Hitting an unforeseen hazard - a gangster

TOKYO DAYS; 'Love hotels' dominate one side of the street; Out climbed Mr Nasty. He was 6ft and had a rolling swagger
Click to follow
Crime: you never think it's going to happen to you. Certainly not in Tokyo. This is the city where tipsy nymphets can totter about the seediest corners of town without a finger being laid upon them; where taxi drivers spend days chasing fares who have left wallets in the cab, and where the police seem to exist principally to lend money to drunks who have spent their train fare home.

You never think it's going to happen to you. But it happened to me. Crime: in Tokyo!

A friend of mine was moving from an unfurnished place to a furnished one and had given me a lot of his furniture. We hired a van, filled it with chairs and tables, and parked it outside my apartment. The area where I live is intriguing. On one side are very expensive, very respectable flats belonging to diplomats and executives. (There is a posh private art museum, and the official mansion of the Governor of Tokyo is just round the corner.) The other side, by contrast, is dominated by the neon facades of the famous ''love hotels'', where couples can rent kitsch rooms by the hour. My place is on the more modest love-hotel side - but only just, you understand.

As usual there was nowhere to park, so we left the van in front of a garage with the hazard lights flashing and the doors open, and hauled the furniture up the stairs. Inside the garage was a car, vaguely familiar, a large dark mean- looking Nissan, with black windows and a pseudo-Italian name. Last month Bill Clinton threatened punitive tariffs on 13 Japanese luxury cars. This model was on the list. Maybe the owner was annoyed about Washington's sabre-rattling. In any case people who drive cars like this do not like being blocked in. That was our big mistake.

We had moved one table and a bookshelf when, taking a breather, we heard a crunch from the street. We ran outside and saw our hire van angled awkwardly against a crash barrier on the wrong side of the road. The big dark limo was reversing out of the now unblocked garage, and it vroomed away as we ran after it.

The Nissan driver had found his exit blocked by our van. Instead of hooting his horn or waiting, he simply reached in and released the handbrake. The road is straight and on a hill - luckily the steering wheel was angled, so the van was halted by the crash barrier. The bumper was dented, the sliding door hung off its runner. But if it had been parked straight, it could have run for hundreds of yards, backwards, through the weekend strollers. It could have killed the Governor of Tokyo.

Righteous fury was tempered by despair. We foresaw hours of waiting in police stations, struggling to fill in forms in incompetent Japanese. But order reasserted itself. Within minutes the police arrived, including an English- speaking officer laid on for our benefit. We gave them the licence number. The car was registered by a Mr Saito. They called him from the station, but there was no reply. Leave it with us, they said.

We limped back to the van- hire company; unfazed, they beat out the dents, rehung the door and sent us on our way. By the time our removals were finished the bilingual policeman had talked to his superiors and thought things over. The problem, he explained, was that we hadn't actually seen the dirty deed being carried out. There was nothing he could do.

For a few days we brooded vengefully. I was sure I had seen the car before; in a few days, no doubt, it would be back. We toyed with various ideas: a bag of sugar in the petrol tank, or a bottle of nail varnish remover which, my friend had heard, does horrible things to expensive paintwork. We had to pay the first Y30,000 (pounds 250) of damage to the van; the insurance took care of the rest.

A fortnight passed. I went abroad for a week, and the incident was nearly forgotten. The morning after my return I was going out of my flat when I saw the garage door was open. Edging inside was the evil car. I crossed the road and sat opposite on the very crash barrier our van had struck.

The car door opened, and out climbed Mr Nasty. He was 6ft and walked with a rolling swagger. His hair was curled into a thick perm, and he wore shiny shoes and a gaudy Hawaiian shirt. Underneath, I'd be willing to bet, were big, bright Japanese tattoos. Maybe he was a perfectly ordinary bloke with a short temper. But in appearance he was an archetypal yakuza - gangster.

There is, of course, crime in Japan, and there are many criminals for whom laws (and handbrakes) mean nothing. But they are not the random yobs who might have carried out a similar act in the West. Like most things in Japan, they are smart, discreet and highly organised.

Mr Nasty glanced grimly at me as he walked by. I smiled innocently, and tried my best to look like part of the crash barrier. I found myself wondering about the nice English-speaking policeman and his reluctance to follow up our case. I thought about the sugar and the nail varnish remover ... and decided I wouldn't buy them after all.