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PRISON JAPAN / day six

SATURDAY, MAY 19, 2007 ---- Menace, My Partner in Crime.
Menace High and Chris
Menace and Cristal Meth hijinking
in their manzai comedy phase of 2008
In my first few years in Japan I did not actively seek out foreigner friends and was determined to immerse myself in the culture despite my painfully slow progress with the language. For the first half of the 2000s I lived in a guest house in Iriya in Taito Ward called Liberty House, not really a gaijin house although quite a few foreigners stayed there. They didn't really stay there that long since Liberty House was a bit of a dive and I just let them flicker in and out of my life, like comets. Louise the lovely lass from Copenhagen, and Rudolphe the aristocratic Frog. As the decade wore on the number of foreigners staying at Liberty House declined, and I found myself spending more and more time with Japanese. Sometimes I would go weeks without speaking to another gaijin. This was in spite of the fact that in early 2003 my old roommate and clubbud Crystal Meth moved to Japan with his Japanese wife, and sired two children. They lived at Takao near the mountains west of Tokyo for a few years, before gravitating to a beautiful old house with its own garden and fish pond right in the middle of the party district in Kichijoji. Meth's brother Garnet Mae (director of the notorious Meat Pie movie, starring the oncefamous Australian comedian Austen Tayshus or however you spell his name) would sometimes come out and visit him, and they would remodel the house together, make a wall out of a door, get all dirty and then wash off the dirt at a neighborhood sento, and then we would run amock. This decadence happened but once or twice a year, and the rest of the time I lived like a good Japanese citizen, surrounded by mostly Japanese people. I got used to their mild personalities and generally polite behaviour. I tried hard not the make much noise on the train. I obeyed the law. The only drug I abused was alcohol, and in Japan you can buy that docodemo (anywhere), itsudemo (anytime).

That all changed the afternoon I met Menace.

This is what I didn't know at the time (September or October 2006 if I remember correctly): Menace was never a popular man wherever he was, and most people found him overbearing. You could put it down to an inferiority complex or a tortured childhood, but the man was always trying too hard to impress. Even when he professed not to give a fuck. He once told me (this was sometime after our release from the Kitazawa Police Station, in our giddyfree summer of 2007) that whenever he got on a train he would eyeball all the fellow passengers, all the mellow old guys in gray suits, and basically stare them under the table. He said he was trying to prove to everyone who was the "alpha male". Unlike all the other passengers on the train he didn't have a ticket because as the alpha male he deserved to travel free. Menace had a dog-eat-dog approach to life and his attitude undoubtedly played a part in our being locked up so long... as I was eventually to realize, bad stuff always happened to me when I hung out with him. To use the old cliche, he was (and probably still is) an accident waiting to happen. I am not at all surprised he ended his career in a South American jail. The funny thing is, at the time we were arrested in Japan, I actually looked up to him, and I was kind of glad that we were in the clink together.

Now as I write this (September 2009) Menace is in jail again, this time terminally. I got the email from Meth last night confirming it: Menace was arrested in Peru at the end of last year trying to smuggle cocaine out of the country. He is now living in the "shittiest of shitty conditions", as Meth put it, possibly suffering from Manic Depression. The last time I saw him was nearly a year ago, just before I started suffering my panic attacks. My panic attacks are subsiding; will Menace's Manic Depression ever end? I fear for him. Peru is no place to be doing time.

This is now; what was then, on my sixth day behind bars in Japan, way back in May 2007? From what I remember, it was almost a pleasant day. After lolling around all week in the same clothes without recourse to a hot shower, I was delighted to discover sometime around exercise time that today was bath day. Japanese holding cell culture dictates that detainees can bathe or shower only once every fifth day. Since I missed bathtime on Day Two on account of being hauled into the grim cells and hard stares of the Tokyo Police Department headquarters, I had gone nearly a week without having a wash. Why they only let you bathe once every five days is beyond me: they have a whole modernly equipped bathroom just down the hall from the cells, and most of the time it sits idle. I suppose it is another discomfort they impose on you in the name of discipline. On the plus side: this being Japan the holding cell bathroom is wonderful, just like a neighborhood sento (bathhouse), with plenty of waterwork activity going on: little plastic stools to sit on while you wash yourself with numerous cleansing products and your own private tap of blasting, cleansing hot or cold water. As is the Japanese style, the idea is to cleanse yourself on the stools before jumping into the communal tub, where the real pleasure awaits. The difference between here and your local bathhouse is that here your fellow bathers are criminals, and the usual restrictions against tatooes do not apply. You can rub shoulders, naked ones at that, with the junior up-and-comers of the yakusa.

As I wrote to myself at the time: If I thought Moving House was tough, going to prison has been a personal disaster of truly Biblical proportions. Nonetheless, I have been here 6 days already, and I am still alive... in fact, I am kind of settling in. I don't even have a computer now, let alone a TV... but I have a very very old Comfort Zone to fall back upon, one which dates from my childhood but has fallen into disuse in the last decade and a half: this is the Comfort Zone of writing with a pen and a pad of paper. When I get out of here, I will be able to type it up onto a text file on my east Tokyo offline computer, save it to a disk, and then upload it to the Net from a friend's house or Internet cafe or whatever.

Hope Springs Eternal. A large communal bath filled right to the top. This being a prison though, the characters in the bathroom were a heck more colorful than those you would find in your typical suburban sento. At one stage today, the tub was playing host to two young yakuza guys, at least one of their backs covered with lurid tattoos. (As anyone acquainted with Japan will know, tattoos are banned in most Japanese communal baths.) It was like a scene from an anime film, but the catch was: this was real. And the fact it was real makes all the difference.

Read the complete Prison Japan chronicles:

Contact the author Rob Sullivan at All comments will be published at the bottom of this page. Anticopyright October 2007.