Crime and Punishment – Tokyo, Japan

Crime and Punishment
Tokyo, Japan

It was late, or should I say early, the sun had just come up, and I was fuzzy in the head with fatigue and hunger. I wasn’t in my right mind. It was one of those split second decisions that you wish you had back, wish you could do over, and makes you truly believe in the proverb ‘hindsight is 20/20.’

I was in Ikebukero in downtown Tokyo, it was 7.30 a.m. and I had had enough. Day had come full circle and people were already commuting to work. I had been up for about 24 hours and hadn’t eaten in about 12. I had been using an all night Internet café searching for jobs. The rates are much cheaper at night than during the day but, the abuse you save your wallet is taken up by your body.

Before I go any further I would just like to point out that this story is not a plea of innocence. I am not trying to slip blame. It wasn’t mine, and I did take it. I did steal the bike. I have no trouble admitting this. What I do not agree with is the crime-punishment ratio, and the idea of police having more productive things to do with their time. In an age of accelerated violence and valueless societies, don’t the police have more important crimes to attend to than stolen shopping bikes?

I had just recently returned to Japan after a year long absence in India (I was working on a documentary with my brothers, but that is another story…) so was familiar with the codes of behavior in Japanese society: saving face, no thinking outside the square, duty and discipline, the system is always right; however, for a born and bred westerner these quasi-communistic, personality-squashing, team-oriented protocols of behavior are hard to get accustomed to. At the time I was still floating somewhere in the limbo of acclimatization. That’s when I stole the bike.

I was staying with a friend 15 minutes from the station and after being up all night the last thing I felt like doing was walking all the way home. Why not just pinch a bike and zip home quickly? There’s one. Old, a bit rusty, no lock, obviously abandoned. I wouldn’t be hurting anyone.

Just as I chucked my bag in the basket and mounted the bike, I was grabbed by a Japanese man. He was wearing a long black trench coat and looked tired as if he had been up all night. My first thought was Yakuza (Japanese mafia), but then he yanked open his coat to reveal a policeman’s uniform. The badge followed from his pocket. An undercover cop. I groaned. He yelled, and another agent came running from the alleyway. My head dropped to my chest in despair.

It was only about a year before that I had sat on a bar stool in Tokyo listening to a stranger’s ordeal of arrest, interrogation, humiliation, and deportment over a skinny-dipping episode in the Japanese Sea at Kamakura. My mind began to race.

An angry burst of high-speed Japanese came from one of the cops. I know some Japanese but am nowhere near fluent so I didn’t understand a word. I put my hand up asking him to slow down but an accusing barrage came from the other man. They were gripping one arm each like I was about to try to sprint to freedom. More furious Japanese, pointing fingers, accusing glares, set jaws; I felt like I was standing over a dead body not a bicycle. One cop grabbed my bag from the basket and began rooting through it. The other called for my passport. Usually I never carry it around for fear of losing it but today I had it with me.

Luckily I had my gaijin card (foreign registration card) as well, but my old Hokkaido address, which I had never bothered to update, got them even more enraged. I rolled my eyes in a gesture of ‘come on guys, its just a rusty old shopping bike lets not over-do it here’ and this prompted the cuffs. I felt humiliated enough, standing on a busy street corner being eyed contemptuously by every passing Japanese salaryman, housewife and junior high school student, I didn’t want to be handcuffed and paraded around like a common criminal. I apologized a few times, gave three or four quick bows and they bitterly relented with the cuffs. Aggressive questions of ‘country,’ ‘age,’ ‘job,’ and the like continued as they militarily marched me back to the station, cop tight on either side.

Barking orders in Japanese they knew I couldn’t understand, they made me wheel the bike in through the front doors of the station, through the lobby and squeeze it onto a crowded elevator. ‘Thief!’ They made me bear my cross right up to the interrogation room on the 6th floor so that everyone would know what a nasty, society wrecking criminal I was. It made me furious this parading about with their catch, their unsympathetic barrage of language, the rudeness, and the intensity of the entire situation. I kept my cool though, remaining obedient and co-operative.

