Forgotten phones in cabs, briefcases left unattended beneath train seats, lost wallets, missing umbrellas, and misplaced handbags. Every year, Japan’s 126 million citizens lose many personal items. However, an astonishingly high number of them find their way back to their respective owners.
According to a recent BBC report, 83% of mobile phones lost in Tokyo, for instance, are eventually recovered. The strategy for reuniting unfortunate people with their misplaced valuables is based on complex infrastructure, carrot-and-stick legal incentives, and cultural norms. Taken together, they produce a startlingly effective system that has long astonished Westerners.
The procedure is generally initiated at the local koban “police boxes,” which serve as the foundation of Japan’s society approach to law enforcement. Koban (approx 6,300 spread around the country) is a small, strategically positioned police station that serves as the main point of contact for most locals with the police.
In 2018, over 4.1 million missing items were reported to authorities in Tokyo’s massive city, a figure that has been progressively climbing in recent years. In 2015, there were 26.7 million registered missing objects across the country. However, sometimes cash is also reported as lost and found to the police, and in 2018, a record 3.8 billion yen was reported to the police, with more than 75% of it being returned to their owners.
After police finish paperwork, items are kept for one month at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s freshly remodeled Lost-and-Found Center. The Center, located in the capital’s Bunkyo Ward, is a six-story structure that houses approximately 900,000 lost objects, including a 7,100-square-foot area dedicated just to umbrellas. (In 2018, 343,725 umbrellas were handed over, accounting for nearly 8% of all lost items.) On a rainy day, the cops may accept 3,000 of them.)
When an item arrives at the Center, it is meticulously logged and checked for personally identifiable information that may aid in contacting the rightful owner. After three months, if the proper owner cannot be discovered, ownership of most objects may transfer to the person who found it or even to the city council. Local governments may sell unclaimed items, including clothing, musical instruments, and stationery, to wholesalers who host pop-up matsuri sales throughout the month.
Japan’s heavily used rail stations are another common location for lost items to be returned. Central rail lost-and-found depots can store items for up to two weeks before turning them over to the police. According to Sagami Railway Company records, 85,043 items were given over to station workers by the person who found them in 2018. (about a quarter of them were umbrellas). Although the low number of umbrella retrievals (typically less than 1% are claimed) skews this figure downward, 31.4 percent eventually found their way back to their rightful owners.
On the other hand, a well-tuned lost-and-found system cannot exist solely on infrastructure. It is also necessary to foster a culture that values restoring lost goods, and in Japan, this is a lesson that begins at an early age.
A mother called Keiko detailed how her small kid discovered a 50-yen coin in a park in Japan’s Hokuriku area in a now-viral Twitter tweet. He insisted on returning the money worth less than 50 cents to a local koban. “Several officers came out, questioned when the coin was acquired, and filled out the official record” and commended her son; Keiko was anxious about how the uniformed officers would react to the 6-year-old. “Children are educated to return found goods to the koban at nursery school and kindergarten,” she writes in an email to CityLab. She also praised the officers’ response. “My son is only six years old, but they addressed him as if he were an adult.”
Indeed, it is relatively uncommon in Japan to hear of young children turning in little cash or trinkets to police, who subsequently fill out a lost-and-found report. (It helps that cops in low-crime Japanese cities generally have a lot of free time.) The police also regularly issue public notices, guaranteeing families that kids attempting to return nominally lost property are not a hindrance to officials.
Property rules in Japan play a role in the country’s habit of returning lost objects; a New York Times piece from 2004 attributes a legal code drafted in the year 718. More recently, in 2007, Japan’s Amended Lost Property Act went into effect, requiring those who find lost items to return them to the owner, the officers, or another assigned jurisdiction. This amended law is based on failed property legislation from 1882, which corresponds closely with the formalization of broader property rights during the Meiji Period.
Article 28 of the law provides for a payment of 5 to 20% of the value of the returned object if it is reunited with its owner. If an item goes unclaimed for three months, the finder has the right to acquire ownership—except for things such as telephones or objects with potentially identifiable information. However, finders have the option to refuse the compensation and remain anonymous.
Of course, the question is whether the Japanese approach can be applied in places where lost-and-found success rates are far lower. Mark West, a University of Michigan professor, conducted notable lost-wallet research in 2003, comparing return rates in New York City (10%) to Tokyo (80%). According to West, such striking displays of community altruism demonstrate the power of Japanese legal tradition rather than anything more profound. “There’s no proof that Japanese people have excessive honesty standards,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. “It’s partly cultural training, but the law also encourages people to report lost property to the police.” Global research has revealed the complex psychology behind the return of lost goods, including the shocking discovery that the more money a lost wallet contains, the more likely it will be turned in.
Other cities can learn from Japan’s well-developed lost-and-found infrastructure. In 2007, for example, Gail Brewer, a New York City council member, wrote a scathing report on the property recovery scheme used by the city’s police department and taxi commission, calling it a byzantine “long ride to nowhere.” A jumbled, decentralized patchwork of custodians—some of whom are unaware of their position in the system—and poor cataloging procedures make phone and wallet recovery a crapshoot for New Yorkers.
Law enforcement resources are also a consideration. Cities in North America lack koban networks (though several have repeatedly tried to replicate the model over the years), and community policing continues to struggle to replace traditional approaches to law enforcement.
There is no single distinguishing feature that makes Japan a loser’s paradise. Obtaining the necessary community buy-in, infrastructure, and policing resources to create a successful lost-and-found system, on the other hand, necessitates a concerted effort and ample funding. It also doesn’t hurt to have centuries of legal precedent on your side.
Source: Bloomberg Citylab