This college student I know asked my opinion about where would be the best place to study on an exchange opportunity in the States. She wanted to go someplace “safe.”
I took her outside and lifted up a rock.
“There,” I said. “That’s the only safe place I know.”
For the world is fraught with danger, no matter on which side of whatever ocean you reside. If you wish to ensure safety, you need to stop living and crawl under a stone.
Yet, anyone might understand her hesitation. America is full of guns and drugs; for proof, just peek at American TV, where bloody crimes are committed by the minute.
But fiction does hint at fact. Japan is safer than the States. Period. And of the many explanations as to why, one that is often given is the ever-ready vigilance of the police.
Most Japanese have a good cop/bad cop view of their law-enforcement services. They see a sinister side — one of smoky back rooms, coerced confessions and trumped-up charges — and they see a soft side: those helpful cops-in-the-box dotted throughout the land. But if a person is law-abiding — and almost all Japanese are — then the soft-side view wins out.
And so it is with me, too. I think Japanese cops are swell — even adorable. In that Keystone sort of way.
One of my favorite cop stories is the time, years back, when I stood by the road, trying to hitchhike from Kyushu to Tokyo. A man hopped out of his car and ordered me to quit. Then he showed me his badge.
Next, he drove me to the police station, changed into his uniform and took me back to the highway, where he stood in the center of the road and — with hand raised — stopped the first truck that came along. He then commanded the driver to help me out and give me a ride.
Oh, how I loved the police then — a view that the truck driver perhaps didn’t share.
Another time, a fellow accosted me at a railway station out in the country. I thought he was a bum. But he then pulled me into the kōban (police box) and slipped on his jacket. Turns out he was a cop.
He sat me down, pumped me full of green tea and begged me to teach him dirty words in English, so that if he was ever insulted by a foreigner, he would know. For over an hour I had him taking four-letter notes.
And then, last summer, there was this cheerful cop in front of the city police station. He stood there holding a long wooden rod. Most police stations post someone out front with just such a rod, and I have often wondered why. This fellow seemed friendly, so I stepped up and asked.
What I write next is not a misquote, nor an embellishment. It is what the man said, word for word.
“In case the station is attacked, I can defend it.” And he gave the rod a pat.
Now we know why gangs of crooks dare not assault police stations. For surely, they are dying to. Yet, that man with the wooden rod would knock them silly. So they keep their distance.
The cop had this five-star stupid look, like he had just said something that had cracked the time-space continuum. I know that look well, as I often wear it myself.
“Actually, it’s just tradition,” he added, harking back to days when criminals lurked about in deadly fear of wooden rods.
And the other day, I picked up a loose ¥1,000 bill from the sidewalk and turned it in at our local kōban. My first intention had been to stick it in my pocket — a mere ¥1,000! — but I have been too well-trained by my Japanese wife.
At the kōban, six cops surrounded me. Six! Each one had me tell the story (OK, I was walking, see, and I looked down and . . . Oh my! There it was!). They all worked together to have me fill out some sort of form. They all then asked me mind-numbing questions about my time in Japan.
Then it hit me: I had saved them. They were stuck in their tiny kōban, bored out of their skulls, and I had given them something to do.
Of course, not all Japanese cops stay in their boxes. They also patrol the neighborhood on bicycles.
Once, many long years ago, my wife returned home from shopping to find a bike out front but no man in blue in attendance. No, he was inside, sitting on our sofa, preparing to scold her.
“Don’t ever leave your front door unlocked! Ever! Don’t you know there is no such thing as a safe place! You have to be careful!”
He was right: There is no safe place, maybe not even under a rock.
Yet, Japan is close. The cops keep it so. In that Keystone sort of way.