Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 12 1997 3:30 AM

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan

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       We've been interviewing a rare breed of Japanese this week: people who are actually dangerous. We're writing a story about an organization in Japan that has, in the past, demonstrated a proficiency for killing people. Since we're still working on the story, we wouldn't even tell our mothers whom we are talking about. But that's beside the point. The bottom line is that while these people aren't Uzi-packing Colombian drug lords, they are a potential threat to us and to our kids. So we did something we've never done in two years of living in Tokyo. We started locking our front door.
       About 30 million people live in the Tokyo metropolitan area. This is one of the world's most crowded cities, but it has managed to avoid most of the crime and violence that plague other big urban areas. It is remarkably safe to live here. Murders are rare, and robberies are almost nonexistent. However, in the past couple of years, teen-agers have been mugging each other to steal their Nike Air Max sneakers, which, in Japan's faddish economy, sell for about $300, with rarer models running to $2,000 or more. Handguns are illegal, and only Japan's "yakuza" mobsters carry them. Gun crime is so rare that when robbers shot three people to death in a grocery store stickup two years ago, the flabbergasted police announced that the crime was probably committed by foreigners.
       We live in a fairly nice section of town, which in many cities would make us an even greater target for break-ins. But we leave two expensive mountain bikes unlocked in our driveway, along with a couple of baby strollers that are worth a few hundred bucks each, a couple of kiddie bikes, and a little red wagon. In the Washington neighborhood where we lived before moving over here, we would be little-red-wagonless in a heartbeat if we left that stuff outside unattended. We have never locked our front door here, because it seems pointless. We routinely tell delivery people that if we're not home, just open the front door and leave the package inside. We walk a shortcut route home from the subway station, which includes a long, secluded, unlighted road. In the States, we would never take such a path late at night. But here, it's almost laughable to worry about it.
       There is institutional honesty here. We know one woman who has lost her wallet three different times, and each time it has been returned to her with nothing missing--not even cash. Nobody counts their change in Japan. We found a watch on the street the other day, so we did what everyone does here. We took it to the local koban, the little police kiosks located in practically every neighborhood in Japan. It's ours in six months if nobody claims it. And if anyone wants to claim it, they are required to come to us first to formally thank us. It's a nice system, one that demands honesty and gratitude. Although, to be frank, we're secretly hoping nobody comes forward. We saw the same watch in a store selling for over $1,000.
       All this doesn't make the Japanese saints. Japan's politicians wrote the book on graft and corruption--one big shot used to collect bribes so big he needed a shopping cart to take the cash home. But in daily life, it just doesn't seem to occur to the Japanese to be dishonest. Some say it's because of Confucian traditions; some say it's because the Japanese are so afraid of shame and of losing face that they wouldn't dare commit a crime. Who knows, but we're grateful to a place where we never have to worry about our kids being abducted or abused, where it's generally OK to talk to strangers, and where we don't have to worry that the guy driving next to us is going to pull out a gun and start shooting. Having those keys made for the front door yesterday was probably the saddest thing we've done here.
       Far more amusing was the unexpected find we made while cleaning out our office at home yesterday. It's a pocket-size Japanese phrase book, published on Feb. 28, 1944, and issued to Kevin's Uncle Bill Carroll, a U.S. Marine who served in Japan during the postwar occupation. Kevin's Aunt Dot found the dogeared copy in her attic one day, and she gave it to us when we were assigned to go to Japan. We should note that the book clearly states, by order of Gen. George C. Marshall, that no part of the book may be reprinted without permission from the War Department. Damn the torpedoes: We're willing to risk a nasty note from the War Department.
       What were we teaching soldiers like Uncle Bill to say to the Japanese in those days? Well, our personal favorite is "Don't try any tricks!" There were also things like "Obey or I'll fire!" and "I want it fried in deep fat" and "Give my horse water!"
       By far the most perplexing part is "Section 8: Landing a Plane." It's hard to imagine an American pilot bearing down on an unknown Japanese landing strip thumbing through this little orange phrase book, trying his best to spit out "Chijoo fuusoku wa doredake arimasu ka?" to find out "What is your surface wind velocity?" Not to mention the fact that, if the pilot didn't know how to ask the question, how did he suppose he was going to understand the answer? Still, there it is, right along with "What air field is this?"
       Maybe the most telling phrase, a sign of things to come for decades in U.S.-Japan relations, is, "Here is a receipt. The U.S. government will pay you."

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan are co-bureau chiefs for the Washington Post in Tokyo.