Maybe the beard tipped them off, but who knows. Standing in front of a ticket machine in the Ebisu Station with an "I have no idea what I'm doing" look on my face, a policeman approached me and asked for my I.D. I pulled out my ISIC student card (accepted everywhere, my ass) and my driver's license, but he was unimpressed. He tried for a while to talk to me, but I speak no Japanese and he spoke no English, so we got nowhere. It's amazing how much people keep trying to communicate in a language even if they know the other person can't understand. What, did he expect something to suddenly click in my brain? Did he think that if he said it enough times it would finally process and I would go "Ohhhhh, THAAAAAT's what you said!" Frustrating.
Anyway, after a fruitless back and forth he escorted me to the station's police hut, where 5 other eager officers surrounded me and tried, in Japanese, to explain the situation. It was like a scene out of Harold and Kumar - "This one's mine, this one's mine! Finally, some action!" Once aware that I could not understand a word (incredibly observant, these ones), they phoned police headquarters and put me on the phone with somebody who could speak to me in English.
Once connected, the police officer handed me the phone and the man on the other line said that I was required by law to have my passport on me at all times so that the police could verify my status in Japan during random midnight subway station checks. I explained to him that I had just gone out to dinner with my friends and was unaware of the strict rules. I explained to him that while I always carried my passport while in such police states as Egypt and Peru, I did not know the same would be required here in Japan. He was not amused with the comparison, but still conceded to me that pleading ignorance helped my cause. It's better to just not know the law, he said.
The back and forth (and forth) which continued for over 30 minutes went something like this: The policeman would bark something to the man on the other line in Japanese, then hand me the phone so the other guy could explain to me (in English) why I had been detained and what I needed to do, then I handed the phone back to the policeman so the guy on the other line could tell him (in Japanese) what I had said. The scene resembled a horrible bi-lingual rendition of "Who's on First?" I played Abbott, they all played Costello.
By now, with the clock on the wall moving torturously past 12:30 a.m., I had lost all hope of making the subway before it closed. Eventually, through my new translator, the police agreed to drive me back to the apartment I'm staying at so that I could show them my passport and put them at ease. I was escorted to the squad-car surrounded by 4 officers because apparently they viewed me as a flight risk. Two officers drove me back to the Wigmore's, where I'm staying, and accompanied me upstairs. A little peeved at the whole situation, and at the fact that they wouldn't let me listen to my i-Pod in the car, I made them take their shoes off at the door. I showed them my passport, assured them it was real, they wrote down my information and headed on their way. After almost two hours in their custody, the whole thing ended in about 3 minutes.
What to take away from it all? It's tough to say, really. On one hand, it all could have been avoided if I had carried my passport with me. On the other hand, who does that? Especially in a place like Tokyo. In the end I cut my losses and, in a rare moment of optimism (for me), went to bed thankful that I had gotten a free ride home.