Is Japan Safe? Not Quite…

The Importance of Knowing What to be Afraid of

One of the things I like best about Japan is that it’s so incredibly safe. I mean, sort of. Like, you can stumble half crocked up to the ATM at midnight, take out a couple hundred buck’s worth of yen, and then float your way to a darts bar without a care in the world. That’s a bar where you play darts, which I guess is kind of dangerous in its own right, especially after a few cocktails. But at least it’s not the U.S., where you have to barricade yourself into your house with an assault rifle, to protect yourself from everyone else who’s got an assault rifle. But you know, price of freedom and all that.

So if Japan’s not quite so free, at least it’s safe, partly because it’s so surprisingly unforgiving. Like, if you left your MacBook laying on a table in the back of the darts bar and went to talk to the pretty girl at the counter, you could be pretty sure that some dude wouldn’t dash out the door with the thing. Because in a country where showing up for work five minutes early can result in your boss tearing you a new poo hole, stealing someone’s electronics would be a one-way express ticket to sleeping in a blue plastic tent in Yoyogi park for the rest of your life. So people are honest for a reason, is what I’m saying.

Losing my Lunch

So I felt pretty good when I left my lunch in the basket of my basket-bike last week. I’d stopped by the convenience store and bought a bento box of salmon, rice, omelette, and pasta, plus this delicious pickled daikon. Man, the food in 7-11 here is tremendous, not like those nasty microwave burritos you have to eat in America. Jeez, what’s in those things anyway? Like someone force-fed chunky bean puree and Velveeta to a tortilla. Well, whatever. When I got to my desk at school, I remembered that I forgot it outside. But I figured Eh, no problemo. It’s Japan, right? No way anyone’s gonna boost a bro’s lunch out of his basket-bike basket. Plus, I was only five minutes early for work, so I didn’t want to chance it by going back outside. Best just to lay low, if you know what I mean.

So I taught my first class, and then ran out during the break to retrieve my bento box. Which had, to my great surprise, gone missing. But upon closer inspection, it turned out that it was only partially gone, as some of it was laying on the ground half-devoured and the rest chucked all over the parking lot. There was rice, pasta, and delicious daikon radish strewn everywhere, amidst shards of ripped plastic container and a plastic bag full of holes. My first thought was, What the eff? Followed closely by, It’s still good, it’s still good. Five second rule.

And as I was desperately trying to pick up the pieces of my lunch I suddenly noticed there was a gang forming a circle around me. Like West Side Story, only without all the snappy dancing. One was up on a wall, several trying to sneak up from behind, and two brazenly striding toward me, fixing me with cold, black eyes. I was like, Yeah, bring it on. Ken Seeroi backs down from no one. Well, maybe someone, but not from freaking lunch-stealing crows. Sure, they were ten times the size of any decent bird, with scary beaks that could crush plastic and talons capable of ripping to shreds the strongest plastic bag, but they’d taken my delicious 7-11 bento and destroyed it, the bastards. I intended to let them have it.

“You bastards,” I said. “Look what you did to my lunch.”

You know that’s gotta sting. But the thing about birds is, they’re surprisingly unrepentant. They didn’t do anything predictable, like say “Nevermore,” or quoth me a rhymed apology.

Sorry that we stole your bento, bento from the corner store
Ravens rave ’bout 7-11, that’s the chain we most adore
Omelette all fresh, pasta all dente, Next time, Ken, please bring some more

That’s all I wanted. Only that, and nothing more. But while that would have been cool and all, instead they just cawed and flew off, leaving me to pick up my ruined bento from around the parking lot and try to salvage what I could of the salmon and daikon. Boy, I really wished I had a rifle. Stupid un-free country.

Truck Tires, Mighty Tasty

So I told this story to my friend Lilli over dinner at an Okinawan restaurant, while eating these things called “sea grapes,” which are just like grapes, only they’re super tiny, grow in the sea, and taste like salt water. So they’re nothing at all like grapes, is what I mean. Then to cheer me up, she ordered my favorite dish, which consists of a vegetable called goya, sautéed with eggs, ham, and tofu. Goya tastes exactly like the tire off an old truck, but for some reason I like it. Probably something’s wrong with my brain. Anyway, that plus about ten beers did the trick, to the point that I forgot all about the stupid birds and felt amazingly good. So then I walked my bike home, because I’m responsible like that. Plus the chain fell off and I couldn’t get it back on.

