Fascination of the exotic foreigner

4th May 2007 at 01:00
Like Lindsay Ann Hawker, the English language teacher from Coventry found dead in a bath of sand in Japan, I went there thinking it was a safe place for a young woman to live and work. Tragically, for 22-year-old Lindsay, it turned out not to be.

Lindsay had done her research on the country before taking a job as an English teacher with Nova, one of Japan's largest English language schools.

"We all agreed that Japan was a safe place," said her father, Bill Hawker.

Setting off to work as an English teacher a decade earlier, also aged 22, I had the same impression. Crime in Japan? What crime? By the time I left a year later I had a different view, having experienced the darker side of life in the land of the rising sun.

I was employed as an assistant English teacher on the Japanese government's Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. The programme recruits graduates (no Teaching English as a Foreign Language qualification required) from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

My town, Ichinoseki, was in Iwate, about 500km north of Tokyo. It had a population of 70,000, including myself and three other foreigners. To say that we stood out is an understatement. We were treated like minor celebrities on arrival. I was pictured in the local paper and on TV.

Many people I met had never encountered a foreigner or "gaijin" before.

Someone with blue eyes was a novelty. I was asked for my photograph, my autograph and even a lock of hair.

Even in a relatively large town, everybody seemed to know where I lived - I'd get in a taxi and never have to give directions to my flat. When I went to the supermarket I felt like the Pied Piper because I was gathering a trail of people waiting to see what I put in my basket.

Weird goings-on became an accepted part of life. Having experienced this, it is easy to see how Lindsay Hawker dismissed being followed home as "just crazy Japan" in an email only days before she died.

I had been there about four months when the phone calls started. At first it was just a man breathing heavily and hanging up. I stopped answering when the panting and moaning began.

More frightening was being followed home, which happened several times. My Canadian friend, who lived in the same town, had a stalker who camped out in the petrol station opposite her flat, night after night. She was so scared she began to sleep with a knife under her pillow. The police would not come out. A well-meaning female Japanese friend explained that they would probably find it too embarrassing.

Not long after this, something shocking happened. Another Canadian girl, also a teacher in a town 30 miles away, was assaulted. Her attacker broke into her flat while she was sleeping, held a knife to her throat, attempted to rape her, then disappeared into the night when she screamed. Nobody was ever prosecuted.

The incident left everyone feeling vulnerable. I still came home on a high after a mind-expanding, life-changing year, but I never took for granted that Japan was a safe place again - though this image persists in the rest of the world.

As a foreign woman in Japan you are a target because you cannot help but stand out. Yes, it was a novelty being seen as exotic and exciting, but it is only a short step from flattery to a dangerous obsession, as it seems Lindsay Hawker found out to her cost.

Nancy Cavill is a journalist who taught English in Japan for a year

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