A Tokyo monument to the lost

Sun Journal

Found: Leave a laptop, cell phone, cash -- or wheelchair -- in a public place? Don't worry. Chances are you'll get it back.

January 05, 2000|By Mark Magnier | Mark Magnier,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOKYO -- This is where it all ends up, everything from bowling balls and crooked dentures to purses, cell phones and umbrellas. The Tokyo Metropolitan Lost and Found is a monument to the misplaced, the abandoned, the rejected.

Drop something in a public restroom or a subway corridor in Tokyo and there's a good chance you'll get it back, here in one of the most honest nations on Earth, even if you don't necessarily want it. Like so much else in Japan, the lost-and-found system is traditional, very well organized and rigorously maintained.

The 34 people who run the institution can read the seasons as easily as experienced gardeners. Shorter days and colder winds bring skis and snowboards over the transom. Warmer weather produces surfboards and bathing suits. March, when most Japanese students graduate, brings stacks of diplomas, while June yields wedding gifts. Any time of year, a good rainstorm will produce 3,000 umbrellas almost immediately.

Clues to the nation's spirits and prosperity can be found in this river of castoffs. Recent tough economic times find more people claiming items they might once have written off.

Also in evidence to those keeping track of the 1.6 million items recovered each year in Tokyo, population 11.9 million, are the cycles of technology. The early 1990s saw a rush of Walkmans and personal pagers. These days it's more likely a laptop computer and mobile phone, some of which ring plaintively from a drawer's inner recesses until their batteries eventually weaken and die.

Some cases hint at mystery, like the odd wheelchair. "How did [the owners] ever get home?" wonders Isao Sato, a section chief. "Were they suddenly and miraculously cured?"

Like many other Japanese institutions, the Tokyo lost-and-found system relies on honor, discipline, detailed rules, bureaucratic oversight and public shame.

Any item found on a subway platform or national rail line within Tokyo city limits is sent here in a matter of days. Items left on street corners may eventually show up if local police kiosks can't turn up an owner. Bags found with weapons, drugs or other contraband merit a police investigation. All told, some 72 percent, by value, of items turned in are returned to their rightful owners.

Michiyo Moriyama, a 42-year-old nurse, says she never expected to see her wallet again. "I didn't even bother to report it."

Within a week, however, she was summoned to pick it up. It didn't have an ID inside, but the staff had traced her through a video rental card. Best of all, it still contained her $100. "I couldn't believe it in this day and age," she says. "What a great system."

The most important ingredient in making this finely tuned service work is the Japanese themselves, most of whom are encouraged from childhood not to embarrass their parents or their community. Comparative statistics aren't available, but sociologists say citizens here seem to be more diligent about returning lost items than people in other countries.

Ayako Ogata, a researcher with the Life Design Institute, a Tokyo think tank, attributes this in part to Japanese social conditioning, reinforced by the omnipresent neighborhood police kiosks, known as "koban." "We're taught by our parents to return items to the koban," she says. "But in America I understand there's no such koban."

Bureaucrats don't push the limits of human nature too far, however. To buttress this admirable inclination to do the right thing, planners have woven in some practical incentives. By law and social convention, the owner of lost property must give 5 percent to 20 percent of an item's value to the finder as a thank-you gift. And if no one shows up to claim an item after six months and 14 days, it's finders keepers.

This system, elements of which date to before 1868, the start of Japan's modernization period, has produced some eye-catching chapters in lost-and-found history. A bag with $89,600 in cash was found a few years ago and returned to its rightful owner, although the staff can't remember how much the Good Samaritan received. And 20 years ago, the equivalent of $950,000 at today's exchange rates was found; no one claimed it, so the lucky finder kept it all.

Many complain, however, that traditional values in Japan are breaking down under modern pressures. "Of course the Japanese are human beings," says staff member Harumi Nakano. "There are always some bad people who don't return things." Only about a third of the people who claim they lost cash are reunited with it. Still, an impressive $23 million is returned to owners each year.

To prevent abuse and false claims, the center makes all claimants fill out a detailed report on who they are, what their item looks like, and how and where they lost it. If the center staff believes you, they hand over the article, with the caveat that you must return it if someone else makes a more convincing case.

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