Saturday, May 29, 2010

An Uncomfortable Entry into Japan

In Asia, people are quick to distrust anything outside of normal behaviour. Even in Asia's only first world country, Japan, appearing slightly abnormal is asking for unwanted attention. Immigration policies are tight in Japan, and they have a no nonsense attitude towards anyone breaking the law. There are more foreigners in Japan's immigration jails than anywhere else in the world.

So when Japanese airport security spotted me, with my long hair, cheap Sheik tailored suit and plastic multicoloured travel bags they stopped me and asked where I was coming from.

"Thailand" I said.

"Ohh" A thoughtful pause and appraising once over with their keen and penetrating eyes. "What do you have in your bags?" They asked gently, their gaze never leaving mine, waiting for my reflex reaction of guilt.

Now I am terrible dealing with authority. I feel guilty, even when I haven't done anything, and tend to get increasingly nervous which, of course, raises the suspicions of my inquisitors. It didn't help that I had no sleep, and was dealing with the kind of hangover only Chang beer can give you.

I answered casually, without pause. "A knife."

This took them back a bit. They weren't expecting this at all. For a moment they blinked in surprise, and then replied "Do you mind if we search your bags?"

"Sure!" I tried to appear casual and upbeat, immediately taking my old Uncle Henry folding knife, given to me by my uncle when I was seven years old, out of the side pocket of my knapsack and slapping it on the counter. Surely, I thought, they will realize that this knife had been with me all my life, and travelled all over the world with me, saving my life on many occasions. They have to note the worn leather sheath, partially chewed by an old dog of mine when she was a puppy. They must see all of this, and understand, I thought naively.

They started rummaging around in my knapsack, pulling out more contraband. My Opinel carbonate carving knife, and a switchblade lighter combo I had bought on Khao Sahn road in Thailand. I had packed in such a rush and been so hungover that I had totally forgotten about this stuff. A sinking feeling of despair came over me. I was in big trouble.

At this time they trotted out a laminated coloured book and presented it to me in that respectful Japanese way. I flipped through a couple pages of pictures of brightly coloured tablets before my mind finally engaged and I realized their intention was to inquire if I was muleing any illegal drugs.

Relief flooded over me. Here was something I could state with authority. With a slightly insulted air of disgust, I passed the book back and shook my head in the negative. How could they accuse me of this? With impeccable timing, they pulled a pill case out of my bag containing tablets of herbal medicine looking exactly like those I had seen in their book. Cold fear came over me, I was going to jail.

"What is this?" They asked gently but sternly.

"Uhhhhh, eyebright" I replied lamely.

"Eyebright!" They exclaimed with incredulity.

My mind was racing. How am I to explain western herbs, herbal medicine and their effects to increasingly suspicious Japanese security who's English was severely limited. My only hope was to be thrown in jail until the pills were analyzed and then perhaps, if I was lucky, released.

The Japanese system of justice is not like ours. If you stand accused of something, you are assumed to be guilty simply because you have been accused. It's not a good country in which to get in trouble.

As I stood wondering what to do one of the security officers was rummaging around in my cheap plastic bag. This bag was filled with junk, all sorts of odds and ends I had bought on impulse, and for some reason had decided to haul to Japan rather than just toss them out. He slowly raised two hands out of my bag, each one holding a slingshot.

There was an uncomfortable silence as they decided where exactly they were going to start with all of this. I had to do something, but what?

"Why do you have the knives?"

Why they chose to ask me this rather than about the pills was a bit of a surprise to me. I can only assume that since they were the first things that had been found, they were simply working in a linear fashion which is often the case in Asia.

An unbidden idea came to my mind, I started talking about Shoji. Shoji is Japanese woodworking, traditional construction and design. A subject which I found fascinating and luckily was well versed in. I waxed eloquently about my desire to learn Shoji, how I was impressed that it was all done by joinery, with no nails involved. Explaining that I was from Canada, where the Cedar trees needed for this type of construction were plentiful. I praised the beauty and simplicity of the design. By this time I had all but forgotten my predicament as I warmed to my topic. I eventually concluded that my trip to Japan was to study this fascinating art from the inventors and masters themselves, the Japanese.

I had not noticed, but during my speech they had repacked all my bags. I looked into their now friendly faces, warmed with proud smiles and they said "You're free to go, enjoy your stay in Japan, and good luck."

I could hardly bring myself to believe it. No further questions about the pills or slingshots. No detention or jail. No confiscation of my precious Uncle Henry. Just a friendly waves of dismissal.

They delay had cost me dearly. I caught the first train into Tokyo and by the time I got there I had seven minutes to navigate the enormous JAL terminal and catch the last bus to Osaka.

When I finally arrived and met my friend who had lived in Japan for a decade, I recounted my story.

"A knife!" He exclaimed. I can't believe they let you in with a knife, I've never heard of anything like this!"

"Three knives" I corrected him.

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