On yer Bikes, Lads!
If you’re accustomed to the American style of policing – with its emphasis on high-speed chase cars bristling with arms and electronics – Tokyo’s police (keisatsu) may seem pathetically low-tech. Certainly, it’s hard to look like Starsky or Hutch on a basic white bicycle – all the more so when the frame looks like a girls’ model. But herein may lie part of the reason why the world’s biggest metropolis is also its safest.
Japan’s best constables are, by-and-large, much closer to their communities than their counterparts in either Britain or the US. The main means of achieving that is the koban or “police box”, which is never further than a 15-minute walk from any urban location. A primary tool of law enforcement, the koban also functions as a local community service post.
Officers assigned to each koban patrol the surrounding neighborhood around the clock. Familiar figures on their bikes, they’re known as omawarisan or “one who makes the rounds.” They keep their fingers firmly on the pulse of local life.
Since the koban officer is generally the best-informed source of local information, he is frequently consulted by those seeking directions. In addition, he – or increasingly she – responds to all suspicious incidents ad crimes, deals with parking offenses and lost/found property. As well, you’ll see your local koban posting neighborhood announcements and charming snaps of Japan’s Most Wanted.
A further koban duty is household registration, which assists the police in knowing their neighborhood. Twice a year, they are expected to visit every home in the koban’s jurisdiction to gather details on occupants (names, ages, occupations, and so on). On such visits they will also pass on suggestions about crime prevention or traffic safety and listen to complaints or rumors about happenings in the area.
Foreign residents may not actually see the omawarisan on his visits, as they will often ask the landlord for information rather than risk attempts in a foreign language. In other cases, an alert officer might appear at your door ready with a registration form in your language.
To some foreigners, all this may smack of George Orwell’s 1984 – “Big Brother is Watching You.” But consider it from other angles: What happens if your house is burgled when you’re at work? Or one of your family is injured? Here, the police ring your office straight away.
All police academy graduates start their careers in the koban. Many go on to other postings but others will remain here at the grassroots level. And because may of those stay at the same koban for decades, they develop deep links with the community. Thus, local residents seldom hesitate to consult the koban on any matter – even if it’s only the weather. You’ll often see a knot of local merchants and retired gents clustered around the koban to chat.
So, in truth, your local omawarisan does not get less respect than Starsky or Hutch – it’s just a different sort. Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to register your bike at the koban. Nabbing stolen or unregistered two-wheelers is a police preoccupation.