Sunday, August 31, 2008

Self-Defense Situations in Japan

Last night, I went for dinner at a friend's place, an old friend named Vicky whom I met in Japan. Seeing her reminded of my time spent in the place where the local time is tomorrow, so today I decided to post a chapter from my book, Weapons of Opportunity, that goes back to that time. Enjoy!

Weapon #33: A Pair of Underwear

In my second year of living in Japan, a cloud descended on the foreign women living in Iwaki. It started with an incident that involved Vicky, a Canadian girl I knew who was working at a local English conversation school.

Vicky was friendly and well-liked by everyone who met her. She had a lively, outgoing personality that was temporarily squelched one August evening. As she sat down to watch TV that evening she heard a rustling coming from the front door of her second story apartment. She walked into her doorway to see a pair of women’s underwear being stuffed through her mail slot. She picked them up and opened the door to see a man in his late thirties walking away down the stairs, wearing a handkerchief over his face in the dark stairwell.

She had a weird feeling about the whole thing but she figured that he was just one of the neighbours who had thought this pair of underwear had blown off her line and was just trying to return them. Being new to Japan, Vicky dismissed the handkerchief as a strange cultural difference she did not yet understand. The pair of underwear in question wasn’t hers so she figured they must belong to her neighbour Jane – another English teacher from her school.

Vicky walked over and knocked on Jane’s door and asked if the underwear was hers, explaining what she thought had happened. Jane confirmed the story and confirmed that they were hers, but looked strangely shaken.

Having thought everything cleared up, Vicky returned to her apartment and started doing her dishes. All of a sudden, she looked up from the sink to see the man with the handkerchief standing directing outside her kitchen window from the landing in the stairwell, looking straight at her. She screamed and then the man tried to come in through the front door. Vicky forced the door shut and locked it. Grabbing her cell phone, she ran to the rear balcony yelling to Jane, telling her to lock her door. She called the police and the manager from her school, hoping help would arrive soon. From the balcony she looked down over the quiet forested area and saw the masked man again waiting below.

Vicky instinctively started screaming the only bad word in Japanese she knew. “Hentai! Hentai! Hentai!” This is the Japanese word for ‘pervert.’ The masked man immediately ran off. The police arrived soon after.

From talking over the incident with the two women, they managed to piece together that the masked man had broken into Jane’s apartment earlier and rifled through her underwear. Jane’s underwear were generally the grandma type, cotton with lots of coverage, but the guy found the one pair she had that was made of satin and stole them. When Vicky returned the underwear, Jane was in a state of shock and as a result, nodded agreement when Vicky came to her with what had happened. She knew that she never hung her underwear outside on her balcony so she was upset and disturbed to think about how they had been removed from her apartment.

It seems strange that someone would break into someone’s house to steal a pair of underwear, but this is not an uncommon occurrence in Japan. There are a number of men in Japan who go around stealing women’s underwear from their homes, off laundry lines, wherever they can get them. It’s a common enough fetish that there were even vending machines selling them in certain red-light districts in Tokyo, at least while I was there.

The police had warned Vicky and Jane to be very careful to lock their doors and windows and to be aware of suspicious characters that might be following them. They filed a detailed report, but they never did find him. It didn’t take long for the news to spread through all the foreign women living in Iwaki. This heaped a nervous tension on top of the regular culture shock that all foreigners experienced.
By the time I heard about the incident, I could see how it had affected all the women. I was concerned about how uneasy they were, so I decided to run a women’s self-defense course.

To be honest, I never had much interest in teaching women’s self-defense up till that point. A large proportion of the teaching is imparting street sense and shaping women’s every day habits to make them less prone to attack. Meanwhile, the physical defense component only comprises of the simplest, most effective parts of Jiu-jitsu – not the biggest teaching challenge. Teaching women to defend themselves is less about teaching technical excellence and more about teaching them to break past their fear and get them angry enough to mount an effective defense against a bigger, stronger man.

Putting my own inclinations aside, I decided to run the class because my friends really needed it. No one should have to live in fear. I wanted to remove their fear and replace it with confidence and sensible precaution.

