A lone woman sits in a moderately-peopled train car, reading a book. She notices when a foreign man sits next to her, but continues to read. In heavily accented English, he politely asks, “Excuse me, do you speak French?” She replies in the negative and returns pointedly to her book. A moment later he continues, “I speak some English.” “That’s nice,” she answers briefly and once again focuses her attention on the book. “Where are you from,” he asks. “I’m sorry, but I’d really like to read my book right now, OK?” Eventually the man gets up and walks down the train to another car.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Just another rude, standoffish female cutting off a poor fellow who just wants to talk. I mean we’re all in the same boat here in Japan, aren’t we?
Well, I can assure you that it did make me feel like an ill-bred bitch. But, in addition to the fact that I truly did not feel like talking, I had a funny feeling about this fellow. I had passed him going in the opposite direction as I was walking the length of the train to one of the far end cars, so he had deliberately followed me. Later the brush-off seemed justified when I saw the same man through the train window as it pulled out of a station —arm extended, his hand practically in the face of a young Japanese woman who was standing in a very defensive posture.
Why am I bothering my mostly male readers with this story? It is a bit complicated — partly explanation, partly apology. As you well know after a year of widely publicized allegations of sexual harrasment and celebrity rape trials, the line between acceptable and unacceptable casual social transactions is quite fine. In this particular case, nothing at all happened, although I felt as though I had behaved extremely rudely, a reaction I often wish I could entirely suppress because it is so dangerous. Did you know that women have been startled to find themselves apologizing after hitting a man who is in the process of attacking them? Whether this is the result of upbringing or natural tendency is totally beside the point —the fact is that many of us, even those of us who are somewhat trained in the arts of defense, have a strong proclivity to accommodate others, regardless of potential dangers to ourselves. In this instance I knew that I was not interested in talking to anyone, but supposing I had felt like a chat? Friendly conversation simply was not an available option, since ending the interaction could have become more involved and required additional and time-consuming defensive tactics. The point is that the safest bet for women is to be fairly standoffish in all situations —regardless of whether a fellow might prove potentially to be a friend. What a horrible situation! My American boyfriend once wondered why the foreign women he passes in the streets of Tokyo frequently fail to acknowledge his greeting —and he was inclined to be a bit judgmental about these ladies. The answer is that they can’t afford to. And the situation is growing worse even here in Japan.
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