In the years that I have lived in my Tokyo neighborhood I have chanced to see or witness certain events. There is nothing exceptional about my neighborhood. I just remember each event and record them. Anyone could probably describe a similar list for their neighborhoods if they cared to.
I saw a house burn down on New Year’s Eve just behind my apartment building. It was probably a kitchen fire. What a time for the single mother of two to become homeless.
I saw an apartment on fire at 6:00 a.m. while I was walking to my local subway station one day. The burning unit was on the fifth floor of a six-floor building, and I could see that the flames were spreading to the unit immediately above it. I learned later that the residents of the flat had left a candle/candles burning all night as part of a religious rite (like a Christ Candle at Christmas time) and it got out of control.
I saw a motorcyclist have an accident on the street right in front of my eyes. By chance it was at a corner that featured a police box (“koban” in Japanese), and I watched as the policeman inside immediately dashed out of his box into the intersection to manage the situation. (Incidentally, there is also a hospital on that corner. The door to the Emergency Room was only about 15-meters from the accident, which is no guarantee that the injured rider would be taken there for care.)
I saw the Kanda River when it spilled over its cement containment walls during heavy rains a couple summers ago and flooded the surrounding neighborhood. Warning sirens like the air raid klaxons you hear in World War II movies were blaring for a long time. I had no idea such sirens even existed. I heard them and I thought to myself, “What’s that? It sounds like the air raid klaxons you hear in World War II movies.” Thankfully I live uphill from the river.
There was an arsonist in our neighborhood for a time. He kept to a small area near here torching trash and parked cars around 4:00 a.m. for a couple of months a few years ago. I think the police caught him.
I was on hand, watching with several hundred others, when the annual summer festival fireworks display at the public high school across the road from my apartment went awry, spilling sparks and flaming explosives onto the street. Fire trucks arrived quickly. It was very thrilling.
I saw a drunk man sleeping spread-eagled on the sidewalk early one morning. It looked like he had jumped out of the adjacent condominium tower and was dead. That’s what I thought at first, even though there was no blood or brain matter splashed on the pavement to support the idea. But he was only sleeping. Other pedestrians used their cell phones to call it in. (I do not have a cell phone.)
I arrived home from work one spring time Thursday afternoon a few years ago and had to press through several television news vans parked akimbo along the road. They were covering the shooting suicide of a young yakuza gangster in the garden of the public high school across the street that happened during that school’s Opening Ceremony, when the gym was packed with hundreds of students and their parents. I didn’t know what the commotion was all about until I read it in the morning papers the next day. The young man encountered some trouble with the police five or six kilometers away in Shinjuku’s famous red light Kabukicho district. He hijacked a taxi cab to flee and jumped out when he reached my neighborhood. It was a completely random choice of destination. For a few weeks afterwards strange-looking red light creatures of the night from Kabukicho visited our neighborhood to leave gifts of flowers and alcohol for their friend at the gates of the school’s gym.
I walked past another motorbike incident. I did not witness it as it happened but saw it moments after. There is a motorcycle repair shop near here (next to a noodle restaurant - one of the ubiquitous noodle restaurants in Japan!). A biker had just pulled out of the shop onto the street but immediately swerved to avoid an old lady who was walking at a snail’s pace across the street (the middle of the block, not a corner) and crashed. The gas tank was punctured and gasoline spilled onto the street. When I came along I saw the shop attendants rushing out with buckets of sand to spread on the pavement while others were helping the old woman still in the street. The rider appeared unhurt.
Once I saw a group of police officers picking through the contents of a garbage truck that had been emptied onto the street - Nakano Avenue, which is the main traffic artery here. Using long poles to probe the trash it looked like they were searching for human remains, or maybe a bag of cash that had been spotted.
Another time I saw two policemen on their white bicycles (policemen’s bicycles are always white) giving high-speed bicycle chase to a fleeing teenager. They were on the road, then the sidewalk, then back on the road again. Since I live on a hill it is easy to pick up speed quickly. It looked dangerous. The police were barking loud orders to the youth. I had to jump quickly out of the way to avoid a collision - with the kid, not the police.
Then on the morning of Sunday, March 16th I rode my bicycle to the local Family Mart convenience store at the Minamidai Intersection to get my morning Japan Times English-language newspaper. The Minamidai Intersection is a main intersection here, where Nakano Avenue crosses Honan Avenue. I saw a black cab stopped, not parked, next to the koban there. The passenger doors were open and I saw a policeman leaning in and talking to the occupant in the rear seat. I supposed the long-haired man standing next to the police officer was the driver. You know, you sometimes hear stories of passengers refusing to pay, or skipping out on cab fares, or threatening passengers, etc., and I guessed that what I was seeing might be one of those stories. In the convenience store I used the photocopy machine to prepare some Easter materials for work, and through the window I could look directly into the intersection. I was surprised because in the time it took to buy my paper and walk to the photocopy machine two police officers had wrestled a white-jeans wearing man out of the cab and were struggling with him on the sidewalk. Struggling pretty hard, too. It was quite a show. Other pedestrians passed the scene with just a quick glance. I was staring, too, kitty-corner from across the intersection, but I feel guilty dumbly watching others’ misery which is why for all of these neighborhood events that I am describing I only observe it and then move on. It’s respectful. Anyway, the gig was up for this guy. He could not get away, but I was surprised that two policemen could not subdue him. They had his arms held firmly behind his back, but it did not look like he was handcuffed yet. The man was kicking and pushing backward with his legs trying to dislodge the uniformed men grappling with him. But it was hopeless. The police just held him on the ground. I saw a third officer inside the police box pick up a telephone - calling for assistance, I guess - and I suppose the two grappling with the suspect were either going to wait until he was exhausted from struggling or else until backup arrived. One officer lost his cap. I noticed his early stage male pattern baldness, and by the time I was half-way home on my bike I could hear sirens approaching.
If I stay in Japan much longer I will probably live to see the next Big One to devastate the city - destroyed buildings, flaming ruins and towering infernos, and hundreds of dead bodies in the streets. I could be one of them.