Tonight I had the privilege to witness my first major police incident around my home station Ayase, an area somewhat notorious for its gang activity, general slumminess, and proximity to Tokyo Detention Center, where the majority of Japan’s high-profile and death row inmates are held.
The incident tonight occurred as I was returning from a trip in search of imported food (the trip was successful and I’ll be having my highly authentic Xmas dinner (hummus) tomorrow). Just outside the station, Mrs. Adamu and I noticed a convoy of firefighters and police standing at the ready outside the local KFC. Around them a circle of rubberneckers had formed, but we weren’t initially sure what they were witnessing at first. Upon closer inspection, it hit us – the police were sort of referreeing a fight between what was either two yakuza members or one yakuza and one unlucky drunk civilian.
When we arrived on the scene, there were two men – one, a late-30s chimpira in a dragon-decaled letterman jacket, was stomping around screaming at the row of police, while another, a drunk, small man, was being held back by other yakuza in plain clothes. At some point before we showed up, the two had gotten into a scuffle. The scene was very confusing because the police were doing nothing to intervene save for standing and watching. After a while, the situation became clear – the drunk and the dragon-jacket guy had gotten into a fight, and some other yakuza were holding the smaller man back to keep the fight from escalating. The dragon-jacket guy was shrieking “don’t you fucking touch me” to the cops, who seemed only happy to reply. After about 10 minutes, dragon-jacket calmed down and walked away with his wife at his side. The drunken smaller man was similarly allowed to walk away with the men who had been keeping him away from dragon-jacket. The situation apparently ended without arrest (surprising considering the considerable public disturbance and mobilization of public law enforcement manpower) Let me repeat that about 10 firefighters and about half as many police did nothing to stand in the way of the fight as it played out (though when we showed up no blows were drawn and it consisted more of dragon-jacket shouting epithets at everyone).
I am no expert on law enforcement here, but through my experience with Aum Shinrikyo (reading books and seeing movies) I am aware that the police are basically not supposed to touch you unless they are ready to take you away on suspicion of a crime. They might be able to get away with pushing average citizens around, but anti-social groups like the yakuza and Aum know their rights and can basically mouth off to police as long as the cops have no actual proof of a crime and there is someone there to record the proceedings (a younger trainee on the scene tonight seemed to be taking video on his camera-phone).
The scene served as a reminder of one of the main reasons the streets of Ayase are peppered with petty criminals – ineffectual police. I have noticed young (non-tattooed) thugs mouthing off to unsuspecting convenience store customers and seen more traditional gangster types threatening people who failed to stay out of their walking trajectory. The strangest incident occurred one night when I was walking with Mrs. Adamu to check out the restaurants in the area. A man on a bicycle careened very awkwardly toward us and then crashed into the nearby bushes. The too-convenient path of his fall convinced us that he was attempting to score in an atariya (fake accident) scheme. This behavior thrives due to the hands-off police stance that I witnessed tonight. Perhaps a less intrusive police presence is what allows for the peaceful Japan that most foreign residents are used to, but areas such as this one the increased gang presence certainly dent the image of Japan as a safe country and personally make me worry what powers the police actually have.
In America, it would have been a far different story. Leave aside the fact that both sides would likely face assault charges in an incident that warranted the amount of manpower I saw tonight. The most significant difference is that anyone mouthing off to the police would be on his or her face in handcuffs immediately and no complaints would be filed. The police essentially are granted the power to immobilize people they deem a disturbance. For better or worse, even gangsters in the US know they are playing with fire if they decide to talk disrespectfully to the police (and pacing around, as the dragon-jacket guy was doing, would certainly get you shot).
Of course, it may be (as it so often is even on COPS) that the police heard what happened and concluded it was too minor to be worth the paperwork. And as usual I will leave grand conclusions of the two cultures aside and hopefully let my 10 minutes of voyeurism stand as a casual witness to Japan’s uneasy relationship with its easily identifiable and halfway tolerated underworld.