So you think
you' safe?

By Bella Katz

So you think you're safe?

"I was walking home one night, having caught the last train after a big night out. Normally, I would've taken a taxi from the station, but the lines were long and it was a pleasant night. My route was mostly through residential areas, but also went through a commercial district, empty after office hours. As I was walking past a parking lot, I saw a man leaning against his car, smoking. He approached me and asked where I was going. I tried to avoid him, but he caught me and dragged me into the parking lot.
I screamed and kicked, but he was a big guy, and it would have been much worse if a motorcycle hadn't driven past. Although the motorcyclist didn't hear me, the assailant thought he had, and ran off."

How long has it been since you felt fear walking down a street alone at night? In Tokyo, not only is it not something that crosses our minds - catching the last train at night, walking home through the silent streets - but for most of us here who finish work late and have no car conveniently parked outside, there is simply no other option. Perhaps that's why we are all so ready and willing to accept that Tokyo, that Japan, is one of the safest places in the world. A paradise which allows you to drink, wear any clothes you like, walk alone plugged into your music, and generally have a dreamlike existence without fear.

So why is it that everyone who boasts of the safety aspect here also has one or two slightly darker stories to tell?

"A Japanese student came to school in a real state of shock. She said that she had woken up in the night really cold, and when she opened her eyes there was a man in her apartment holding up one end of her blanket and staring at her legs. She screamed so loudly that he ran away, but she was so terrified that she decided to move to a different part of Tokyo."

"She was literally cowering under a bush in Inokashira Park when we found her - shaken up and embarrassed by what had happened. She wouldn't go to the police." It was around 10pm and the Japanese girl had left the group she had been drinking with earlier. When a man grabbed her from behind she was too terrified to turn around and get a good look at her attacker and too embarrassed to report the incident to the police as she had been alone, drinking and dressed in miniskirt and heels."

"My boyfriend and I had to move to a new apartment to get away from this complete psycho neighbor who kept banging and kicking on our door. First we thought he was complaining about the noise - he had called the police on us a few times too, even when we were just watching TV at a really low volume - but the guy would come banging even when we were just sitting in the apartment and whispering! It was really freaky. I write from home so I'm always there by myself, and it got to the stage where I was too scared to be there when the neighbor was home all day. We had to move out."

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Tokyo calm descends and innate suspicions of every stranger that walks by are discarded. It happens so gradually that the difficulty becomes adjusting back to precautionary life in one's home country. Even in a relatively safe one, such as New Zealand, you will not find people on the streets after 10pm (no doubt part of the reason for the danger in the first place since few want to walk empty streets) and certainly some places you wouldn't even venture to during the day. In Tokyo, it doesn't take long to unlearn what your mother and father spent years trying to teach.

"When I first came to Japan, it was the Japanese women that warned me against walking alone. They said that that was why they all rode bikes from the station. All the foreigners were saying how safe it was, and how they could walk around any time of the night and not even worry. Some blonde Australian girl in the house had come upon a Japanese man masturbating and had run home screaming, but everyone had laughed and put it down to something typically happening to her."

"A gaijin girl I knew decided to cross through Inokashira Park alone at 2am. She had been drinking, had long blonde hair and was wearing a miniskirt and heels. She was attacked, but because she was so drunk couldn't remember it fully. She was in shock for over a week and ended up moving away."

"I was cycling home from work around 7pm in Meguro when I noticed this Japanese man - also on a bike - following me. I was so scared that I decided to cycle via the koban, but there was no one inside. Fortunately the guy seemed to be scared off because he cycled away soon after."

Earlier this year, assault cases received a lot of media attention thanks, in part, to former Diet aide Raelyn Campbell whose persistence in seeing her own assault case come to justice paved the way for those less brave. Campbell, who had been seeking justice for a sexual attack which took place in the middle of the afternoon in September, accused the Japanese police involved in her case of trivializing and dismissing her sexual assault and allowing the perpetrator to walk away with the equivalent of a slap on the hand.