I was seated at a little table in a small, windowless interrogation room. The two cops sat across from me while other cops ran excitedly in and out of the room. A ceaseless, accusing lecture continued of which I understood none of but to which I continued to bow my head and respond in a sad, repenting voice ‘Hai, sumi masen. Hai, sumi masen. Hai, sumi masen.’ (Yes, I’m sorry.). They emptied all the contents from my bag on the table between us. My Swiss-army knife brought about ghastly looks of horror, as well as cheap and pathetic looks of indecency for the two condoms I had in my money pouch.

At one point in the uncomfortable, overheated room I decided to remove my coat, and this prompted an explosion of disdain by the cops. It was if they where expecting me to pull a sawed-off shotgun from my coat.

I was exhausted, hungry, confused and afraid that I was going to be deported from the country – all over a stupid shopping bike. The humiliation of explaining deportation for theft to my family and friends, a criminal blot on my resume, and the huge disruption to my life if I was kicked out of Japan was more than I wanted to think about at that moment under those conditions. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just talk about it like adults, why I couldn’t explain myself to someone in English, and why everyone couldn’t settle down a bit and not make such an incredible deal over a rusty old shopping bike.

The interrogation continued with my full co-operation for nearly two hours. Names, dates and addresses were willfully given. Location of the crime was kindly pointed out again and again on a big map, and I benignly repeated the time of the incident every time they asked. I did whatever was requested of me, and did it politely and apologetically all to get out of there and end the ridiculous ordeal.

By the time it came for mug shots and fingerprints the boys had finally eased up somewhat. A little of the snare drum tightness had loosened from their faces, and they were no longer as edgy as pit bulls. They were sheepishly proud to enlighten me to the fact they knew the capitol of Canada was Ottawa, not Toronto, and the symbol on our flag was the maple leaf. The younger of the two cops even felt some strange affinity to his captured criminal congenially pointing out that we were both the same age, 32.

In the end they couldn’t charge me with any crime. They had come to the conclusion that the bike had already been stolen and that I had ‘taken lost property’ and not ‘stolen private property.’ I would not be charged with any offence, not incarcerated and not deported; however, after release I would be allowed to commit seppuku (ritualistic disembowelment) behind the precinct on my own accord. In the end I walked out of the Ikebukuro police headquarters dejected, confused and sad.

The world is a strange place and so are people and cultures. Societies work in their own way, and they progress and prosper using the systems of belief they feel are best. This is human nature. Though when individuals and societies lack simple common sense for dealing with certain situations it depresses me. When time, money and effort are wasted in silly, inane ways I get frustrated. Today the world is too full of poverty, starvation, and illiteracy to waste precious resources and funds on shopping bikes. Yes, I was wrong to steal the bike, but I believe the Japanese police were wrong in the way they handled it.

Finally, other than merely being an interesting moment in a foreigners experience in Japan (and a short, vengeful rant against the Japanese police force) this story possesses valuable lessons for the reader to take away with him. The obvious, never steal. When something doesn’t belong to you, don’t take it. Crime doesn’t pay.

Second, the virtues of patience, cooperation and honesty; the higher qualities of man. They are the pillars of every civilization, the foundation of every religion, and the first thing your mother teaches you when you are old enough to understand. They go without saying. If I had of been belligerent and uncooperative, it would have been much worse.

And sometimes you just have to see a situation for what it is and go with the flow, even when it is too your disliking. Fighting the current only tires you out and gets you nowhere. An intelligent man works smarter not harder. Like the great Jim Croce said, ‘You don’t spit in the wind, you don’t pull the mask of the old Lone Ranger and you sure don’t mess around with Jim.’

Goodness is the only investment that never fails. Don’t steal bikes.

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