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Many Happy Returns for Lost and Found

Culture: Tokyo center relies on honor, public shame to help owners get items back.

November 29, 1999|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

Drop something in a public restroom or in 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. And like so much else in Japan, the lost-and-found system is traditional, very well organized and rigorously maintained.

Although this nondescript building doesn't get much natural light, 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 sprouts surfboards and swimsuits. March--when most Japanese students graduate--brings stacks of diplomas, while June yields wedding gifts. And any time of year, a good rainstorm will produce 3,000 umbrellas almost immediately.

Clues to the nation's spirits and prosperity can also be found in this river of castoffs. Recent tough economic times find more people claiming items they might once have written off. And smaller expense accounts relative to those of the flush 1980s mean fewer drunk salarymen are out on the town, resulting in fewer dropped wads of cash.

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 pagers. These days, it's more likely a laptop computer or cellular phone, some of which ring plaintively from a drawer's inner recesses until their batteries eventually weaken and die.

And there are cases with a hint of mystery, like the odd wheelchair. "How did [the owners] ever get home?" wondered Isao Sato, a section chief. "Were they suddenly and miraculously cured?"

Handling the forgotten and the forgettable is no easy chore. But like many other Japanese institutions, the Tokyo lost-and-found system relies on honor, discipline, detailed rules, bureaucratic oversight and public shame to keep people in line.

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, about 72%, by value, of items turned in are returned to their owners.

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

Within a week, however, she was summoned to come pick it up. It didn't have any identification inside, but the staff traced her through a video rental card. Best of all, it still contained her $100 in cash. "I couldn't believe it in this day and age," she said. "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 from a young age, reinforced by the omnipresent neighborhood police kiosks, known as koban. "We're taught by our parents to return items to the koban," she said. "But in America, I understand there's no such koban."

Harumi Nakano, a staff member at the lost and found, also cites a national emphasis on teaching the equivalent of the golden rule: Think how you would feel if you were the one who lost something.

Bureaucrats don't push the limits of human nature too far, though. To buttress this admirable inclination to do the right thing, planners have woven in some very practical incentives. By law and social convention, the owner of lost property must give 5% to 20% 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 back 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 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.

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