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Sunday, Oct. 28, 2007

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Masters of all they survey

Edan Corkill spends a day at the busiest police box in Japan

"How do you get to the Seibu department store?"

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By day, Shibuya crossing in the heart of Tokyo's "youth mecca" is thronged with shoppers; through the night, revelers take over. Officers manning the police box there, give directions to members of the public every 43 seconds on average (above and below), but looking out for miscreants (bottom) is a key part of their job as well. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS (top and above); EDAN CORKILL PHOTOS
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"See that sign over there? It's under that."

"Thank you."

Within seconds of The Japan Times starting its stakeout beside the Shibuya Station Koban, the police box's first satisfied customer asking directions was already on her way. It was 45 seconds past 10 a.m. and, at this rate, over the next 12 hours the box's boys in (dark) blue would deal with some 1,000 such inquiries. And who knows what else.

"This is a long weekend, so it will be busy," said one young policeman.

"Street directions. Lost property. On weekday mornings, chikan (sexual molesters) on trains and subways. On rainy days, fights — people bump each other with umbrellas; at night, fights — people get drunk. But during the day it's mostly street directions."

The officer hardly had time to get through explaining his list of regular jobs before a purposeful-looking, middle-aged man strode up.

"Where's the nearest post office?"

"Under the train tracks, up the hill on the left."

"Thank you."

Another customer easily satisfied by the officer's encyclopedic knowledge of this central Tokyo district commonly dubbed "Japan's youth mecca."

Around the world these days, not many police forces have functioning police boxes on the scale of Japan — around 1,200 in Tokyo alone — having opted instead for networks of police stations and foot and car patrols. However, over the last few years, it has been suggested that the koban system — Japan's most visible branch of law enforcement since the system was instituted in 1874 — is partly responsible for its fabled low crime rate. They're now being copied in Singapore and Brazil.

"And I think in Indonesia, too," said the Deputy Chief of Shibuya Police Station, Tetsuo Kamei, when I raised the subject during a recent interview at his office. "There's a policewoman from Indonesia here today, studying the same Shibuya Station koban that you visited," he said.

Hmm, well, I hope they let her inside, I think to myself. On my visit, fearful that I would disrupt the work of Tokyo's finest, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) had banned me from setting foot inside the koban, but had been happy for me stand and observe from outside . . . for almost 12 hours.

The policemen were hardly any better off, so for the most part we stood together, gazing out at the big blue sky, the jumble of buildings, the neon, the giant screens and, of course, the famous Shibuya intersection with its rivers of people endlessly streaming into the area's maze of back streets, its four department store buildings, its thousands of restaurants, hundreds of bars and, maybe, even its 1,340 designated "businesses affecting public morals" (aka sex shops).

But what do these policemen — standing, like lions surveying migrating wildebeest — do all day, I had wondered? And now I was beginning to find out.

"Across the road and about five shops down on the right."

Or maybe it was six. Either way, the young girl who had been holding out a piece of paper with a clothes shop's address on it was now happily on her way.

The koban at Shibuya Station is widely reckoned to be Japan's busiest. On any day it will receive up to 2,000 inquiries for street directions. "That's about one every 43 seconds," Kamei explained.

A team of six police officers, led by a lieutenant (keibuho), and occasionally with the help of a "koban counselor" (koban sodan-in), man the police box during the day shift from 10 a.m. till 4 p.m. The next day, the same officers work in the main Shibuya Police Station before returning to the koban the day after for a night shift that runs from 4 p.m. right through until 10 a.m. Then they have the following day off. Lest they be tempted to nod off on the job, though, there are no sleeping facilities in the Shibuya Station koban, just a room where officers can sit down and rest. Equally, there's no temporary lockup either — nor any cooking facilities, meaning meals are delivered by local shops.

And, speaking of food:

"I heard there is a famous gyoza (Chinese dumplings) restaurant around here."

"Ando-san, do you know a famous gyoza restaurant?"

"What? Gyoza? Oh, there's one if you go up Center-gai and make the first left."

"OK, thanks."

So who's Ando-san? He was older than the others, and closer inspection reveals he had a different badge too. He also didn't have a sidearm.

"I'm what's called a koban counselor," he said. "I was a policeman for 40 years before I started this job, almost five years ago."

Ex-cops such as Ando-san now help out at Tokyo's busiest police boxes, covering where, for the last few years, there have been cries of understaffing, and at the same time putting their often unmatched knowledge of localities to use.

"We try to answer everyone's inquiries as politely as possible," Ando explained.

And the effort seems to pay off.

Ms. Tanaka, in town from Fujisawa in Kanagawa Prefecture, checked with Ando-san the location of a cake shop she was planning to take her daughter to.

"They're always very polite," she said. "I always ask at the koban when I am going somewhere. I'm not embarrassed to ask directions."

By 2 p.m. the waves of people disgorged from each Yamanote Line train looping central Tokyo had merged into a single, unceasing river. Fed by those overground trains and numerous subways too, the flow of 2.4 million people who use this station every day formed a human wave so unrelenting that even Moses would have thought twice before crossing.

It is among those crowds that we got our first real action of the day.

I learned later from Deputy Chief Kamei that Shibuya has one of the highest rates of drug-possession charges in Tokyo — about 10 times the metropolitan average. And, as part of their crackdown, the koban police officers are on the lookout for odd behavior.

"If the officers think someone might be under the influence of drugs (he mentioned blank stares and wandering eyes as clues), they will stop them, talk to them and maybe ask them to submit to a check of possessions. There are a lot of cases where people are caught with amphetamines," Kamei said.

He was careful to explain that "under the Police Execution of Duties Law, if someone is acting strangely the police have the right to stop them and talk to them — it's what we call shokumu shitsumon (police questioning)." However, he said, "searches of possessions may be done only with the consent of the subject." (He added that "foreigners acting suspiciously are also subject to police questioning." And it is worth noting that officers also have the power to demand to see foreigners' alien registration cards, even in the absence of suspicious activity.)

Judging from what I was seeing, the police at Shibuya Station Koban are less interested in whether you look drugged out than whether or not you're a man, your pockets are bulging and your eyebrows are plucked.

OK, so maybe the plucked eyebrows part is a coincidence. You see, men with plucked eyebrows in Shibuya often also have red- or yellow-dyed asymmetrical crew cuts, gold jewelry, sunglasses and either pajama-like tracksuits or half-open floral shirts. By my reckoning such people have about an 80 percent chance of being approached if they do so much as glance at the Shibuya Station Koban.


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