Surprise, surprise! If this was on your wall in Tokyo, the police might show up on your doorstep after neighbourhood busybodies called in complaints about indecency. A friend in Tokyo had this happen to him this week. This incident was after a previous one when the police “randomly” stopped him on the street last week and asked to see his papers. (I question the randomness, because I wonder if he is being targeted by one of his neighbours.) This time they said somebody complained about the artwork and nude figure studies on his walls that could be seen through the windows. Yes, inside his house on his walls where they were not affecting the daily lives of anybody except him if he wanted to add a few more lines or change the display.
This incident seems even more preposterous if you have ever met this guy. You can tell by looking at him that he is a nice guy. He is not a hooligan or a thug; he is too old to be a delinquent but too young to be an eccentric old man. The apricot toy poodle on the leash must be what makes him look threatening, right? He is a family fan as well as the owner of a local business and popular instructor. He is also active in the arts community in Tokyo and regularly organizes events frequented by a wide variety of people. He is always willing to make new friends regardless of their skin colour, appearance, or sexual inclination; he accepts people as they are. He is the kind of guy that opens doors for people and offers a helping hand should you need it. Does he seem like the kind of guy you would want to call the cops about?
A busybody who lives nearby seems to have developed an unhealthy interest in my friend and his business. Perhaps they watched too many TV shows or news programmes coloured to suggest that most crime in Japan is committed by foreigners such as the Chinese triads and Iranian gangs in Ueno park. Yakuza? Who are they? It is also safer to report on foreigners and kick them out of the country rather than local gangs who could seek revenge. Or maybe somebody took those posters at the train station a little too seriously — signs that say Japan is on high alert and that ask you to report suspicious activity to the proper authorities. Do they think he is running a terrorist cell in a residential area? Are those foreigners or young children with their backpacks bringing in art supplies or parts to make a bomb? People forget that terrorism in Japan is usually homegrown, such as the Nihon Sekigun (Japanese Red Army) or Aum Shinrikyo. This racial profiling instigated by the media and the insular attitudes prevalent here have resulted in my friend being persecuted by some snoop with too much spare time on their hands.
The image that the media shows of a Japan where everything is acceptable, especially the unusual, is very different from everyday life here. Most people are quite conservative, especially in anything that might affect others. Remember the saying of square pegs in round holes or the one about bamboo having to be flexible or it will break in the wind? These sayings stress conformity. People go to great lengths to avoid mei-waku. This can mean anything from a slight inconvenience to outright harassment. You do not want to do anything that might trouble those around you in any way regardless of how much you yourself might be inconvenienced. The extremes that people are willing to go to avoid mei-waku can be mind-boggling at times. Please remember that most people here have dark hair, brown eyes, and often other physical characteristics. Students and employees wear uniforms, and dress codes that include hair length, hair colour, earrings, and so on are strictly enforced — even if somebody was born with a different colour of hair. The country appears homogenous on the surface despite the actuality of its long history of blending with Korean, Chinese, and other cultures. If one tiny thing is different, it stands out. Local communities and now apartments are often run by formalized groups consisting of local residents. They manage garbage disposal, local clean-ups, and neighbourly disputes. Participation is not mandatory, but opting out is greatly frowned upon. This also explains why so many young people from small towns gather in Harajuku to show off their outlandish outfits and why tinkerers create weird contraptions; these are socially acceptable ways to deal with individualism that do not reflect the nation as a whole.
This desire for conformity seems to be increasing in strength recently with more right-wing policies, increased xenophobia, and paranoia about terrorism and other bad things coming to this island country. Numerous articles and blogs discuss racism and prejudice in Japan in detail, so I won’t even try. I will say, however, that in a city where nude statues of women are found in every park and lewd posters of almost naked women are plastered everywhere, including on magazine covers and in trains where small children can see them, it is preposterous that somebody be persecuted for having figure studies of the human body on the walls of his art studio and school. Somebody is using his art to attack him, because it is not yet a crime to come from another country or have skin of a different colour — or maybe that should have been written as “no longer a crime”. Who really was committing acts of indecency here?
Note: I used my own drawings to illustrate this because I wanted to write this while I was still upset. I did not want to wait for him to have the free time to choose one of his beautiful drawings. My apologies to him. If you want to show him your support by sending a message or taking classes at his art school, he can be contacted at Ebisu Atleier d’Art. That website also includes a link to the school’s blog with more photos and information about the fine work he does on his own and in the classroom.