Why there's basically no crime in Japan
TOKYO -- This story begins with a crime.
Under normal circumstances, there is no reason anyone would want to steal my bike. It's a basic get-around-town model that cost $150. It was the biggest bicycle a Japanese department store carried and it's still too small for me. The chain grinds on every rotation, although that may have to do with the fact that I leave it out in the rain and the bike is now covered in rust.
It has a bell but no night light as required by Japanese law — which, as you'll see, is a misdemeanor that the Japanese police choose to enforce.
But the guy who stole my bike from outside a Tokyo train station one recent Saturday night wasn't looking for anything flashy. He was drunk — it was payday and he had over-celebrated. He had slept well past his stop and was kicked off the last train of the night at the last station on the line. It was a crime of necessity: Steal the wheels or walk.
My bicycle was available because I never lock it. Not even when I'm leaving it outside a busy train station overnight.
This is Japan. Nobody steals your stuff here. Safest place in the developed world. You can look it up in the guidebooks.
It's a silly stereotype, of course. Tokyo's crime rate may be much lower than that of Los Angeles, but that doesn't mean it's free of petty thieves (or robbers, killers and gangsters). But live here awhile and enough anecdotal experience piles up to feed complacency. I've been chased by people who want to return a dropped coin. I've left my cellphone in a park, come back the next morning, and found it on the bench where I'd set it down.
Having moved to Tokyo from London, where your cellphone wasn't safe in your pocket, I found this amazing. After a short time in a low-crime society, old habits changed. I would leave my briefcase unattended on a train, for example. And I stopped locking my bike.
I left it unclamped outside stores and restaurants, the lock wrapped uselessly around the bar under my seat. I'd leave it out all night in the driveway, unchained. One summer vacation, I left all four family bikes sitting unlocked in the driveway for three weeks.
So I was more embarrassed than angry when I went back to get my bike that Sunday morning and found it gone.
No kidding, I hear you saying. But I was so surprised I thought the ever-efficient Tokyo bicycle attendants might have impounded it for not being parked in a designated bicycle rack. Tokyo is awash in bikes, and despite long rows of parking stands at every station, there are never enough spaces.
I was still contemplating a visit to the impounded bike lot a day later when an officer from a neighboring ward office of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police called me at home.
Officer Shinya Yoshioka had recovered my bike and captured the thief.
OFFICER Yoshioka works out of a tiny, two-room outpost called a koban, a staple of community policing in Japan. These substations are scattered across Japanese neighborhoods, a way for the police to keep an eye on the comings and goings and, in theory at least, quickly respond to a crime or accident.
In my experience, kobans appeared to be little more than glorified information booths where people stop in to ask for directions. The most common sight at a koban is a uniformed officer hunched over his desk map, tracing a route with his finger for a confused citizen.
But it was from his koban in Suginami Ward about three miles from my home that Yoshioka had spotted the bike thief. It was after midnight, and the cops were on the lookout for suspicious behavior. Suginami is a high break-and-enter neighborhood, Yoshioka tells me later (another blow to the stereotype), one of the worst in Tokyo.
The guy on my bike was obviously very drunk, a crime in itself, Yoshioka explains. The big knapsack on his back also attracted attention: It could have held tools for breaking into homes.
And the bike had no night light.
So Yoshioka ordered him to stop.
Incredibly, the thief did. This speaks volumes about the Japanese respect for authority. The cops were on foot. The thief was on a bike. Japanese cops carry small guns, hidden from view. Put an Angeleno bike thief in the same situation and he keeps biking. Picks up his pace. Maybe allows himself a laugh.
After determining he wasn't carrying anything to jimmy open a window or door, the cops turned their attention to the bike. Where did he get it? The crook opted to take his chances on talking his way out of trouble.
"I bought it," he told the cops. "For $30."
Mistake. Too much detail. Nobody sells a bike for $30, the cops told him. They took him in for questioning and 40 minutes later had a confession.
Nice work, I tell Yoshioka when he recounts the story. But what would you have done if he hadn't stopped?
"We would have chased him on our official bikes," he says. He points to a battered bike with a basket on the back.
"Is it fast enough?" I ask him.
"Oh, it can't compete with yours," he says. "But we would have done our best."
YOSHIOKA knew the bike was stolen as soon as he checked the registration number on the little yellow sticker that is slapped on every bike frame sold in Japan. One call to the computer center and Yoshioka knew that I was the bike's owner, knew where I lived, and, for some reason, knew how old I am.
He called me at home. When could I pick it up?
Yoshioka wanted to return the bike personally. I would have to provide some details, such as pointing out on a map the precise spot from which the bike was taken (to make sure it matched the thief's version). Finding a time that worked for both of us took a little work, all negotiated over several phone calls through Hisako Ueno, a Times reporter and interpreter.
When it began raining on the morning of the appointed day, Yoshioka called to suggest postponing until the weather was better.
This one stolen bike seemed to be taking up a lot of police time, I said to Hisako. Isn't this a bit unusual?
Not at all, Hisako said. She told me about the time she reported her bike stolen to the police. When she called them a few days later to say she had found it abandoned near a busy train station, they excitedly told her to leave it right there. The thief might come back for it, they said.
Two detectives staked out her bike for six hours. The thief never showed.
When I finally get to the police station, Yoshioka isn't there. He's on duty at the koban, so I'm introduced instead to Nobuo Taguchi, the regional station chief who will do the paperwork necessary to free my bike.
Taguchi ushers Hisako and me into a small, windowless room. He plunks a file folder with the case paperwork onto the table. He slides two Polaroid pictures across the desk at me.
They show the thief standing sheepishly in front of the train station. In both shots, he is pointing to a chain link fence. It is a feature of Japanese police work that suspects are taken to the scene of their crime to confess their misdeeds. "This is where he took the bike," Taguchi says.
I recognize the spot. Not quite where I had parked it.
Close enough, I tell Taguchi.
He was pretty drunk, Taguchi says.
The cops had fingerprinted the thief and taken a mug shot. But because I had never reported the bike stolen, the police decided to let him off with a warning.
Not that I would have wanted to see a 23-year-old father of two go to jail. "He was a good father," Taguchi says. "The envelope with his weekly pay had not been opened. He was bringing it home to hand over to his wife."
I sign a document asserting that the bike was being returned "without major damage" and acknowledging that the thief "was feeling sorry about what he had done." I look at the paper. It's in Japanese but I can see that the police have valued the stolen property at less than $50. For a moment, I'm insulted.
But Taguchi seems pleased I've come to claim the bike. He wheels my humble two-wheeler out of storage and hands it off to me like a proud father to a son at Christmas. I point out the lock wrapped under the seat and we share a laugh. Taguchi bows as I walk it out.
I still want to thank Officer Yoshioka for catching the thief and for all his phone calls to arrange the bike's return. So Hisako and I walk my bike over to his koban about a mile away.
I praise him for his good work. Repeat the self-deprecating line about being too lazy to take three seconds to loop my lock around the wheel.
The policeman cracks only the faintest of smiles. I'll lock it from now on, I quickly promise him.
"Please," he says.
We say goodbye and I hop on my bike for the ride home. I sink much lower than usual.
The guy wasn't too drunk to adjust my seat, I grumble.
I raise it back as high as it will go and start to pedal off. I hear the familiar groan of the rusty chain. I pick up the pace.
It's getting dark. And I don't have a light.
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