I’ve lived in Japan on and off for several years, and I’ve always felt safe on my bicycle here, particularly as I often see young and old women alike biking at all hours of the night. But after an event a few weeks ago, I feel as if this false sense of security has been stripped away.
Cycling home at 8:30 p.m. on a well-lit street in Tokyo, I sensed another biker by my side, so I slowed down to let him pass. At that point he suddenly cut over, trapped me against a parked car and grabbed my tire.
He began yelling at me in Japanese, but the only thing I could clearly understand was “You stole this bicycle!” I insisted that I had not and tried to pull away, but the man was strong and continued yanking on my bike. I bought it from a shop brand-new, so I knew it wasn’t stolen. I also didn’t believe that it was my bicycle he wanted.
I yelled, both in English and Japanese, “Help! Call the police!” Many people observed the fracas but did nothing to help. He pulled me across a street full of traffic, briefly blocking cars, but almost everyone just seemed to ignore it.
It felt like hours of struggling, but then a young woman on a bicycle appeared. By now I must have had tears streaming down my face and my voice was almost gone. She said to me calmly: “I know this man. You stole this bicycle. I’m calling the police.”
Were this man and this girl working together? Or was it just so believable that a foreigner could have stolen the bike that she instinctively believed him? And if they were a team, what did they want? A mama chari worth $100? I didn’t think she was actually calling the police, but I had no idea how to describe my exact location to call them myself, and I didn’t want to wait to see what would happen next. My instinct told me to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Noticing the man had loosened his grip on my bicycle, I pulled it out of his hands and took off, with the sound of the pair yelling fading behind me. I biked away so quickly that they couldn’t catch up, to a convenience store about 10 minutes away. My arms and head were throbbing.
Seeing a police car pull up at a red light, I waved and yelled at them. Somehow the officers didn’t see me and drove away, so I met up with my boyfriend, who happened to be nearby, and we went to a kōban (police box) together.
At the kōban, the police officer’s response went as follows: “Wow, that’s strange. Were they Japanese? Well, I can’t really do anything because I’m here by myself and they’re probably not there anymore. You’re a young girl, and maybe you shouldn’t be out by yourself alone at night.”
No details about the incident were recorded. Not only had every bystander ignored my pleas for help, but the police had also given me a terribly disappointing response — basically, “Shō ga nai, ne?” (“What can you do, eh?”).
This was not the first time that something like this had happened to me in Japan. The last time was in Osaka one morning, around 10 a.m., when a stranger picked me up and tried to carry me into a love hotel. Then, I kept kicking and punching until he dropped me. I tried to run away, but he was much taller than me and kept catching up.
Our struggle went on for at least 10 minutes, and none of the many onlookers helped or even appeared concerned. Finally, I saw a police officer down the street and screamed at my attacker, “Look! Look! It’s the police!” That seemed to frighten him, and at that point he walked over to a nearby vending machine, bought me a water, said “gomen nasai” (sorry) and walked away.
At that time I had few friends in Japan, and everyone I told said first, “Was he Japanese?” and second, “Things like that never happen in Japan.” (I hadn’t even thought about his ethnicity; he was Asian and had spoken to me in Japanese.)
Everyone made it seem like it was such a random experience that I almost, in fact, felt ashamed, thinking I must have done something to provoke this bizarre behavior. When this second incident occurred, I started to suspect that these events weren’t unusual. I posted a description of what had happened on Facebook and asked if people had had similar experiences.
The response was overwhelming: stories of being attacked while jogging, being stalked by male and female students, being groped on the street in broad daylight, men masturbating on trains, attempted kidnappings. All of these stories came from strong women who put up a vicious fight but still walked away with psychological (and sometimes physical) injuries. In all of these stories, the victims had been in a “safe” public place but no one tried to help them or call the police. If this is so common, why does Japan maintain a reputation for being so safe? And is this image of safety actually facilitating these incidents?
Many say Tokyo is the best place to host the Olympics because it is safe. And in many ways it is: Foreigners are astounded to walk into Starbucks and see iPhones left unattended on a table to reserve a seat, for example. When I lived in Barcelona, my phone wasn’t safe even in my pocket. Still, the two most aggressive attacks in my life happened in Japan, not in “unsafe” countries I backpacked through alone and at a younger age. Thus I don’t think Japan is as safe as the image propagated about the country suggests. It seems that just about every foreign woman I know has a terrible story to tell. I have no way of knowing if this number is as high for Japanese women, because only foreign women shared their stories with me.
Some of us do wonder: Are these types of attacks more prevalent among foreign women? It is hard to tell, but perhaps for the attacker such a target could be less risky. Many foreign women would not know where and how to report such an incident. Even in my case, having a Japanese boyfriend to go with me and translate, the police still didn’t record any information or search for the people involved. Moreover, since foreigners are often associated with crime, bystanders might be less likely to intervene or call the police.
After all these years, I clearly remember anti-groping cartoon posters in the Fukuoka subway depicting a man with dark skin touching a white woman. Even at the time, I thought it reflected a still-prevalent view in Japan: Crime and criminals are non-Japanese. When a crime happens, people almost always ask, “Was (s)he Japanese?” Of course, Japanese people too commit crimes, and “othering” the victims and perpetrators only makes it easier for crimes to go unaddressed, thus making society less safe for both foreigners and Japanese.
As I’ve mentioned, for all I know these types of attacks are just as common among Japanese women. Rather than jumping to conclusions, I’m simply hoping to start a dialogue that might help bring about solutions. I have always known that Japan had perverts — like anywhere — but until recently they had seemed fairly benign.
As a minority in Japan, foreign women do receive a lot of male attention and are often offered work as hostesses. They also complain to me about how they feel objectified in Japan. White models and mannequins are seen everywhere, even though white women represent a tiny percentage of the population.
In a way, white women become plastic here: imports without feelings — strange, exotic dolls. And if we are dolls, perhaps the groping, leering, stalking and attacking is somehow justified in the perpetrator’s mind as a game rather than a crime.
When I first moved to Japan, I tolerated the staring, following and persistent nampa (pickup artists), but after being assaulted twice in public, they have taken on darker undertones. I now know I can’t rely on the goodwill of strangers, as I have in the past when I was verbally harassed in countries such as Mexico. Interest from strangers that I could have dismissed as innocent curiosity a few years ago now gives me the chills.
Despite its many stereotypes and inconveniences, I love Japan. So do a lot of the women who shared their stories with me. I am attracted to Japan because it’s so different from my culture. I want to keep living here and unlocking the mysteries I encounter every day, but I have ideas about how it could be made a safer place. Just because I love this country, it does not mean I have to love it unconditionally and ignore those things I might disagree with.
Experiencing these incidents and hearing other women’s stories has altered my daily behavior. I have vowed to be more careful as I calculate risks in my daily life. I carry Mace. At night, I take roads that have lots of kōbans on them, and I know how to explain my route should I have to talk to a police officer.
I’m not paranoid, but I also won’t let surprise be a weapon.
Holly Lanasolyluna is a professor, photojournalist and toy songwriter from California. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on fourth (and fifth) Thursdays. Send comments and story ideas to email@example.com.