By Cherie Brown
Having lived in my present Japanese residence barely 18 months shy of a decade, a home visit from members of the local police force was not entirely unexpected. At some point, officers from the nearest police station will do their requisite duty, and show up to introduce themselves to ‘the new girl’ on the block.
An annual visitation from one’s friendly neighbourhood bobbies is a common event in Japanese community life. We get to know who ‘they’ are, and ‘they’ can, at least, put a face to the names of some of the more curious residents ensconced within their precincts. In my case, there had been a slight delay, a mere eight and a half years in fact, and to be perfectly truthful, I had forgotten it was even a possibility, but, better late than never as ‘they’ say…
This particular Friday, I was working away at home, having no classes on that day of the week. It was the latter part of the global ‘annus horribilis’, the year of 2020, COVID-19, the sad passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sean Connery, Harry and Meghan’s departure from ‘The Firm’, and, closer to home, the advent of emergency remote teaching. It had been a year entirely unredeemed until the defeat of #45 in the quadrennial circus that is the U.S. presidential electoral contest.
I was not, on this day, engaged in my normal practice of teaching my distant students, who were planted in front of their computer screens all day in various bedrooms across the country, via the magical mystery platform of ZOOM. I had the usual insurmountable Fuji-san* of grading to complete, and on this day, rather than driving to the office, had decided to remain in the comfort of my living room and slog away at the messy slag-heap of documents from there. Home has ready access to snacks, the opportunity (in between the hail and thunderstorms that typically descend on this patch of rural northern Japan each autumn) to take a break in the form of a quick stroll around the garden to admire the flourishing weeds, inhale the crisp, straight-off-the-snowy-mountain air, and to help myself, at regular intervals, to cups of sustaining, hot herbal tea. The happy chirrup of tiny birds, feasting on kousa berries in the dogwood tree outside my window, was as much company as I wanted, and, unlike the irritating blast of the leaf-blowing machine that normally accompanies my activities at the workplace in this hallowed season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’, provided no interruption to the mental flow at all.
The doorbell rang. Never a truly welcome sound, since it usually presages a slightly awkward encounter with some random door-to-door proselytiser. Such unwitting callers invariably leap at least an inch above the doorstep at the unexpected appearance of an older foreign woman, especially if she appears in sloppy lounge wear with disheveled at-home hair. This is rural Japan, and such exotic species are rare here. In their consternation, uninvited visitors often put themselves at risk of tumbling backwards down the steps, instantly raising my own blood pressure at the thought of how I might explain myself, in adequate Japanese, in the inevitable 119 call I may be obliged to make to the local ambulance service.
‘Ding dong’, the bell persisted cheerfully. No, I probably couldn’t ignore it this time, my car was parked out front. ‘They’, whoever ‘they’ turned out to be… I also lived in trepidation of the NHK broadcasting licence collector, even though I do not own a television… ‘they’ knew I was at home. I would have to answer the door. Darn it!
Standing on the opposite side of my domestic, double-locking, steel defence against all evildoers of the world, were two appropriately masked and precisely socially distanced, blue-uniformed police officers, one tall and thin, the other a little shorter, and slightly chubbier. They put me in mind of the comic partners Laurel and Hardy in “The Midnight Patrol”, though, since they were the real deal, and I had no idea exactly why they were there, I wasn’t prepared to chortle outright, just yet.
To my relief, they did not jump in fright upon seeing the alien who answered the door. I assumed that was because they were, as all good police officers should be, well-informed, and knew why they were there. Probably, thanks to a recent national census, which would, no doubt, have confirmed my existence to the authorities, to check up on the worthiness of this foreign resident and to make themselves known. Why else would they be standing on my doorstep, in full view of all my elderly neighbours, who were, indubitably, peering at this unfolding spectacle through their half-raised blinds with a full measure of Kipling’s “ ‘satiable curtiosity”? The lights of the panda-car, parked immediately outside my house, flashed in dazzling and interminable rotation, like the beacon atop the Cape Nyudozaki lighthouse on the rocky tip of nearby Oga Peninsula. Without a doubt, the grading would have to wait.
“Konnichiwa”. The greeting was friendly enough. Great. I wasn’t about to be handcuffed and carted away just yet. “We are from the Akita Higashi police station”. I nodded and smiled. That was reasonable to assume, thought I. It was just down the road, after all, and they had arrived in a marked police vehicle, and were wearing police uniforms. I looked expectantly at Hardy, the more rotund of the pair, and waited for an explanation.
“It’s the building opposite the new ‘Nice’ supermarket.” said Hardy, in case I was in any doubt as to the location of the second largest building in my low-rise suburban area. The first largest was the Red Cross Hospital, to which I was most relieved, since my visitors had not, this time, stumbled down my front steps and broken any constabulary limbs, I would not have to escort them.
“Yes, I know it”, I replied, and waited as politely and patiently as I could for more information.
“We are here to introduce ourselves” (at least that was the gist, my Japanese is pretty limited), “and to…. (a long and unintelligible cluster of sentences)…. your telephone number and birthday”. Laurel advanced and offered me a clipboard and a pen. Attached to the board was a sheet of white paper. I assumed they didn’t want my number to arrange a friendly social outing, nor my birth date in order to send a card. No, the imperative to fulfil a bureaucratic obligation was clear.
Fortunately, I can at least recognise the appropriate boxes for name, address, birth date, sex and telephone number on most Japanese forms. However, I cannot write many Japanese characters, and those that I can manage, take me an age to compose. Japanese, as a written language, is a confounding maze, being a blend of three different ‘alphabets’, one of which involves ongoing memorisation, a task that is challenging even for native speakers, who spend a good part of their earthly existence learning the necessary thousands of Kanji characters (based on Chinese script), and slightly less of a lifetime on two phonetic systems, hiragana, for Japanese words, and katakana for all words of foreign origin (no discrimination there).
