“My friend who was travelling to Los Angeles with me from Japan has been missing for the last two days. I can’t reach him by phone and he hasn’t checked my text messages. Since he doesn’t speak English and this is his first time travelling to the U.S., I’m very worried. Please help me. I don’t know what to do.”
– Kenji Saito
In August 2018, Japanese tourist Kenji Saito visited Little Tokyo Service Center asking for help. He looked panicked and confused. Kenji and fellow tourist, Takashi Matsuda, had been separated near LA Live at around 9 p.m. Kenji went back to an Airbnb in West Los Angeles where he and Takashi were staying, hoping to find his friend. However, Takashi did not return. For the next two days, Kenji sent text messages to Takashi, but to no avail.
An LTSC social worker helped Kenji fill out a missing persons report by writing down Takashi’s description and the circumstances around his disappearance in English. The social worker then drew a map to the closest local police station. Since Kenji did not speak English well and would return to Japan in a few days, the social worker reported the incident to the Consulate-General of Japan in Los Angeles.
For the next several weeks, LTSC heard nothing more on the matter. However, in September, a Japanese man walked into LTSC’s office, introducing himself as Takashi Matsuda. The social worker who helped Kenji remembered Takashi’s name. Apologizing for the concern he had created, Takashi said he was okay.
Takashi recounted his experiences over the past several weeks, which stunned LTSC’s staff. Confusion and Takashi’s inability to speak English had landed him in jail, accused of attempted robbery.
According to Takashi, on the night he was separated from Kenji near LA Live, he became lost and wandered into a dark alley. Takashi grew scared and ran. He believed his cell phone and passport fell out of his pocket while he was running. Later, he asked a woman on the street if he could borrow her cell phone to call for help. However, since Takashi did not speak English, he tried to communicate with gestures. The woman thought Takashi was trying to rob her and called the police.
When police arrived, Takashi was handcuffed and held in jail for about a month for attempted robbery. After a couple weeks, Takashi’s cell-mates noticed he only spoke Japanese and reported this to an officer. Takashi was eventually able to speak with another officer who understood Japanese, and allowed to call his family in Japan. In the meantime, the Consulate-General of Japan in Los Angeles was contacted and reached out to Takashi.
Consul staff went to Takashi’s court hearing and provided necessary support. Takashi was released from jail in September, almost a full month after he was first detained. With the Consulate-General office’s support, Takashi was able to return to Japan safely and to reunite with his family.
LTSC often helps monolingual people with language support. This is one of the extreme cases, but it made it clear how important it is to fill service gaps and be advocates for those who are not fluent in English. LTSC will continue to support those who need help with social services.