Red Lights Running: Johnny Law in the Far East


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“A careful driver is one who honks his horn when he goes through a red light.”  ~Henry Morgan

“An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight.  The truly wise person is colorblind.”  ~Albert Schweitzer quotes

“Shut the front door!” I scream in my mind as I accelerate through the intersection, realizing I’m actually running a red light…with a Japanese police car right behind.

“Great, just great,” I think as I contemplate braking, but just as quickly realize that I’ve gone too far to stop.  If I did, I would have to back up, which would not be good if the cops had started to follow me through the light.

But the police car didn’t move….

And for the next block before my right turn, and even after that right turn for the four or five blocks until reaching the sanctuary of my condo building’s parking garage, I scanned my rearview mirrors much more than I did the road that lay ahead.

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You see, in Japan, the crosswalk signals for pedestrians utilize the exact same colors as the traffic lights intended for vehicular traffic.  In practice, this similarity might instead result in vehicular manslaughter for an inattentive American…much like me…and others I’ve seen doing the exact same thing.  Modern crosswalk signals in the United States generally use pictograms of an orange upraised hand and a white walking pedestrian.  Notice that the color scheme is just enough from our traffic light color convention that it’s not so easily confused.

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Most secondary or tertiary roads in Japanese neighborhoods signal a green “walk” to pedestrians only when all traffic lanes have a red and are stopped.  There is no turning on red either, so in essence, pedestrians have complete right of way by design.  Sometimes there are even diagonal crosswalks, which allows for 6-way pedestrian traffic all at once at busier intersections.  Cars in Okinawa are a much more recent technological invention, and with an older and much more island-time generation on the move, there is simply too much respect for pedestrian right-of-way that the “get out of the way!” attitude that can be prevalent in an inpatient ambulatory America.

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So, drivers here can find themselves sitting at a quiet intersection at night with a red light up over the car for traffic, and while looking at the cop with his emergency light on in their rearview mirror, the same driver can spy out of the corner of their eye a red light quickly flash to green…which means go, and go indeed we all do.  Green means go, right?

A Traffic Intersection in my Neighborhood

A Traffic Intersection in my Neighborhood

You see, the cop and his red swirling light distracted me.  One might think I was already in trouble, but seeing emergency lights in Japan is a much more common occurrence.  Why?  Simple:  Japanese police cars, both marked and even unmarked, routinely patrol with their red lights ON at night.  It’s almost impossible to resist the urge to pull over here when you see these lights; we Americans are so ingrained (at least if you attempt to follow most traffic laws) to pull over for emergency vehicles that it really is second nature.  However, in Japan, pulling over for mere red radiance is actually reason enough for the Japanese to, well, actually pull you over!

Police in Japan (like everywhere else in the world) pull over drivers because of suspicious action.  Ironically, suspicion is often produced when unknowing Americans slow down or pull over for a Japanese police car with their emergency lights on.  Pulling over in this Far Eastern nation for no apparent reason when trailed by a lighted police car may itself be probable cause enough to cause one some unnecessary troubling delay.

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A major – and perhaps the major part of law enforcement in Japan is to DETER crime and to ensure good public order.   The police in Okinawa are nothing like the cops and robbers of American television where the priority is on enforcing the law and catching criminals in the act…or shortly thereafter.  So, red lights in Japan don’t mean an emphatic and immediate “pull over!

“No, it’s a cardigan, but thanks for asking!”  ~ Harry Dunne, in Dumb & Dumber

When Japanese police do wish to ruin your day they use their siren and/or Public Address (PA) system, through which they can bark out instructions like the voice of god.  In fact, in Japan, emergency vehicles of all kinds seem to always be talking.  Some of it is a recording, but some are actually live announcements, like an intention to travel against a red, or to scold someone off their cell phone.  It’s a lot easier to issue a warning if you never have to leave your patrol car.

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BTW, the Japanese take driving and using a cell phone much more seriously than we do.  It is against the law, and punishments here don’t toy around with mere tickets or traffic school.  Instead, you simply lose your license.  The Japanese are, in fact, so weary of this that when they want to use their cells while driving, they simply place their hazard lights on and literally stop along the right of way, pulled over slightly, but still double-parked.  This often results in a nightmarish blockage of traffic…for which they should also lose their licenses.

