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Japan's Top Private Eye Preaches Gentility


TOKYO — Michinao Kodama, a courteous, dapper man of 73, considers most of his fellow Japanese private investigators to be "an ill-mannered bunch of thugs."

"Your gangsters, frauds, extortionists, your incompetent dilettantes" go into the business, says Kodama, who has spent most of a lifetime trying to change that.

During four decades as proprietor of the Japan Detective Assn., a school and agency acknowledged to be one of the most honorable, the dean of private eyes has made a crusade of improving his trade.

In a modest classroom at his headquarters, where Kodama teaches students such basics as conducting surveillance, he also schools them in professional ethics and good manners.

"Always seek the truth, and dress like proper ladies and gentlemen," says their mentor, who is rarely seen outdoors without his trademark dark-green fedora. A sign over the blackboard reads: "Our Work Begins and Ends With Politeness."

Be polite, but don't be stupid, his message goes: "Watch out for deadbeats, and always get 10% of the estimated fee up front."

Kodama's 12-month detective course costs the equivalent of nearly $4,000 and is so tough that only about half the students finish it. Those graduates he chooses for his own agency undergo another year of hard training before becoming full-fledged investigators.

On a typical class day, six well-dressed students fanned out in a busy train station. Their "mark" was a man in a gray suit, nondescript tie and polished shoes, barely distinguishable from hundreds of other commuting "salarymen."

Only half of the apprentices managed to stay on the quarry's tail. The other three lost him and searched the crowds in vain.

Kodama carries his crusade for quality beyond the classroom, campaigning for higher standards in the industry.

Japan has about 600 legal detective agencies that employ several thousand operatives, but Kodama said an equal number probably work without registering.

For many of the illegals, he said, the profession is a front for scams. For example, a detective asked by a manufacturer to check out a potential subcontractor might offer the subcontractor a favorable report for a fee.

Such frank talk about his trade's underbelly does not endear Kodama to colleagues. "I'm not too popular," was how he put it.

The entire profession, Kodama's agency included, makes most of its money investigating potential marriage partners, a practice often criticized as perpetuating discrimination in Japanese society.

Japanese routinely order such background checks, and often reject potential partners found to have "undesirable" traits--Korean ancestry, perhaps, or a family history of disease. Kodama defends the practice, calling it a safeguard against later trouble.

"Lots of people pretend to be rich when they're really poor, trying to marry up," or have hidden vices, he said. Kodama cited the case of an apparently respectable young man who, it developed, was given to fondling women on commuter trains.

Checking on a spouse, lover or intended usually costs about $3,000 and the firm's policy is to tell the client all.

"Whether it's an affair, a secret bank account, whatever, never sweeten up a report, even if it dooms a marriage," Kodama said.

Not all investigations produce bad news. A husband hired Kodama because his wife was disappearing in the daytime. "Turns out she was boxing at a nearby gym."

Kodama got his start after World War II, finding troublesome former Imperial Army soldiers for his first client, the U.S. occupation forces.

"Lots of them hadn't relinquished their fighting spirit, if you know what I mean," Kodama said. "I could track these guys down."

Not only that, he said, but "I could find the best price a bag of sugar would fetch on the black market."

However old-school he is about manners, Kodama is familiar with wiretap detectors, car-tracking devices and all the other modern wonders.

But gadgets, he said, won't replace one essential trait:

"The most important thing a detective can do is simply be observant."

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