7/11 . “Nah Mo, don’t worry about it. I think the worst thing you may see here is a bunch of kids playing tag.”

Park-drinking, Kids, and Cops in Tokyo

Downtown Tokyo, Japan

It was my fourth day in Tokyo, Japan. And I was blown away. Blown away by the politeness of the society. Blown away by the cleanliness of the city – and especially blown away by the sheer lack of street crime and violence. I’d heard these observations from other travelers before. But to be in it, at that very moment and see it with my own eyes…was just amazing.

“But it was hard for me to let my guard down. I mean where I come from you get hundreds of drunken teenagers together, something is BOUND to happen. And you’d better be ready to run!”

We copped a squat on a length of concrete on the edges of the park. To my left was a young couple making out; just beyond ReJean’s shoulder on my right were two young guys that seemed to be contemplating life in quiet conversation. Really, just normal stuff.

But I just couldn’t get over the fact that this place was jam-packed, full of over 100 inebriated teens and nothing was happening. Some were passed out on the pavement. They were left alone. Some played what seemed like hopscotch in the dark, while others tried to breakdance to music coming from a boom box. Still others were all loud and noisy, pushing each other, laughing and carrying on. Pedestrians weren’t afraid to walk past any of them. Nobody was hanging out of windows telling them all to shut up.

“The thing that REALLY got me? There was no police presence.”

Planning a gap year in Japan?
After some small talk, I just had to say something. I couldn’t get over it! “Dude, I’m sorry I just can’t get over this. You know where we come from…you being from Southern California, me from New York…in a situation like this. I’m still trying to fight the paranoia of something poppin’ off!”

“That’s why I like it here,” He said. “You don’t have to worry about any of that.”
My cousin Rejean immigrated to Japan almost 10 years before from Southern California, diving headfirst into Japanese society without speaking or reading Japanese. Now he’s a successful character illustrator for a video game company, speaks and reads Japanese fluently and was my tour guide through this amazing city.

Maurice D. Valentine with his cousin, Rejean, in Tokyo, Japan

Alcohol and Violence in 3 Countries


I was loving our conversation – comparing our new homelands to where we were born and raised drinking cheap beer. ReJean took another swig and continued. “You know guns are illegal here? Even the security guards don’t have guns –”

“They have BATONS!!” I said.

“I was shocked just a day before seeing security guards wheeling bags full of cash into a bank. No weapons, just batons to beat back anyone dumb enough to try and steal it!! Which I figured, wasn’t going to happen!”

“Yeah,” ReJean said. “and the people here have an almost ingrained politeness about everything. Did you see the drunk business man as we walked to the 7/11?”

“HELL YES!!” I exclaimed.

There was a drunken older gentleman in a sharp suit, barely able to walk straight. He swung his suitcase around like an old copper in Britain twirling a baton. No one bothered him. Pedestrians just cleared a way for him as he stumbled along. “Man, I thought if he continued like that in these streets, he’d get hit by a car!!”

“Oh that does happen sometimes,” he said. “But most of the time, the public will stop and try and help them out of danger if that’s the case. But normally when people are so drunk that they can’t get home, they just sleep where they fall. And nobody touches them.”

“Wow. The worst thing you’d see in Australia generally is a fistfight. And if someone fell asleep drunk on the street in Australia, they’d probably be waking up naked or not at all. But there isn’t a huge gun culture there like there is in the USA. But I figure the biggest problem the country has is drunken street violence.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. They have this thing called ‘King Hits.’ One punch knockouts. People get killed from them occasionally and they happen a lot.”

“It’s so bad that in Sydney there are lock out laws that prohibit people from entering a pub or club after 1am.”

“Yeah,” he said, “the clubs here actually discriminate against Americans because of fighting. A lot of servicemen who come to Tokyo have a hard time getting in clubs because of the trouble that starts when they get drunk. They either are fighting amongst themselves or against the local population.”

“And in Australia you do have guns too, but it’s just nowhere near as bad as what we have in the United States.” I said. “A shooting in Australia usually makes the national news, a clear indication that they just don’t happen very often. As you know cuz, shootings in the USA are so commonplace that they barely make the news.”

“Unless there’s a massacre of some sort,” he added.

“Why is that?” I said. “Why is it that in our modern Western society we continue to do these things while here in this country right now – you just don’t see it? I mean, can’t people just go out and have a good time like these kids around us instead of looking for trouble? What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s the society,” he said. “It’s the belief system.”

“The kind of violence that we saw in the USA doesn’t happen here because in Japan going against the social norm is very much looked down upon. With serious shame and offense too.”

“They wouldn’t want to ‘rock the boat,’ so to speak. They would rather follow and do what is expected of them. So if everyone knows that it’s not good to start a fight with a stranger while drunk, they don’t do it.

If everyone knows it’s shameful to steal a wallet from someone it’s just not done. If someone is upset on the train, like really upset, like a young woman I saw on the train like a month ago – no one will ask her what’s wrong as long as no blood is spilling. Everyone will go about their business and move on.”

“Perhaps all of that starts in the home then?” I said. “I mean I could see children being taught these social norms from their parents, then as they grow up they see it amongst their peers and get it reinforced in their schooling. And then of course it gets reciprocated to the next generation, when they marry and have children.”

“Yeah man…but believe me sometimes the social norms here are so strict that it could be the reason why I see that all the time.” He pointed in the direction of yet another drunken business man, ranting and raving to himself as he stumbled along. He seemed to be having a conversation with someone invisible when he walked by us. The drunken kids in the park parted ways for him, and no one even gave him a second glance. It made me wonder if was there a darker side to these social norms that could affect them this way?
Possibly. But I had to admit I was finally able to relax when it settled in that I didn’t have anything to fear here!

Back in the U.S.A.

Compton, California

I woke up to a loud noise and looked at the luminous dials of my dive watch. It was 2am, a Saturday morning. My mind was spinning because I’d taken a sleeping pill. I was staying at my Aunts house in Compton, California – my first stop on a 5-and-a-half week trip across the United States.

So here I was; in the Belly of the Beast! Home of the world-famous gangsta rap group N.W.A. and the notorious street gangs the Bloods and the Crips. But also home to my beloved extended family who I hadn’t seen in almost 10 years since my immigration to Australia.

There was a lot of yelling and screaming going on. I jumped off my bed and took a look out the window. Well-lit streets revealed a cluster of teens threatening to kill each other.

“I couldn’t see any weapons but this being America – not Japan nor Australia – it didn’t mean they weren’t there.”
One of them was pacing back and forth saying that he couldn’t wait to “Merc” (murder) the person that had did him wrong – and that he’d been waiting for this moment for almost a year.

They all went out of my eyesight and were yelling at some other people I couldn’t see their shouts echoing off the apartment buildings around me. I couldn’t make out some words but I did hear them screaming their sets (gang names) at one another in an attempt to instil fear. Suddenly, in the background I heard the distinct crackle of gunshots. But they weren’t from this group but from somewhere else, probably about three or four blocks away. A different altercation altogether. After a full 15 minutes of ruckus, I heard the screaming of sirens and saw the reflection of colored lights off the buildings as the LAPD drove up and took control of the situation.

I shook the cobwebs out of my head as I listened to more yelling and screaming, the cops threatening to Taser the kids unless they did as they were told.

“Welcome home,” I muttered to myself, and went back to bed.

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Photo Credits: Baworn47, Maurice D. Valentine, King Dragon