Two Sundays ago, I committed a Big Error. I was riding a bicycle home from Shibuya station.
And I’ve got white skin.
I got stopped for Riding While White, which probably sounds ironic and ridiculous to any of you faithful readers back in the U.S., but to those who live in Japan it’s a commonplace event.
Usually, I get stopped, the cops check out my bicycle ID tag, they run it through the computer and they smile and wave me on. The whole process takes up to 10 minutes, as half a dozen or more Japanese (or at least Asian-looking) bikers ride on by, unaccosted.
The short version is, I was riding a bike that was not mine. The cops let me go, and requested the next day that I go to the local police station for an interview. I could’ve turned in my Japanese friend, but then he might still be in jail, or worse. The Japanese police have shockingly broad powers.
One of my roommates, who probably had been watching too many spy thrillers, recommended that I buy a cheap ticket and leave Japan for a bit. I opted to contact a Japanese friend and get her to go with me to the police station.
Even though the police had assured me that I wouldn’t be arrested, I’m not exactly one to trust a police officer. Call it a good American upbringing, I guess.
We went to the police station, where apparently whomever it is that’s writing the screenplay of my life decided to bring in John Cleese.
They asked me to write a sentence that stated that it was okay to give the bicycle back to its original owner. (I found out later that the bike had been missing for more than a year.)
They fingerprinted me, which took a long time since they used an infrared scanner that was quite adept at picking up the oil naturally on my fingertips, but not the whorls beneath it.
They took mugshots – digital, of course – during which the photographer asked me if my hair was naturally curly, or if it was permed. Really.
Then came the weird part.
The booking cops asked me to come with them to Shibuya station, where I said I’d found the bike. We got out of the car, and they asked me to point out the spot where I had found it.
“Over there,” I said.
“Can you go stand next to the spot?” I walked over to the designated piece of sidewalk.
“Can you point at the spot?”
“With my finger?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I’d understood.
“Yes!” The policeman nodded. I pointed, and now there is a Polaroid of me, on a bright sunny day, pointing at a rather forlorn and empty section of sidewalk.
Then the weird part compounded itself.
One cop apologized for taking so much time out of my day, and said that he hoped I still had a good opinion of Japan and Japanese people. I assured him I did.
He asked me if my friend or I needed a ride to a train station, but we politely declined. As a parting bow, he promised the Tokyo police would not contact me again without contacting my friend first.
She glared at me, but as they drove off, the conversation turned to the new Harry Potter movie and the masses in Shibuya swallowed us up.