This is part one of a two part article. Part two is available.
[Trigger Warning: This content includes a few descriptions of a sexual harassment scene.]
On April 30, 2020, I intervened in a case of sexual harassment as a bystander in a public park in Tokyo. Until that day, I didn’t know how hard it is to carry out bystander intervention. It was like riding an emotional rollercoaster. After this incident, I realized that while there are many helpful technical guidelines for bystander intervention, we rarely talk about the first-hand experience of the bystanders who actually went on to take action. I came to think that bystander intervention doesn’t occur as often as it should not because people don’t want to help the victim but because we don’t know how to handle the enormous emotional challenge that arises while committing to action. For that purpose, nothing is better to prepare yourself than to read or hear about the experiences of others who have gone through the process. Here is my experience.
It was a warm, sunny, spring day in Tokyo. I was sitting on a bench in an open park to read a book on web marketing for my work. Japan is not under quarantine for Covid-19 so many people were out at the park chilling. I was reading for about 1.5 hours to finish up the lengthy book and about 30 meters in front of me was a young couple chatting on a bench with their backs towards me. The guy was being touchy with the girl, just like a normal couple would do, wrapping his arm around her shoulder. In Japan, it’s much less common to engage in PDA than the U.S. or Europe and culturally, it’s not exactly considered commendable to be touchy in public. I just thought that they were one of the few PDA enthusiasts in Japan and didn’t give it much attention.
Then suddenly, the guy held the back of the girl’s head and flexed his arm in a motion to kiss her. This lasted for a few minutes. The girl seemed caught off guard at first and then started to push his face away with her right palm, but only gently. A few seconds later, she stopped doing so. It looked quite awkward in the beginning and then became something a little less alarming. I didn’t really understand what just happened but the thought that came up in my mind was: Did he just force a kiss on this girl? Her body seemed to slightly lean away from the guy while he was pushing himself onto her. It looked like a problematic scene in the least.
I thought about intervening, but a series of different thoughts followed. A voice in me was saying “I should take more time to affirm that this is actually an act of sexual harassment.” Another voice said, “the girl is not explicitly asking for help right now, nor did she seem to push away the guy with all of her might and she did stop resisting and let things happen.” After all, I was only seeing them from behind and afar, so I couldn’t see their faces. It was hard to know what was going on. At this point, despite my gut feeling, I let it slide and decided to see what happens next.
Even after the forceful kissing ended, the guy’s arm remained flexed around the girl’s neck. She was definitely trying to make space between her and the guy but she did not stand up to leave or raise her voice to call for help. At this point, intuitively, I knew this was a real case of harassment unfolding in front of me.
Without realizing, my mind started a “cost-benefit” analysis of the potential intervention:
- How big is this guy? What kind of a person is he? Is he a mob member? Will he fight me if I intervene? Will I get hurt by this guy? How serious would that be?
- Will I need to argue with this abuser? For how long? How much energy would that consume out of me?
- How do I intervene? What words should I say so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself even if I’m wrong?
- Will it potentially involve police? Will I need to go to a judicial court as a witness afterwards for this? Wouldn’t that be a serious commitment on my end?
Notice, most of those thoughts were about ‘what’s the upside for me?’ in some way shape or form to convince myself that ‘I don’t need to take action.’ I was afraid of the potential consequences, being selfish, and my sense of compassion towards the girl was not there. By having these selfish thoughts I immediately began to feel incredibly guilty. Despite the fact that I have been working on leading a virtuous life and my spiritual and emotional growth for the past year and a half, there I was struggling to think about the victim in front of me. This guilt quickly turned into a series of self-blaming while time kept passing. I was trying to calm my mind but I couldn’t compose the thought that ‘this girl is signaling for help and I need to intervene.’
The girl then turned her face away from the guy to the side and I saw her face, which to my surprise, was smiling. They started chatting again so I became confused. ‘Is this how this couple plays around with each other?’ The guy still had the girl in a hold with his arms around her neck but they both seemed to be enjoying themselves. I was trying to see if anybody else was seeing this as a problem, only to find this different couple sitting near them utterly indifferent or unaware of what was happening in front of them.
In Tokyo, by large, bystander intervention is not a common concept. I was never taught the concept in school growing up and have rarely seen any type of bystander intervention taking place in public. In general, Tokyo as a city operates with indifference towards strangers and neglection of others, and people don’t really seem to care how serious or urgent a situation may seem. This was yet another classic scene in Tokyo where the people around just did not give a damn.
