“You don't need to worry, Japan's so safe!”
I've heard this so many times in the years I have lived here, mainly in reference to walking home at night or traveling around the country alone. And really, Japan is pretty safe if you consider major metropolitan areas around the world. But… it's not 100% safe. Especially if you're foreign.
If you look Asian, you can blend in, travel around undetected, and avoid most of the looks other non-Asian foreigners get daily. If you don't look Asian, however, you are going to stick out like a sore thumb no matter where you go. Always. Even in Tokyo. You're just going to. Which means you can often times attract very, very unwelcome attention.
The number of times I have been standing in a public area (usually waiting for a friend) and been approached by older Japanese men is far, far too many. Oftentimes they say nothing, just silently stare at me while intruding on my personal space until I feel so uncomfortable I just walk away. The number of times random people just come up behind me and try to talk to me as I'm waiting to cross the street is too many. Sure, they may be trying to be “friendly” but it's not. It's startling and makes me very uncomfortable.
I've also been physically assaulted while walking home at night.
This happened years ago, back when I was in my first year of living here in Yamaguchi, way on the other side of the country. I rarely went out drinking back then, it was about a twenty minute walk from my apartment to the main entertainment district and I didn't have many friends, so going out drinking wasn't something I did often. One night mid-February, however, I had been invited out. It ended up getting pretty dramatic thanks to an acquaintance and a crazy girl he was dating, so I was 100% sober on my walk home. I am so, so grateful for this fact.
It was around 2am, and I was sticking to the well-lit main roads for my walk. Ten minutes down this road and ten minutes down another. I was about two blocks from my apartment when I heard footsteps behind me and then felt hands grasp my arms. My first thought was that it was a friend I had just left, that they'd seen me walking home and wanted to surprise me. When I reacted the man grabbing me readjusted his grip so that he could hold me facing him and I realized I had no idea who this guy was.
He was middle-aged, he wore a baseball cap, he was in a track suit, he was nearly my height. He looked serious. He looked determined. He was saying some things in Japanese I didn't understand, but I guess were along the lines of, “wait, be quite.” I struggled to get free, he wouldn't let me go. His hand on my right shoulder moved down towards the hem of my dress (thankfully I had on legging as it was February) and at that point I used my newly freed right arm to grab his neck. In my mind I was ready to kill him if he didn't let me go, I squeezed as hard as I could.
His eyes bulged and he panicked, tried to grab my own throat but I had a scarf on so his hand never got a good grip. That's when I screamed. It was a noise I didn't know I could make, one I don't think I can ever make nor do I want to make again. He ran off, faster than I ever saw anyone one run, straight across the four lane road in five seconds and I stood there watching him retreat shaking, angry and confused and not really sure what happened.
I stood there for a minute, just watching where he ran and making sure he didn't return. I walked back to my apartment, still shaking and checking behind me every few steps, until I finally got home. I sat down against my door and cried, listening and hoping not to hear anyone on my noisy stairs. Eventually I fell asleep sitting there.
When I woke up I showered in my clothes, because everything he touched was dirty and I didn't even want to touch it to take it off. Later the police would scold me for this but I didn't care. I still don't.
It was exactly a week before my birthday and I spent my Valentine's Day in a police station reenacting the assault over and over for police, taking them to where I was attacked and answering question after question about every single movement that we all did. It was so jumbled in my mind it took a while for me to sort it out. The entire attack lasted no more than twenty seconds, and in those moments it was largely flailing arms and panic,
They took pictures, collected my clothes from my house, and asked me question after question in Japanese and English. It was a hard day and later on I ignored my phone when they called, which led them to call my boss, and my boss to call me the next day at work where I cried in the break room and told them what happened.
They had an idea of who attacked me, as girls had reported similar instances though none as violent as mine. None of them went through with it. None of them stuck it out to get him convicted. I can't blame them, I really can't. It was awful. I would go days ignoring my phone and my email until a police officer would show up at my door to take me to the station. After I correctly identified my attacker in a photo they arrested him and brought him in, where I looked through a tiny foot by foot one-way mirror in a door at the man who attacked me. He looked far less menacing that way, surrounded by police officers and behind a locked door.
A month and a half after my assault I moved to Hokkaido and thought myself done with it. I was wrong, they flew up twice. I'd drive for thirty minutes to the nearest city and sit in a cramped room being asked the same questions I'd been answering for months.
“Did he reach for your skirt before or after you choked him?”
“What arm did he reach down with?”
“What arm did you choke him with?”
These tiny details made me relive the moment over and over until I could see nothing else. The event itself probably lasted fifteen seconds but I wasn't allowed to forget it for months. At one point they asked me to tell them what I wanted done to this man, a question that shocked me and took a while for me to process. After I expressed my confusion they said, "You're emotional appeal for justice will help get him convicted." It felt wrong somehow, for me to decide what should happen to this man, as if I was resorting to his own level by forcing my will upon his fate.
I simply told them, "If he is mentally ill, I want him to get help. If he is of stable mind, I want him in jail. I don't want him to hurt anymore people. That's all I want. That's the only reason I am doing this."
They tried to convince me to take time off of work to testify in court, to fly across the country just to face this man and a judge and tell them what happened even though they had it written down a dozen different ways. I couldn't, I'd reached my limit.
“If you don’t go to court he'll go free.”
At this point I no longer cared, I wanted to move on. I lived on a different island now, I was safe. Though the thought of him doing it to someone else disgusted me and I hated myself for not being able to face it. The entire reason I had been doing this for months was so he couldn't hurt anyone.
Then, one day mid-August, I got an email. He was going to jail for two years, I didn't need to come to Yamaguchi. It was over. He'd finally confessed.
I cried again, for the last time, and was relieved in a way that made me realize I never really knew what relief was. I'd done it. I'd gotten him. He wasn't going to hurt anyone else for a while, hopefully ever, because for six months I dealt with it. I'm not the best with follow-through.
I share this story not to scare anyone. I don't want people to fear walking home at night in Japan. For the most part I don't. I have my problems still, whenever someone runs in my direction I freeze, that involuntary flinch that's hiding under my skin always. Middle-aged Japanese men make me uncomfortable when they look at me. I'm always thinking the worst with them and I feel guilty for making the blanket judgment.
But, I'm safe. He didn't even touch my skin. I had no marks from him, not even from where he grasped my arms so tightly, because I was wearing a jacket. I got off unscathed, unharmed physically. It could have been so much worse and I am so thankful every day I didn't drink more that night.
My story isn't a one-time fluke. It happens more than people realize in Japan, and I have shared my story with many friends only for them to tell me their own in return. They vary from stalking to stitches, but they're there. By sharing mine I don't feel brave or that I deserve some sort of praise for being so strong. Because lately I've not been. These things happen and I shouldn't have to feel shamed by sharing it, so I don’t. But I still feel like I need to share it, I need to broaden the audience who know my story outside of the friends I have shared it with. All too often I hear people brushing off Japan as "safe", almost blinding themselves with this notion that nothing bad can happen here, it's such a nice country. Every time I hear someone mention how safe Japan is compared to America or England or any other country I roll my eyes, I've been attacked here, I haven't been attacked in America. I'm biased.
Japan is still a country full of people, and people can sometimes do bad things. While it does have a low crime rate, it also has a mandatory shutter noise on all smartphones in the country due to perverts taking pictures up the skirts of girls and women.