Last weekend will probably rank among the very few of my stay in Japan, if not my life, that I remember long after I’ve forgotten almost everything else. I’m not at all sure that’s a good thing. I’m not at all sure about much, right now.
Sunday morning, I watched two Japanese Yakuza beat a man to death, or at least close to it, from a few feet away on a sidewalk in downtown Osaka. Later, I nearly got dumped into a prison cell and deported by Japanese Immigration.
I should mention that these were two unrelated events.
For the moment, I’m here to talk about the first one. I’ll have to come back to the other, which shouldn’t be a problem, as I’m still dealing with it. But more on that later.
Not to get too pop-philosophical, but I’ve spent a lot of the past 24 hours torn about even mentioning the events of Sunday morning. What does it accomplish? I sat with a young Japanese man who was lying on the ground, helpless, covered in blood and lymph and god knows what else and held his hand and talked to him because I was afraid otherwise he would die right there. And the idea that I could walk away from that and sit down and write about it on some online journal with a stupid name so anyone who reads this can get some voyeuristic frisson out of the story or, worse, think to themselves what a moving and exciting experience it must have been for me … well, it’s hard not to feel a little disgusted at that. This was a real human being, with an entire lifetime’s worth of thoughts and words and feelings leading up the moment where mine intersected with his. It wasn’t a movie or a videogame, though part of me had to keep reminding myself of that at the time, which itself was kind of pathetic and gross. When the paramedics finally took him away, I realized it was unlikely I would learn if he lived or not. I’m no doctor, but it wouldn’t have taken an expert to look at this man and know his chances were not very good. For all I know, he’s dead now. Mining all of this for blog fodder feels like a lot like spitting on him.
But another part of me feels compelled to say something about it. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, although that feels a little slimy, too, or maybe it’s just the occasionally lonely guy living in a foreign country where he still doesn’t know that many people and really has no idea what he’s doing with his life and sometimes gets homesick, especially when random chance brings him face to face with the bloody fact of life’s fragility and the utter inhumanity of the people we walk by every day.
So I’m writing about it, but I hope you can understand if I need to shelve the arch tone and ironic eyebrow for a few minutes. They’re not gone, just unavailable to me right now.
So let me start over. Early yesterday morning, I saw a man beaten nearly to death on a sidewalk in downtown Osaka. I don’t know who he was, what kind of a story he would tell, or even his name. For all I know, he may be dead now. If he’s not, and I’m guessing his chances were even at best, it’s possible I may have had some small part in that. I have no way of knowing. But I hope so.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be walking the deserted streets of downtown Osaka at dawn on a Sunday morning. The reason for this is less obvious than it sounds. Will and I had gone to the Shinsaibashi district the previous evening for an party hosted by one of the many international clubs there. From my apartment in Ibaraki, it’s about a 20-minute train ride into JR Umeda station in north Osaka. From there, it’s a 10-minute subway ride to Shinsaibashi, the after-dark destination of choice for Osakans.
A quick word about Osaka and Shinsaibashi: During World War II, the entire city of Osaka, like Tokyo and many others, was reduced to a pumice of ash and rubble by Allied firebombing, while nearby Kyoto was miraculously spared. Following the war, Osaka rebuilt itself in a more modern fashion. The pre-war temples, shrines, daimyo residences, bunraku and kabuki theaters, samurai quarters, merchant rows and geisha districts were gone. They were replaced by concrete, steel, plastic, glass, neon, and vulcanized rubber. Today, more money flows in and out of this one port city each day than all but eight nations on earth.
