In Japan, crime rates are remarkably low. The Japanese have a strong sense of community responsibility, which has been widely credited with this phenomenon. The Japanese are very conscious of the “wa”, the sense of living harmoniously with one’s friends and neighbours, and they go out of their way to do whatever it takes to maintain this harmony. Anything disturbing the wa is considered bad. This means that Japanese people smile even when their feelings are unhappy. If a man misses a bus, he doesn’t act frustrated. He smiles. He does his best not to pass on his bad feelings to others and therefore disturb the wa.

In terms of crime, this translates to not taking things that aren’t one’s own. Such behaviour would disturb the wa and bring shame upon one’s family. If a lady leaves her camera on a bench, for instance, when she goes back to find it later, it’s probably: (a) still on the bench, or (b) turned in to the local police kiosk.

Which brings me to the police box phenomenon in Japan. Remember the blue, wooden, English police box that the tardis uses as its disguise? Well, Japan has police boxes too. The police like to make their presence known in the community, to make sure that everyone feels safe. Police boxes are small buildings scattered throughout the community, housing one officer or community volunteer, and allowing people to easily contact the authorities should they need help. Police boxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, largely dependant on what’s available within the community. Here are a few samples of boxes found throughout Japan.

Police cars also cruise around the neighbourhood, lights flashing to let us know they’re there. When looking out for speeders, police don’t necessarily target the fastest person on the road. They go for someone who’s moderately speeding. This serves to scare everyone into keeping closer to the speed limit—anyone could be next.  

Okinawan traffic control seems to be very effective, because there don’t seem to be many accidents here. Whenever we talk with our car insurance company (located on mainland Japan), our broker is always ooo-ing and ah-ing over how low the accident rate is, and therefore how low our insurance is.

When we first arrived in Japan seven years ago, there was a knock at our door. There stood a policeman. He asked for our names, occupations, and telephone numbers. Were we in trouble? No, this was just a routine community survey, when he gathered the names of everyone living in the area.

Fast forward about a year. Our neighbourhood policeman was doing his rounds again. This time, he wasn’t taking a survey. He was warning everyone to lock their doors for the time being. There had been a robbery in our area.

They have to warn people to lock their doors? we thought. A single robbery? We love Japan!

A few years later, the policeman was back with his community survey. The emperor would be coming to Okinawa in a few weeks, and he wanted to make sure he knew who was in the community. He had all our information from several years earlier. We updated our cell phone numbers.

This year, he was back again, asking if we’d heard any disturbance the night before. It turned out that someone had vandalized our neighbours’ mailbox. It’s now been fixed.

And that’s the grand sum of our interactions with the police and crime over the years. Perhaps I should mention that on Okinawa, there’s one prison. It’s a men’s penitentiary. Our most recent visit there was last month, when we did a Christmas programme for about 150 of the prisoners and 10 guards.

A picture of the prison wall around the men's penitentiary. No photographs are allowed inside the prison.

Crime rates are so low that there is no cost justification for having a women’s prison on Okinawa. Instead, criminal women are shipped off to elsewhere in Japan.


Picture sources for police boxes: here and here

Picture source for penitentiary