The Police

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Masahiro Tamura

    Main guest

    Masahiro Tamura worked for the National Police Agency, the Fukuoka prefectural police, and other organizations associated with the police for a total of 36 years. He is currently a professor at Kyoto Sangyo University, where he lectures on topics related to the law and public safety policy. He has published a textbook that is currently in use at police schools across Japan, as well as various other works about the police.

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January 16, 2018

The Police

*You will leave the NHK website.

Japan is one of the safest countries in the whole world. With its impressively low crime rate, the worst that most people need to be fearful of is the occasional stolen bicycle or umbrella. First-time visitors might be surprised by residents taking naps on trains with their cellphones in plain sight or by seeing extremely young children walking to school alone. A large part of what contributes to that sense of security is the police force, some 300,000 members strong.

Police officers are a common sight across Japan and they're based in koban, neighborhood police boxes. Koban originated during a time before cars or cellphones made it easy to contact the police. Main guest Masahiro Tamura, who himself served on the force for 36 years, tells us that due to this close proximity, Japan's police force is extremely integrated into the local community. Civilians and police officers are on friendly terms and often work together to preserve law and order.

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Host Peter Barakan chats with guest Masahiro Tamura, police force veteran and current university professor.

The relationship between civilians and the police used to be much more unbalanced. In the Edo period, the samurai class was the de facto police force. At the time, social status was closely entwined with military power. High ranking samurai acted as chiefs of police, prosecutors, and judges, while lower ranking samurai were police officers. Citizen groups, called gonin gumi or "groups of five," were also part of the Edo period system. These groups were responsible for any crime that occurred in their local neighborhoods.

A transition occurred during the beginning of the Meiji era, and the police force was restructured according to foreign influences. In 1872, Toshiyoshi Kawaji traveled to Europe at the behest of the government to study various police systems. Upon his return to Japan, he helped to establish the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. Kawaji was a former samurai and became the first Superintendent General of the modern police force. His newly created system shared qualities with those of the French and German police systems of the time. The police grew increasingly powerful and politically related during the Meiji era and eventually held control over various aspects of public life, ranging from healthcare to business.

The Japanese police force as we know it today was established after the end of World War II. Under Allied occupation guidance, the Diet passed the Police Act in 1947, which decentralized the previous system and created independent municipal police forces. The Police Act was then amended in 1954 and the current National Police Agency was formed. Under the current system, prefectural police units are in control of their daily operations. Police systems across Japan are, however, ultimately supervised by the National Police Agency, which is headquartered in Tokyo.

These days, the responsibilities of the police include protecting people and property, solving crimes, apprehending suspects, enforcing traffic laws, and maintaining public safety and order in general. Officers are easily identifiable by their uniforms: navy blue pants and jackets, white shirts, and matching navy blue hats (a flat style for men and a bowler style for women). They are also equipped with stab vests and duty belts. As for weaponry, on-duty officers carry batons and guns. Sasumata, long poles topped with U-shaped prongs that have been in use since the Edo period, are kept at the ready inside koban.

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Matt Alt works with a sketch artist on Plus One.

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Surveillance cameras and sketches help police catch suspects.

While the uniforms and duties of the Japanese police may not seem too different from your country's own local force, Japan's organization does have some unusual features. Each of Japan's 47 prefectural forces has its own mascot. The most famous of which might be Pipo-kun, the mascot for the Tokyo metropolitan area. Pipo-kun was born on April 17, 1987 and his name is a combination of the words "people" and "police." He has a very unique appearance and his image can be seen on everything from koban signs to public notices. Each of Pipo-kun's features serves a particular purpose: his ears allow him to hear people's cries for help from far away, his single antenna alerts him to society's movements and provides him with information, and his eyes let him see into all the nooks and crannies of society.

Mascots like Pipo-kun contribute to the friendly image of the local police and are especially useful in teaching children about what to do in certain situations. As we see in this edition, some children return a handkerchief they found dropped on the street. They learn from a young age to bring any lost items to the nearest koban. It's something of a rite of passage for Japanese children to return their first found item, even something as seemingly insignificant as a five-yen coin. This contrasts sharply with the more Western idea of "finders, keepers!" In fact, out of the police force's numerous duties, one of its biggest might be dealing with lost items. In 2016 alone, they were responsible for managing 28 million lost articles and handled 17.7 billion yen in lost cash.

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The police don't only deal with lost items. Fingerprinting expert Masaki Meshino examines objects from a crime scene.

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Up close shot of a fingerprint.

Additionally, the police are often present at all sorts of public events in Japanese society, ranging from festivals to holiday celebrations. They'll often help with event set-up, traffic direction, and crowd control. A famous crowd control incident happened during 2013, right after the Japanese soccer team qualified for the FIFA World Cup. An enormous crowd was gathered in Shibuya, and some were worried the exciting news could make the crowd rowdy. One quick-thinking police officer began to intersperse crowd control directions with some light-hearted banter. The success of his actions inspired the creation of the "DJ police," a special PR unit that uses loudspeakers to make safety announcements in both Japanese and English. They remind people to not pause in the middle of the street for pictures and to obey traffic laws. Each year on Halloween, the DJ police are hard at work keeping the streets of Shibuya safe during the costumed festivities.

Next time you're out on the streets of Japan, don't be afraid to say hello to the neighborhood police officers. Whether you need directions or have lost something important like your passport, they'll be there to help.

*You will leave the NHK website.