Luckily for me, vehicle stops are relatively rare in Japan.  Hell, even seeing a police car actually patrolling the roads is relatively rare…compared to the states.  Japanese drivers do speed (but not by much), but are almost without exception polite and safe while on the road.  The most common reason for a traffic stop here is speeding; no surprise there.  But most of these “stops” are sweeping radar speed traps where you are actually waved off the road and receive punishment assembly-line style.  And Japan, like many other first-world countries, is moving more and more to traffic enforcement cameras.

Bicycle theft takes up more man-hours than traffic stops.

In Japan, bicycle theft takes up more man-hours than traffic stops.

I have no idea why these two particular cops, red running lights on, decided not to follow and stop me having literally run a red light.  Perhaps they saw my Y “Yankee” license plate (which only Americans have) and deduced my mistake…having surely seen it many times before.  That, combined with the lack of pedestrian and opposing traffic, probably was enough for them to shrug this off.  I wouldn’t have been so lucky at home.

Have you had a run-in with the law in Asia?  If you have, tell me about it here!

Say Hello Kitty to My Little Friend: Okinawa’s Scarface??


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“Of all injustice, that is the greatest which goes under the name of law; and of all sorts of tyranny the forcing of the letter of the law against the equity, is the most insupportable.”  ~ L Estrange

“Say HELLO (KITTY) to my little friends!!!!” says Scarface Sally to the Japanese Customs and Law Enforcement officials.  Of course the assault weapon of choice in Japan simply shoots peaceful love and hearts….

One of Jody’s coworkers recently received in the mail, without asking and quite by accident, a package of toiletries from their home, sent to Okinawa by her husband since he is getting ready to join her here.  The package consisted of the remnants of the medicine cabinet…which for most of us, is a perfectly normal thing to pack and send.

They should have read the script closer.  Seems harmless.

They should have read the script closer. Seems harmless.

Yes, these few pills, consisting of over-the-counter legal (in the United States, at least) Sudafed, and legally prescribed Percocet and Vicodin, in Japan makes one a drug trafficker.  A Drug Kingpin of sorts.  The head of a cartel no doubt.  Or at least that’s how Japanese officials treat such circumstance…and people…in a darker – but no less humorous – episode of the Far East Fling.

If AMC had ships to move people to Okinawa, they would be just like this one.

If AMC had ships to move people to Okinawa, they would be just like this one.

Scarface_Al-Pacino-wedding-suit-full_image-credit-Universal-Pictures-494x325sideshow-scarface-tony-montana-12-inch-figureImage Okinawa just like Florida during the height of the Mariel Boatlift.  They both share many similarities:  palms, climate, and latitude (if not attitude), and it suffers a continual flood of clearly criminalized Americans – if you believe the hype, that is.  And from our treatment by and actions of the military leadership we’ve experienced thus far, island- and service-wide, but particularly at my wife’s new duty station, it seems the American military flushed their own personnel toilet back home in the states, one which drains directly to Okinawa, much as Castro did between Cuba and Florida back in 1980.  In a concerted effort to elude the unavoidably resulting drug culture, Japan uses a “zero-tolerance” policy for most drug-related crimes, complete with hefty penalties.  And thank goodness, because the fashion associated with an emergence of Scarface Sally would be a HUGE step backwards for the esthetics of the population here…already borderline with their sense of style of hair color as it were.

The 80s live on permanently here in hair coloring & styles.

The 80s live on permanently here in hair coloring & styles.

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Just one Sudafed package away....

Just one Sudafed package away….

Japan, in a somewhat overly paranoid and uncharacteristic culture of fear, has a much different notion of what is considered an illicit drug.  For example, in order to stop Breaking Bad-inspired meth labs from spontaneously breaking out among the well-educated, homogeneous, and basically law-abiding Japanese citizenry, common over-the-counter medications for sinus and allergy problems are here downright banned.  Yes, I’m talking about the gateway drug of choice:  Sudafed!  No, you can’t even slink back to the Rx window of the local drugstore, wearing your dark sunglasses, looking wearily over your shoulder, just to get your fix…and clear your sinuses.  Nope – you might as well be the figurehead of a South American drug cartel if you neglected those ubiquitous pills left idly in your shower bag over the last three years.

