I didn’t let a bad guy get away

Perhaps it was just my misfortune to be walking down that street on that day, at that time, in the sight of that guy in the grey hoodie.

I had just come from lunch with my husband and was heading back alone to our apartment in Tokyo.

Looking back now, our lunch conversation was prophetic. We had recently seen the movie trailer of The Equaliser, in which a retired soldier played by Denzel Washington roams around town dealing out justice to bad guys overlooked by the law.

For my husband, it was like watching his greatest fantasy played out on the big screen. A vigilante at heart, he would love nothing more than to outlaw queue jumpers, confiscate the cars of drivers who park inconsiderately and scream in the ears of people who blast loud music at 2am.

At lunch, he told me about his latest inspiration: a Russian woman who chases down litterbugs on her motorcycle and throws their trash back in their faces.

A video online shows her spotting a driver who has chucked a McDonald's paper bag out his car window, picking up the trash, catching up with the driver and flinging the bag - including the liquid inside - back into the vehicle.

"The driver had the nerve to complain," my husband said indignantly. "More people should stand up for what is right."

With no particular desire for civilian justice, I had all but forgotten about our talk by the time I walked back home. Engrossed in other thoughts, I didn't notice a man in his 30s hurrying towards me until it was too late.

I was walking up the left of the wide pavement and he was coming down on the right. There were a few people strolling alongside us, but not so many that I couldn't see him suddenly change direction and veer diagonally down the pavement, straight on a collision course with me.

In the blink of an eye before he hit me, I could register only the colour of his sweater, his close-cropped hair, the plastic bag he carried in one hand, and his look of intent as he barrelled his shoulder hard enough into my chest to knock me off balance.

But in the slow-motion seconds that followed, even as I stumbled to regain my footing, I had plenty of time to assess what had happened.

My first reflex was to try to rationalise the incident. Had it been an accident? Maybe his destination had been just behind me and he had simply misjudged his speed.

Yet the sharp pain in my shoulder indicated that his use of force had been deliberate, as did the fact that he did not stop to apologise but blithely walked on.

My next thought was equally instinctive: Was my outfit too provocative?

I was wearing slim-leg pants and a sleeveless top - perhaps not what I would have chosen in a religious Middle Eastern country, but nothing scandalous in a global city like Tokyo.

As quickly as I had allowed the thought in my mind, I dismissed it. Even if I had been walking down the road in a bikini, that wouldn't have been a legitimate invitation for physical contact. Five long seconds had passed by then. I turned and watched the back of Grey Hoodie's head as he sauntered off, already resigning myself to framing the episode as a narrative of bad luck. But then I realised I was shaking, not from trauma but in anger. And I understood that, cliched as it sounds, I had to define my own luck.

If I made no attempt at rectification, I would always remember this as the time I let a bad guy get away with doing something wrong. Regardless of where his action stood on the spectrum of violence, he had assaulted me intentionally and without my consent.

As I turned and strode back towards Grey Hoodie, it wasn't justice on my mind as much as deterrence. I wanted to jolt him into realising that women like me were human beings, not lower lifeforms he could injure and brush aside.

All around, spectators who were agog at the earlier incident were now craning their necks to watch my approach, with the guilty fascination of witnesses who have decided to be bystanders.

Moments before I closed the gap with Grey Hoodie, he glanced back, saw me and quickened his steps.

I reached out and grabbed his offending shoulder so he had to turn and face me. Then I yelled, in English: "You hit me deliberately, didn't you? It hurt, you idiot! You can't just do that to people and walk away! This is not acceptable in Japan or anywhere else in the world!"

It may not have been the most eloquent speech, but as he averted his pale face and muttered something in Japanese, I felt my anger dissipate, replaced by peace of mind.

As it was, I knew I had been relatively lucky. Things could have been worse, as they are for many other women. I walked away that day slightly more wary, but slightly less scared.

Instead of going straight home, I ducked into a crowded cafe for an hour. I was no Equaliser, but I felt like justice had been done for the day.


This article was first published on September 21, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.