The question was meant to be sarcastic when Patrik Wallner asked Kenji Haruta if anyone in Okinawa had ever had their car broken into. Kenji responded seriously and without hesitation.
Later, he reconsidered.
“Oh, maybe one time, like, back in the day.”
I find it fascinating that there is a country where the threat of getting robbed is an afterthought. I’ve spent most of my adult life in places where the opposite is the case, where you must always be on guard against some kind of petty thievery. Living in San Francisco, I’ve had my car’s window smashed and all my belongings cleared out for leaving nothing more than an iPhone charger visible. Japan has always intrigued me for the simple fact that crime of this nature is extremely uncommon, if not basically unheard of. How can that be?
Our Visualtraveling trip began on the island of Okinawa and made its way through four major cities on the mainland of the Rising Sun: Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Osaka and Tokyo. Laurence Keefe, who is a veteran on the near ten-year run of Visualtraveling trips, has been living in Japan for the last seven years. He speaks the language fluently and has smoothly assimilated to the culture. In the recent past, VT trips have leaned towards the more unusual, off-the-beaten path destinations where people don’t usually go for tourism, let alone skateboarding. These are countries where, beyond personal property theft, the threat of someone stealing you as a person can be real and very scary. To avoid that sort of unwanted stress, we decided on Japan. With Laurence as a member of the crew and our official translator/local liaison, the trip was thrown together with haste, each of us scrounging together enough last minute travel budget from various sponsors to make it happen.
I asked Laurence at one point during the trip about the lack of petty crime in Japan. In response, he poignantly referenced a Japanese proverb that translates to, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” In Japan, doing things outside of the norm is not encouraged. It’s not that the threat of criminal punishment is so high, it’s the fear of the social stigma that comes with being a deviant. In general, the Japanese don’t like to stand out, and if they do, it’s not for doing something bad.
This got me thinking. What would happen if I stole something? From the sound of it, severe punishment would not be what I’d face. It’s not like they’d chop off the hand I’d used to steal, like they might do in Saudi Arabia. From my observations, the Japanese people, especially the police, while quite serious, seem very nice. What’s the worst that could happen to me?
I began to plot my act of larceny while frequenting one of the 7-Eleven convenience stores in Osaka. When we weren’t skating or resting back at the AirBnB, the majority of our time in Japan was spent wandering the aisles of 7-Elevens, Family Marts, or other one-stop-shop convenience stores. Wherever you find yourself standing in Japan, there’s a good chance that you’re within eyesight of at least one of said stores. Just counting 7-Elevens, there are over 19,000 in Japan. That’s nearly one third of all the 7-Elevens in the world!
So anyways, I’m in the 7-Eleven, planning my move to steal a magazine. I walk over to the magazine rack, where I find Phil Zwijsen and Denny Pham giggling over a comic magazine. It’s a strange one, the characters are drawn with an anime style and they’re extremely overly sexualized. Laurence walks over and suggests that we look at the magazine with his namesake, another comic that’s much weirder and dirtier. If you live in Japan, you know Laurence magazine. Most of the dirty magazines, including Laurence, are taped shut so as to prevent any sneak peaking. We, of course, routinely disregarded this attempted censorship and would carefully remove one end of the double sided tape. This provided enough of a glimpse to decide whether or not the magazine would be worth purchasing. It was never worth it.
Looking at the endless stock of dirty magazines, I decide that stealing one will be too tricky an operation. Where will I put it? Besides, if I do get caught, I don’t want to look like a pervert.
I move over to the drink selections. A beverage will be easier to slip into my pocket and just walk out, I tell myself. Patrik is deliberating with Nestor Judkins and Michael Mackrodt over which kind of canned coffee is superior. Unlike anywhere else I’ve been in the world, Japanese convenience stores have a hot canned selection of teas and coffees. I consider taking one of the hot cans, but I quickly decide against it. The cans are actually scalding, so there’s the risk that it could burn my leg if left in my pocket for too long. I consider the iced coffee selections next. Nestor prefers the black, unsweetened brands, where as Michael recommends the milky, sugary kinds. By this point, Patrik has moved away from the coffees to peruse the beers. I follow his lead. One thing that’s strange about Japan is that despite their strict laws for nearly everything, drinking on the street is perfectly legal. Another thing that’s strange about Japan: Public garbage cans are practically impossible to find! It’s bizarre. If you’re someone who hates to litter, it’s a troubling place to be.
Now, I’ve never been a thief. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever shoplifted anything in my life. But in Japan, I tell myself, I’m not worried about the consequences, the embarrassment, or the social stigma. I’m a tourist! Tourists, especially American ones, do stupid things all the time, right? And would the friendly Japanese cashier even notice? And if he did, would he do anything?
Suddenly I think back to my second day in Okinawa, when I accidentally left ten yen (about ten US cents) in change on a coffee shop’s counter. The barista ended up chasing me for an entire city block to return my coin! At the time I was so shocked, I didn’t even know what to say. If she’d already run so far to return it, offering it back to her with a friendly, “Oh no, that’s for you,” would have been awkward. I later found out from Laurence that leaving a tip is not customary in Japan and in some instances the act can even be considered rude. So, I think to myself, if a barista was willing to chase me down to return ten cents, a cashier will undoubtedly do something if he sees me steal a beer. Would he chase me down too? He’d probably think it was just an honest mistake, at which point I’d buckle and apologize, either handing him the beer or walking back with him to pay for it.
