• SHARE

The irony screamed — so did I.

Walking home from work late one night, I was grateful at just how safe Tokyo is. Not once had I been hassled or mugged . . . THUD! I was on the ground . . . THUD! I got up to face my attacker. He was big. Of course, I would say that, I will hardly admit to . . . THUD! being mugged by a . . . THUD! puny specimen of humanity.

I relied on the tried and trusted response to danger that has served me so well for so long. I sprinted as fast as I could to a nearby police station, trying to compose myself so as not to look petrified or unruffled.

I rushed in looking petrified, ruffled and blabbered that I had been mugged. I need not have bothered — my attacker was right behind me. Rarely has evidence been so forthcoming, but the solitary policeman turned a deaf ear to my increasingly desperate pleas and insisted we both leave the station.

I presume the officer thought we were two drunks unworthy of his attention. My attacker was laughing heartily and no doubt relishing another round at my expense when I saw an approaching taxi, and again using my tried and trusted method, I dashed in and sped off.

One isolated incident, even one so up close and personal, does not mean that a crime wave is hitting Tokyo. The Japanese capital is still a remarkably safe place, and puts London and New York, among other major cities, to shame. But there is no doubting the streets are meaner than they were 10 years ago.

The number of reported crimes last year in Tokyo reached nearly 300,000, more than double that of a decade ago. In response, the Metropolitan Police Department has set up a task force in December with the reported aim of cutting this figure back to 1992 levels.

The faltering economy does not help. A sense of frustration is apparent. A recent advertisement in a magazine stated: “Salary cut, bonus slashed, stop complaining, everyone is suffering.”

It suggested a begrudging acceptance that things are expected to get worse.

But there is no safety valve in the form of a viable opposition to hold the government to account, no ready outlet for people to protest. In any other major democracy, an advertisement like that would be mana from heaven for the opposition.

But sullenness has replaced revelry in the packed late night train carriages. Salary workers now get drunk to forget their situation, rather then celebrate their good fortune. Firms, big and small are gearing up to lay off more workers in 2003.

And attitudes are changing. When the suspect in the recent Kyoto bank hostage drama was arrested by police, his laconic smile splashed across front pages was far removed from the contrite image usually associated with arrested suspects.

In taking hostages, Eiichi Tokuda said: “I want to question the government about how this country is being managed.

“This country is built on the assumption that people swallow (injustice) and bear it silently.”

His feelings were very much at odds with the advertisement’s central “put up and shut up” message. And herein lies the danger.

With no conduit to take the lightning strike of growing popular resentment, people are more likely to snap to crime to take out their grievances rather than challenge authority by more conventional means such as strikes or protests, because they don’t believe that the government will listen to them.

The country is undergoing dramatic social changes, and its famed sense of community is under threat from the economic slump.

There is an impression that people are too concerned about their worsening financial plight to bother about their neighbors or colleagues. Economic survival is sapping their goodwill.

As the thuds were landing, my assailant was unconcerned about any passersby calling him to account. But crime, no matter how isolated, does not happen in isolation.