Not Touring in Japan.

Not Touring in Japan.

And don’t even think about running your old prescription narcotic painkillers…even codeine is banned.  Have a valid prescription from a licensed medical doctor, and the pill bottle script matches your name to the letter?  Sorry, still not good enough.  Obviously if one went to all that trouble to get the drugs, one has certainly begun their slide down the slippery mucus-covered slope – ‘cause you can’t take Sudafed here – of a budding criminal enterprise.

Like Mustang Sally, but different.

Like Mustang Sally, but different.

When caught red-handed, and while the gravity of the situation started sinking in, Scarface Sally reached out to one of her Cartel Captains, my wife.  “Jody I need your help…this could be an all day and possibly most of the evening interrogation.  I don’t feel okay about our leadership…. [Scarface Sally’s command deserted here completely, not even providing a command rep or even checking in on her during her trial and tribulation].”

How Scarface Sally probably imagined herself in Japanese Jail.

How Scarface Sally probably imagined herself in Japanese Jail.

The ignorance of the law excuse provides no efficacy against character assassination once you, a nascent Scarface, are in-country.  No matter the circumstance, you can still be fined or jailed for bringing in illegal substances to Japan.  Simply received a package?  GUILTY!!  You can be held liable for such drugs that are mailed to you, much to your surprise and chagrin.  Hell, if I had known this is all it took to cause BIG trouble, I would’ve been sending multiple “special car packages” to my ex-wife all along, who remained in Okinawa for six months after my departure back in 2005 when we were then only separated.  While it still may be a man’s world and a woman’s court, I would assume that our legal system would not show so much compassion or deference to an international drug Kingpin.

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“When it’s over, let us know your prisoner and cell number so we can come visit you,” Jody writes Scarface Sally, in a clearly supportive and serious manner.  “Ha!!  Thanks for the loving support!!  Bring curry, dammit,” answered an upbeat Scarface Sally.  Curry here can be used as currency in the slammer, it appears.

Who polices cartoons???

Who polices cartoons???

Papers, please....

Papers, please….

Generally in Japan, a two month supply of over-the-counter meds and vitamins are okay, and a one month stash of Rx scripts are okay…but to a point:  any drug must first be allowed by Japanese law.  Even then, the “allowed” prescription drugs have to be permitted, and then a copy of the Rx must be included, along with a letter from your Doc stating the purpose of the drug.  Oh, and as our very own Scarface Sally found, you cannot mail prescription medicines without obtaining first a Yakkan-Syoumei import certification from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.  I’m sure that quite a simple and quick process (wink).  See, it’s like the Japanese government is pushing innocent and naive Americans into a dramatic life of crime.

I'm positive that this is a quick and easy process to navigate.

I’m positive that this is a quick and easy process to navigate.

“I have been temporarily released from questioning.  I have one more appointment to sign relinquishment paperwork for Vicodin and, oh yeah, the Sudafed that turned out to be in the box!  Yeah, that too is contraband here,” lamented Scarface Sally after spending all morning with Japanese customs.  Her afternoon with the Japanese police was yet to come.

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She was, in fact and in all seriousness, facing Jail time on the order of 14 years.  Getting out of her penal pickle turned out to be quite tricky, emotionally exhausting, and downright personally embarrassing.  Police interviews in Japan are long, drawn-out affairs, where legal representation is not allowed, and which are recorded only in written format.  For Scarface Sally, this meant an all-afternoon interrogation (after spending all morning with Customs), complete with a “translator” that much too often referred to his Japanese-to-English dictionary, and where, at the end of the day, Scarface Sally was mandated to sign her “confession,” which was totally written in Japanese and for which no translation was provided.  And in Japan, there is a 99% conviction rate for cases brought to court; putting your signature on a confession automatically leads to guilty verdicts….  Yikes.

I'm pretty sure the JNP - or Scarface Sally - were playing any games.

I’m pretty sure the JNP – or Scarface Sally – were playing any games.

So, this brings us to the idea of “Fair” versus “Right.”  Fair: Having or exhibiting a disposition that is free of favoritism or bias; impartial.  Right: That which is just, morally good, legal, proper, or fitting.  Both terms are rather easy to understand and easier still to recognize, no?

