An anonymous submission

It’s 6.30 AM and God, that alarm is loud. Six months previously a similar noise woke me as I went on my way to do my A-Levels and I thought that was bad. But nothing can quite prepare you for the dread that welcomes you to the realisation that you’re in Japan, in jail, with nobody else to blame but yourself.

After reading the story of Eleanor Hawkins’ arrest for posing topless for a photograph on top of a sacred mountain in Malaysia, it brought back memories of my own similar tale of misadventure, I was 18 and living in Japan when I idiotically and drunkenly, rode a bicycle naked down the street in the middle of the night, and found myself locked up 24 hours a day, for a month. A friend told me after that you’ll be dining out on this story for years, but truthfully, 9 years on, whenever my mind revisits it, it still tastes sour.

The default mentality we often take with us abroad is ‘we’re British and we’ll do what we want’ I know I certainly felt like that. I had a dangerous mix of youth, arrogance and alcohol and it ended disastrously. However, I don’t believe you can take any of those things as an excuse, legal systems, I didn’t even realise I was two years away from being able to legally drink in Japan. Which says it all.

The Japanese legal system dictates that you can be detained, without charge, for up to one month. I was classed as a juvenile so reported to a young offenders institute, which on the one hand spared me from mixing with any hardened criminals, it at the same time exposed me to the constant sobs of the young Japanese boys nearby my cell who probably just wanted their mum. I did too. I was in solitary confinement for the whole time I was there, save for twenty minutes or so of optional recreation time a day, which I always took up. Throwing a baseball or kicking a football never felt so sweet. We were also instructed to sit awake and upright on our futon mat the whole time, from 6.30am to 9pm, and any deviation from this would result in a sharp bang on the window from the guards. It was as strict as you would expect a Japanese jail but he guards were always courteous and professional, and I was treated with respect. I was lucky as I have read many horror stories from around the world since.

The only glimmer of light during my month there was a visit from a man from the British Embassy. He chatted about normal things with me for over an hour, got me laughing and gave me a big case of books to read. The work that our Embassies do all over the world often goes unnoticed, but I really treasured that meeting and the books which kept me sane.

At my release the judge said I was to be released ‘without punishment’, which whilst technically true it still carried with it a grim irony. I was free to carry on my life in Japan with no blotches on my passport or criminal record, but I was so utterly spooked by the experience that I returned back to England shortly after. That was my real punishment, as my stupid behaviour cost me a great life there.

The term ‘Brits abroad’ is loaded with negative connotations. A Daily Mail reader may have read Eleanor’s story, tutted and rolled their eyes. Our reputation abroad often precedes us. One day is a long time in prison, one month was desperate. There are Britons all over the globe who are serving much longer. Many for legitimate crimes, but plenty of others fall foul simply because they were ignorant or disrespectful of the country they were visiting’s culture. In my case I naively thought I’d get the old British slap on the wrist, to be released in the morning, without really understanding the gravity of the situation or the highly different legal system of Japan, and I’m sure Eleanor felt something similar. What passes for a faux-pas or drunken calamity in this country doesn’t translate into every language or culture. Don’t take your liberty for granted.