September 15, 2007

On the outside looking in

A quick post.

Today has been a peaceful Saturday, where I woke up early, did some housework, cleaned up around the place, and caught up on casual website reading. I also enjoyed my traditional hour or two at the local coffee shop reading my Japanese book - I will eventually finish this thing, but it might take me another six months.

I went home and started to read a few academic research papers related to some work stuff.

At about five thirty I decided to head to the local supermarket to buy some orange juice and start some rice for dinner. Once outside my door, I heard some shouting and drums, and realized that I was about to run into another festival of some kind. I vaguely remembered seeing signs advertising for recruits to help carry the portable shrines for a festival coming up in mid September, which is about now.

Walking half a block to the East shopping street, I caught sight of a small portable shrine being carried by some kids down the road, and right at the parking lot on the corner a more unusual scene. (For an American, seeing something more unusual than a portable shrine carried by kids who are chanting and walking in unison looks odd even to me.)

This all happened quite quickly, but here is what I saw:

A well-dressed Japanese man in his mid to late thirties, prostrating himself in the traditional Japanese fashion (土下座.) The open door and vacant driver's seat of a black luxury SUV in the middle of the road seemed oddly out of place; you don't usually see those things with the door open and engine running, vacant. Standing in front of the man was an older, slightly pudgy Japanese man in traditional dress - the kind that you commonly see at festivals worn by the people participating or working there, perhaps a happi (半被), all in black. He was yelling at the other man, and it was scary. He had a rough edge to his voice, reminding me of what the Yakuza in the movies sound like. This was all quite quick, and I didn't know what was going on, but I heard things like "What were you thinking" and "why'd ya do that?" -- or things to that general meaning.

Then the older man kicked the kneeling man, in the face. His wooden sandals flew off. I kind of spaced out momentarily, but then noticed that he kicked the guy with his other foot. His other sandal flew off. He went and retrieved them, berated the guy some more, and I froze.

I was thinking "This is not right!" I wanted to go over to see if the man who had been kicked was ok, but suddenly was absolutely convinced that the man in black was Yakuza, and that this was a dangerous situation.

The most dangerous situation that I've been in since I moved to Japan a year and a half ago. It was dangerous in an unusual way; I knew that if I just turned my head slightly, and watched the portable shrine procession go by, nothing would happen to me. In fact, there were many people in the exact same situation that I was in: the traffic conductors for the procession, who were not policemen, but were some sort of official with power over directing traffic, a few people who came to watch the processing, the local shopkeepers. It only made me more worried when I saw that the shopkeepers were looking at the man getting kicked and then intentionally looking away.

The reason this is scary is because the Yakuza are a fact of life in Japan. In general it isn't something that you notice or are supposed to notice, but it is clear that they exist. As an outsider, I have trouble knowing exactly what is going on often, but in this case it was clear that the people around me were afraid of acting against this guy, which scared me even more.

Of course, it could also be that in general Japanese people are not likely to get involved in business that isn't their own, but for that same reason anytime you see someone that is blatantly breaking the social rules in Japan, that guy is probably in a position of power.

(Or alternatively, has little power at all. Another case entirely is a recent fight that I saw on the street. A business-suited man who had clearly been drinking a lot was arguing with another guy that looked pretty much the same as him. He lunged at the guy and started swinging. The friends of the two, also business men who had drank plenty, pulled the two guys apart, did some yelling at each other and themselves, then walked off in separate directions. That is somehow entirely compliant with the Japanese sense of social behavior.)

About by the time I had processed this and consciously decided to not get involved, the Yakuza-like man turned around, and walked away slowly, as if now everything was fine. The character on the back of his jacket was not legible for me, but was not one of the local groups involved in the festival (to the degree that it wasn't repeated on any of the hundred or so jackets that I saw afterwards.) The character itself looked somehow scary to me; I saw (or imagined?) the radical for sword (刀) in there.

People ignored the man who had been kicked, who continued to prostrate himself, while his glasses had flown off somewhere to his right. Luckily I didn't see any blood on the man -- unlike a particularly scary incident I saw once in Roppongi many years ago, where a man's glasses were punched into his eyeball and there was an unsettling amount of blood spurting out. I turned to head towards the main street, following the Yakuza-man, who somehow disappeared quite completely even though I was watching him. Only about one hundred meters ahead of me, turned a corner, and completely disappeared.

Walking up the road the people involved with the procession (the traffic people) were talking about the incident and didn't seem to know much more than I did. Behind us one of the shopkeepers went to talk to the kicked man. We got to the main road, and they alerted the police, who didn't seem too happy to hear about it. I watched some more of the portable shrine procession, and a few minutes later noticed an ambulance headed down towards where I live, and presumably the kicked man.

Afterwards I did my shopping, and walked home. At the corner where things took place -- perhaps two hundred meters from my apartment building -- the kicked man was still there, kneeling now, but not with his head to the ground as before. He was not talking the the policeman, who was questioning him. There was no sign of the ambulance. The people that remained in the area were talking in hushed voices, clearly not interested in getting involved.

While I suppose I could have gone and spoke with either the man or the policeman, as a complete outsider in a situation where the Japanese themselves were also outsiders, I thought it was best to leave this alone. I went home. A few steps later, I passed the same luxury SUV, this time pulled back slightly away from the road.

I have no idea what happened. I have a feeling that it was some kind of near traffic accident, but I really don't know. I honestly do not understand why the man was so passive, or just willing to take the abuse from the Yakuza. I can guess, and I'm sure that it is fairly tightly tied to the Japanese culture, but I don't know if that guy is involved with the nefarious underworld, or just an unlucky regular guy to cross paths with the scary Japanese underbelly. In any case, the Police didn't seem to have much to do with it either from the point of view of prevention, investigation, or follow-up care.

Times like this (this is, of course, the most poignant one that I've had) really make me feel like a complete outsider in this country.


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