text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Like most people who place themselves on the left of the political spectrum I have an instinctive distrust towards the police, not so much as pertains to its official role as to its unofficial; undoubtedly, being born and raised in Greece during a dictatorship period and the years that immediately followed it has contributed to the intensification of this distrust since for many years this unofficial role (and, quite often the official as well) was deeply reactionary to society’s dynamics. I have to admit, though, that living in Japan has changed completely my opinion on this matter: even though I haven’t stopped believing that in a future society where personal responsibility would rule supreme, the role of police would shrink almost to the level of non-existence, the way the police functions in Japan is the closest I’ve seen to what one would call “efficient policing”.
One of the many idiosyncrasies of Japan that make its police efficient are the small guardhouses called “koban” (交番); allegedly the name comes from a combination of the words “tachiban”/立番 meaning “standing watch” and “kotai”/交替 meaning “alternation” but no one knows for sure. In contrast to the police precincts we know in the rest of the world, the koban are small offices staffed with 5-6 policemen rotating shifts and with at least one among them an “OB” (“old boy” i.e. retired policeman who has served in the area and is often also a resident) that are mostly used as a first-response unit when something happens and as stations for the policemen who patrol the area around them. Moreover, they are points of help for anyone –resident or passer-by- who has a problem, big or small.
One more legacy of the Emperor Meiji (they started just four years after his restoration, in 1874) the koban are one of the more prominent characteristics of Japanese social organization. Keeping only the localization and omnipresence of the, rather inefficient “police” of the Edo times, they manage to offer even to a metropolis the size of Tokyo the sense that if you need something there is someone you can turn to within a 500 yards radius. And even though doubts have been expressed (particularly by foreigners) regarding the quality of the “services offered” by their staff, they do function and they are an organic part of Japanese society. Whether this should be attributed (and) to the sense of responsibility of the Japanese which, generally speaking, is much higher than that of members of other societies is of course a question but either way, if they have managed to earn the sympathy of someone with this writer’s antibodies, they are probably doing something right!
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.