Following the letter of the law.  The cat no doubt sees this as completely "FAIR."

Following the letter of the law. The cat no doubt sees this as completely “FAIR.”

No, they actually aren’t.  In the real world, things are much more complex.

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Ask yourself this:  what is more important, the literal letter of the law, or its central spirit?  When obeying the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is in keeping with the law but not its intent.  Conversely, when following the law’s spirit but not its letter, appropriate legal intent is upheld, but the literal wording may be broken.  Most of us would hypothesize that it’s “unfair” for anyone to violate the law’s spirit, regardless of whether or not the letter of the law has been fully followed.  In other words, there has to be a realistic and pragmatic way to apply accepted social norms in the application of law, rule, or regulation.

If all this had been mailed to Scarface Sally, then interrogate her all you want....

If all this had been mailed to Scarface Sally, then interrogate her all you want….

A great example is this:  when is it “fair” for law enforcement to ticket speeders?  We all would be PISSED if we got ticketed for going 1 mph over the limit, and then there’s a point where almost no one would argue speeding as a ticketable offense – like for those traveling recklessly at 100 mph on a crowded highway.  The real rub, though, lies somewhere in the middle, where enforcement should be designed and tailored to have the most effect.  And that effect, I argue, should be to shape and mold behavior so that the SPIRIT of the law – regardless of what the literal reading of the law may be – is maintained.  So, using this example, on American highways, this number is somewhere around 82 mph.

Shots are not treated as drugs.

Shots are not treated as drugs.

Neither is beer.

Neither is beer.

Halfway through her police interrogation, Scarface Sally writes, “OMG, you would not believe everything they go through!!  It’s like a top secret security clearance questionnaire, only the Japanese guy is saying it in Japanese, and then the interpreter is interpreting into English after he consults a Japanese-to-English dictionary.  Then I have to sign the damn paper written completely in Japanese!  I even got questioned about John’s [her husband and chief drug mule] college major and the classes he took….”

What about all that South American coffee??

What about all that South American coffee??

So, rather than prosecute harmless Americans for mistakenly mailing prescription meds when moving overseas, perhaps the Japanese could focus their efforts in a better on the sizeable American community resident on Okinawa.  For instance, an aggressive – and anonymous “Drug Turn In” program, conducted jointly with US and Japanese customs and law enforcement officials, along with a robust education initiative to better educated us stupid Americans about what we can’t bring into the country, could fetch most “illicit” drugs, getting them off the mean streets of Okinawa, and out of Japanese communities, which is EXACTLY the spirit of the strict Japanese laws on drugs.  While the military hospital on the island does offer a drug turn-in program, it’s more focused on helping to keep the water clean, rather than keep poor American sailors out of Japanese jails.  Oh, and let’s not forget the many thousands of household goods deliveries that happen every year here, which go almost completely unscreened.  I’m sure none of those shipments had medicines from back home; I know that ours did not (wink!).

I don't see Scarface's mule trail to Okinawa.

I don’t see Scarface’s mule trail to Okinawa.

“OMFG Jody, they have made me recount my entire life history, including all my kids names, dates of birth, addresses, parents vitals…EVERYTHING….  This is nerve wrecking, but at least they are nice to me.”  The demure Japanese police were probably scared of Scarface Sally.  I know I am.  “I just feel like a criminal.”

Some anime should be against the law.

Some anime should be against the law.

Spending this amount of effort on an American commissioned office, with a clean record, who recently just moved to Okinawa, is silly.  Focusing these many resources on an ignorant American who had nothing to do with her husband innocently mailing some meds to her after packing up their house is just frackin’ silly.  The whole scenario is not, in a word, “fair.”  And it certainly misses the mark, the very spirit of the Japanese law.  Good news for our starring villainess though; after apologizing profusely, batting her long eye-lashes, and shedding shameful tears, she was finally released.  Japan got their pound of emotional flesh, and what do they have to show for it?

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Scarface Sally’s personal stash of decongestants and painkillers.  Which she can refill at work anytime she wants….

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Read more about the law and fairness here:  Social Norms and Fairness.