To make sure it was a crime scene before intervening, I had to observe them from the front to see their faces. So I walked 30 meters, passed by them and saw their faces. This made me even more confused. The girl was actually smiling and laughing while her hands were trying to gently push his body away at the same time.
In my head, I realized any girl in her position could not take explicit action in fear of agitating the abuser. In a sense, a pragmatic self-preservation tactic. This is especially true in Japan where many women don’t express their true feelings when feeling threatened by a boyfriend or abuser. Many women are socially conditioned to play a certain stereotypical feminine and /or non-confrontational character and they often don’t say ‘no’ to whatever a man does to them without consent. In general, the concept of “consent” is not widely practiced in Japanese society.
Having these ideas in my head was one thing, but what was unfolding in front of my eyes was a whole other thing. I guessed that her facial expression and tame physical gesture, though telling enough, obscured her real feelings. Still, and after seeing her smiling, I convinced myself that I was overthinking and walked back to my bench and started to read my book again.
However, a thought quickly resurged in my head: ‘Am I just turning myself away from the situation because I’m afraid?’ It did seem plausible that the girl actually wanted help and if that was the case I couldn’t just ignore the situation and keep reading. If I’d done that I’d be the same as everybody else not giving a damn. How can I say I intend to lead a virtuous life if I succumbed to my fear and did nothing? Wouldn’t that make me a huge hypocrite? Wouldn’t that mean my aspiration to grow as a person is a lie and my past year and a half was a joke? I knew I could not accept this.
So I started to observe them again and this time, the girl extended her arm to reach her bags and grab its handle. She did not get up from though. It looked like she was trying to leave but the guy was holding a part of her body down, making her stay. Her signal now seemed clearer than ever. I told myself ‘It’s okay to be afraid but if I don’t do anything now I won’t be able to sleep for many, many nights.’
To understand my internal struggle, imagine you are playing in a very important basketball game. It’s the final quarter and you are down by two points with only 5 seconds left on the clock. You are wide open, receive the ball and everyone else has a defender on them. Will you try to pass the ball to someone else or will you shoot the ball, even if you may miss? In this situation, you know that you gotta shoot because if you don’t, you will regret it more than anything. In truth, I was more afraid of my inaction, which could crumple my sense of self, than the potential danger the intervention posed. I decided to shoot.
I closed the book and took a deep breath. I started to walk toward the couple and the first words I’d say came up in my mind. I did not have a plan as I took more steps toward their bench. I was getting into ‘full-alert’ mode. I did not know what I wanted to achieve but as a wise mind once said, ‘you are only entitled to the action you take, but not the fruit of the action.’
I stopped about 3 meters away from the bench and stared at them. They stared back at me for a few seconds. The girl was still smiling as I looked straight at the guy and said,
“I might be wrong, but isn’t she annoyed?”
The girl responded right away. “Yes, I am annoyed.” As soon as she said those words, all of a sudden, her face showed deep fear and shock that she was hiding behind her smile. Slowly, her eyes filled up with tears. It was not until this moment that I really empathized with the girl and learned how serious the issue was. I thought, “Oh shit, I came in too late… The real damage has already been done.”
I turned to the guy, “Do you know what you were doing to her? It’s a crime. I can call a cop and you can go to jail.”
He immediately apologized, but it felt like he was just trying to get by the situation. His words didn’t seem sincere and he still had a slight smile on his face. She cut in, “I’ve been wanting to leave but he doesn’t let me.”
“Okay, you should go home,” I told her. She said, “You mean, now?” so I replied, “Yes, leave now.” She grabbed her bag and stood up. She was about to cry but I didn’t say anything to her. My attention was too focused on the guy in case he tried something as she was leaving. I was just thinking it’s best to separate them first, even though I didn’t know if she had the necessary support system afterward.
Now it was just me and the guy. My job from there was to save some time for her to get away from him and confront him for what he did. At this point, I was getting furious inside with a combination of anger towards both him and myself for our combined lack of awareness for the girl. I no longer felt any fear.
He was looking straight into my eyes. A seemingly normal, handsome Japanese kid. He was probably in his early twenties and maybe even a college student.
I started an inquiry in a slow and serious manner:
“Do you know what you did to her?”
