In 2007, I was working in Nagasaki, Japan, during my college summer break. My team traveled around the prefecture, teaching English to adorable Japanese school children of various ages. In between, we got to enjoy breaks, and stay with host families so we could live like the locals.
We were distributed among different host families, and I was partnered up with Laura. She was Latino, and she corrected my pronounciation of her name: “Its Lauuuura, not Law-ra.” I immediately liked her.
Together, we were hosted by the Maruo family which consisted of an elderly couple with a grown-up son. He was older than both of us and spoke English, which helped because our Japanese was atrocious. He was hardly around, however, and for the most part, Laura and I communicated with the parents with inventive sign language, a lot of confusion and plenty of laughter.
One fine day, our host mother announced that she was going for a conference on an island off the coast of Nagasaki City—would Laura and I like to come along? We said “Yes!” and eagerly packed for a weekend out on the beach.
When we arrived at the island, our host mother had to hurry off to her event, leaving Laura and I standing at the small port with vague instructions about meeting her back there again later. I had a map, written completely in Japanese characters that I could not read. “So where do you wanna go?”
“The beach!” Laura decided.
I looked at the map. “This looks like a public beach, but how do we get there?”
“I dunno. Let's just get on a bus.”
So we got on the first bus we saw and showed the driver the point on the map we wanted to get to. He said a stream of Japanese words that neither of us understood. “So is he saying this bus goes there, or that it does not go there?”
“Well, he's not kicking us off the bus, so I guess yes?”
Laura and I rode on the bus.
“I think if we see sand and water, we should just stop the bus and get off.”
“This is an island though, everywhere is sand and water…”
Miraculously, we found ourselves on a beach that had normal-looking people on it. Was it the same beach we had pointed to on the map? Who knows. We took a dip in the water, wrote our names on the sand, tried to build a sandcastle, and had a lot of fun.
“How do we get back?”
We'd been waiting at the bus stop for a while, but there was no sign of one for the past hour. We were getting nervous. How often did the bus come, and did they stop the service after a certain time?
“Should we try walking back on the road we came on? And if we see a bus, we'll get on?”
It's not like we had a better plan.
Laura and I were walking on the side of the road when a stout little man, wearing a light blue uniform and riding on a motorcycle with lots of metal boxes, stopped us. He peered at us through his glasses and said something in Japanese.
Laura and I looked at each other. “Does he want something?”
“He looks like a postman, maybe he's out delivering mail. Maybe he thinks we're lost?”
We assured the man that we were fine. “Arigatou! We are OK!”
He didn't seem convinced. Then he said: “Pas-pooo-to.”
“Daijoubu, sir. We are okay! We are just walking back to the ferry dock.”
“Pas-pooo-to!” He was getting more insistent.
“What's pas-poo-to?” I asked Laura. “Is that a name of a place? Is he asking us for directions? Shouldn't he know better, since he's a mailman?”
The exchange went on for a while, getting more and more confusing. Finally, he made a gesture for us to wait where we were, and spoke into a radio that we didn't know he was carrying.
A few minutes later, a car that looked suspiciously like a police vehicle complete with the flashing lights and siren on top stopped by, and two other men in identical uniforms got out.
We were even more confused. “Wait a minute, what's going on? What did we do?”
“Puh-rease forrow us,” one of them said, gesturing to the car.
Laura and I were shocked. “Oh my God, I think we're being arrested!”
This is the point where Laura and I would have reached for our guns, fired shots and bolted away for our lives... if we were in a movie. Instead, we obediently got into the car even though we had no idea why we had to, and remained shell-shocked as we were driven to the police station in town.
“Well,” Laura said optimistically, “at least we got a free ride back!”
We had been detained in the police station for two hours, and we still didn't know what our crime was. Then our host mother showed up. She had evidently been extracted from her conference in order to come to the police station to rescue us. After a quick reassuring glance at us, she sat with the police officers and they talked for a while.
They talked for a very loooooong while. Laura and I were beginning to wonder if we had indeed committed murder at the beach and had simply forgotten all about it after a swim or two.
A few hours later, we were informed that our host mother had negotiated our release. Our crime? Not producing our passports when asked for inspection. Stupid me could not figure out that 'Pas-poo-to' was Japanese English for 'Passport'. Not that it would have made a difference even if we had understood, as we had left our passports back on the mainland. Apparently, not having your passport on you at all times is an offence in Japan.
Our bail? A promise by our host mother that our poor host brother would take the earliest ferry the next day to the island and deliver our passports for inspection.
In addition, Laura and I had to write a letter apologising to the Japanese Government for our mistake, and to promise that we would thereafter never go anywhere in Japan without our passports on us.
It was the first letter I had written to a government.
All in all, the incident took up close to eight hours. We had spent more time being arrested than actually playing at the beach, which was what we came for.
Apparently, the island gets a lot of immigrants sneaking in from Korea, and the police just wanted to be extra careful. Even though neither I nor Laura look remotely Korean at all, the sight of the two foreigners walking down a long lonely road, wet from the ocean, probably looked a bit wrong.
After all was said and done, the policemen were kind to us, they apologised for the long wait, and they even made us green tea to soothe our nerves! That's Japanese police hospitality for you. I wouldn't recommend getting arrested though. There are better ways to get green tea.
Atiqah Nadiah Zailani is a Malaysian professional aspiring for a balanced, sustainable life by living well with less, who solves problems and gets things done for a living.