Monday, April 02, 2007

Phony Business

The news of the murder of a Nova teacher has inspired a lot more discussion about safety in Japan among everyone living here, foreigners and Japanese alike. My husband brought up the topic of the relative vulnerability of women in Tokyo to one of his long-time regular students. He asked her if she felt women were safe or not.

During this discussion, the student relayed a personal experience of hers which was rather interesting. She said that she received a phone call from a policeman from the Setagaya police station saying that a crime had occurred in her area and he wanted to come by her apartment and speak with her about it. Since she doesn't live in Setagaya and wasn't aware of witnessing any criminal activity, she asked the man what his name was and he said "Tanaka". In Japan, saying your name is "Tanaka" is equivalent to saying your name is "Smith" in the United States. The generic name made her even more suspicious and she asked the man to give her his station's telephone number so that she could call and verify his identity. At this point, the man hung up on her.

About a week later, a policeman arrived at her door and she asked him to give his name and station number so she could verify his identity. He did offer the information and she double-checked on his authenticity while he stood outside for five minutes or so and waited. It turned out that he was the real deal and she let him in. When she explained the situation to him, he said that, while he was inconvenienced, he felt that she did the right thing and her caution was prudent.

During the discussion with my husband, the student said that, while she felt Tokyo was generally safe, that she felt women should be diligent about potentially suspicious situations. One thing that this situation reinforced with me was a feeling I've had for quite some time that the Japanese feel less safe than foreigners do in Japan. I think part of the reason for this is that they are subjected to more suspicious behavior than we are, particularly in terms of telephone calls, as I've also had students who have complained of the being harassed by phone.

Another reason why I've felt that the Japanese feel less secure on the whole is that I've asked some of my female students what factored into their choice of teacher and have been told that the neighborhood and general set-up of the area between the station and the teacher's home has been pretty important. Important factors include not only the distance from the station but also whether or not the path has a lot of lighting and is in a well-trafficked area or is relatively isolated. In other words, the students aren't happy to walk along darker back streets which are off the beaten path.

Back when I was working at Nova and I told students what location I lived in, they would tell me they felt that my area was a relatively dangerous one. Though I've never felt it was especially dangerous, I've since read that my area is a high break-in area and my students must have been aware of crime statistics of which I was not aware.

When I talk to the Japanese people around me about security and safety in Japan, I get the feeling that foreigners experience a sort of 'reverse indoctrination' regarding the topic compared to the experience Japanese people have when going abroad. That is, they hear only about how dangerous other places are so they are very wary and we mainly hear about how safe Japan is so we blithely go about our business. Just as Japanese who travel abroad sometimes worry too much, we probably sometimes worry too little.


Roy said...

The media blows everything out of proportion and everyone's got some story about some friend of friend that got killed or robbed or whatever. While there is true crime and danger out there I don't agree with the way the media sensationalized such crimes to allay fears in everyone. Yes, we should all be careful but let's not get overly obsessed about it.

Any mathematician will tell you that the odds of winning a lottery or becoming a victim of random criminal acts are not as high as most people believe in their imaginations. So why worry about?

Joanna said...

roy... are you kidding me? The reason you should worry about it and be cautious is so that you're less of a mark. I grew up in a bad neighborhood for a little part in my life and there are ways of being so you're less likely to attract criminals. To go about in a pollyanna way will not help. Everyone should be cautious of their surroundings no matter where in the world you are and not be overtly carefree...

CMUwriter said...

As a member of the media I know that sometimes crimes are sensationalized, but the fact remains that people need to know when shady stuff happens in their neighborhood, or where they live.

Shari said...

I think everyone's world is shaped around them by their gender and what they look like. Japan is a very different place for men than it is for women and much more so for young and attractive women. This is sufficiently significant that JR created women-only cars to shield them from gropers. It's not a marginal difference in experience or such steps would not be taken.

It's also a very different experience if you are of Asian descent and can't be distinguished easily from the Japanese around you because you won't be singled out for attention of all sorts as you go about your daily business. Japan is a very different place for the light-haired and blue-eyed than it is for the dark-haired and brown-eyed person.

I'd agree certain events are sensationalized and may tend to exaggerate the threat one is exposed to. The incident in 1992 in the U.S. where a Japanese visitor who wandered into someone's car port and was shot and killed as a trespasser when he didn't act on the homeowners command to "freeze" is a good example of that. However, these incidents, though statistically rare, tend to highlight cultural and experiential differences in such a way that we can all behave more prudently when we live in another culture as a result of them.