a wad of cash? In Japan, not to worry
Norimitsu Onishi NYT
Friday, January 9, 2004
TOKYO Anywhere else, perhaps, a shiny cellphone left
behind on the back seat of a taxi, a nondescript umbrella
left leaning against a subway door, a wad of cash dropped
on a sidewalk, would be lost forever, the owners resigned
to the vicissitudes of big-city life.
here in Tokyo, with 8 million people in the city and
33 million in the metropolitan area, these items and
thousands more would probably find their way to the
Tokyo Police Department's lost-and-found center. In
a four-story warehouse, hundreds of thousands of lost
objects are meticulously cataloged according to the
date and location of discovery, and the information
put in a database.
lost-and-found centers exist all over Japan, based on
a 1,300-year-old system that long preceded Japan's unification
as a nation and its urbanization. More recently, it
has apparently survived an economic slump that has contributed
to a general rise in crime.
that in 2002 people found and brought to the Tokyo center
$23 million in cash, 72 percent of which was returned
to the owners, once they had convinced the police that
it was theirs. About 19 percent of it went to the finders
after no one claimed the money for half a year.
Sasaki, 24, sporting a suntan and a pierced nose, found
$250 in a tray under a plant outside the restaurant
where she works. "I always hand in something I
find, like purses," said Sasaki, who had come to
claim the money after waiting half a year. "I imagine
that a person might be in trouble, losing money or a
used to live in Chicago, so I can tell you how wonderful
this is. Inside the center, I saw a woman come to pick
up an umbrella today. Only for an umbrella. It's something
almost impossible to imagine in other cities in the
are also taught from early on to hand in anything they
find to the police in their neighborhoods. So most of
the 200 to 300 people who come to the center every day
take the system for granted, as did Tatsuya Kozu, 27,
who retrieved his leather business card case the other
day. "I'm glad," he said. "I just dropped
by here to pick it up, since my office is nearby."
a recent morning, shelves were heaving under bags containing
lost items that spoke of the rhythms of commuting life:
keys, glasses, wallets, cellphones, bags. A small bicycle
helmet with "Suzuki" on it and a toy horse
testified perhaps to a child's fickleness. Skis and
golf bags attested perhaps less to misplacement than
to an abandoned hobby; unclaimed wedding bands perhaps
bespoke the end of something larger.
objects - wheelchairs and crutches - were harder to
explain, though Nobuo Hasuda, 54, and Hitoshi Shitara,
47, both veteran officials of the lost-and-found system,
had well-rehearsed lines.
wonder what happened to the owners," Shitara said.
said, with a smile, "If they didn't need them anymore
because they got better, it's a good thing."
floor was a sea of umbrellas, which have the distinction
of being the most commonly lost item - 330,000 in 2002,
or 3,200 for every good rainfall - and, at a rate of
0.3 percent, the least reclaimed.
low rate is an indication of how rapidly Japan has grown
rich in the span of a few generations. "In the
past," Shitara said, "one person barely had
one umbrella, or a family had to share one. So your
father scolded you if you lost an umbrella."
changes. Hasuda remembered that at a local lost-and-found
center decades ago people brought in cabbages, radishes,
oranges and other vegetables and fruit they had found.
the products would spoil, the police sold them at a
bargain to the finders. Nowadays, fearing contamination,
the authorities immediately dispose of any food.
item with the highest return rate - 75 percent - is
the cellphone, which has flooded the center in the last
three years. Owners typically call their own phones,
or the center traces the owners through their subscription
and sends a notification postcard.
lost-and-found property system dates to a code written
in the year 718, according to Hideo Fukunaga, a former
police official who wrote a book on the subject, "Notes
on the Law on Lost Property."
then, lost goods, animals and, mysteriously, servants
had to be handed over to a government official within
five days of being found. After a year, the government
took over the belongings, though the owner could still
reclaim them. The code stipulated that people had no
right to keep lumber found adrift in a flood.
the 18th century, finders were given more rights and
were rewarded with a certain value of the found property.
Finders who did not hand in objects were severely punished.
According to Fukunaga's book, in 1733 two officials
who kept a parcel of clothing were led around town and
new law was created in the late 19th century and then
reformed, most recently in 1958. Currently, a finder
must hand in an object to the authorities within seven
days, or lose the right to a reward or ownership. In
the case of lost money, if the original owner is found,
the finder has the right to claim 5 percent to 20 percent
of the sum, though usually it is 10 percent.
the original owner is not found after half a year, the
finder can claim the object or money. But most finders
do not bother making any claims, and the objects and
proceeds usually end up going to the Tokyo government.
These days, the authorities are thinking of ways to
update the system by creating an Internet listing of
the items at all lost-and-found centers nationwide,
or at least those in Tokyo. The system's survival, though,
will depend less on technology than on simple honesty.
June, Tsutomu Hirahaya, 55, a photographer, found ¥13,000,
or about $120, on a counter at a betting booth. He handed
over the money to an employee and left his name and
address. A few weeks ago, he received a postcard from
the police informing him that the cash was his.
feel uncomfortable holding another person's money,"
Hirahaya said. "I think many Japanese people feel
the same way and hand over something they find. I think
among Japanese there's still a sense of community since