The Two Things Japanese People Steal

Then the next day, as I was going to work, I came out of my apartment and Boom, my bike was gone. Just vanished. You know, in Japan, the only two things people steal are umbrellas and bicycles. No one knows why. It’s a Japanese thing. Well, whatever, I had to get to work, so I figured I’d deal with it later.

Then when I came home at night, sure enough, it was still gone, so I walked around the neighborhood looking for it. Man, it was probably in the river by now, I figured. People don’t litter in Japan. They won’t toss a gum wrapper onto the sidewalk, but they will heave a bicycle into the river. Again, it’s a Japanese thing. Who understands this stuff? So I knew I’d have to call the police and report it as stolen, and I sat down and started to rehearse how the conversation would go in Japanese. The whole thing was confusing and stressful, so I had a nerve-calming can of malt liquor, just to take the edge off. I knew they’d want the registration information, so I drank another can while I rummaged through the giant box of Japanese papers that serves as my filing system. Then by the time I found it, I was half plastered, so I figured I’d just call the cops the next day. Never do drunk today what you can do drunk tomorrow. That’s on the Seeroi family crest.

So the next day I came home determined to finally call the cops. Here’s how the conversation would go, according to my imagination.

“Hello, this is the Japanese police. Please state the nature of your emergency.

“Hello. Yes, my basket-bike’s been stolen. Also, some crows ate my lunch.

“I see. May I get your name please.

“Seeroi. Kenneth Seeroi.

“Okay, Ken, I’ll need your alien registration number.

“It’s ‘Seeroi,’ and what makes you think I’m foreign?

“Who are we kidding here, Ken?

“Okay, right. Don’t you want to ask when I last saw the bike or something?

“Well okay, that is a good question. So when?

“When I rode it home from the Okinawan restaurant.

“Weren’t you drinking there? Isn’t that biking while intoxicated?

“Well, not really, since I only made it half a block before the chain fell off.

“Because you were drunk?

“Yeah fine, you got me. Anyway, I clearly remember having the bike when Lilli and I said goodbye.

“And what was the last thing she said to you?

“She said, ‘Don’t you dare stop at another bar, Ken Seeroi.’

“But you did, didn’t you?

“Of course . . . not . . .”

And you know . . . well, everything was a little fuzzy. But I definitely made it home. Okay, I might have stopped at the ATM and taken out a couple hundred bucks worth of yen. And possibly I dropped by the darts bar for just one drink and wrote some sloppy emails on my MacBook before stumbling up to the bar and trying to chat up this pretty girl. After which I walked her outside and she disappeared into a taxi. Well, you can’t win ‘em all, you know. So then I went back inside and collected my laptop, had another cocktail, and then walked home musing about how safe Japan was. But I definitely took my bike with me . . . right?

Riiiiight. So now I took a little stroll over to the darts bar, and sure enough there it was, sitting forlorn and embarrassed with a terrifying red tag on its handlebars, which I promptly tore off and stuffed into the aluminum can recycling bin. So I’d basically stolen my own bike. I just thank God I didn’t report myself to the police. Anyway, since I was there, I figured maybe I’d go in and have just one cocktail, to celebrate the return of my trusty friend. And then I had a couple more and talked to the same pretty girl at the bar again, and we had a few cocktails together and she still wasn’t into me, but that was all right, because at least I safely had my bike back. Hey, one out of two ain’t bad. You gotta be grateful for the small things.

43 Replies to “Is Japan Safe? Not Quite…”

  1. So *technically* you stole the bike from yourself? And reported it, so they might find it while you are riding it, arrest you, and return it to you? Japanese police are very by-the-book guys, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is exactly how it is going to go down! 🙂

  2. Oh man, thats awesome ha ha!… is that goya stuff that weird Okinawan vege that makes them live forever? Like a tropical super spinach or something?

    1. Yeah, it’s like someone took spinach, made it about a thousand times more bitter, and then squoze it into the shape of a bumpy cucumber. I figure if I eat one a week, I’ll live to be a hundred and twenty. Anyway, it’s probably not the worst component of my diet.

      1. I rekon bung it in a soup with that supon(?) turtle juice that gives you mad mojo with garlic and ginger and youre laughing.

        When I was over there Nakano-ku council did a massive crow cull cause the bastards would hang out the back of the gyudon joint eating all the vomit… there was a lot of vomit in Koenji …perhaps you should run for local council – I’d vote for ya

        1. Yeah, crows are an ever-present problem in Japan. There’s nothing like waking up in the morning to the sound of crows. You don’t see that very much in movies about Japan though, for some reason. Strange.

      2. In Australia we call it bitter melon, and try to avoid making eye contact with it. I accidentally ordered some in a small place next to Nishiogikubo station. It turns out that if you don’t boil it until it’s properly dead, but instead let a Japanese person cook it, it actually tastes like food. It was one of the best (and most surprising) meals I had in Japan.

        1. Pretty much everything’s better if you let a Japanese person cook it. They’ve got magic hands. Man, I gotta go get me some. I mean goya.

    1. So they’re like drones, is what you’re saying. Like they’re flying around looking for me? Well that’s just great. I suppose now would be a good time to grow a beard.

  3. Hi Ken, Years ago my friends had given me an orange bike with a basket as a gift when I moved into a new apartment. I used it for the supermarket, the internet cafe, the tennis courts – everything. Then one day the old lady who cleaned the outside of our building started yelling at me for locking the bike to the back fence. Everyone else was doing it, so I didn’t think anything of it. But to appease her I just locked the wheel to the frame, and not the fence, and went to work. Later that day it was gone. Just gone. My co-worker said I should walk around the neighborhood after work and look for it, since japanese youngsters like to sometimes move a bike from one location to another, as a prank. So after work I strolled around looking for an ugly orange bike with a basket. Suddenly I was reminded of the scene in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” when he goes looking for his bike and all he sees, everywhere he turns, is people on bikes. I started laughing. A few days later I went to a bike recycle shop to buy another, more manly bike with a basket. I was intent on telling the owner that my bike was stolen, because this was Japan and I was appalled at the crime. But my Japanese was not as flawless as it is today, and instead of saying “My bike was stolen”, I kept repeating “I stole a bike.” He gave me a really good deal. The reason bikes and umbrellas are stolen in Japan is because they are ubiquitous, and the crimes are virtually undetectable. So many bikes look the same. Umbrellas the same. No one notices a Japanese kid carrying a clear umbrella, so it could be anyone’s. The Japanese know this and because stealing is human nature, and they know they can get away with it, they do it. Another great post, Ken!

    1. I’ve heard a lot of people tell the familar “my bike was stolen” story, but I like the twist where you go to the bike shop and say you did the stealing.

      There is a sort of ubiquitousness to umbrellas and bicycles, to the point where they almost seem like public, shared property. I’ve certainly been to plenty of bars where, when you come out, you just take whatever plastic umbrella you can find from amidst the dozens that are piled there. Bikes, though, well I’d have to draw the line there. In your case, I guess I wouldn’t be too happy with the old lady who told you not to lock it to the fence.

      You know, for a country with so many bikes, it’s strange that so many apartments are lacking bike racks.

      1. Hi Ken, I sent you a message on facebook, but since we are not fb friends, it went to your “other” folder. Please take a look when you have a moment. Thank you!

  4. I could have sworn it was an evil (but cute) group of cats, but crows make more sense.

    Oh, you like goya champloo, too? I LOVE IT!!!
    And don’t worry, there’s something wrong in our heads, but who cares?

    Actually my bicycle was stolen.
    Before, I had an old one. Really, really old. Nobody would bother stealing it!
    However, after I moved to another region, I finally bought a new and shiny awesome bicycle.
    I admit that I barely used it as I had a car then, but when I finally wanted to take a ride, it was gone!

