Pros / Cons of Life in Japan #2 Fighting

Mike GristJapan, Pro / Con 9 Comments

Fighting in real-life is pretty dumb. You’ve gotta be a drunk or some kind of psycho to go around initiating fights with real people, though there are doubtless plenty of both. I remember being yelled out countless proposals to fight while walking pub-to-club on the night-streets of Bolton, UK, as though they were casual invitations to dance. There was the same pulse-quickening excitement, flushed faces, the same hopeful anticipation. I’m sure it happens every night still.

It’s strange, but then some people just like to fight, like Begby in Trainspotting (though more accurately he just liked to glass people in the face). Those of us unprepared to lock horns with such idiots do well to muffle our ears and stay out of their way.

Japan is the perfect place to do that.


I’ve lived in Japan for quite a while, and have never once been attacked, and only twice drawn into a fight. Of course I’ve heard wild stories, as everyone has- of yakuza shootings in downtown Shinjuku, someone getting their arm cut off with a ninja-blade in Roppongi, as well as endless tall tales from my old gym-mate who swore he once round-house kicked 5 rowdy salarimen in the face with one blow (and also broke his girlfriend’s four-poster oak bed with his vigorous technique), and so on… The fact remains though, real-life fighting just doesn’t happen here.

Except for the few times it does. I’ve been in two sort-of-fights in my Tokyo tenure, really just scuffles. Here they are-


In my first year in Japan I worked at an eikaiwa (English conversation school) in western Tokyo. The school’s manager was my friend, and frequently stayed at the school late (often sobbing alone in her office because Head Office were brutal in their expectations), long after I and everyone else had gone home. Part of her job was to do preliminary interviews with potential students, and do everything she could to sign them up- and to accomplish that she was probably extremely friendly.

One young J-guy took that friendly manner for true affection, and started showing up at the school after-hours. I heard about it from her a few times, but didn’t think much of it because she laughed about it and said he was ‘sweet’ and begging her for a date, and would leave when she asked. Her business, I thought.

Then one time she locked the door on him, but he pushed hard enough to disengage the locks and chase her into the school. Quite scary? I lived within 10 minutes walk of the school, and had told her I’d come and try to help if he came again, but that time she only called after he’d left. Nothing had happened, except him looming around intimidatingly. She was pretty shook up. I suggested going to the police to report him, but she said no. Being new to Japan, I acceded, not knowing the culture.

Then maybe a week later he came back, and she called me. I sped off to the school. I arrived there out of breath, to see some guy exiting the elevator. Plainly this was him. It was a very odd moment as I watched him walk away, uncertain if I should do something or just let him go. Clearly there was no present danger. Still, I was concerned about what might happen in the future, so I figured I’d try to scare him off. I gave him a few shoves (which felt very uncomfortable, to be the aggressor), and yelled at him to clear off.

To my surprise though, he didn’t turn tail and run away, as I’d rather expected (and hoped). Instead, he took a swing at me. And so, we got into a fight.

It was surreal, kind of herky jerky and through a haze, as commuters walked past us into the train station. He punched, so I punched back. He kicked, so I kicked back. It seemed like he wanted the fight more than me. At one point I got worried he might knee me in the balls, so I did it to him first. At another I thought he might head-butt me, so I did it to him first.

He suggested, via motions and enough Japanese for me to understand, that we should go continue fighting in a nearby alleyway. I really didn’t understand that. I didn’t want to fight more, only wanted to drive him off. At one point in a lull, I became conscious of people on the street staring at me. Though I’d been in Japan only a short time, I’d heard enough to expect that I’d be the one to pay if the police got involved. Scenarios of being deported thrummed through my head, and I walked away.

What is the point of telling this story? Hmm. Let’s hear another while we consider.


One night many years ago while out clubbing in Roppongi I stopped with some friends to eat a Subway sandwich. Lying sprawled on the shop-floor before us, underneath the tables and chairs, was a very drunk-looking white guy. We laughed a bit, but he seemed unconscious. However a few minutes later he roared to life like a Kraken from the deep and started hurling out insults.

So I got up and tried to push him out of the shop. We were both drunk and it became an awkward kind of standing wrestling. At last I managed to push him out. He prowled outside a while longer, but nothing more.

So that is my fighting history in Japan. Both times my aim was to just get rid of someone. The point is, there is hardly any fighting in Japan, and that is without doubt a PRO.

So what could a CON possibly be?


