This is a story of how I failed to stand up for someone on the train. I’m telling it out of shame, and hope that by reading this, you can learn from my failure and not make the same mistake I did.
So I got on the Keio Line today at Shinjuku station, going towards Chofu. I get in and it’s crowded. Despite the Coronavirus hysteria in Japan, trains are still really crowded. Nothing new here. I stand in front of the priority seats which are all full. In front of me is a girl that could’ve been anywhere between the ages of 18 to 28 (Japanese look young and it’s hard to tell when someone has a mask on).
Anyways, the train departs Shinjuku and everything is fine. The train stops at Meidaemae and this man in his late 50s gets on. I notice him because he looks around and sees all the seats are taken (as they always are) and he starts swearing under his breath.
This already is an anomaly on Tokyo trains. It is normally completely silent. An old man swearing under his breath already is enough to get people to turn heads. Sometimes you get drunks stumble on the train that swear and talk to themselves, but this man was completely sober, just annoyed that he couldn’t find a seat.
He leans against the door (which is next to the girl in front of me). The train departs Meidaemae and this man starts coughing. He is the only one on the train without a mask. But fair enough, masks are sold out in Tokyo. Maybe he just couldn’t buy one. However, that isn’t an excuse to cough obnoxiously, not cover your mouth, and do it with your head up as if you want to spread the germs around.
Me, the guy next to me, and everyone in this guy’s general area start giving him the death stare. I myself wonder if he’s actually sick, Coronavirus, flu, common cold, whatever it may be. Maybe this guy is sick and just can’t control his cough, so I can’t just strong arm him and swear at him in broken Japanese. But I realize now that thought was just an excuse I concocted to not say anything.
But that I can stand. There are a lot of scumbags in the world, so I’m not going to start a fight just because I’m annoyed that this guy is coughing. He keeps coughing, and as I listen to him it becomes more and more obvious that he’s not sick. He is clearly fake coughing. Then, he leans toward the girl in front of me and starts coughing in her general direction. I’m guessing that a) he is either just a huge waste of oxygen and is doing this for fun or b) he wants to entice the girl to stand up and give him her seat.
I’m 99% sure it was b.
Now I’m furious and if this was Canada, I’m sure I would’ve at least told this guy to close his mouth. But being Japan, and me having a lack of Japanese skills to start an argument with confidence, I keep my mouth shut. The girl in front of me is obviously grossed out and gives him a death stare and leans forward, trying to avoid him. The old man realizes he’s not going to get a seat by coughing, and stops coughing altogether.
Five minutes pass and not a single cough. Wow, his Coronavirus was cured quickly, wasn’t it? It would’ve been fine if it ended there.
But it gets worse.
As we near my stop, this guy moves to lean more on the ledge that is between him and the girl. He’s acting like he’s a tired old man that just can’t hold his own weight so he leans on it as if he needs it for support. This brings him close enough to me that his leg brushes up against mine, and about 20 percent of his body is in front of me (now between me and the girl). But to be fair, this is a Tokyo train so everyone makes body contact with other people.
It is inevitable. Again, this I can stand. It gives me the ability to lean all my weight onto him, pushing him against the bar.
But, this bastard moves even more, so that his leg is now between me and the girl in front of me. Now, this old man starts rubbing his leg up against the girl in front of me. I know it’s hard to visualize based on my explanation, but trust me when I say he was doing this on purpose. It’s a situation where you have to be there to understand why I’m 100% certain this was a perverted old man trying to bother this girl. This girl is shaking too. She’s scared. She pretends to text someone, but her hands are shaking.
What do I do?
I’m so furious that I start shaking, and I want to hit this guy.
Options run through my head:
- push this guy away (and into other people)
- tell this guy to fuck off in broken Japanese
In my panicked/angry head, those are the only 2 options that I think of. But I don’t do either.
I don’t say anything. I now realize that I was scared too.
Why don’t I say anything? Why don’t I do anything?
When I heard about perverts on Japanese trains, I always said “why don’t people just say something?” This wouldn’t happen if people just speak out.
But it’s not that easy. I didn’t get it because I was never in that situation.
Here I am, finally in this situation and I freeze. Again, the options run through my head, but this time with their consequences:
- shove this guy away from her – but if I do, he can call the cops at the next station and say I assaulted him. In a train full of witnesses, most people are going to see a 26-year-old, 170-pound foreign guy push a scrawny old Japanese man. I’ve heard the horror stories of foreigners not having any rights when it comes to Japanese law. Remember, this guy has done nothing I could call the cops for. What could I say? He was coughing and his leg brushed up against this girl, so I hit him? I doubt that would’ve held up as a defense.
- do nothing – if I do nothing, I get to go home, have dinner, watch Netflix, and not deal with talking to the police and deal with the possibility of being charged with assault
Again, in my panicked mind, those were the only two options. There was only physical confrontation, or silence.
In the end, I chose silence. Because I was a coward. My stop comes and I hope this guy gets off too, so he can’t bother this girl. But it doesn’t. I shove him a bit as I get off the train, hoping he’ll move, but he doesn’t.
He remains standing in front of the girl. When I get off, I see a sea of people get on and I look back, hoping that the man who stood next to me is braver than I was and says something. I look back, hoping someone else would help this girl. The train leaves and so do I.
As I walk away I try to justify myself, “She was a stranger. It’s none of my business.” But immediately I think “Wait. No, what if that was my girlfriend?” What if that was my future daughter? I’ve never felt so much shame in my life. I want to cry. I want someone to beat the hell out of me, because that’s what I deserve. I should’ve said something, anything. Now that I have a more clear head, I realize there are a million things I could’ve done:
- I could’ve passive-aggressively asked the man if he was sick and wanted to go to the hospital
- I could’ve asked the girl if she was ok
- I could’ve asked the girl if she wanted to stand behind me
- I could’ve (yes, in broken Japanese) told the man he was being annoying and to cover his mouth
- I could’ve told the man he was too close and should move
Anything would’ve been better than the nothing I did. Honestly, I might as well have been that man. Hell, I am worse than that man. Because to this girl, a train full of bystanders doing nothing, means everyone of us who saw, approved of what this man was doing. By not standing up and doing something, we are approving of what happens in front of us.
What Should You Do?
If you take the train everyday in Tokyo, chances are this is going to happen to you or you’ll see it happening to someone. I can’t tell you how to live your life and in the end, you will have to live with your actions, not me.
But please. Please if you take anything away from this sad story, trust me when I say I’d rather be sleeping in a Japanese jail cell, than writing this article in shame.
I was worried that I would embarrass myself with broken Japanese, but better that then not being able to look myself in the mirror. If that scared girl had been my girlfriend, I know that I wouldn’t have stood by like I did. If this were to happen to someone that I care about, God I pray that the people around aren’t cowards like me. We have to help each other, and I failed to do that. Don’t be the coward that I was. Use your broken Japanese. Shout in English if you need to. Do something. Do anything.