Crime on rise in popular Tokyo nightclub district

Shots with a friend are a popular pastime for visitors to downtown Tokyo’s Roppongi district. The U.S. Embassy, U.S. Forces Japan and Japanese law enforcement are cautioning visitors to be vigilant as crime against foreigners — including American military personnel — in the area has increased in recent months.


Officials warning Americans to be on guard when in Roppongi


TOKYO — More Americans are becoming victims of violent crime in one of Tokyo’s most popular nightlife areas, according to the U.S. Embassy.

Incidents in the downtown Roppongi district over the past year have ranged from assaults, robberies, druggings and shootings. The most serious cases generally weren’t random, but enough indiscriminate crime has prompted the embassy, U.S. Forces Japan and Japanese law enforcement to caution visitors about the area’s legendary collection of bars and clubs.

In one of the most serious cases the embassy noted, two Americans visiting Japan in April were beaten and robbed in an elevator in broad daylight.

Sara Abbas and Macon Leighton were shopping in Roppongi on a Saturday morning before they were to fly back that afternoon to San Diego, where Abbas is a student and Leighton a sailor, according to Gail Anderson, Abbas’ mother.

The two were in an elevator when several men entered and grabbed them, said Anderson, who works at the middle school on Yokota Air Base, west of Tokyo.

Abbas and Leighton fought back but the assailants beat them severely. More men entered when the elevator opened on another floor, according to what the two later told Anderson.

When Abbas and Leighton escaped, their possessions were gone, and they both had black eyes, broken teeth and noses, Anderson said. Leighton needed staples to close a gaping head wound. The two believed their assailants were West Africans.

Violence on the rise?

Though Japanese police statistics show Roppongi leads violent crime rates in Tokyo, the city remains one of the safest in the world, said the U.S. Forces Japan provost marshal, Air Force Col. James D. Brophy II.

In 2004, for instance, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department recorded 143 homicides for the metropolis of about 12 million. Washington, D.C., with a population of about 563,000, reported 198 homicides in 2004.

However, it may be getting worse.

“In general, there appears to have been an increase recently,” in both major and minor cases, Brophy said.

At least three foreigners have been killed in Roppongi, including one American, since December. One man was stabbed to death in the Wall Street House, a bar popular among foreigners. But those cases appear to be drug- or gang-related, according to police and media reports.

Nevertheless, there are many other things that can befall visitors to the area.

Embassy officials say they consistently hear about passports and military ID cards being lifted from pockets and purses in bars.

And increasingly, women have reported being drugged in bars, often by people they just met who bought them a drink, said Peter Van Buren, head of American Citizen Services at the U.S. Embassy. The drugged drinks can render victims unconscious, exposing them to sexual assaults and robberies.

The cases fall under Japanese police jurisdiction, and Van Buren could not comment on specifics. But he said the details are consistent from case to case.

“We continue to receive calls about people who have said they had something slipped into their drinks,” Van Buren said. “It is something people should be aware of.”

Bad elements

Most visitors don’t encounter gangs and drug dealers in the district, but Americans can encounter bad elements in several ways, said Keiji “Duke” Oda, regional director of the Guardian Angels in Japan. The citizen group patrols streets and neighborhoods to deter crime.

“There are certain groups or gangs that exist in Roppongi,” Oda said. “It doesn’t mean all of them are bad but some of them are. They might just be trying to rip you off.”

Many foreign nationals in quasi-gangs work for bars as touts and doormen to attract customers, he said, adding that the competitive pressure on them can make them dangerous. Visitors should be very clear when dealing with them if they don’t want to go to their bar, Oda said, but never argue.

“Be very clear and walk off,” he said. “You do not want to start anything with them.”

Other dangers for Americans include stumbling into drug deals or gang activities on back streets, he said. While Oda and many American officials don’t believe Americans are targeted for crime outright, they might inadvertently get caught in a gang dispute or ensnared by an opportunistic criminal in a bar.

Americans might also find trouble when it comes to paying bar bills. Some bars have overcharged drink tabs or added spurious costs, according to victims. Or in some cases, customers who chat with a woman might find a bill for the woman’s drinks, even if they didn’t offer to buy.

