“Genki?,” says Andrew Strenio as he sits in his dorm room, drinking a Coke on a cold day in January. “That means ‘What’s up?’,” he says, surveying the room with fresh eyes, and realizing it hasn’t changed too much since his “trip” to Japan. Andrew, a junior, and my roommate for two years, has never taken a Japanese language class. But after his visit to Japan, he now knows the words for “toilet,” “lock down,” and “shiv.”
“They just say ‘toilet,’” he tells me. Andrew is back in the room after spending nearly two months in Tokyo’s penal system. His crime? Standing on a street corner with an acquaintance that had a gram and a half of hashish in his possession, enough for roughly two hashish cigarettes. He made Harajuku Precinct Prison and Tokyo Central Detention Facility his home from October 28th to December 21st, celebrating Thanksgiving, his sister’s and mother’s birthday, and Halloween with Japanese cellmates to keep him company and little more than flavored rice to fill his stomach. His trip began on October 22nd, the weekend after midterms, the start of fall break. He spent the night of the 21st packing, checking off his list of required items, and doing laundry. He expected the weather to be more or less the same as in the States. “I packed some long pants, a pair of gym shorts, underwear, socks, a couple of sweaters, a Terrace sweatshirt, a jean jacket I have.” He had 300 dollars in Yen. He had his CD player, his passport, and his journal. “I brought some reading packets to do in case I had some down time,” he said. He didn’t realize just how much downtime he would have.
Andrew had never been to Japan before. He had taken two courses on Japanese culture: History of 20th Century Japan, and Culture and Values in Modern Day Japan. “I had a decent handle on what Japanese society was like, compared to the average American who hasn’t exposed themselves. I had friends in high school who were huge Japan-o-philes. I’ve been exposed to j-pop and anime. I was kind of expecting it to be crazy. Like neon everywhere, neo-futuristic, crazy Japanese kids with their – whatever – all their techie toys.”
The plane was a Boeing 777. The American-made 777 was painted with bright reds, oranges, and swaths of yellow. The Japanese tourists took out their picture phones and began to snap photos of the plane. Andrew sat in the vinyl blue chair and realized he was one of a few Westerners on the flight. The stewardess asked him, “Where are you going?” “I already felt foreign in that she was assuming I couldn’t go to Tokyo,” he says. He wrote in his journal, “There was a huge tour group of Japanese people with their interpreter. Made me feel out of place. I think there might be a lot of that ahead of me.” The Narita airport is 45 minutes out of Tokyo. Andrew had to take a train into the city, and his friend had agreed to meet him at the station. He fed the ticket machine roughly 3000 Yen, or 30 dollars and received a small ticket with no English writing. To the right of the machine was a chart showing destinations and the names of each train. He would take the train to Shinjuku.
Andrew stared out of the train’s windows at the dense bamboo forests of the Japanese countryside. “It looks like when they’re running around in the bamboo trees in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The weather was pleasant and sunny. “It didn’t rain at all, before I got arrested,” he says.
Andrew’s friend met him at the Shinjuku station. The friend, who I’ll call Buddy, was taking a semester abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo. Waseda is the best private university in Japan, although the best schools in Japan are generally public. Tokyo University is regarded as the premiere school. Buddy and Andrew had gone to high school together, where they both played in the jazz band. Buddy played sax, and Andrew played vibes. Buddy was staying with a host family. “They [the host family] came to his trial. I saw them in court, but I never met them,” Andrew remembers.
When the two met, they decided to get some food, and headed over to the Mr. Donut, a chain started in the 1970’s to recreate the mediocre coffee and donuts loved in the United States. Mr. Donut is a penguin with a crown. They spoke about old times, partying, and Japanese life in general. Andrew had to find a place to stay, and Japanese hotels disliked having young Americans in their rooms. Buddy offered to let him stay with his host family, but eventually they talked a hotel clerk into letting Andrew stay there. “It’s cool ‘cause I’m not Islamic,” Andrew says.