“Yes, she was not liking it. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“No, do you really know what you just did to her?”
He was silent. He was no longer smiling, but I didn’t see the feeling of remorse in his eyes.
“What you did is that you gave her trauma. That girl will not sleep tonight because of you. Did you know you caused that much damage to her? Do you know what that really means?”
He didn’t seem to understand what I was saying, but responded, “I was wrong, and I shouldn’t have done that, especially in a public space like this.”
“No, you should not have done it anywhere. If it were a private place how could anyone help her?” I felt a chill run through my spine hearing his response. Did this guy just imply it would have been ok in a private space?
I didn’t want to yell at him and I never did. It’s my belief that yelling or physical punishment to anyone doesn’t lead to them feeling a genuine sense of guilt. If I just scolded him in public, he would just pretend to listen then go back to his ‘normal life.’ I didn’t want that to happen. I also knew one conversation would not change a person’s mind. Seeing how young he was, I also didn’t want to call the police and ruin his life (whether calling the police in Japan for this can put him in jail or not is a whole different conversation). I decided to take an alternative path.
I looked straight into his eyes, did not raise my voice, but meant every word I said:
“You have a serious problem with yourself, whether you admit it or not. You were hurting that girl without knowing the severity of it. If you don’t do anything about yourself, you are going to repeat this again and again and more women will get hurt. Recognize that you have a serious problem.”
His face did not move and he did not look away from my eyes. The guy seemed too young to know who he is or what he was doing. I felt the need to make a different point as well.
“I don’t know who the hell you are, and I don’t know what kind of life you have been through but I’m guessing you had a rough past. But whatever happened to you growing up–you can’t do that to other people. You cannot repeat what’s been done to you to another person. You have to be really strong and resist that temptation. You MUST stop that cycle of harm.”
His face flinched and his eyes opened slightly. One thing I knew was that many womanizers and violent men pick up their aggressive behaviors from their violent parents and past environment. Blaming them from the outside usually does not help them or stop them from committing another act of violence. What they need instead is to genuinely feel sorry and own up to their wrongdoing. Only then do they have a chance to stop the vicious cycle.
“You don’t want to create more victims and cause trauma in people, do you? If that’s not your intention, then you need to seriously review yourself. Because you know what? Everything you do to others will eventually come back to you. What you do to others will all come straight back to you. Remember that and rethink your life.” He nodded quietly.
I left him there and went back to my bench to finish reading. My blood was boiling inside quietly and my body was shaking uncontrollably. I thought I was calm but my body told me otherwise. This unsettled state lasted for a good ten minutes and I didn’t know what to do with it. Meanwhile, the guy was still sitting there with his back towards me. He eventually got up looking at his phone and walked away. What was going through his mind remains a mystery.
I didn’t feel great at all on my way home. In fact, a deep sense of guilt surged inside of me. Only after confronting the couple and seeing the girl tear up did I fully realize the severity of the situation and the damage the guy had caused on the girl. It was clear that the intervention needed to take place much earlier. I blamed myself for being selfish, not acting quickly enough and contemplating for too long. I thought that due to my lack of integrity and ego-centric thoughts she would end up with trauma. I also thought I might have been too compassionate towards the guy. What if he was actually a serial rapist and letting him go was a bad idea?
It was frankly overwhelming to process the fountain of thoughts and emotions I went through. I knew that the intervention was the right thing to do but I didn’t know this intense emotional roulette spin was waiting afterwards. There was absolutely zero sense of accomplishment. Just a deep feeling of guilt and incompetence.
Since the incident, I’ve managed to feel calm and find peace in my mind. I wrote down my feelings and the incident in my journal, texted my mom, and talked to a dear friend of mine. The guilt was initially still there, but talking about it and writing it out allowed me to make peace and move on. I now feel a sense of gratitude towards the incident as a profound opportunity for learning.
I still cannot tell if I did the right thing. I didn’t ask for their names so I have no idea if anyone is following up with them. I will never know who they are and how they will end up. Above all though, I’m just glad I intervened. I’m glad that I stood up against my fear and did something. I also feel lucky that the intervention didn’t involve violence.
To follow-up, I wrote another article, “How to Ride the Rollercoaster: An Inner Guide for Bystander Intervention,” which is a pragmatic guideline for bystander intervention based on my experience. I’d be delighted if reading this helped you in any way.