Between May 26th and June 15th of this year it was necessary for me to answer to two names; the one my parents gifted me with at birth and another that was assigned when I entered into the detention centre at the police station. My designation was 29番1 and it was the only way people could refer to me while in the jail. We were not supposed to share our real names with guards or other detainees. Most of us have been called far worse things throughout life, but there's something utterly dehumanising about being referred to as a number; as though we are no more significant than cattle.

Perhaps this is the point.

When a person is detained and stripped of the freedoms afforded by society, are they any more important to the outside world than a cow that grazes in the field? We are permitted the basic necessities of life2, a shared newspaper, a handful of minutes to groom ourselves, and a shower twice a week. Time spent in the cell can be passed by reading a book, writing3, sleeping, walking in circles, staring out a mostly-obscured window or – as I quickly discovered – spending exorbitant amounts of time in your head. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes watching primates within a cage at a zoo would find it interesting that humans will often do the same things as the great apes and orangutans might in order to get through the day.

The numbers people are assigned are handed out sequentially and, because they are relatively low, reset at regular intervals. The lowest number was #14, assigned to an elderly gentleman who I shared a cell with for the last five days of my detention, and the highest was #32, assigned to a man of few words. Knowing a person's number would give you some indication of how much time had passed since they last enjoyed the freedoms that so many of us take for granted, but asking directly was frowned upon. Still, I would occasionally think about the men who had been placed in captivity before me and wonder how they maintained their sanity given the lack of stimulus that was permitted. The old man would devour books. One would write a letter to a different person every day. Yet another would sit with this back against the wall and just stare into space. Everyone had their preferred way of passing the time.

When I was first placed in a cell, I had no idea what to do. There was a mostly-blocked window that I could stare through to examine the sky and power lines, or stand on tip-toe to see the tops of trees and buildings. When my muscles were tight from a lack of activity, I would walk in circles around the cell. Three times counter-clockwise, bouncing my right shoulder against the concrete walls as I went, then three times clockwise, bouncing the left shoulder against the same walls, then repeat. Later I would read books. Finally, to break the monotony, I would retreat into imagination where I ran a coffee shop that served good drinks and excellent sandwiches.

The books were a good distraction at first, but there seemed to be a theme of misery within the library. Only four books were available in English: Flowers for Algernon, Memory Police, Run, Melos!, and Animal Farm. I had read Flowers for Algernon in high school and couldn't read it again while detained as it was just … depressing. Memory Police started out as being interesting, but went in a direction that I really disliked and eventually ended with a depressing non-ending. Run, Melos! was a collection of short stories that had been translated into English with the most common theme being people who hated themselves despite all the good that surrounded them. So it is probably no surprise that I decided to borrow Animal Farm for the greatest amount of time, reading through the story at least twenty times in all simply to occupy the mind with something that wasn't related to the remarkable amount of loss that I was trying to ignore4. However, one can only compare George Orwell's "fairy story" to North Korea so many times before the tale becomes wearisome. So, as I was in desperate need of something to do, I created a job for myself.

Something I have always wanted to do is open a coffee shop. In my mind, I built a small cafe for a small town in Southern Ontario. The place was called "Jason's Signature Coffee", which had my signature – J²fi in a cursive script – on the cups. The place sold good coffee, healthy sandwiches, and all-natural juices. For breakfast there were yogurt cups that came with a small package of granola. At lunch there were various sandwiches, made with fresh-baked bread from the kitchen. In the winter people could also enjoy a hardy stew or chilli in a bread bowl. Connected to the coffee shop was a small classroom where I would teach kids how to program Lego robots and, when not tending to either the shop or the school, I would sponsor youth sports clubs and enjoy watching some games. It was a very busy place and there was always something to take care of.

The original concept started to take shape somewhere around Day 10 of my detention. Based on the comments and signals I was reading from the police officer and the prosecutor in charge of investigating the case, all signs were pointing to a five-year stay at a labour camp followed by a deportation. I needed something happy. I needed something to look forward to. This entrepreneurial enterprise was the best I could come up with, and it sustained me for a week. Various problems would be imagined, such as running out of bread at lunchtime or dealing with a break-in that emptied the classroom of all its Lego and supporting tech, and solutions would be played out. A number of "What If …?" scenarios played out in this fantasy town, including one where I met someone and considered starting a relationship. All in all, it was an excellent way to distract myself. Anyone who can see that a positive future awaits is in a better position than someone who is depressed.

Unfortunately, the fantasies would always end the same way: "Number 29; it's time to eat." A guard would interrupt my train of thought to let me know that it was either noon or 5:00pm; time for a meal.

Jason's Signature Coffee is one of the few positive memories I have of my time in a Japanese detention centre. It was an escape that allowed me to feel purpose. It was an exercise that allowed me to examine a possible future. It was an opportunity to possess a name that people could call me by.

My name is Jason. Not a number.

  1. Pronounced "ni-juu kyuu ban", meaning "Number 29".

  2. This would include food, clothing, and shelter.

  3. All writing had to be readable by the staff so, if I were to write anything in English, I would need to pay to have it translated so that the warden and guards could make sure it didn't contain anything that should remain within the confines of the detention centre. Suffice it to say, I did not write anything as I was not keen on spending untold sums of cash on translations.

  4. In the space of two months I managed to lose my wife, son, dog, and freedom. This was compounded by the fear of losing my job, house, and financial security going forward.