Last week, I was riding the train home from one of the luxurious adventures that define my jet-setting expat lifestyle (swimming at the public pool, which had been half-filled with elderly women doing water aerobics). As I sat down on the bench seat, I noticed a girl sitting opposite me, wearing the uniform of either a middle or high school student.
After a few stops, a man in his 30s entered the car and without hesitation sat down next to the girl and began talking to her. The girl turned her face away and did her best to ignore the man, yet, undaunted and now leaning closer to her, he continued jabbering away, occasionally pausing and waiting in vain for some sort of response. At this point there were at least a half-dozen other people on the train watching this uncomfortable scene unfold, and yet no one had made a move to intervene.
This internal struggle between lending a helping hand and not getting involved in others’ business isn’t an entirely unusual problem in Japanese society, as illustrated by a recent Twitter debate that flared up over one man’s quandary about how far to go in helping a distraught little girl he saw wandering the streets alone at night.
The discussion was prompted by a tweet the man sent on January 8, in which he described his experience from the previous evening. Around 8 p.m., while walking through a residential neighborhood, the man came across a girl whose age he guessed at 6 or 7. The girl was walking along a street by herself at the time, and crying as well.
Understandably, his first instinct was to ask the child if she was OK. However, before he could say a single word, the man reconsidered what he was about to do.
As in most countries, children are taught to be wary of strangers, and men they don’t know in particular, due to the hard facts being that more crimes against minors are committed by males than females. By calling out to this child he’d never met, did the man risk drawing suspicion and being reported to the police, either by passersby or the girl herself?
In the end, the man decided to err on the side of caution, and instead of helping the girl directly, called 110, Japan’s emergency police number. He explained the situation to the operator, who then asked the man to escort the girl to the nearest police box, the law enforcement outposts that dot Japan’s townscapes.
Still, the man was worried over the possibility that his actions might be misinterpreted, and refused the request. Instead, he urged the operator to dispatch a uniformed police officer as soon as possible, and then continued on his way to wherever he had been going before noticing the crying girl.
Some Twitter users could appreciate the complexity of the man’s view of the incident.
“The deep thought you put into the situation shows how much you care.”
“Because of what kids are taught about strangers, the reaction you imagined is definitely possible. In this case, calling the police was the most respectful way to handle it.”
Others, though, saw things in starker colors and took the man to task for his lack of initiative.
“This is just one paranoid individual getting worked up over nothing.”
“Just use common sense, find out if she’s OK, and take her to the police box, already.”
All of this ties in to changes in Japanese society. Japan has a proverb: Kodomo ha chiiki de sodateru. Literally translating as “Kids are raised by the region,” the meaning is akin to English’s “It takes a village to raise a child.”
▼ Uncle Mountain is our favorite, because he always lets us have candy.
However, increasing urbanization means that even as people live in greater physical proximity to each other, they have less day-to-day contact with their neighbors. With a lack of familiarity comes a lack of trust, and with their safety in mind, many children are taught to avoid strangers, plus to tell an adult if one approaches them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. As one Twitter user succinctly put it, “Our society is exchanging trust for safety.”
Another key issue in the matter is Japanese culture’s strong emphasis on not causing trouble for others. Obviously, helping those in need is seen, in and of itself, as a good thing. However, if said person would rather not have more attention drawn to himself, Japan’s societal norms allow for taking the option of not getting involved. Perhaps this was the reason no one did anything to stop the man who was pestering the girl I saw on the train. If she was willing to just sit there in silence until the man tired himself out, was it really their decision to handle things any differently?
Thankfully, police later contacted the man who started the Twitter firestorm to inform him that they had recovered the crying girl, safe and sound. “But if I ever see another kid in the same situation,” the man tweeted, “I don’t know if I’ll even have the courage to call the police. I never thought the simple act of helping a crying child could be so hard.”
As for the girl I saw on the train? Well, let’s just say I decided to handle the situation a little more directly. Maybe being a married man with only so many more childless years left has made me more protective of those younger than me. Maybe being a man in his 30s means I’ve already lost my chance of earning a reputation as someone who handles things delicately. Or just maybe being a guy who grew up watching lots and lots of action anime means I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to say “Get the hell out of here, punk!” in Japanese.
▼ Being a guy who grew up playing lots and lots of video games, has, however, still left me unable to perform the Buster Wolf in real life.
Whatever my motivation, the man took my less than cordially-phrased suggestion to heart, got up, and moved to another car. Did I make myself look suspicious, unstable, and possibly violent? Maybe, but the police haven’t come knocking on my door yet, so it’s an image I can live with.