What if I were standing on a peaceful Tokyo mid-morning train, rush hour long over, a rare time to enjoy American sized personal space. Listening to my favorite punk/ska band, “The Interrupters,” I am lost in the music with a female Joan Jett-like singer of poignant protest lyrics, “What’s your plan for tomorrow, are you a leader or will you follow, are you a fighter or will you cowl.” I am suddenly startled into reality when an impeccably dressed black man wearing the whitest mask covering most of his face except eyes and forehead invades my personal space. A quick glance I do nothing. I feel his presence even closer. I dare not look.
Without warning he sticks something into the side of my stomach and says, “Stick em up!” Surprised by such a daring act, I look over and see the finer details of the would be robber dressed in a blue blazer, Republican red tie framed by a blindingly white shirt that happens to match his mask made even whiter by the darkness of his skin. He is staring right at me. What is happening? This is not registering. How can it be that I am getting robbed by a well-dressed black man on a Tokyo train in broad daylight? Japan is a safe country with one of the lowest crimes anywhere in the world.
A vivid imagination? Not for me. This actually happened on Tuesday, February 18th 2020. In this day and age who would have thought the words “Stick em up” would ever be uttered in public. Well dear readers context is everything. It turns out all of it was true except for one piece of information I left out, the well-dressed “Robber” was my friend and former colleague. He was playing a joke. And what a joke it was.
As soon as I recognized him, somehow his eyes and forehead looked familiar, I took out my earphones and said to him, “That was wrong on so many levels.” That was all it took for our boisterous laughter to overtake the silent train. I mean we didn’t just laugh and stop. When the laughter was about to subside, I would repeat the phrase “Stick em up,” and the laughter intensified. Then it was his turn, “Stick em up!” This ebbing and flowing went on for a good two minutes. I imagine everyone on the train was thinking, “These two foreigners have lost their minds.”
After the laughter died down I looked at him and said, “That was the funniest thing I have heard in a long time. Can I use this for my blog site?” To which he replied, “Of course.” We went on to small talk, getting caught up on our lives and making plans to meet before getting off at our respective stops.
After parting ways and walking to my appointment I thought about what had happened. And every time I replayed it in my mind I laughed out loud. I am still laughing as I write this now in the evening. As you may know from previous blogs, my process is to pose questions and let the words flow. So, “How can I use this in my blog? What is this all about?” Then it occurred to me, context is truly everything!
Let’s unpack this for a few sentences. If you think about it, my reply “This is wrong on so many levels,” I was referring to racism in America. A black man robbing a white man. The fact that it was a joke initiated by him, makes it humorous, and we are in Japan, where the history of African Americans is quite different. Imagine wearing a white mask on a New York City subway saying those exact words, “Stick em up!”
Back to Japan. As you know unless you are still under a rock, there is the Corona Virus. If the media had its way, affecting everyone on the planet. While Japan has one of the largest number of infected after China, it has caused a panic with a run on the sales of white surgical masks, the same mask worn by my robber-friend. Just about every store I have been to in Tokyo is out of masks.
What most people don’t know about Japan, it is a country of masked avengers. Everyone wears masks, whether cold or flu season or simply as a protection against pollen allergies, which seem to be year round. Thanks to the Corona scare, everyone, foreigners including my friend who stuck me up are wearing masks.
So if you are ever in Tokyo and you see a well-dressed black man wearing a white surgical mask, chances are he is my friend and you will not get robbed.