The koban system: why the Japanese local police stations are so popular?

Navigating around a Japanese city is not always as easy as it might seem. Not every street has a distinguishable name either in Chinese characters or Latin script. Almost all addresses, in fact, depend on codes, numbers and sub-numbers. My own experience of living in Japan has led me to the conclusion that the most difficult jobs are those that involve navigating around this complex system: postal workers, delivery operatives and police officers.

The latter vocation, in my opinion, is particularly emblematic. In addition to maintaining public order, Japanese police officers must also have a thorough knowledge of the geography of their jurisdiction and, consequently, they must be able to provide clear and accurate directions to those unable to find their desired address.

When lost amidst small streets and low houses, the kōban, a small local police station, can be a salvation.

The kōban is a small one or two storey building that serves as a base from which police officers can manage public security and patrol the streets of the neighbourhood. Local residents can also visit the kōban to file complaints, report missing objects, renew licenses and permits and resolve some simple bureaucratic issues.

The idea, to quote the English website of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police (Keishicho) is that these small outposts "serve the needs of the local community and make the residents feel safe and secure".

The example of Tokyo is notable as the police force in the metropolis is the largest in the world, with over 40 thousand agents and almost 3 thousand administrative staff. Many of these are employed in the one thousand kōban spread across the metropolitan area and residential neighbourhoods.

This extensive network has been credited for Japan's low crime rates and consequent high quality of life. According to the figures published in a 2013 UN report on murder rates in member states, the figure in Japan was less than 0.5 murders for every 100,000 population. This statistic is considered to be reliable due to the fact that, in difference to other crimes, murders are always reported.

According to another study, the Better life index compiled by the OECD, Japan was adjudged to be the safest country, ahead of other high scoring nations Poland and the United Kingdom.

The perceived effectiveness of the kōban has earned the system admiration from abroad and contributed to the development of Japan's "safety myth". Last year the Japanese style "Police Boxes" were in place for the Football World Cup in Brazil and they are set to be employed for the 2016 Olympics in the same country. According to the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, the system was introduced in some states in Brazil in 2000 through the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA); the presence of the Brazilian kōban has helped to reduce murder rates considerably in cities such as Sao Paolo. By 2017 the system will be extended to all of Brazil's 27 states.

Singapore was the first country to follow Japan's example: in 1981 the father figure of the city state, Lee Kuan Yew, who died a few days ago, launched a campaign called "let's learn from Japan".

The success of the kōban is not surprising. Beyond the contribution to public safety, the kōban are an example of the power of the state authority that enters, to quote the sociologist Yoshio Sugimoto, into the "daily lives" of the citizens.

As Sugimoto writes in An Introduction to Japanese Society, the system imposes "strict surveillance" over individuals, who, although not formally obliged to do so, are "encouraged to comply with the state machinery of data collection" in the name of security. Sugimoto highlights the kōban system as one of the primary "ingredients" of Japan's "friendly authoritarianism", a fact that, sooner or later, even the lost foreigner will discover, once he has managed to find his way home.


Translated by Nicholas Neiger

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