While the northern, or kita, section of the city is the home of most of the international businesses and the main two train stations, the southern reaches are where the city’s pulse is best measured. And that pulse beats strongest in the Shinsaibashi district, an urban love letter to self-indulgence and immediate gratification. The area is a maze of restaurants, bars, fashion boutiques, covered shopping arcades, open-air markets, frantic storefronts, 10- and 15-story buildings separated by about the width of a cat, a tangled arbor of power lines and telephone wires, signs and lanterns. Most of the action in Shinsaibashi, as in many Japanese cities, is either above you or below, because that’s where most of the floor space is. Walking into a restaurant or a bar on the 12th floor of a building, or in a fluorescent-blasted arcade beneath the street, is as natural as visiting one at ground level anywhere else. The result is a labyrinth of narrow streets down which people drive a vehicle only if they’re willing to wait for several thousand pedestrians to step out of their way on each block.
So it’s a little ironic that at the end of this story I found myself almost completely alone.
Midnight, Saturday evening: Knowing that I was one subway ride and a train trip away from my apartment in Ibaraki, and also knowing that the last train leaves on Saturday nights at 12:41 a.m., I left Will in the arms of a tipsy Japanese flight attendant and headed for the subway. What I didn’t know was that for some reason the subway system in Osaka stops running at 11:45 p.m. on Saturdays. (This, again, is a country where bank ATMs stop operating at midnight and charge a service fee if you use them anytime after regular bank hours. I’ve found it’s best not to ask why, with these things, but simply to accept.)
The upshot of this situation was that I no longer had any way to get home – not until the subway started running again at 5 a.m. and train service between Osaka and Kyoto resumed at 5:30 a.m. (A cab ride from JR Osaka to my house, even in the very middle of the night, runs about seventy bucks, which is not an option.)
Unwilling to return to the bar and continue throwing money away on drinks for another five hours, I decided to wait it out. This I did, vagrant-style, on the steps leading down to the subway entrance. I even managed to sleep a bit, awkwardly, just another drunken, passed-out idiot American, as far as the people who spotted me down there were probably concerned.
At 5 a.m., the metal gates to the subway entrance screeched open, and I stumbled in, exhausted, sore, and slightly hungover.
Thirty minutes later, I was still exhausted, sore, and hungover, but now I was lost, as well. Somehow I’d got turned around in the labyrinthine subway network and had emerged from an exit I wasn’t familiar with. I knew I was close to JR Station, but I was going to have to hoof it for a while until I spotted one of the signs I needed to point me there.
A few minutes later, I climbed out of the subway into the bright morning sunlight and saw an overpass which I thought might be the right way. As soon as I was on it and up above the street, though, I could see it led off in entirely the wrong direction. It was 5:30 a.m. and the streets were deserted; there wasn’t a soul around at this hour. I decided to turn around, retrace my steps, look for a sign I may have missed.
At that moment, I heard a commotion on the sidewalk below me, a scuffling on the concrete, accompanied by gutteral Japanese. I leaned over the railing and looked down.
Almost directly below me, a young Japanese man lay writhing on the sidewalk. Two other young men, wearing t-shirts that showed off sleeves of black tattoos running down their arms, were kicking him mercilessly, while a dyed-blond Japanese girl in heels and a skirt stood watching nearby, looking sick. In the street beside her, a black car with its doors flung open idled next to the sidewalk.
Twice the two thugs walked away from the man on the ground, only to return again and start kicking him again. The man was little more than a rag doll, barely moving except when he was kicked. Mostly they aimed for his head.
How long this went on, I don’t know. Ten seconds? Thirty seconds? A minute? At some point, I realized it couldn’t be allowed to continue. There was nobody around, not a person in sight who could do anything but me. Without thinking, I walked down the steps of the overpass and around the corner at the bottom. I walked toward the man on the ground, who was lying completely still now.
One of the thugs was coming back for another go at him, and he didn’t see me until I was just a couple of meters away. I stopped at the man lying on the sidewalk and raised my hands to the approaching man with my palms out, a mute plea. I said nothing. He stopped and looked at me for a long moment. I can’t remember anything about him, not his face, not the look in his eyes, nothing. Just the tattoos, and that he didn’t seem angry, but content with what he’d accomplished and glad to be given the excuse to move on.
After a moment, he nodded once, cursed at the man on the ground and turned away. The two men stuffed the girl in the idling car, climbed in, and drove off. I was left alone with the man on the sidewalk.
I crouched down and looked at him. He was breathing, barely, and his eyes were open, though there was blood and tears and something yellow leaking out of them. His face was cut and bleeding and misshapen, and I could see a sickening bulge on his head beneath his short-cropped hair. There was blood all over his shirt and pants and on the sidewalk. He lay on his back, unmoving, and his eyes were half-lidded, glassy and unfocused, looking straight up. It occurred to me that he was probably in shock. I had to call someone, the police or an ambulance or someone, but I didn’t have a cellphone and I couldn’t see anyone on the street. I was afraid to leave him to look for help, but I didn’t know what else to do.
Suddenly I was joined by another man, who kneeled down on the other side of him. He was asking me something that I didn’t understand, and then he had a cellphone out and he was speaking in rapid-fire Japanese to someone. Then, just as quickly, there were other people standing around us, cellphones also out, or just standing quietly and looking horrified. I remember feeling completely, utterly helpless to do anything, and I looked down and saw that I had one hand on his chest and with the other I was holding his hand. But he wasn’t holding back.
Then I noticed that his eyelids were closing, slowly, and his eyes had rolled back in his head slightly. I said something to the other man crouching over him next to me. “Don’t let him go to sleep. He has to stay awake.” He seemed to understand. I slapped the hand I was holding several times, hard, and the man beside me did the same with the other hand. I reached over and patted his checks as roughly as I dared, not knowing if his neck was broken, not wanting to hurt him any more than he already was, but desperate to keep him from slipping into unconsciousness.
“Here!” I said. “Here! Stay here!” Or something like that. I can’t remember. But he opened his eyes slightly, and I hoped it meant that he’d heard me and could understand. A few moments later, the police arrived, and right behind them was an ambulance. Not more than six or seven minutes had passed since the man with the cellphone next to me had called them.
The police began asking questions of the people in the crowd, but I couldn’t understand any of it, so I ignored them. Two or three EMTs hustled out of the ambulance – I remember thinking how odd it was that it was baby blue, not white – with a stretcher and a neck brace. They placed the brace around his neck, then, faster than I could believe, he was on the stretcher and had disappeared into the vehicle. It sped off, and I stood by myself, the white sidewalk around me spattered with blood, everyone there talking to someone except me.
The police were taking statements from people. One of them was talking to the man who’d crouched beside me. I had no idea what they were asking, what they were saying. I felt a brief spasm of frustration that none of them seemed interested in speaking to me, but then I realized it didn’t matter. What could I say that could make the slightest difference? They’d been Japanese. They’d had tattoos. They’d beaten him savagely. And now he’s on his way to a hospital, blood and yellow stuff leaking out of his eyes, his head looking like it had been attacked with a steel pipe. Nothing I could say could possibly make any difference one way or the other for him now. He would either die or he would not.
Suddenly I wanted to get out of there very badly. I turned and walked away, and nobody stopped me.
My mind wandered, spinning. I let it go, not yet ready to allow it to settle on any single line of thought. I was wary of what might happen. I didn’t want to start crying in the middle of Osaka station, and I could feel it back there, lurking, waiting for a chance to rush me.
Who was he? How had he gotten there? What unknowable sequence of events had led him through the preceding hours, days, months, years to that moment, alone and helpless but for a complete stranger from the other side of the world, who had no good reason to be there that morning, no reason even to be in this country, lost and alone himself, trying only to get home with as little difficulty as possible? Did somebody love him? Did somebody wait for him? I looked at my hands and saw I had his blood on me.
I walked until I had no idea where I was, and then all at once it was Sunday morning, just after dawn, and the city was was empty except for a few early risers rushing to get somewhere on a gorgeous blue spring day.
I spotted my sign and followed it. I bought a ticket and waited in line and got on my train. Around me, people dozed and read newspapers and typed furiously into their cellphones, immersed in the inconsequential, forgettable ephimera of life.
The train rumbled north.