Oda said a rule of thumb is that in any place where you sit down, if a woman approaches ask whether she works for the bar or ask either her, a waiter or a manager at the door the cost to buy her a drink. Then, pay as you go to avoid confusion. Americans might not be used to the high costs in Tokyo bars, which can add up very quickly, Oda said.

If there is a problem, Oda suggests calling for police to settle the matter (dial 110 on a cellular phone and, if possible, ask a Japanese speaker to tell police where you are). If there is any impropriety, the bar may relent at the suggestion of police involvement, he said.

Bar patrons also should keep close track of their possessions, particularly passports, military ID cards and credit cards. Don’t leave anything in a coat pocket or purse.

And avoid heavy drinking because alcohol can make a bad situation worse, Brophy said.

“There is one constant,” he said. “An overindulgence of alcohol increases the possibility of becoming a victim or suspect of crime.”

Van Buren said the embassy has had a “regular flow of arrests” of Americans in Roppongi — U.S. servicemembers and civilians alike — often for drunken fights and mishaps.

Police help

No matter the circumstances, Oda, Van Buren and Brophy agree people should call for police or go to the police box at Roppongi crossing for help.

The police are very professional, Oda said, but they might not produce the effects Americans expect.

Anderson said that after the attack on her daughter and her friend, police put the bleeding couple into a taxi to send them to the nearest base.

They went to the U.S. Navy’s New Sanno Hotel near the Hiroo area for help, which Brophy said is a good option for servicemembers in trouble in downtown Tokyo.

Van Buren said he’s heard no complaints about the police turning Americans away, but to make any interaction better, Americans should speak slowly and carefully.

Brophy said Americans should feel confident in calling Japanese police. But in serious situations, servicemembers also should contact military law enforcement at the 24-hour security desk of whatever base or branch of service they are affiliated with.

Although violent crime is higher in Roppongi and affects foreigners more there than in other parts of Tokyo, it is relatively safe, fun and entertaining, Brophy said.

Americans shouldn’t avoid the nightspot, he added, but they should use the same caution they would in any city.

Said Oda: “People say Japan is expensive unless you know your way around. It’s the same thing [for security]. Always be careful and have it in mind that anything can happen.”

Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

A year of incidents

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo reports incidents involving foreigners in its monthly newsletter. Here are excerpts from the past year:

June 2005

The Embassy has been made aware of a case involving an American citizen who was given some type of drug against her will in a drink while at a popular bar near Roppongi Crossing. The woman awoke in a local hotel room with an unclothed Asian man who threatened her; she was able to escape from the room and seek help. Police are investigating, but no arrest has been made. Several other Americans and other Western foreigners have reported similar assaults when drinking in Roppongi.

On May 8 at 9 p.m., two unidentified Asian males physically assaulted and robbed a non-American employee of an embassy near Mikawadai Park, on Roppongi Avenue close to the Volvo dealership. The employee sustained minor injuries and her purse was stolen.

May 2005

Two American citizens reported that they were assaulted and robbed in an elevator in Roppongi in mid-April. Their assailants were believed to be non-Japanese, and the attack left one American in need of stitches and additional medical care.

Several Americans also reported in separate incidents that their purses, wallets and/or U.S. passports were stolen from them in bars in Roppongi.

April 2005

About 4:50 a.m. on March 9, a man believed to be an Iranian citizen was found dead on the floor of a bar near the Roppongi subway station with several gunshot wounds. This is the third killing in Roppongi since the end of last year, to include one American and [another] Iranian. No arrests have been made in any of the cases.

February 2005

According to information from several sources, at about 4 a.m. Jan. 3, a foreigner was stabbed to death at a club called “Wall Street House,” also known as “Wall Street II,” in Roppongi. The victim’s passport showed he is 26 years old and from Uruguay. However, there is a possibility that the passport was fake.

No Americans were involved, though Americans have been known to frequent the club. At least one American has reported that his passport was stolen in this same club in the past.

January 2005

An American citizen was murdered in early December in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. The murder occurred in an office building within walking distance of the local police station.

August 2004

Several Americans have reported the theft of purses and wallets stolen from them while in bars in Roppongi. In most cases the Americans had their things taken from coat or jacket pockets when they were not looking, or had items stolen when they left them on tables to go to the restroom. The thieves seem particularly interested in cash and passports.

June 2004

In the past few weeks, there have been six reports of western foreigners (including Americans) allegedly overdosing on heroin, resulting in three deaths. The heroin was allegedly purchased in Roppongi. Some of the buyers may have believed they were purchasing cocaine.

Tips when calling police for help

Japanese police, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the U.S. Forces Japan Provost Marshal’s office recommend the following for foreigners who require police assistance in Tokyo:

  • Dial 110 for help from a cellular or landline telephone.
  • Police usually have translators available, but try to speak slowly and clearly. If possible, write information down for an officer to read in person. Remember, police in Japan may not handle a situation exactly as police would elsewhere. Don’t make demands or tell police what to do.
  • When calling for help, know the name of the neighborhood where you are, such as Roppongi or Shinjuku, and look for address plates or serial numbers located several feet up on sign posts, utility poles or walls, with a series of numbers. Note landmarks such as major stores or buildings.
  • If on a cellular phone, try to stay still to reduce the chance of losing reception.
  • Cooperate fully with Japanese police, whether you are a victim or suspect. They will notify U.S. officials for you if you are arrested or hospitalized.
  • In addition to contacting Japanese police first and immediately, contact law enforcement from your base or the nearest installation from your service or branch as soon as possible for a serious incident; for lesser incidents, notify your chain of command.

— Juliana Gittler

Learn to be bar savvy

U.S. and Japanese security officials and the Guardian Angels recommend these tips specifically for Roppongi:

If you buy a drink for a female employee of a bar, it may cost much more than regular customer drinks. If you are not sure whether someone works for a bar or want to know the fee for her drink, ask her or a manager at the door. Roppongi has many bars where this applies.

To avoid unexpected or possibly inflated bar tabs, pay as you go or decide to pay after a certain number or drinks and then do so. Keep track of your purchases. Never leave a credit card to cover a tab.

A bottle of champagne that seems like a gift may in fact be added to your bill.

If there is a situation you believe is questionable, call for police to help settle the situation. Bars that are unscrupulous will try to avoid police intervention. Examples include an excessive fee to replace something such as a broken glass or an inflated bar tab.

Locate rear entrances to bars (even through a kitchen) in case of a fire or emergency.

Do not argue with touts and doormen soliciting business for bars. If you do not wish to enter, say “no” clearly and continue walking.

— Stars and Stripes

Who, what, how, when and where

The Tokyo Metro Police suggest five things to note when reporting an incident:

  • What happened or is happening (accident, robbery)
  • When and where — provide landmarks when possible
  • How did it happen — describe what you saw and report whether anyone is injured
  • Who did it — the number and description of people and where they went
  • Who you are — name, phone number and relation to the case

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Web site has more information and guidelines for finding Japanese addresses.

How to prepare for a night on the town in Tokyo

The USFJ Provost Marshal’s office recommends the following six things everyone should do or have before going out for an evening in Tokyo:

1. Review your local installation posted off-limits areas, available at the Legal Office or Police/Law Enforcement Desk

2. Let someone (friend, roommate, supervisor, etc.) know where you plan to go and when you plan to return

3. Have 24-hour contact numbers for your base Law Enforcement/Security Desk (base extension/off base dial-in number).

4. Have a small, wallet-sized card with a map and directions in Japanese to the New Sanno Hotel (available at Sanno) to show to a taxi driver if you get lost or need to get to a U.S. facility quickly

5. Have sufficient yen to cover entertainment with a reserve to allow for emergency transportation back to base.

6. Make a commitment to not overindulge in alcohol, with the realization that doing so will increase one’s chances of getting into trouble — either as a victim or a suspect

— Provost Marshal, U.S. Forces Japan