Escape From Tokyo

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There was a loud knock outside my capsule, and when I poked my head out I almost headbutted a policeman. He was crouched down in front of where I’d been sleeping, thrusting his Tokyo Police badge in my face. Behind him stood two other men, dressed in suits, arms crossed, stern looks across their faces. It was not the best way to wake up on my final day in Japan.

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Three days had passed since my friends were arrested for assaulting a Nigerian conman, and I’d spent that time exploring Yokosuka and traipsing around Mount Fuji’s suicide forest. As interesting as those places were the fate of the two Aussie backpackers I’d met on my first night in Tokyo was never far from my mind. I’d been reading up on Japanese prisons, and the reality of incarceration is shocking. For starters, simply being arrested leads to a mandatory three-day evaluation period. It doesn’t matter if you’re innocent, if the cops take you in, you won’t be seeing daylight for 72 hours. In reality, however, this three-day period is almost always extended to 23 days, which is how long the police can detain a suspect for without charge. If I hadn’t gone for that burger, and had been taken in when my new-found friends had been arrested, I would have almost certainly been kept in for the full 23 days, even though I’d done nothing wrong.

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The 23 days are supposedly used for investigating the case, and the police must be bloody good at their job, because they have a 99% conviction rate. In Japan, the police can’t be seen to make mistakes, so pretty much everyone who is arrested is found guilty. To achieve this, cruel mental torture is used to attain confessions. Inmates are kept awake for days at a time, screamed at, mentally abused, and shaken like Mount Druitt babies. Basically, any abuse that doesn’t leave physical scars is used. Westerners are only allowed to speak when a translator is around (you guessed it, they’re never around), the menu consists of one handful of plain rice a day, and the sleeping arrangements involve a rug on the floor and some sawdust for a pillow. It would be a horrendous situation to find yourself in.

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While Japanese prisons are almost completely devoid of bashings, shankings, murders and inmate-on-inmate bum sex (that last one might be a negative or a positive, depending on your outlook on life), the conditions are more like a concentration camp than a western prison. No contact with the outside world is allowed, and officials from foreign embassies find it hard to even visit. Through the entire investigation, the prisoner remains guilty until proven innocent (yeah right, like that’s gonna happen!).

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And things don’t get better at the end of the 23 days. After being found guilty, foreigners are sent to an immigration processing centre until all the necessary details have been sorted out and fines paid. This usually takes another four to eight weeks. Before finally being deported, most westerners lose between 15 and 20kg. With the way I’ve been going at touch footy lately, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but I get the feeling that foreign inmates in Japanese prison lose a lot more than a few kilograms. I didn’t know those boys very well, but they seemed like fun-loving, free-spirited dudes. I’m not sure they’ll be the same people when they get out. The Japanese penal system is designed to break people.

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I crawled out of my capsule wearing only my undies, while three cops looked me up and down. Around us, businessmen and hungover travellers stopped and stared at me, perhaps wondering whether they were witnessing my last moments as a free man. My mind raced and spun; I was pretty sure that the police were here to ask about Jimmy and Joey, but I wasn’t certain. Maybe they were here to arrest me for something I’d done while drunk, or had me confused with someone else? After what I’d read, I knew that even if they just wanted to take me to the station, I was in for a bad time and probably wouldn’t be going home that night. The three men spoke in Japanese and then the one in the middle, obviously the interpreter, spoke to me in English.

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After confirming my name and details, they started asking about the events of that evening. While the interpreter was pleasant, and the cops weren’t intimidating, I was under no illusions that it was anything other than an interrogation. They asked the same questions over and over again – which bars did we go to, what were we drinking, who did we meet – and I found it difficult to answer because I barely remembered a thing about the night because I was so smashed. They seemed surprised that I hadn’t been there to witness the fight. Maybe that fact was the only reason they didn’t arrest me on the spot, I don’t know.

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I was doing everything I could to answer their questions, but they kept asking me about Jimmy’s wallet. I told them I knew nothing about it, but it was a topic that kept coming up. After a while, I found out the reason; apparently Jimmy’s wallet had gone missing, and it had been found in my locker at reception. Of course I knew nothing about it, and to this day I’m not sure if they’d made that up to give them a reason to arrest me if they felt like it, or if it had simply been a misunderstanding downstairs. Either way, that could’ve so easily led to me being locked up.

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When they had everything they needed, the cops took a photo of my passport and then took a number of photos of me. They now had the means to prevent me from leaving the country, but I feel that their reasons for photographing me were more sinister. I get the impression that they probably took the photos of me back to Jimmy and Joey and lied about what I’d said, in order to get them to confess. Whatever the story, I was happy when the police left. I spent the rest of the day just killing the hours until my flight back home at midnight. I couldn’t enjoy the day at all, because I was still worried that I might be stopped at customs, and felt bad knowing that those boys were going through hell. Even a visit to the world’s smallest Godzilla barely put a smile on my face. Bloody hell, the real Godzilla is 50m tall and this bastard’s the size of a moderately-sized dwarf.

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I did make it through customs and I did make it home, but the experience gave me plenty to think about. I put myself in a stupid position by getting so drunk in a country with an aggressive police force who rely on WW2-era interrogation methods to abuse foreigners who flout the law. My life as I know it went very close to ending and, while I did nothing wrong, it was my poor decisions that placed me in that position. Being Drunk and Jobless is fantastic, but maybe it’s time for me to stop being Completely Fuckin’ Shitfaced and Jobless when travelling through countries that are looking for excuses to use and abuse me for three or so months. But now, reliving these events has me fanging for a beer. And that, my friends, was my trip to Bali, South Korea and Japan.

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