“Is it OK if I use Romaji?”, (Roman script, which is used for written English) I asked. My brain was preoccupied with crimes and misdemeanours of a different nature. Grammatical felonies, abducted articles, perverted prepositions, strangulated collocations… the serial drama of student writing was gripping… I had to get back to it. Having to fill out a form in Japanese would take too long, and require more cerebral energy than I was prepared to tender. Yes, as a language teacher, I ought to have made the effort, and treated this as an opportunity to employ my Japanese writing skills, but I simply couldn’t be bothered.
I felt mildly ashamed of myself. For years, I have been exhorting the young and trusting learners in my care to make full use of every opportunity to exercise their language skills in authentic contexts. As a second-language user of Japanese, and a teacher of language skills, working in a non-English-speaking country alongside native Japanese speakers, I should know better, but these days, because I do not have to, I do not often push myself to have regular conversations in that tongue, let alone write it. The motto of my department, within the English-medium educational institution for which I work, I am embarrassed to admit, is “Challenge Beyond Your Limits,” but in reality, I rarely summon up the energy required to do that on a daily basis. Here, in the ‘real world’ of Japanese suburbia, was the superlative opportunity for me to step outside my comfort zone, as I so often remind my students to do, and practise what I preach. In utter, bald-faced laziness, I flung the chance away.
“That’s fine”, replied Laurel. His eyes, all that I could see of his half-masked face, crinkled pleasantly at the corners. Somewhere behind that white surgical divide, he was smiling. My attention wandered… briefly… What is it about a man in uniform?
A manly voice called me back. “ In case of earthquake, wind, flood and fire, or any other problems, please contact us”, continued Hardy. I sincerely hoped he did not expect all of these disasters to happen simultaneously. “And if you see any … (unintelligible)… person walking around the area…”
“Sorry?” I said.
Laurel repeated the information on Hardy’s behalf. Still unintelligible. Seeing my confusion, he whipped out his phone, and typed rapidly. Thrusting it towards me, I read the translation… “Suspicious.”
“Ah”, I said. “I haven’t seen anyone like that… recently.” My immediate neighbour, who is a concert pianist, also has a musical son. He’s a gangly teen, who occasionally sports a hoodie, and appears from time to time in the street with a sinister-looking violin case tucked under his arm. Did that count?
“Criminal”, typed Laurel with increasing enthusiasm, thrusting his phone at me again, just in case I didn’t understand the English word “suspicious”. He seemed more willing than I to attempt communication by means of a foreign lexicon.
Suspicious? Do Japanese criminals usually identify themselves as such, I wondered. Was I really expected to recognise a menacing miscreant on the basis of their outward appearance? Was it something to do with the way they dress… a black and white striped jumpsuit, a dark hat pulled down to hide identity, a face mask, or something (other than a violin case) that they might be carrying… a large black sack marked ‘swag’, perhaps?
I echoed myself. “I haven’t seen anyone like that around here.” Visions of a famous fast-food chain’s ‘Hamburglar’ character were dancing through my mind. I finished completing the form, writing in my cellphone number last of all.
“If there’s a problem it’s probably better to phone my workplace.” I said, explaining where I worked. The university is well known in the city. I did not have to provide him with the number. “My Japanese language isn’t very good, so please call the staff if you need to speak to me about something important. They can give me a message.”
“If you have a problem, please come to the police station.” said Hardy in return.
“Or you can come to the kōban* opposite Aeon Mall.” said Laurel. “Do you know where that is?”
“I know it”, said I. How could I not? Aeon Mall is possibly the largest architectural complex in the entire city, visible from miles around. It’s a seven minute drive from my house, on the direct route to my workplace. The same well-known workplace I had just indicated I travel to on a daily basis, to these two charming blue-bedecked gentlemen.
“Well, that is all, thank you for your cooperation.” The two constables bowed and backed away. “Look out for the steps”, I said. They turned and checked behind themselves.
“Ah, yes, thank you.”
“Thank you”, I said, relieved they were both still upright. “It was good Japanese language practice.” Considering my earlier reluctance to write in Japanese, my words felt a little false.
Two sets of eyes lit up. “Ki o tsukete” (take care), said Hardy. They backed away, a little more carefully this time, bowed again, and were swallowed up by their patrol car. The key turned in the ignition, and a loud ‘whoop’ suddenly screeched from the vehicle. I jumped, fortunately nowhere near the steps. Off they drove, the light on the roof of the car spinning relentlessly, around and around and around. Brilliant red reflections bounced back and forth across the street, ricocheting in luminescent splendour from the beige plastic, faux brick façades of the neighbouring houses.
I waved to the disappearing car, and then to the curtains in the house opposite. “Twitch”, they replied. The shadowy figure of the elderly obaachan* who lived opposite, shifted behind her pristine window shades.
Sometime later that day, I spotted her, wandering around the neighbourhood with her sidekick, an aging poodle. (All my neighbours own poodles. The ubiquitous nature of poodle ownership, in my Stepford-like, aspirational middle-class neighbourhood seems almost obligatory if one wishes to blend in.) In her heavy dark overcoat, an old black woolen beanie pulled down tightly over her hair, she did, indeed, look vaguely ‘suspicious’. She was, after all, also sporting a face mask, and carrying a large, empty plastic bag…
I couldn’t quite make out what was printed on the side. Now, how do you write ‘swag’ in katakana?
*Fuji-san = Mt. Fuji
*kōban = a small local police office
*obaachan = granny