Special duties

Foreign tourists often say how safe they feel in the cities of Japan. The police seem to be everywhere; you walk or drive for five minutes, and you are sure to see a policeman, in his blue uniform and white belt. That he has a gun is noticed by British tourists but not by others; after all, the French for a policeman is gendarme, which means literally ’an armed man’, just like the old Italian and Spanish word carabiniero. The tourist in Japan is careful about his behaviour; there always seems to be a policeman looking at him. If he becomes a resident, one day he gets a little surprise. He notices that some of these policemen are in fact life-size models. They are very realistic. Still, he can work out a strategy. Suppose he wants to park his car for just ten minutes. He sees a place, but it is a no parking zone, and there is a policeman nearby. He drives slowly round and round for a few minutes, glancing at the policeman every few seconds. When he sees that he does not move at all, he knows that it is a model, and he parks his car and gets away safely. He is pleased with his own cleverness.

Soon afterwards, in the same situation, he observes the motionless model for a minute or so, and then parks his car right under its nose. It then arrests him, and he is fined. Japanese policemen are trained to stand motionless for ten minutes or so. It is not only that the models look like the policemen, but the living policemen look like the models.

Though there is less crime on the streets in Japan, the rare riots when they do occur are much more violent than anything in Britain: the rioting students of 1968 took over, and defended for months, important buildings. The riot police in Japan are specially trained, especially in judo; they do not normally carry guns. I was told about one of their training months by one who had recently passed through it. He said it was very severe, occasionally taking the men to the point of exhaustion and near collapse.

However, in the third week the training authorities seemed to realise that it was perhaps going too far, and they suddenly announced at the end of the morning session that the rest of the day would be free. The trainees could change into their civilian clothes and go into the town. ‘You can do as you like,’ they were told, ‘ but you have got to be back here by ten. Then straight to sleep and up early tomorrow. I know it’s been tough,’ the head trainer concluded sympathetically, ‘and I’ve decided you’re entided to a little break.

They were overjoyed, and set out jauntily together after lunch. The superintendent gave them a friendly wave, and even the craggy face of the judo master had a wintry smile. They had gone about a hundred yards when there was a sudden call: ‘Hey, come back! There’s something else.’

When they got back they were told that the trip was cancelled; they had to change back into judo kit, and practise hard that afternoon and evening. It was a shattering experience. Somehow they got through the rest of the training month. At the end, the superintendent said he regretted having had to do this, but added: ‘You will one day realise the value of it.’

The man who described the experience to me added: ‘He was right. Twice in my time with the riot police I have had the experience of being on duty all day and night, and then again the next day. I was just getting ready to fall into bed when a sudden emergency call came, and I had to get into uniform again and go on duty. I was able to do this without too much upset because I had been through that crushing disappointment in the training month.’

As he said this, his face took on that nostalgic expression with which Japanese often relate sufferings of the past. It always reminds me of a half-remembered proverb from shogi^ (Japanese chess) which goes something like this:

cAite no nikusa wa shitashii\

It’s difficult to translate this into English: ‘The very hatefulness of the opponent is dear’ does not seem right. The nearest to the thought might be: ‘He always gives one a good fight’.

But it sounds better in Japanese.

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