Ben Hills

Yes,” says Inspector Masao Kiyota, “the stories are true. If they pick up a drunk who has made a mess of himself, the police will put him in a cell to sober up, and wash his shirt and pants for him.

“We like to have a good relationship with our community and, if a man gets drunk, well, we can’t send him home like that. What would his wife say?” Kiyota, an affable middle-aged man with steel-rimmed glasses who enjoys a drink of sake himself, is a typical foot-soldier on the front line of the war on crime in a country that is generally regarded as the most law-abiding in the world.

If you live in Sydney or Melbourne, you are three times as likely to be robbed, four times as likely to be murdered (see chart), 10 times as likely to be raped and an extraordinary 77 times as likely to be assaulted than you are on the safe streets of Asia’s largest city.

Around the financial district of Marunouchi, elderly messengers pedal black bicycles with millions of yen in the carrier-baskets; children as young as five and six ride the subways alone; women walk the streets at night with little fear; there are no armed guards (in fact, very few guards of any sort), no alarms on homes or cars and almost no vandalism.

To visitors from the crime-ravaged cities of Europe and North America, Japan is a journey back in time to a vanished world where guns were for shooting ducks, not people, and drugs something you took when you were ill. Inspector Kiyota is the friendly village bobby in this urban idyll.

We are talking in the back room of a koban, a grey-tiled police box which stands at a minor intersection in Ota-ku, a residential suburb to the south-west of Tokyo. It looks a bit similar to a large public convenience and, in a way, that’s exactly what it is. The kobans are one of the keys to Japan’s much-envied public security. There are 15,000 of them throughout the country – one every kilometre or so across the vast metropolis of Tokyo – and they are the backbone of the country’s policing system.

“Community policing” has only recently become a buzz word overseas – in Japan the system has been operating, highly effectively, since the 1870s. “Here, law enforcement is not regarded as the only function of the police,” says Masaaki Tsubota of the National Police Agency. “The police are expected to get involved with the whole community, to know as many people as possible. That is the secret.” They visit vulnerable people, such as the elderly housebound; they take part in local festivals; they go drinking with the heads of neighbourhood committees.

The range of social services provided by the police – apart from washing drunks’ underpants – is quite remarkable. Each koban has a special fund from which people can be lent money for their train fare home if they are broke. Drunks and lost children are walked home. You often see stray dogs tied up outside a koban waiting for their owners. Neighbourhood disputes, such as rowdy parties, are quickly sorted out.

The police are helped by the fact that residents on their patch are required – though there is no law about this – to register their details, including employment, car registration, age and family members with the police.

The result is a neighbourhood about as free of real crime as you can get. In fact, there is not one occurrence written into the koban logbook by late afternoon the day I visit.

Illegally parked bicycles, people scratching the paint of expensive parked cars, and flashers pestering kids at the local junior high school are the biggest worries.

Kiyota pats his pistol, holstered on his hip. “We do have sidearms, but nearly every Japanese policeman will retire having never fired a single shot.” Hit an offender with one of these and he is indelibly marked with dye.

Ota-ku is no exceptionally peaceful location, chosen to impress the visiting journalist. Crime figures for Japan show that (with the sole exception of some of the harshest Islamic countries) nowhere else in the world is as safe.

JAPAN has close to the 3 lowest murder rate (one-tenth that of the US) and crime victim rate (one-third that of Australia) of all countries covered in international surveys. Hard drugs, such as heroin, are almost unknown (shock horror headlines greet outbreaks of paint thinner-sniffing) and firearms, even air rifles, are almost impossible to obtain legally.

As well, criminals are far more likely to be caught and more likely to be severely punished – up to and including hanging for more than a dozen different offences – than in any other developed country. Japan’s clean-up rate is 97 per cent for murder (the NSW rate is 79 per cent) and 35 per cent for theft (5 to 8 per cent in NSW). And, against the trend almost everywhere else in the world, serious crime has actually been falling for the past decade.

Between 1982 and 1991, the number of murders fell from 1,800 to 1,227, the number of armed robberies from 2,300 to 2,200, and the number of assaults fell by half – from 14,000 to 7,000.

All this has been achieved with a police force which, although it is considerably more conspicuous, is a lot smaller than in most other countries. Japan has one police officer for every 563 people, Australia has one for every 450, in the US it is 345, in the UK 310, and in France 208.

What makes this all the more extraordinary is that it is happening when Japan’s traditional society is breaking down at a rate faster than at almost any time in its history. People are becoming more mobile (though they still keep the same address for 14 years, twice the Australian average), they have less respect for authority and family values, and more than a million foreigners have poured into the country in recent years.

Hardly surprisingly, police chiefs have been flocking to Tokyo from all over the world to see what they can learn from the koban system. The NSW Police Commissioner, Tony Lauer, was here last year and was “very impressed, although there are no immediate plans to implement anything similar in NSW”.

Police in Thailand and Malaysia have adopted something similar, in the Philippines capital of Manila 197 kobans have been set up in tough neighbourhoods and, in the US, the cities of Detroit, Portland, San Diego and Philadelphia are experimenting with it.

The koban system can explain part of this low-crime phenomenon – but only part. Tsubota points to other factors: Japan is still an unusually homogenous nation where authority is respected, and it was insulated, at least until recent times, against global trends. Most importantly, its postwar “economic miracle” has improved life for almost all its citizens, as crime and poverty often go hand in hand.

Japan has no real “underclass” – except, perhaps, the poor day labourer community of Tokyo’s Sanya district – and few street dwellers. A sharply regressive tax system means that income distribution is relatively even. Even after its worst recession since the war, official unemployment stands at only 3 per cent.2 As well, there are some aspects of the Japanese legal system which many Westerners find unduly intrusive and oppressive. In practice, suspects have no right to silence, no right to a lawyer, and there is no habeas corpus. They can be held incommunicado in the cells, subject to bullying interrogation, for 23 days or until a confession is forthcoming – whichever comes first.

It is hardly surprising that in 91 per cent of prosecutions a “confession” is produced. Those charged protest in vain to the judges (Japan has no jury system) that they were “verballed” or had the confession beaten out of them. The district courts in 1990 convicted an amazing 99.8 per cent of the people brought before them, a record not even surpassed by the courts in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Foreigners also boggle at the surrender of privacy and civil rights Japanese are prepared to put up with to keep their streets safe. Police – particularly during big events such as a royal wedding – have the power to randomly stop and search anyone; hundreds of activists are routinely thrown into “preventive custody” to stop them demonstrating against foreign visitors; cameras record the movements of every car on the major freeways and there is even talk of installing them in public parks and in entertainment districts.

Is this a price Australia would pay for a Japanese-style crime-free life? The criminologist Paul Wilson, who is Dean of Arts and Humanities at Bond University, says it may be worth a pilot scheme.

“But I think the low crime rate in Japan probably can’t be replicated here – it’s tied up with Asian concepts of shame and loyalty to the group. As well, Australians would have real problems accepting the degree of intrusiveness involved in that type of policing.”

Dead or alive.

Victims of Crime

USA 9.8
Murder rate per 100,000 population (1991/92)

USA 28.8
% of households where someone has been a victim of crime in the past five years (1989 crime survey)

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 7 January 1995
Edition: Late
Section: News And Features
Sub section:
Page: 15
Word count: 1358
Photograph: Mayu Kanamori
Caption: Inspector Masao Kiyota, right, and a fellow officer in front of a suburban koban, the Japanese one-stop cop shop.
Two tables: Dead or alive, Victims of crime