Close Encounters of the Constabulary Kind

In the past several days, I’ve had three encounters with the Japanese police that have put me in mind of an experience I had many years ago when I was living in Kumamoto.

The first occurred last week-end.  My husband and I decided to drive to Izu to visit friends, but were lazy and didn’t get away until nearly noon.  It is well known that if you’re leaving Tokyo by car on a Saturday, you need to get away before 8 am, or risk getting caught in serious traffic jams.  Well, it would seem those traffic jams continue throughout the day, as we encountered them even after lunch time.

I got out my map and attempted to guide us through back roads to avoid some of the heavier traffic, but when the back road rejoined the main road, we got into trouble.  We needed to turn right to continue on our way, but there was a “no right turn” sign.  My husband judged traffic conditions and eased himself into a right hand turn anyway.  One minute later, he was flagged over by the police.

The officer was very young and nonplussed at finding himself with two foreigners to deal with.  I kept my Japanese use to a minimum, hoping perhaps we would feel sorry for us and let us go.  Alas, his superior was nearby and he couldn’t be so kind, so he wrote up the violation and my husband has a ticket to pay (JPY7,000!).

Two days later I was a judge at a junior high school speech contest in which one of the students spoke on his “dream” of becoming a police officer.  He mentioned that being a cop was “cool” because he would get to arrest people (!).  Fortunately he went on to speak about the public service and public safety aspects of being in the police force, so I could forgive his draconian arrest remark.  Actually, it was a pretty good speech coming from a 14 year old.

Yesterday, we happened on the police dealing with a traffic accident, guiding people through the area smoothly in spite of the obvious obstruction in the road.  And I was reminded of how often the job of the police in Japan is about maintaining public order.

This was the lesson I learned in Kyushu three decades ago.  Order is everything.

I was driving from Kumamoto to Yamaga to visit a friend.  I was on a so-called highway—the usual Japanese highway that is really just a city street with lots of traffic lights—and suddenly found myself in a speed trap!  A policeman was waving me to the side of the road.

You know how when you get stopped by the police they ask to see your driver’s license?

In those days, for foreigners, that’s not what happened.

As soon as the officer saw my face, he asked for my alien registration card.  Later he asked for my driver’s license.  (I note that when we were stopped last weekend they never asked for my husband for his resident’s card–he only presented his drivers license.  Times have changed, at least a bit.)

The cop asked me if I knew the speed limit on this road.   I didn’t.

He asked me if I knew how fast I had been going.  I didn’t.

He told me that I was going more than 80 kilometers an hour on a road with a speed limit of 40.

I’d been on that road many times before.  No one went 40.

Of course, I didn’t even try to explain that to the officer.  Instead I tried to explain how, as an American, I was used to thinking in miles rather than kilometers, and so I’d become confused about the speed limit.

It was a dumb argument.  The officer was unconvinced.

Then I tried to explain how, as a foreigner, I have big, heavy feet that had obviously pressed the gas pedal too hard, causing me to go too fast.

The officer didn’t miss a beat.  He asked why my big, heavy foreign foot wasn’t pressing the brake pedal.

I was defeated.  There was no way I was going to talk my way out of this speeding ticket.

It was then I learned that in Japan when you’ve been going more than 40 kilometers over the speed limit you have to spend a day in traffic school.  And, depending on the outcome of an exam at the end, you can lose your license for up to a month.

So, on the appointed day, I went to traffic school.

At this time I was a teacher at a girl’s high school and one of my colleagues told me that the father of one of our students was a policeman who worked at the traffic school.

Sure enough, when I reported in, there sat Officer Sato (not his real name).

He asked to see my alien registration card, which he soon returned to me.

Then he asked to see my driver’s license, which he kept.

Next he asked me if I was a teacher at School X and if I knew his daughter.

Finally he asked me about my Japanese skill.

Would I be able to understand the lectures?

Could I read?

Would I be able to take the exam at the end of the day?

He seemed very concerned.

I explained that I had conversational Japanese and had never had to listen to a lecture, but that I would do my best.

I explained that I could only read a couple hundred kanji, so I might not be able to read the exam, but if they could arrange for someone to read the questions out loud to me, I would do my best.

We all agreed that they would have someone read the exam out loud to me.

I went into the classroom and sat down near the back.  If I recall correctly, everyone else in the room was male.

The first lecture began.

Not 15 minutes had gone by before I was hopelessly lost.  There were so many unfamiliar words and sentence structures.  I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about.

There were some visual aids, but since they were all in Japanese and I couldn’t read very well, they were really no aid to me.

I gamely kept trying, making notes of words I could understand and trying to extrapolate what the lecturer was talking about.

Just when I felt like I was starting to figure out what was going on, that lecture would finish and a new lecturer would come in.  That meant I had to get used to listening to a new voice, a new style of speaking, and presumably a new topic.  In other words, I was lost all over again.

The whole day went on like that.  I really had no idea what was going on.   It was painful.

Finally the lectures were over.  The others were all given their exam papers and I was pulled aside to sit in the office and wait.

Officer Sato came in to read the exam to me.  About a half dozen other officers came with him.  I guess they wanted to watch the show.

Officer Sato read the first question and the four possible answers and I wrote an answer down.

The officers all looked at each other.  Obviously I had not selected the right answer.

Officer Sato read the second question and the four possible answers and then gave me several broad hints about which answer was the best.

I wrote an answer down.

The officers all looked at each other again.  In spite of Officer Sato’s best efforts, I had chosen wrongly again.

Officer Sato looked at his watch.  These 2 questions had taken about 10 minutes, much longer than he was expecting.

Officer Sato and two other officers had a brief conference.  Officer Sato looked very concerned.  I think he felt a heavy responsibility for me.  After all, his daughter was a student at my school.  How was he going to make this right?

When Officer Sato came back, he read the question, read the answers, told me which answer was correct and told me what to write down.  I wrote down the answer as instructed.

A positive murmur went through the group.  Finally, I had written down a correct answer.

And so it continued with the rest of the exam.  Officer Sato read the questions, the answers, and told me what answer to write.

By the time we were finished, all the other officers had left the room to take care of the exams of the others.  In fact, a couple of them had finished with the others and returned.  Obviously this had taken much longer than it should have.

When my exam was scored, I had two wrong.  Of course!  The first two!

The penalty for missing two questions was a one day suspension of my license—namely that day that I had spent in traffic school.

A notation was made on the back of my license and I was told that I couldn’t drive that day, but I could drive again from the next.

I was the last person to leave traffic school that day.

Although I didn’t really learn anything about driving and traffic safety in my day at traffic school, I did become a more careful driver after that.

What I really learned at traffic school is that I never want to have to go to traffic school again!  Next time, there might not be an Officer Sato to save me.

And ever since then, I have managed to avoid encounters with the Japanese police.  Until this past week.

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