“I’d only been in Tokyo for 24 hours, and already I was contemplating whether I’d make it out alive.”
When you travel again, you may one day find yourself in a situation that you don’t know how to handle. This is especially true for solo female travelers, who face specific issues with personal safety. Many years ago, in my early twenties, I embarked on a big new adventure: teaching English in Japan. When I found out that I had gotten a job in Tokyo, I was over the moon. Every night I’d sit with my Tokyo Guide Book and study over everything in fascination and anticipation.
The flight to Tokyo was long but uneventful, and I was relieved when I saw a friendly face holding a sign with my name in the arrivals hall. Within an hour two other teachers had arrived, with one more arriving the next day. We would stay a week in the school’s “gaijin house” for teacher training, and then go to our respective schools to begin our jobs.
The two other guys were very friendly, and we got along well. That night we went out for dinner, tried to find some Wi-Fi, and slept off some jet lag. But this peaceful beginning was shattered with the arrival of the last teacher.
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You can tell a lot by looking in someone’s eyes, and in his eyes, I saw that he was unstable and dangerous. I immediately got a bad feeling from him, and avoided interacting with him. That night, I locked my bedroom door, and put my suitcase up against it.
A few hours later, as I lay sleeping on the tatami, I heard strange, grunting noises. I sleepily opened an eye, and listened. I heard it again–a guttural, growling noise. My heart started to race. The growling turned into loud banging, yelling, and screaming. I sat up in bed and listened. It sounded like someone was hurling himself against the walls, making them shake. My heart was pounding by then with fear.
You can tell a lot by looking in someone’s eyes, and in his eyes, I saw that he was unstable and dangerous.
Amid the noise, I heard a tiny tap at my door. I opened it a crack and saw the other two teachers standing there wide-eyed and terrified in their pajamas. They both came into my room and we frantically whispered about what to do.
We had a variety of problems. None of us had a phone as we had just arrived in the country. None of us really knew where we were; we barely had the chance to orient ourselves. We had no weapons, and with only tatami mats in the room, we had nothing to barricade the door with. If he came upstairs, we had nothing to defend ourselves.
The only thought in my mind was to escape. Going downstairs was too risky. So, I suggested the only thing I could think of.
“Let’s jump out the window and run for help,” I said.
“What?” one of them replied. “Are you insane?”
“Do you have a better idea? Let’s throw the futons out the window, make a pile, and jump out. Because I’m not waiting here for him to come upstairs and rape me.”
We stared at each other for a few seconds, and then silently they went to grab their futons. I couldn’t believe this was happening. As I looked out the window, I wondered how likely it was that I’d break an arm or a leg if I jumped out. Other thoughts ran through my mind, such as how to ask for help in Japanese, a language I didn’t speak, read, or write. I’d only been in Tokyo for 24 hours, and already I was contemplating whether I’d make it out alive.
Then, by sheer luck, we saw the very teacher who picked us up from the airport walking by. We frantically waved our arms and called out to him. He looked up and saw us. At first, he thought it was some kind of joke, until we explained what was happening.
“Stay there,” he said. “And don’t jump out the window.”
Shortly after, the owner of the school drove up with a look of horror on his face.
As he went to try and look inside, we realized that things had suddenly gotten very quiet downstairs. I wondered if maybe he had heard us calling for help, and was coming upstairs to get us. The teacher came back and told us to stay in the room, while he took out his phone and called for help.
Shortly after, the owner of the school drove up with a look of horror on his face. He told us to pack our bags and come with him. As we silently went downstairs, we saw the true extent of what had happened. The guy had smeared feces all over the bathroom, including the tub, walls, and mirror, trashed the living room, and, to put a cherry on top, passed out naked in the living room. The owner hurried us out of the house and begged us not to look.
He took us to his home, where his wife kindly took us in. We couldn’t go back to the guest house for two nights while they cleaned up the mess.
As for the vandal, the owner had escorted him to the airport, and put him on the next plane back to wherever he had come from.
I later found out that one of the guys was so traumatized from the event that he pulled a “Narita Bye-Bye”–that’s when a newbie calls the school from the airport to tell them he’s not coming back. So that just left myself, and the other guy whom, I assume, went on to happily live and teach in Japan, as I also did.
That was a long time ago, and now that I’m an experienced traveler, I can look back and see a few things I definitely would have done differently to try and avoid finding myself in such a situation.
1. Always tell someone where you are going, including flight numbers, addresses, and a phone number where someone can reach you. I had left myself completely vulnerable in the hands of my employer instead of being prepared and sending detailed information to my family.
2. Do some research about what to do in case of an emergency, such as what number to call in case you need help. For example, in Japan you dial 110, not 911.
3. If offered free accommodation that you’ll be sharing and you’re the only woman, kindly decline, and instead pay for your own place, even if it’s a bed in a female-only dorm. At least you’ll be staying in a proper establishment with a manager and some level of security. Safety is more important than a free room.
4. Trust your instinct. From the second I met the guy, I should have told the owner of the school that I wasn’t comfortable staying there with him, and left before things escalated. If you don’t feel comfortable, leave.
5. If you’re moving to a new country, get a SIM card or a pocket Wi-Fi as soon as you arrive. Get connected, and keep in touch with your family so that someone knows you are alive and well. And if you find yourself in an emergency situation, as I did, you won’t have to consider something insane like jumping out the window when the s**t hits the fan.