The attacker, who followed Campbell home and ran up the stairwell while she took the elevator to her third-floor apartment, slammed her against the wall, pushed her down and pinned her to the floor. He ran off when Campbell started screaming but she pursued and was able to single-handedly catch him and drag him to her landlord's apartment. (Though calling out for help in fluent Japanese to numerous passersby, no one came to her aid.)

The subsequent police investigation turned into a humiliating and futile attempt at seeking justice in an open-and-shut case where the assailant himself had admitted to the crime. However, by having to return to America the day of the attack and leave the investigation in the hands of the police, Campbell returned to find that not only could her interest in filing charges not be confirmed, but that because the case had already been processed it would be "inconvenient" to reopen it. Also, since in their eyes the attacker was a "weak-willed" person and a man who worked to support his parents, he was "incapable of striking again."

"There's this really quiet stretch of road between my mansion and the station, and by the time the last train goes there's not a single soul around. Well, I was walking home really assertively (because I still had that 'act confident' thing on my mind) when a car pulled up beside me and a man wound down his window and called something out. I absolutely freaked out and could feel my heart thumping in my chest. But I didn't stop and didn't even acknowledge him. Thank god he drove off. If that had been back home I have no doubt that it would have been far, far worse."

"I was on my way home from an event and was really tired; since there was no one on the train I put my feet up and dozed off. Suddenly I was woken up by this unbelievable pain in my leg and I bolted up to see this glaring Japanese guy in a suit holding a rolled up manga. He had whacked me so hard and I was so shocked that I snatched my newspaper and hit him back. Then we both just stood there looking at each other, and I said in Japanese 'I don't know about you, but I've had a really long day and I'm tired.' And we continued to just glare at one another. Then he lashed out and smacked me across the face with the comic. Two men that had been watching the incident quickly got up and stood on either side of us, talking to the guy really quietly and trying to calm him down. When the train stopped (I didn't care what the station was by that stage) I just jumped off and burst into tears from the shock."

Over the years reports of tourists getting into trouble in foreign countries have become all too frequent. In 1997 a young Japanese girl disappeared when on holiday in Australia, the last time she had been seen alive was talking to a young man in his car. The Japanese media were there in droves, slamming Australia as an unsafe tourist destination and creating a panic back home. Then there is the almost "urban legend" of the Japanese student who was shot and killed in the United States when, on Halloween, a startled home owner pulled a gun on him and told him to "freeze." This case created such a furor at the time that travel agencies were encouraging potential travellers to take special classes in Survival English. However, perhaps what really needed to be understood was the scale by which each country judges itself to be "safe."

In comparison to other places in the world Japan is still way up there. Government figures for last year show that only 1,687 cases of rape and indecent assault were presented in courts; however, as no records are kept of unreported cases, or those with no filed charges, who can be sure of the real figure? The Foreign Women Lawyers Association, represented by lawyers Monica Jahan Bose and Linda Filardi, stated at a press conference for Raelyn Campbell held on March 17, 1999 that:
"Convictions in Japan are low and sentences are light; the authorities will often encourage [victims] not to press charges (particularly in the case of a first-time offense) and will not advise [the victim] what she needs to do to ensure a good case." In some cases the authorities even exert pressure to drop charges in exchange for small cash settlements. It is their belief that Japanese authorities need to have special training to enable them to better deal with such cases, to understand "how difficult it is to come forward, and how prevalent violence against women really is. If a woman is assaulted, whether by a stranger or a husband, it should be treated as seriously as when a man is assaulted."

Though attitudes are changing slowly - for example investigation teams now often include a female member - in their statement at Campbell's conference, the FWLA compared Japan's attitude to that of the US 25 years ago.

So the moral of the story is YES Japan is safer than most countries, but to quote Raelyn Campbell, "safer does not mean safe."

Persistence pays off. Shortly before publication we learned that the man who asaulted Raelyn Campbell was finally indicted. Monica Jahan Bose, Co-President of the Foreign Women Lawyers Association, invites inquiries by email: - Ed.
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