Lost and Found: The Japanese Concept of Integrity

On my first morning in Tokyo while walking back to my hotel in Shinjuku, I noticed a blue ski cap lying on the street. A street sweeper going about her business simply ignored it and so did I.

When I reached my hotel room, I was greeted by my sister who told me that she lost her favorite ski cap. I asked her if the color was blue and she said yes. I then mentioned that I did see something fitting the description lying on the street, but I wasn’t sure if it was hers.

Realizing that she may never get her ski cap back, my sister made a decision to buy a new one. Thirty minutes later, we left the hotel and right after exiting, I noticed the same blue ski cap that I saw earlier now resting on top of a bench. When I pointed the object to my sister, she suddenly exclaimed in delight, “That’s my cap!”

In Japan, lost items usually find their way back to the rightful owners. Either the locals simply set them aside to be found again or surrender them to a police box called a “koban”. If unclaimed, the lost item stays in the koban for two weeks and then transferred to a central depot for lost and found items where it will stay for the next three months until the owner picks it up.

The practice has, over the years, accumulated millions of items from umbrellas to key chains. In 2014, a total of 25 million items was handed over to the koban. But that’s not even the icing on the cake. In 2017, a total of 3.7 Billion unclaimed Yen was turned over to the police, a ridiculous amount that could already lift a country living in poverty.

My cousin’s wallet was close to contributing handsomely to the amount. While at the Iyashi no Sato where we spent a few hours exploring a Japanese farming village with a view of Mt. Fuji, she accidentally dropped it along with all her travel money and credit cards. She only realized the item was missing hours later when she was about to pay for lunch. But a Japanese lady who found it decided to surrender the wallet to the lost and found section, enabling my cousin to retrieve it and totally eliminating its chances of being part of news history.

mt fuji, japan, Iyashi no Sato, japanese village

Mt. Fuji view from Iyashi no Sato.

History would have been altered though if the incident happened in Manila as it could have paid more than a month’s worth of dinner, saving a starving person’s life. The same could be said if my photographer cousin left his expensive camera equipment on the MRT instead of the bullet train that ran from Kyoto to Tokyo. It could have spared someone from paying a year’s worth of electricity; it could have been an answered prayer.

So how did the Japanese develop the habit of returning lost items?

“Japanese schools offer classes for ethics and morality, and students learn to imagine the feelings of those who lost their own goods or money,” to quote Toshinari Nishioka, a former policeman who’s now a professor at the Kansai University of International Studies.

The strong sense of integrity could also be the result of Japan’s Lost Goods Law, which rewards those who surrender lost items to the police. On the other hand, it could be the product of a system that simply takes good care of its people. After all, Japan is the world’s third largest economy.

Days after I got back from Japan, I was walking along the central business district of Manila when I noticed a small bottle of hand sanitizer on the ground. A man, who just happened to walk by, noticed it too. He picked it up, smelled it and put it in his back pocket.

4 thoughts on “Lost and Found: The Japanese Concept of Integrity

  1. It’s very similar here in Korea, with lost items usually finding their way back to the owners. The most extreme case I’ve heard of is when a lady threw some tens of thousands of dollars all over the street (to piss off her now ex-husband), and not a single dollar was picked up by the passersby. Crazy, right?

    • Woah. If that happened here in Manila, I’d probably be tempted to put a dollar in my pocket given our situation hahaha! Just kidding. Seriously now, that’s insane! Glad to know though that there are still a lot of honest people out there.

      • I think maybe people were scared they’d get arrested since there’s CCTV EVERYWHERE here…but in the news after, it said that because the woman had voluntarily thrown it, it was fair game. I’m not sure WHAT I would’ve done in that situation…there really is a lot of social pressure NOT to touch stuff that doesn’t belong to you, hence the ability to leave laptops, phones, wallets and purses unattended in cafes, restaurants etc..

      • Good grounding, plus the fact that Korea of course is a 1st world nation. Whereas here, people can be very desperate and no one can blame them for feeling that way. Sad reality for us here in the Philippines. We have a lot to work on and hopefully we can learn from other countries, slowly but surely.

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