This one is a bit tongue-in-cheek. It can be summed up in the words of Jesus thusly:

Japan “maketh them to lie down in green pastures” and become one as the sheep (I added the last bit but it basically works.)

I’m not talking sheep as in robotic automatons. I’m talking sheep as in defenceless frightened animals. Not that all Japanese are defenceless and frightened- the guy who offered to go continue fighting in a nearby alleyway suggests otherwise. But generally, the utter pacificity of this country tends to make calm and trusting pacificists of us all.

In fact this plays into the point I made in the #1 Pro / Con post on walking. Walk-in-fronters here amble and gambol across the fast-lane paths like spring lambs, oblivious to fast-walkers coming through at speed from behind. Their trust in the world around them to protect them is absolute, so no concern for personal safety need be expended.

Surely though that is a good thing? Absolutely, I’m in agreement. It seems positively enlightened to live in such a society (where even George Costanza would have a hard time complaining about anything).

However it does have a softening effect, like leaving a tooth in a Coca Cola petri dish. The sweet and sugary soda will eventually erode the tooth’s hard outer enamel and then eat into the middle until there is nothing but a slurry of calcium Coke remaining. Again, maybe not a bad thing. It makes us all to lie like lambs amongst each other. But it also leaves us incredibly unprepared for events such as this:

The foreign-guy seemed pretty belligerent, maybe with just cause, in the beginning. He’s saying:

“Don’t touch me, I’m not your friend, don’t put your hand there!” in Japanese, with a challenging look on his face. A lamb acting like a wolf in front of his friends? Then when the J-guy kicks him, and punches him, what does he do?

He gets up (careful not to drop or spill his beer, we must note, perhaps one thing to be proud of), basically holds the attacker’s hand in a strange re-seating dance, then sits down again and tries to look hard, while his friend gives the J-guy “a good talking-to”.

Hmm. There is obviously shock in a situation like this. But to take that hard kick and punch and then do nothing but dance? I think that is Japan sheepifying this guy. He has run up against a sneaky wolf, and been thumped. If that can be considered a CON, then it is a con.

Comments 9

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      Yeah crazy. It looks like the J-guy was either spreading himself out too much or being overly friendly, so the gaikoku was saying “don’t touch me, I’m not your friend.” Maybe the J-guy felt rejected? Certainly the gaikoku was giving him mean face. Blammo. Unholstered his ninja kick.
      In part have to respect his balls going after a guy with two friends around him.

      1. yeah the japanese guy is has some pretty big cojones… I think that his attitude pretty much deterred the gaijins to do anything. I mean that ninja kick came out of nowhere and the guy seemed fearless…
        anyway, back to topic, I think your argument is totally right. back in Europe, this would have ended in blood… I also saw my share of tensed moments with drunken salaryman but never had any problem myself and I think if something should happen, I’d probably be at loss as to what to do… you lose all your self-defense reflexes here. A female friend of mine said japan makes you weak because you’re losing all these reflexes like taking care of your belongings because nobody’s gonna rob you, not going to certain places at certain hours because Japan is basically safe everywhere all the time…
        your survival instincts are clearly going down here because you never have to worry about anything…

  1. Nice clip and nice kick in the head. You don’t think that deserved some retaliation? Even the audience seemed to think so.
    I had a couple of scuffles in Japan involving some shoving with rude, fiesty, 40-something J-men (you know the type) on trains/stations. They didn’t need to escalate in the first place really, and I kept/regained my calm. Okay, one guy probably deserved to be clobbered, but the one thing holding me back was the fear of the situation I would quite likely find myself in when the guy was KO’d and his Shepherds came. So the beast was restrained, and I only had to chat for a while with the Shepherds, make peace, while the loonies ranted away. End result – no repercussions (Pro for Peace), though I felt somewhat emasculated for backing down and looking weaker than Mr Toad (Con for Pride?)

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      I would have expected some retaliation, for sure. But clearly the guy was too stunned / sheepified to do anything.
      Glad to hear the beast was restrained 😉 And Pro for Peace! What are Shepherds though?

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  2. I wonder if that’s because of the whole samurai culture. Where if you fight back with those in power, you’re likely to be executed, which pacified the people. Now, since we are an adaptive species, those that live in Japan for an extended period of time take on the cultural traits that served the people well.

    Or something.

  3. Very nice clip and great article. Being in the nation of Martial Arts, they seem to be hard wired to fight. From what I know, Japanese are not quarrelsome but do not leave if something comes their way. THey are hard working and determined people.

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