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Mr. Walkabout


Mr. Walkabout
John Charles balances Japan’s low crime rate with its culture of compulsory obedience.

A tempting reincarnation after this life’s stony path would be the best sinecure of all: Tokyo policeman – law officer in a crimeless city. Hands behind his back, Omawari-San (Mr Walkabout) ambles amiably, pinching the babies, chatting to the shopkeepers, opening a shell-like ear to enquiries, poring over maps to help the postal service deliver letters. Japan’s crime rate is about the lowest in the world – murder 1.47 per 100,000 of the population. Comparable US and British figures are 7.92 and 3.24. Armed robbery is at 1.82, compared with a US figure of 205.38 and 50.02 in Britain.

Grassroots police work seems to be helping drunks to throw up in the gutter and getting them to their train, telling feuding couples to cool it, and keeping a weather eye open for anything ‘unusual’. Tokyo bobbies are information-gatherers, the eyes and ears of the establishment. For this reason bicycles are still more in evidence than cars. Gangs of idle teenagers are routinely approached and cajoled about the anxiety and shame that their loafing must be bringing to their families. Instead of a chorus of raucous defiance and filthy language, the officers are listened to with bowed heads and shuffling feet. More amazing still is the reaction accorded the volunteer ‘watch committees’ of elderly ladies who patrol the streets and tick off miscreants, rather to the embarrassment of the police. Armed with bags of uplifting literature, they venture into noisy back alleys only to emerge triumphant and unscathed. This is not so daring as it sounds; most Japanese will scratch their heads if asked to name any ‘unsafe’ areas.

Many Westerners would blink at turning the pages of a fairly high-quality newspaper and finding connoisseur brothel guides replete with addresses, photographs and details of daily specials. But whatever lascivious thoughts the newspapers induce, rape and sexual assault figures are minuscule. Tokyo remains, in the words of Peter Tasker, the city of ‘lewd prudes’. The meeting of the sexes tends to be as bashful as anywhere on the planet, with the boys blushing into their colas and the girls giggling in the Japanese fashion. Malinowsky and Margaret Mead would not make much of it, and the Tobriand Islanders would give up and go home.

Virtual toddlers travel unaccompanied through the teeming city with scarcely a mishap. The pre-war fascist police were regarded with suspicion and fear, but today relations with the public have never been better. They can seem comic, these overgrown Boy Scouts with their porthole-glasses, great shiny holsters, night-sticks and creaking saddlery. But underestimate them at your peril. Their unarmed combat training is second to none and they can call on the formidable powers of the armoured kidotai or ‘special police’. These bully-boys leaning on their five-foot staves are, ironically enough, your welcomers to Japan. Grey combat vehicles poke their pug noses round unexpected corners at Narita Airport, and festoons of electrified wire give the place the incongruous feeling of a prison camp or a forward base in a hostile land.

The legions of guards and administrators hold the airport like a citadel against a community of bitter and dispossessed farmers whose land was compulsorily purchased at minimum prices. Narita was built on some of Japan’s best agricultural land when Tokyo Bay was there for the asking. The resolute opposition of farmers and students – the control tower was blown up once, and tunnels dug under the runways – probably means that armed guards will be needed for the foreseeable future. But anyway, welcome to Japan, land of calm!

Tourists who know nothing of Japan’s tortured twentieth century are correct to be impressed by what one writer calls ‘the friendly neighbourhood police state’. While the forces of law and order in the West are hard-pressed to ‘regain’ the inner cities, the little Koban or police box with its carefully-tended shrubs and under-worked inhabitants noting lost dogs or acting as amateur psychiatrists seems a breath of fresh air. Japan appears to have preserved – or re-invented – the social deference due the Law. Moreover, the Japanese genius has been to humanize the law and encourage ‘talking through’ and repentance rather than draconian retribution. It was not always so, and even today you have only to fall innocently outside the law’s benevolence to feel its thunderbolts.

The US occupation and the post-war years have produced a new, democratically-based and legally-free Japan, liberated from its old prejudices and an energetic partner of the West. So runs the myth created by the US and is naturally, therefore, the one it wants to believe. To explode the myth one need only look at legal matters. Japan has never truly understood democratic politics. Law in Japan is made as much as possible an irrelevance to everyday affairs. Less than 15,000 lawyers serve a hundred million people, despite massive efforts during the occupation to increase drastically the size of the bar and public awareness of legal rights. This was rapidly undone when the occupation forces left. The emphasis is on conciliation, contrition, rapport, discussion, on ‘re-examination of the issues with greater sincerity’, on anything short of resort to legal rights. This is much praised in Western newspapers, wearied perhaps by the confrontation of the Anglo-Saxon system. But the litigant in a Japanese civil case against the Government might as well not bother. Equally, a defendant in a criminal case has a 99.8-per-cent chance of losing. In 1986, 63,204 people were tried for criminal offences, with 67 acquitted.

One prisoner remained on death row for 31 years because he did not show ‘appropriate penitence’. Small wonder: evidence finally surfaced to prove him innocent. Perhaps the judges had more than a sneaking suspicion of this to keep him there so long. Yet any reasonable judiciary would have re-examined the case. At least public appeals would have been made or the newspapers would have taken up the cause. But not in complacent Japan.

John Charles lives in Tokyo where he clings to his English eccentricities.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 282 magazine cover This article is from the August 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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