With my heart pounding, contemplating which beer I should steal, I realize that I’ve been looking at the selection for too long. Everyone in the crew has already left the 7-Eleven. They’re probably already heading to the next skate spot!
Skateboarding in Japan usually involves a lot of pushing around the densely populated, futuristic cities, marveling at the magnificence of so many beautiful skate spots as you cruise. But because of efficient security and constantly prowling police, you only manage to skate each spot for a few minutes. As a result, the group just keeps it moving and it’s easy to get separated, as I often did on this trip. Looking at the drinks in the 7-Eleven, now sweating with anxiety, I abandon the plan to shoplift and instead rush out of the store, flushed and nervous.
Catching up to the crew, we push around for a few blocks before arriving at yet other incredible skate spot. It’s a high bust embankment complete with beautiful Japanese characters in the background. Only a few local Japanese dudes have skated it before. I’m feeling guilty about having almost stolen a beer so I sit down next to Patrik, ready to confess my sins. Patrik loves skates spots like these, as they offer an opportunity for Patrik to document not only a good trick but an aesthetic unique to the country we’re visiting. Patrik is so meticulous a documentarian, he’ll often refuse to film a trick if the background isn’t interesting enough. I can tell he’s hoping someone is going to skate it, ready to whip out his camera and steady cam rig. In the meantime, he opens up a bottle of beer. It’s a brand I haven’t yet seen, one that looks to be something like an IPA. Most of the beers in Japan are light, cheap and boring. This one looks delicious.
“How much was that one?” I ask Patrik, hoping to ease into my confession.
“I don’t know,” he responds. “I didn’t pay for it. I stole it.”
My jaw drops. Patrik had been stealing beers from convenience stores all along? As one of the most moral, honest travelers I’ve ever met, I stare at him in awe, disapproving but envious all the same.
Patrik holds his serious expression for a few seconds before cracking a smile, revealing his classic use of awkward sarcasm. I smile back, relieved, but also slightly disappointed.
“No, I’d never steal anything in Japan.”
Patrik goes on to explain how foreigners who steal in Japan often get deported and banned for life.
Phew, I think to myself, no longer willing to tell him what I’d almost done. That was close.
As my life of petty crime in Japan never took off, I’m happy to say I’ll be returning in the future. The spots were amazing, the food was delectable, and the local Japanese skaters in each city were overly hospitable. As another Japanese proverb goes, “Even a thief takes ten years to learn his trade.” If you’re like me and simply like to skate, just stick with what you know.
If you know Patrik Wallner, then you know that he’s extremely particular about getting certain shots for his videos. Sometimes an entire skate trip will revolve around a single shot in a distinctive geographical locale or surrounding an interesting human phenomenon. For example, during my first Visualtraveling trip in 2011, we went all the way to Bangladesh so Patrik could capture the locals returning to the city after Ramadan, riding en masse on the tops of trains. In India he brought a group of skaters to the Kumbh Mela festival, a Hindu pilgrimage which at the time was the largest human gathering in history. Patrik once even led a VT trip to Yemen during a military coup just so he could photograph some unusual trees. Then there was the trip I went on with Patrik to Namibia where he was set on photographing a specific patch of dead trees in the middle of the desert. The photo needed to be taken at sunrise. Once we figured out how far we had to go out of the way for him to get that shot, we nixed it. Patrik was gravely disappointed.
“That shot was really the only reason I wanted to go on this trip.”
In Japan, true to Visualtraveling tradition, there was one shot that Patrik had in mind. The floating torii gate! Patrik had been to the Itsukushima Shrine on a prior trip and was determined to get a shot of our crew walking in the water just before low tide. Once the tide goes out, the gate no longer appears to float and the sand beneath the gate becomes flocked with other photograph seeking tourists. We needed to beat this heard by a few minutes. With only two opportunities during daylight to get this shot, Patrik was determined to make it happen. The video needed it. The article demanded it. This trip was nothing without the floating torii gate shot.
We booked a hotel as close as we could to the ferry. This, we discovered upon arrival, turned out to be a sketchy sex hotel with rooms designated to various themes, complete with plastic furniture and mechanical massage chairs. It was weird.
On the first day, the ferry was cancelled due to a potential typhoon. To put it mildly, Patrik was stressed.
Back at the hotel we consulted the tide charts and dedicated the following day to making sure we caught the right ferry to get us to the island just as the tide went out. All was set for success. The sun was shining, the batteries were charged, and we all remembered to bring our skateboards. As we finally neared the island upon the ferry, we saw, to Patrik’s horror, that the gate was under construction.
“Noooo!” Patrik moaned. After all that preparation and planning, a fluke repainting project had completely disrupted the vision for the video piece and the adjoining article. The shot was ruined.
We made the best of it, taking photos and frolicking with the aggressive deer who run the island. We played the part of the non skating, annoying tourist group that we were. When the tide went out, we made it to the gate in the shallows, finishing what we as a group had agreed to start. Our album cover was acheived, however unsatisfactory.
Sorry Patty, maybe next time.
Photos and video by Patrik Wallner. This video was featured in Transworld Skateboarding’s The Cinematographer Project 2017. This article was originally published in Old Friends Zine, Issue #2.