For the average citizen, Japan is a country where crime is more something seen on television and in newspapers and where public safety in the streets and neighborhoods is close to being the best in the world. This condition is a statement that says much about the people of that country and their desire to live in an environment where ordinary people can go about their daily business unthreatened and without fear. A large part of it is of course grounded in the history of Japanese public temperament, but that foundation has been supported for about 140 years by a system that enables police to understand the security of each community and the opinions, needs, and worries of the residents.
The kôban above is an example from the Meiji era (1868-1912) once located in the Tokyo neighborhood of Sudo-cho, now re-situated in the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum.
The earliest example dates back to 1874 when it was little more than a simple box where police officers stood watch in rotation, but today in every neighborhood of Tokyo, as well as other cities, there is a small, sometimes tiny police box called a kôban. These mini-police stations are almost all staffed by anywhere from three to ten officers seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. Kôban is a term referring to the smallest organizational unit of the Japanese police system. Police officers of a neighborhood kôban know and record every resident of their small area, all indexed by name and address, but in a way far removed from the spectre of “Big Brother is watching you!” In Tokyo alone there are 1,200 kôban and the officers inside know their neighborhood as well as the back of their own hands. Patrols several times each day are either on foot or by bicycle, rarely in a car. The officers are highly visible, often seen chatting with local residents. The safety and security of community residents are better assured by patrols and other in-community activities drawing the public closer to those local officers. By establishing a friendly atmosphere the kôban officers help ease concerns and build an environment where the public is willing to assist with problems or investigations. This reasoning is behind Japanese adoption of the police box system.
This photo shows the Nishi Naka Dori Kôban built in 1921, one that has managed to survive and now the oldest active kōban in Tokyo. It is located on Tsukishima, an artificial island built in Tokyo Bay.
Community residents will almost always address the local kôban officers as omawari-san, or ‘dear patrol officer,’ indicating a degree of respect and affection. In Japanese the term reflects a person who in the manner of big brother or uncle, is gentle but strong. Because of Japan’s low crime rate, apprehending criminals and breaking up fights is far down the list of a policeman’s regular duties. Most of their work is helping local neighborhood people with simple matters and giving directions to people looking for a particular address or location. A story told about the kôban’s role in assisting people is one about a lost wallet. The loss was reported to the local kôban and after several months the owner received a call from the kôban saying they had found the wallet—proof of their record keeping and follow up on the smallest of issues.
This modern avant garde kôban is located in Tokyo’s Ueno Park.
Both the US and the UK have sent teams to study the Japanese system of kôbans, but thus far that study program has not produced models in either country. The model has to some extent been adopted by Brazil, Fiji, Mongolia and Singapore, but success or failure of the attempt in those countries is not currently available.
The kôban in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro looks over out the neighborhood like a large owl.