According to Andrew, Arabs are the drug dealers in Japan, and they use business hotels like the one in which he was staying for trafficking. The room was tiny, sparsely furnished with a bed, desk, and a coffin-like shower. The length of the room was the length of the bed. The hotel had a curfew policy: you had to be back before 1 am or you couldn’t get in. The hotel would reopen at 5 am. You had to leave your key at the front desk when you left.
The next few days involved a mixture of partying, site seeing, and general exposure to Japan. They got Ramen – “Like real fucking Ramen, not like Top Shelf Ramen. Not fucking instant Ramen. The noodles are fresh, thick. There’s meat, eggs, seaweed in it. There’s usually some sliced vegetables. It’s really tasty.” They traveled on the subway. “Any one of the major subway stops is at least half the size of Penn Station. It’s enormous.”
They went to a club called “Womb,” where they danced with Japanese girls, listened to a DJ, and watched a laser show. They took their shoes off when they went into apartments, stepping gently onto the woven bamboo – Tatami mats – that functioned as carpets.
Nearing the end of his trip, Andrew, Buddy, and Jim, a friend of Buddy’s, were out late after a night of partying. The cold Tokyo street lamp dimly lit the three Westerners on that Wednesday night. They stood next to each other, waiting for a cab that would bring them back to Jim’s house. They were alone on the street. An officer turned the corner and began walking down the block toward them. He called to them in Japanese, a phrase Andrew didn’t understand, but Jim did. The cop wanted to search them. Unbeknownst to Andrew and Buddy, Jim had hashish stashed away in his tan jacket. As the cop got nearer, Jim began to whisper to them in a low voice, words that Andrew couldn’t make out. The cop was only a few feet away – Jim decided to run for it. The cop ran by Andrew and Buddy, tackling Jim to the ground only a half block away. Andrew and Buddy decided to run. They were picked up by Tokyo Police minutes later. It’s hard to “disappear” when you’re the only two white college kids in a mile radius.
As the police officer stood on the street with Andrew and Buddy, officers began pulling up – in bicycles! In total, Andrew counted eighteen officers surrounding them; each officer was dressed smartly in a double-breasted jacket and pressed blue pants. The language barrier caused problems at first, but eventually one cop that could speak broken English arrived. They objected at first, telling the cop, “We weren’t those Western guys,” and, “We don’t have any drugs on us.” Unfortunately, Andrew was not Obi-Wan, Buddy was not Luke Skywalker, and Jedi Mind tricks, however cool, only work on storm troopers – not on Japanese police.
They protested to the officer, saying, “We want to go to the embassy,” but the officer told them, “You have to go to the station.” Andrew wants Nass readers to know that the officer who spoke English was kind of nice.
The patrol car took them to Harajuku Station, a local precinct station located across the street from a subway stop. They split Andrew and his friend up into interrogation rooms. That would be the last they saw of each other.
During interrogation, the cops tried to make Andrew talk, but quickly realized that he didn’t (and couldn’t) speak Japanese. They got a translator on the phone from the central police headquarters, who told Andrew he was under arrest. Andrew asked the translator repeatedly for a lawyer, the embassy, even his father. They refused his requests. The translator eventually arrived in person, and continued to interrogate Andrew, but he did not speak. This continued through the night.
By the next day, they realized Andrew wouldn’t speak and decided to call his father. It was three in the afternoon, and Andrew hadn’t slept at all. They took him to a jail cell, gave him some prepackaged food – a tray of meat, rice, and vegetables in individual compartments – and let him sit. As he ate, the lawyers from his father’s firm waited outside to see him. Luck and globalism favored Andrew – his father’s Chicago-based law firm has a branch in Tokyo. Once Andrew’s father heard the news, he contacted the branch, and they dispatched their finest lawyers to aide him.
Andrew met with the lawyers after eating and then retired to his cell, completely exhausted. He had been awake for thirty-four hours straight. The next morning he awoke, thinking: “How am I in prison in Japan? What is going on?!”
What happens next to dear Andrew? Pick up next week’s Nass to find out!