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.

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.

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