    Anyways, to cut a long story short, I went to the police to report it. Took quite some time and the young male police officer was quite flirty with me.
    However, that didn’t bring my bicycle back.
    Maybe it just rolled away as I neglected it so much? …. :/

    1. Sounds like you passed up a chance to parlay a stolen bicycle into a cool policeman boyfriend. Remember, one out of two ain’t bad.

      Sorry about your bike though.

  5. Great CM Ken, but it makes me mad that there is such a difference in safety between the US and Japan. I remember it was not so bad when I was a kid and in the stix at my grandmothers (town of 5000), people didn’t lock doors or worry about crime at all. I wandered all over the place and had a great time growing up; but when I was raising my son, I never let him go anywhere without adult supervision because of all the horror stories I read about in the news. Kids today have it even worse with all the gangs.

    BTW, That rhyme was a bustin’ dude…LOL, I loved it! I knew you had talents mang, but wowz that was righteous bro! I hope you’re doin’ OK on the book too.

    P.S. None of my neighbors have an assault rifle, but several have hunting rifles. Only difference is how fast you can shoot but rifles are a hell of a lot more accurate! The problem with the US is that we got too prosperous and illegal aliens and drugs came pouring across our borders to feed the stereotypical partying lifestyle that our entertainment industry so wonderfully portrayed in so many movies and TV series. Today there are an estimated 1.4 million gang members in the US that are in every American city (How does that compare to the Yakuza or the triads?,,,, hmmmm wait they’re here in the US too). Japan sure seems like such a big easy target for criminals per your descriptions, I wonder when the gangs will start making Japan their next target?

    Does Japan have a minimum wage? That’s what started the boom in illegals here, when they could work under the table for less than the minimum wage. Just yesterday, I had a lawn service come do my lawn and I was pleased that they didn’t ask for an arm and a leg, but when they got here, I knew why… the whole crew were Mexicans that could hardly speak English and I’m sure their employer paid them a pittance under the table to avoid paying Social security, taxes and other government overhead costs. That minimum wage is getting raised to 10 dollars an hour now and it’s gonna kill McDonald’s business, they’re trying to destroy all small business with that damn law and the clusterF#CK OBAMACARE crap. Our family printing business went under 5 years ago during the housing collapse and subsequent depression our economy experienced, so I just can’t understand why government is putting so many taxes, regulations and burden on small businesses. I wonder if it’s easy to run a business in Japan? Maybe you could ask some of those places you eat and drink at about that some time? That might also make a great chapter in your book too!!

    1. Japan does have a minimum wage, but it certainly seems that employers find ways around it by increasing the number of hours worked without increasing the pay. I’ve also seen quite a number of older folks, in their 60s and 70s, who retired from their regular jobs, and then spend their time doing some menial and rather unnecessary job, like rearranging the bicycles in front of the local train station.

      I get the impression that it’s fairly easy to run a business here, since so many people, both foreign and Japanese, do so. But it doesn’t look very profitable. There’s a lot of turnover. I’m pretty sure most people would do better teaching English.

  6. In any other country I would never have bought a convertible car. Especially not the United States–street parking? Fabric roof? Not when every teen and his crackhead brother has a knife in their pocket and will wreck your shit for the three cents in the cup holder. But in Japan? I leave the roof down when I go grocery shopping, I park on creepy streets overnight, no worries whatsoever. I have stolen an umbrella before, though. Guilty there.

    Really I think it comes down to what you said: in a country where the cops can hold you without charge for a month, where you don’t even get a phone call or a lawyer until officially charged (and they’ve got a month to harass and threaten you into confessing all your worldly sins), it pays not to take stupid risks.

    1. True, you really don’t want to get arrested here. And if you were ever convicted of a crime, you’re life would basically be over. One bad mark on your record and you can forget about ever getting a job again in this country.

  7. “Never do drunk today what you can do drunk tomorrow.” – Ken Seeroi, 2014.

    I need to get that on a coffee mug…or more appropriately, a beer glass.

