The 1964 Olympics saw Tokyo embark on major improvements to show its best face to foreign visitors. We are told similar efforts are under way for the 2020 games. Or are they? A recent visit to that mecca for many foreign visitors, Roppongi, raised a few doubts.
True, a rebuilding rush has helped remove some of the grotty bars and cheap eateries that used to cluster in slum-like existence near the Roppongi intersection area, the main tourist hangout. But little has been done about the blight of the mostly African touts that infest the area. Those of us who have to live here accept this state of affairs grudgingly. But what would a foreign visitor feel as he or she tries to pass through that nightly nightmare of arrogant contempt for civilized behavior?
The police have put up notices in the area warning against touting. We are even asked to report any such incidents. But if you think this is going to make things better then think again. Most of those former touts now simply group by the roadside or lurk in entrances and passageways.
And if some touting continues, do not waste your time reporting it. You will be in for a very humiliating experience, as I discovered recently.
I had assumed that the request to report touting was a police device not just to clean up the area but also to give them a chance to do something about other illegal activities in the area. So when recently I was rather unpleasantly touted, I not only had words with the offender, but also said I would be reporting the incident to the police. Immediately a horde of his friends descended on me with the usual offensive racist slurs and insults handed out to anyone who challenges their right to rule the Roppongi intersection area.
Leaving the pandemonium behind me, I managed to reach the safety of the second floor in the large and well-staffed Azabu police station, which is responsible for keeping order in Roppongi. Two youngish plainclothes officers heard me out, made sympathetic noises and even checked the videos wired in from the overhead cameras they had in the area. Sure enough, they had a picture of the villain doing his thing. They said they would go with me back to the scene of the incident, armed with pistols and handcuffs, and get me to identify him.
But when we got there my two police escorts did nothing. They agreed there were the warnings against touting — one was posted to a lamppost right beside the offender — but touting was not a legal offense, they said. All they could do was reprimand the offender and tell him to behave better in the future. But before they could even do that, another ugly crowd had descended on us, hurling even worse insults, including one advising me to go off and die. Was that not a crime, I asked?
Once again, my escorts said no. There was nothing they could do to prevent those people from saying whatever they liked to passers-by, provided they did not block their way.
Well, I suggested, why not at least check their identities? That might serve as some kind of warning.
But once again my brave escorts declined. The hecklers almost certainly would all have valid visas, they said.
So there is no point making the standard foreigner registration checks that we normal foreign residents in Japan have to suffer if anything untoward occurs? I asked. And with that, the two escorts returned to base.
At this point I decided that I’d had enough. Japan has a system whereby if anyone lodges what is called a higai todoke — a report of injury suffered — the police are in theory obliged to accept the report and take appropriate action.
In my case the “suffering” (higai) had been the insults my companion and I had had to endure. And I knew from past news reports that telling people to die (shine), a term often used in ijime (bullying) or extortion offenses, was seen as especially serious. So back to the Azabu station I went, this time to make my formal complaint.
I explained carefully my purpose. Obviously I myself had not “suffered” greatly from the clamoring and insults of the horde (though my companion had); for me it was just an escalation of the usual unpleasantness we all suffer when we pass through that intersection area. My purpose was other: I assumed the police were as anxious as all of us to clean up the mess around the intersection, but could not move unless they had formal complaints or evidence. So I was making the formal complaint that would give them the excuse to move. What’s more, I could identify the worst offender: He was wearing a conspicuous baseball cap. I would be happy to go back there and find “baseball cap.”
For a moment the mood in Azabu police station turned serious (up till then there had been much smirking and muttering all around). They would go and consult with their legal expert on the third floor, they said.
But after a long wait I was told no: The expert (whom I never got to meet) had said there was no legal basis for them to receive my higai todoke. But if I wished, we could all go back and find baseball cap to give him a formal dressing down.
Sure enough, by the time we got back to the scene, baseball cap had disappeared. But his friends were still there, and even noisier than before. Nor were they impressed by the pistols and handcuffs my two plainclothes escorts were still carrying.
Eventually, a tall Nigerian appeared, towering over my pint-sized escorts. They assured me the giant meant no harm; indeed, because he spoke reasonable Japanese, the police often relied on him to keep order. And, sure enough, the riot did gradually begin to die down.
Peace restored, my two escorts shook the Nigerian warmly by the hand and once again headed back to base.
So there we had it. Not only were the police not interested in cleaning up this blot on Japan’s reputation, but they were even relying on one of the blot-makers to do their job for them.
What to do? Perhaps one idea would be to assign more senior officers to that Azabu station. And make sure they can at least match the height and bulk of those hecklers. And keep them in uniforms. Some counter-intimidation seems needed.
Long-term Japan resident Gregory Clark is a former university president turned commentator on Japanese affairs. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org