Using Sean as my demonstration partner, I ran four two-hour women’s self-defense classes. I had six students, Vicky and Jane, two girls from my office, and Megan and Ruth, who had decided that they could use the extra instruction on women’s safety.
I knew the general rules of personal safety in a Western country and they were pretty much the same when applied to Japan. The most important differences were cultural; the way the laws handled harassment and assault and the nature of the assaults themselves. For example, while I was in Japan, Japanese law stated that if a man was drunk and he harassed or even committed a minor assault on a woman, the man was absolved of all responsibility due to the fact that he was drunk and not aware of his actions.

The majority of assaults on women in Japan are not reported at all. Women don’t want to risk their jobs if the man is someone from their work or they don’t want people to think that they engaged in the kind of activities that might subject a woman to an assault.

The incidences of harassment and assault on foreign women are significantly higher. This is due to the fact that foreign women stand out due to their physical differences, but in many cases, they are also thought to be more promiscuous than Japanese women. This misconception can spring from the way foreign women are portrayed in Japanese pornographic comics and videos. It can generate a strange fixation on the exotic foreign women that come to their country, leading to incidents ranging in severity.

The worst case I heard of happened while I was in Japan to an English girl who had been working at a Tokyo snack bar as a hostess. The position of hostess requires women to drink, flirt and make friendly chit-chat with the men who frequent the bar. The English hostess disappeared one day after work. Her body was eventually found dismembered and embedded in concrete blocks on a beach on the outskirts of Tokyo. She had been murdered by one of the snack bar clientele, the vice-president of a major national real estate company.

While this kind of extreme situation isn’t exactly common in Japan, pretty much every foreign woman I knew there had at least one story of harassment and number of them had tales of being stalked, even assaulted.

As I did some research about handling harassment in Japan to prepare for the class, I was very interested to discover that Vicky’s reaction, to point at the stalker and yell hentai, is actually what they encourage foreign women to do to scare them off. The logic is that Japanese men are deathly afraid of public humiliation so this fear can be used to dissuade them from illicit pursuits. That being said, a very similar tactic is encouraged in western countries. Noise is considered to be one of the most important deterrents, so women are encouraged to yell strong words like “Stop!” or “No!” should then need to defend themselves or even “Fire!” to get attention. Any kind of attention that is drawn to an assailant’s actions is going to serve as a deterrent whether they’re Japanese or from the West, even if the psychology behind it may differ.

The most surprising thing I learned while teaching the class was that the information I provided about staying safe and taking sensible precautions was mostly new to the students. They hadn’t considered taking preventative measures like carrying a cell phone or not wearing headphones when they go out for a run.

I taught them how to not walk like a victim. This involves walking with strong, purposeful strides, keeping your head up, staying aware of your surroundings and looking at people as you pass. This is something that came to me naturally after years of martial arts training, so it was strange for me to teach it as a skill.
After a few months, fears of the underwear snatcher subsided and he was relegated to being the subject of office humour, but I noticed that since doing the training some of the foreign women in Iwaki walked with a little more strength in their stride.
I had dealt with a couple of cases of harassment throughout my three-year stay in Japan. Mostly it was just a few random inappropriate comments, nothing that ever made me feel worse than a little uncomfortable. Just my luck that on the last weekend before I headed back to Canada, someone took it further.

I was heading to a karaoke house with a friend, after having had a few drinks at a bar. We were being a little melancholic knowing that we were probably not going to see each other for at least a couple of years after I left. We paused to talk about it on a bridge near the Karaoke house.

While we were stopped there, a drunk guy in his mid-twenties approached me wanting to talk. I politely told the guy in Japanese that we wanted to be left alone, but he persisted in trying to chat me up. I told him a second time more forcefully to leave us be and turned back to my conversation.

That’s when the guy grabbed my breast.

I reacted immediately to the offending hand by slamming my palm into his chest, using my hips to thrust him away from me and six feet into the street. Remembering what Vicky had done, I pointed at him and screamed at the top of my lungs: “Hentai! Hentai! Hentai!” I continued to bellow at him as he bolted away like a frightened rabbit, speeding down the path along the river.

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