Misplaced 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.
But 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.
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.
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
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 purse.
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 world."
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."
On 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.
- 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.
what happened to the owners," Shitara said.
with a smile, "If they didn't need them anymore because they
got better, it's a good thing."
One 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.
The 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.
products would spoil, the police sold them at a bargain to the finders.
Nowadays, fearing contamination, the authorities immediately dispose
of any food.
The 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.
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."
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.
In 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 executed.
A 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.
If 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.
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
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 ancient times."