For nearly half a year in 2005, I fulfilled a dream and lived in Japan. People always ask me what my time there was like. If there was ever on spot in all of my travels which defies description it just might be this distant island. I have tried to portray it as a trip into the future, where solutions existed to problems that you never knew you even had, such as toilets with speakers that concealed the coarse sounds of their human users or street-corner vending machines selling entire bottles of Suntory Black Jack whiskey.
Other times it’s an ancient society, where the traditions of a civilization run deeper than my own barbaric intellect could ever be able to appreciate. Teen-aged Japanese girls on their hands and knees scrubbing doorways with a toothbrush. The bank worker who took off his apron, left his desk and walked me outside and down the street to show me where the correct bank was. An octogenarian who followed me home during a rain shower holding his umbrella over me the whole way.
I often described it has being multi-dimensional. Because Japan has depth, true depth that I had never seen and have never seen since. Nowhere else can a right turn bring such an abrupt change. One moment you are walking a street lined with bursting pachinko parlors and the throbbing neon of massage spots when you turn a corner, stumble down a flight of stairs and find yourself party to ten silken robed men performing a silent ritual which, no doubt, pre-dates the discovery of gunpowder. Paths don’t just go left and right, they lead up and down. In most counties you needed a map to get around in Japan you need something else, a diagram perhaps.
One thing that I am sure you have heard about is the politeness and honesty of the Japanese people and I can testify that that reputation has been earned. It might be hyperbole but, at the time, I joked that if the human race was ever wiped out and two individuals were left to rebuild civilization I could only hope that they be Japanese. The manners of the Japanese people merits a proper description, one that I could not provide but I can relate one story that will just have to stand in the place of many other experiences just like it.
I need to preface this story by saying that a foreigner in Japan needs to carry his passport on him until he gets his residence card. In retrospect, I think the stories I heard about having to have your passport on you at all times might have been exaggerated but suffice it to say, at the time, I didn’t have my Japanese identification card and still carried my passport with me in a large wallet.
I had been in Osaka for about two days and found that I needed a bike. Bikes are ubiquitous in Japan and, being a bike lover, I was keen to get on some wheels. So we found some second hands bikes and were off cruising the streets of my neighborhood like bats out of hell.
A day later, as I was getting ready for work, I could not find my wallet. Truth be told, I knew I had misplaced it somewhere, but decided to worry about it until later. Now, later had arrived and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Bear in mind I had only been in Japan about two nights so the potential hiding spots were quite limited indeed. The apartment was totally empty and even a full Japanese-style apartment would not afford many places for a wallet to hide. I searched the suitcase, searched the couch, the tatami bed, the balcony, re-checked the suitcase and the backpack again, the pants, the jackets, the elevator and the foyer. I searched everywhere, no wallet. I remember having it when I bought the bikes…then it hit me.
It fell out while I was riding! The wallet was huge and must have worked its way out of my pocket while I was pedaling. That’s the only possibility. Yesterday I had ridden all over and by now it could be anywhere. I had no hope of ever finding it in a city of 11 million.
In a moment everything had gone pear-shaped. Everything was gone; passport, bank and credit cards, driver’s license, all my cash. All of it. Everything. In a mere moment I went from that high that only a traveler knows, to the traveler’s worst nightmare; stranded far from home with no money, no ID, no hope.
Perhaps the worst part was that I knew better. Passport in the back pocket? All my cards in one spot? No back-up cash or spare card? Rookie mistakes; an absolutely unpardonable error.
As I set out to get everything straightened out things looked worse. I’ll skip the bureaucratic explanation, but it was going to be a long time, many months until I got a new passport, which was not as bad as the fact that it would be about the same amount of time until I got a bank card or any way to get money. With the complications there really was no guarantee that things would work.
What made it worse was the fact that no one really seemed to care.
I thought to call work. I mean, this couldn’t be the first time one of the English teachers had lost their passport or wallet. Right? Maybe they had some type of service to help out?
I called work, and trying to remain as calm as the situation allowed, explained my predicament. The Japanese Human Resources person on the other line listened carefully and then asked, ‘so does this mean you can’t come to work today?’
As there was little else I could do and I didn’t want to screw up the one thing I had going for myself, I did go to work but things were only worse there. I found I could not concentrate at all and when I finally told my supervisor what had happened to me, she replied, ‘oh you’ll get it back’. People just weren’t getting it.
The next few days were grueling as I wondered what the hell was going on and what was going to happen, until the phone rang. It was the police; how they found me I don’t know, but they had my wallet! I raced to the Police station in Okuno-ku, just praying that all of my cards were still in it, or at lest the passport. A US passport can fetch a hefty sum on the black market.
A few minutes later I arrived at the Police station and approached the desk, after waiting a brief moment a young, and I will say attractive, police woman in a smart blue uniform came to me. She spoke English, explaining that under Japanese law, anyone who finds something owns it and by law has the option of keeping it. She explained to me how it worked; I need to call the person who found my wallet and if I thanked her sufficiently and offered an appropriate reward, she would give me my wallet back. But the police woman was clear in telling me that she was not obligated. Read:“You get one shot at this foreigner, don’t muck it up”
They got my savior on the phone as I worked over in my mind how I could explain how much I needed that wallet back. The Police woman translated for me. My wallet had been found by an old woman and the woman wanted to apologize. Wait. What?
She had found my wallet on Saturday but had to go visit her mother and was not able to turn the wallet in until Monday. It was now Tuesday. She apologized for not getting me the wallet sooner and seemed sincerely worried that I might cause problems for her with the Police for not doing so.
I told her not to be silly and she had saved my life. She replied that she “Just couldn’t accept that a foreigner would come to Japan and have a bad experience” and would not hear of taking a reward. The whole experience plays over and over in my head as it were yesterday. I closed the conversation with a promise; I would tell everyone in America how wonderful the people of Japan are and I would never, if I lived to be 1,000 years, forget this.