Last night the movie “Malena”, by Italian director Guiseppe Tornatore, was shown on TV and I watched it a second time. It had lost none of its powerful effect, and the climactic scene, when Malena is beaten and her hair shorn in public, left me chilled and deeply sad. Who hasn’t witnessed similar events of cruelty?
A year ago I was on the Yamanote line, here in Tokyo, heading for work. A homeless man sat just in front of me, at the end of the seating, by the door. He slept and was bothering no one. His clothing looked weatherbeaten and threadbare, but other than that there was nothing to attract undue attention. There was no trace of the usual funk of urine, sweat, and grime.
The train pulled into Shinjuku station. As it waited for passengers to get on and off a station clerk passed by the open window. Suddenly the old man standing next to me shouted out the window, “Hey, station clerk! Here! Here in the car! This man!” He pointed at the sleeping homeless man. “This man stinks! I can barely take a breath! Get him off the train! He’s a nuisance to the other people!”
At first the station clerk looked confused. He hesitated. He glanced up and down the length of the platform, seeking assistance. Then the other passengers standing around me and sitting beside the homeless man chimed in.
“Get him off!” shouted an elderly woman next to the angry old man.
“He’s disgusting!” piped the impeccably-dressed businessman in a camel-hair coat sitting next to him (and who had been blissfully dozing and nodding just a moment before), prodding the homeless man awake. The homeless man looked around in alarm.
“We don’t need lazy people like that on our trains!” screeched a heavyweight, middle-aged woman with too much make-up.
The station clerk held up his hand to warn the train conductor about the delay. He boarded the train and tentatively pulled at the homeless man’s elbow. “Please, come with me,” he said. The homeless man resisted.
Encouraged by the mob support, the original old man, not daring to get too close, pushed his face toward the homeless man and, visibly shaking with timidity, shouted, “You! Get out! Get out on the street where you belong!”
The homeless man cowed under the gaze of the mob, fearing to stay and fearing to get up.
I slammed my open palm into the pole next to me, making a big banging noise. Half sputtering because I am not very good at expressing myself in Japanese when furious, I shouted at everyone, “What kind of cowards are you? This man has done nothing wrong. I have been standing in front of him for the past ten minutes and I can’t smell a thing. Just because he is homeless doesn’t give you the right to bully him! Leave him alone!”
The businessman sitting next to the homeless man waved me away. “Shut up, foreigner. You have no business putting your head where it doesn’t belong. You can get off the train, too, if you don’t like what we Japanese do. You’re in Japan now, remember that.”
The entire band ignored my comment (except for one little old woman behind me who whispered to her companion, “This foreigner must be an idiot. But then all foreigners stink like homeless people. Maybe he just can’t recognize the smell.”). Everyone shouted as one for the station clerk to get the homeless man off the train.
The station clerk, looking embarrassed, obliged. Two other station clerks arrived and helped the first one drag the homeless man off the train. They dumped him on the platform floor and he sat staring wide-eyed and scared at the people glaring and raising their fists at him from inside the train.
The train door banged shut and the place where the homeless man had been sitting remained empty. I gripped the holding strap, enraged. The train took off. At Yoyogi, even though it wasn’t my stop, I got off. People moved out of my way as I pushed toward the door.
I wish I had done more. I wish, at least for such times, that I was physically bigger and meaner-looking. Even today I wonder if my own outburst meant anything, if anyone in that crowd had agreed with me. Interesting that none of the young people had joined in. Maybe there is hope after all.