Recently, women have been at the forefront of the media; from International Women’s Day to Meghan Markle’s conversation with Oprah to the disappearance of Sarah Everard in London. Naturally, when something is highlighted in the media, it becomes the topic of conversation and, of course, people have different opinions. One of the opinions, relating specifically to the latter topic, is that when we talk about women being attacked, harassed and murdered, that it is their responsibility to take care of themselves and to be ‘safe’. The argument that Sarah ‘should not have walked home’ is one that I myself heard in a police station in Japan.
The necessary details of the incident: I had been drinking (but was sober at the time of the incident), I was wearing black jeans, a work blouse and a fake leather jacket (because vegetarian). I was wearing my blonde hair down, I was wearing shoes, I had eaten BBQ for dinner and the moon was crescent.
I’d been out drinking with friends and, not confident enough with my Japanese ability to call a taxi (never mind give directions to my house) I decided to walk home. My phone was on low battery and had died about 10 minutes into the journey, a journey that took me 5-10 minutes in the car.
It took a lot longer than 10 minutes to get home. I walked by the main road, next to rice fields, then across the bridge that covered the river and upwards toward my house in the mountains. It was only when I was 2 minutes away from my house, as I passed the coin laundrette and saw a car outside by the vending machine, that something happened.
On seeing a man at the vending machine, I crossed the road. He turned and shouted something to me in Japanese that I didn’t understand. Then he asked me in Japanese if I needed a lift, I said ‘no’, he asked where I lived, I answered ‘close by’ and he asked me again and I waved my hand generally in front of me, saying again ‘I’m fine, I don’t need a lift, thank you’. Very quickly he had crossed the road, walked up towards me and touched my body without permission. I didn’t have the vocabulary in Japanese to say ‘f**k off’ so I just said no again, but he persisted. I eventually got him away from me and started to run, extremely worried because, as I said, I was right near my house.
After turning the corner, pretty shook up and quite emotional, I heard the rumbling of a kei car engine. The guy had followed me and was driving next to me. He rolled down his window and asked if I wanted some water, holding a bottle out of the window. I politely said no thank you and moved as far away from the car as I could on the narrow mountain road. He continued to drive next to me for a few minutes, as I ignored him, until he said something else and drove away. After I was sure that his car was completely out of sight, I doubled-back, turned and sprinted up the street towards my house in the absolute dark. I got in, had a panic attack, charged my phone and called Ste.
The days that followed were really difficult. The day after the incident I struggled to do anything; I just called home a lot, tried to process what had happened and distract the previous trauma that was resurfacing. I eventually decided to contact the police.
I entered the police office, which consisted of only men and was spoken to by one police officer who, while seemingly lovely, quite ignorantly stood with my seated face at his waist-height. I was then led to a tiny room, past more men, to be interviewed by two men about what had happened. Somebody was there to translate.
It started off alright, I just had to point on a map where I walked from and where it happened, where I lived etc. But then they started to ask for details and I got a bit upset. They suggested taking my clothes for evidence. While I was crying they just sat and waited, offering no comfort whatsoever. They then acted out what I had described and asked, with a demonstration, if I’d been tackled. This strange pantomime of assault continued with similar questions; did this happen? Did he touch you like this? Or like this?
When I said that I hadn’t been grappled or pulled into the car, they told me that it wasn’t serious and that they wouldn’t need my clothes. One man tried to sketch the person out and got mad at me when I said that it wasn’t very accurate. I described the car. I was told multiple times that I was lucky, that if the event would have happened near the rice fields I could have been raped and killed and, of course, that I shouldn’t have walked home alone.
The one piece of warmth from my time at the police station came from the chief of police. He came and spoke to me after the questioning. He comforted me and apologised for something that wasn’t his fault, gave me a torch and a whistle and he said that, although I shouldn’t have to, it would be safer not to walk home after dark (bearing in mind the sun can set as early as 3pm in Japan). Now, I know this isn’t perfect, but at the time, in comparison to everything else I had faced, this comment was a lot of comfort. This was the first time anyone except Ste, my friend from home and my family, hadn’t told me that this ordeal was completely and entirely my own stupid fault and that I was lucky.
Afterwards, I was recommended to keep what happened to me a secret to avoid ‘gossip’ and, when speaking to a friend about my experience at the police station, was told that that’s just the system here. Meanwhile, announcements in Japanese bellowed across the town about a strange man and to be careful. Despite seeing the car again in the daytime and reporting it to the police, nothing happened.
While the experience itself was pretty grim, what made things worse was the reaction and attitudes of people around me and the institutions that should’ve made me feel safe. And before we fall into the ‘that happened in Japan, it isn’t relevant in the UK’ argument, sadly you’re wrong. I’ve had more frequent experiences in the UK and some were much worse than the experience that I’ve spoken about today; and the reason I’m writing this post is that so have almost all women. The only difference for me with this incident is that it was the first time I overcame that niggling anxiety that reporting what happened would cause more danger and that no one would believe me anyway.
Women are being belittled, insulted, terrified, sexualised and murdered. This isn’t a little issue and it has nothing to do with the ‘type’ of woman or the way that they are dressed. It’s an issue for women of colour, trans women, women dressed casually, in sports gear, women in hijab and women showing their legs. It’s an issue for women wearing makeup and those who aren’t. Most importantly, it’s an issue for men.
It isn’t all men, but for those using that sentiment as a response or counter argument to the serious threat to women, what does that statement do to address the issue and ensure safety? Not all sharks attack humans, but you could be justified for panicking if you saw a shark fin while you were out swimming in the sea.
Maybe, instead of arguing that not all men are bad, we focus on the ones that are, the systems that reinforce those behaviours and the toxic attitudes that allow this to happen so frequently. We can ensure that people are properly educated, we can believe and support the women who have been put into these positions, rather than shaming them into silence because their experience confronts our world view. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds more productive.
For the women who have experienced any sort of violence and/or harassment, it is worth reporting. I know my experience isn’t exactly inspiring, but it does make a difference and I would recommend going ahead with someone to support you. That said, I also know the intense fear and mental ploughing that comes with deciding to report, so, if you can’t, it isn’t your fault. You have done absolutely nothing wrong. You wore the right clothes, you walked the right route home, you said the right things and you reacted the right way.
This blog is all about positivity and using your inner strength to overcome adversity; but this is one adversity that nobody should have to overcome and I am positively sure of that.