  8. Love the site! This post hit close to home so thanks.

    A (very drunk) buddy of mine left his man bag full of hundreds of dollars in a bunny bar and it was waiting for him the next day. Isn’t Japan swell?

    I’m also living in Okinawa now so if you ever make it down here some goya chanpuru and awamori are on me. Or some Goya beer if you’re feeling adventurous.

    1. Goya beer? Man, that sounds delicious. And time-saving, which I always appreciate.

      Yeah, if (when) I make it down there, I’ll let you know.

      1. It’s as time saving as it is strange, but worth a try. From one functioning alcoholic to another, the 50+ percent awamori is a good time.

        Take it easy.

  9. I think I’m just gonna wait until you get drunk again and take your bike. You won’t even sure who took it anyway.. LOL.. Great article Ken, as always.

  10. I must say i find you’re blog quite amusing. Read the entire thing today and had a great time doing so. I’m considering doing a bachelor i japanese and then move to japan, but what would i do? My oral English i quit good, but my spelling might be worse than that of a gorilla (I’m Norwegian) so teaching might be out of the question. Be stuck doing dishes? No thank you! Sales? Well, my teacher always told me i had a big mouth so maybe, but i don’t know. The way you made things sound was like a dream. Alcohol, food, women and not much work, what’s not to love?

    Anyway, just wanted to tell you i’m a fan a keep up the good work!
    (As i mentioned my spelling is awful so sorry about that)

    1. Man, thanks for the support—that’s awesome.

      As for your situation, I think you can teach English, no problem. Written English is rarely taught. What everybody wants is spoken, conversational English. And for whatever insane reason, the nation of Japan has convinced itself that people from other countries can speak better English than native Japanese people (many of whom have studied English intensely and speak it quite well). So bottom line is, yeah, you almost certainly can do it. There’s an entire industry of companies who serve as middle-men for teachers called 派遣会社. Some are quite strict in who they hire, and others will hire damn near anybody, as long as you’re not Japanese. Indian? Ok. Filipino? Ok. Norwegian? Get in here. Japanese? Not so fast there, Kenji.

      On the other hand, you know, it’s a pretty big decision to devote your college life to studying Japanese and then to move here. I mean, there’s alcohol, food, and women in a lot of countries, so pick wisely. I’m not sure how much Japan has to do with the experience. The food is really good here though.

      1. I’v always loved japan since i was like 12. Don’t know why, just started out with manga and the it evolved into something way bigger were i would stay awake all night doing research about it so the whole part about the pretty ladies, alcohol and the great food is just like the cherry on top!

        1. Something to consider is that if you put in several thousand hours of effort into studying some commercial skill, you can get a career out of it. The same can’t necessarily be said for learning Japanese. Definitely go and live there if you want, but have a long term plan, or at least a stand-in plan that you can fall back on.

    2. Anders, I’d advise you to pick up an education that gives you practical skills beyond speaking Japanese. It really wouldn’t be such a great idea to bank on a skill like that in a market that’s (for all intents and purposes) already pretty saturated with people who are already excellent speakers etc.

      I say this largely because I’m from Hawaii, and I’ve seen more than a few people from at UH who only studied languages regret their choice of major after graduating, since their options are so limited at that point.

    1. I’ve never heard that, but it makes some sense. Although “ideas”—I don’t hear a lot of ideas put forth in Japan, but maybe that’s why. They sure do a lot of humming and hawing, however.

    1. I don’t know about bike seats. I’ve never seen one stolen, but maybe if you had a nice bike.

      As for panties, that seems like more of an urban legend. I mean, sure, in country where everyone hangs out their laundry, someone’s bound to steal something. I’m sure shirts and socks go missing too. But I doubt there are that many stolen. In fact, all the women I know hang their “delicates” indoors. But maybe that’s why, I don’t know.

    1. I had not.

      Absolutely tragic, and frightening.

      Japanese folks have warned me on numerous occasions to be careful of people here. There are a lot of weirdos in this country. I don’t know if that’s more than other places, but Japan’s certainly got its share.

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