Koban in Ueno Park
Because Japan’s crime rate is very low compared to most other countries, the police officers I see in Japan are not apprehending criminals or breaking up fights. Instead, their main duty seems to be giving directions to lost souls. I myself have been that lost soul on many occasions, but Japan’s complicated address system assures plenty of lost Japanese souls as well. What makes police officers so handy for directions is the Japanese system of placing small police boxes, called koban, in strategic locations throughout Japan. There are 1,200 koban in Tokyo alone, manned by officers who know their districts like the backs of their hand. It’s kind of like having a tourist office in every neighborhood.
Unlike in most cities in the United States where police officers generally roam the streets in police cars, which physically separates them from the general public, Japanese police officers patrol their neighborhoods on foot or on bicycle, making them highly visible to the public. They often stop to chat with local residents. They know which shops have closed and which restaurants have newly opened. Just mention the name of your destination, and they’ll probably know exactly where it is. If not, they have maps on hand to send you on your way.
Most koban are very tiny, with only a front room equipped with a desk and a back room. Last month I had the opportunity to look inside a koban nope, I wasn’t arrested! when I visited the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum on the outskirts of Tokyo. The open-air museum contained a brick koban from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) that used to stand beside the Manseibashi Bridge in Kanda. An employee dressed in period police clothing was in the front room, presumably to give directions to lost souls on museum grounds. The back room contained a small tatami area, so police could rest in shifts.
The brick koban is in Ginza
I know that police officers must attend to duties like helping someone locate a lost pet or arbitrating a dispute, but most of the time they seem to be waiting just for you and to point you in the right direction.
And by the way, if you get lost looking for the Edo-Tokyo Open air Architectural Museum or the bus stop back to the station, you can get guidance on the main street near the entrance at a koban, of course.
Koban at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum