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No crime too small in Tokyo

Officers there take policing to an extreme, which is both comforting and unsettling to a reporter whose unlocked bicycle was stolen.

March 28, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Tokyo — THIS story begins with a crime.

Under normal circumstances, there is no reason anyone would want to steal my bike. It's a basic get-around-town model that cost $150. It was the biggest bicycle a Japanese department store carried and it's still too small for me. The chain grinds on every rotation, although that may have to do with the fact that I leave it out in the rain and the bike is now covered in rust.

It has a bell but no night light as required by Japanese law -- which, as you'll see, is a misdemeanor that the Japanese police choose to enforce.

But the guy who stole my bike from outside a Tokyo train station one recent Saturday night wasn't looking for anything flashy. He was drunk -- it was payday and he had over-celebrated. He had slept well past his stop and was kicked off the last train of the night at the last station on the line. It was a crime of necessity: Steal the wheels or walk.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 30, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Crime in Japan: A Column One in Wednesday's Section A about the recovery of a stolen bike in Japan said that Japanese police officers do not carry guns. They carry small pistols when on patrol.

My bicycle was available because I never lock it. Not even when I'm leaving it outside a busy train station overnight.

This is Japan. Nobody steals your stuff here. Safest place in the developed world. You can look it up in the guidebooks.

It's a silly stereotype, of course. Tokyo's crime rate may be much lower than that of Los Angeles, but that doesn't mean it's free of petty thieves (or robbers, killers and gangsters). But live here awhile and enough anecdotal experience piles up to feed complacency. I've been chased by people who want to return a dropped coin. I've left my cellphone in a park, come back the next morning, and found it on the bench where I'd set it down.

Having moved to Tokyo from London, where your cellphone wasn't safe in your pocket, I found this amazing. After a short time in a low-crime society, old habits changed. I would leave my briefcase unattended on a train, for example. And I stopped locking my bike.

I left it unclamped outside stores and restaurants, the lock wrapped uselessly around the bar under my seat. I'd leave it out all night in the driveway, unchained. One summer vacation, I left all four family bikes sitting unlocked in the driveway for three weeks.

So I was more embarrassed than angry when I went back to get my bike that Sunday morning and found it gone.

No kidding, I hear you saying. But I was so surprised I thought the ever-efficient Tokyo bicycle attendants might have impounded it for not being parked in a designated bicycle rack. Tokyo is awash in bikes, and despite long rows of parking stands at every station, there are never enough spaces.

I was still contemplating a visit to the impounded bike lot a day later when an officer from a neighboring ward office of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police called me at home.

Officer Shinya Yoshioka had recovered my bike and captured the thief.

OFFICER Yoshioka works out of a tiny, two-room outpost called a koban, a staple of community policing in Japan. These substations are scattered across Japanese neighborhoods, a way for the police to keep an eye on the comings and goings and, in theory at least, quickly respond to a crime or accident.

In my experience, kobans appeared to be little more than glorified information booths where people stop in to ask for directions. The most common sight at a koban is a uniformed officer hunched over his desk map, tracing a route with his finger for a confused citizen.

But it was from his koban in Suginami Ward about three miles from my home that Yoshioka had spotted the bike thief. It was after midnight, and the cops were on the lookout for suspicious behavior. Suginami is a high break-and-enter neighborhood, Yoshioka tells me later (another blow to the stereotype), one of the worst in Tokyo.

The guy on my bike was obviously very drunk, a crime in itself, Yoshioka explains. The big knapsack on his back also attracted attention: It could have held tools for breaking into homes.

And the bike had no night light.

So Yoshioka ordered him to stop.

Incredibly, the thief did. This speaks volumes about the Japanese respect for authority. The cops were on foot. The thief was on a bike. Japanese cops don't carry guns. Put an Angeleno bike thief in the same situation and he keeps biking. Picks up his pace. Maybe allows himself a laugh.

After determining he wasn't carrying anything to jimmy open a window or door, the cops turned their attention to the bike. Where did he get it? The crook opted to take his chances on talking his way out of trouble.

"I bought it," he told the cops. "For $30."

Mistake. Too much detail. Nobody sells a bike for $30, the cops told him. They took him in for questioning and 40 minutes later had a confession.

Nice work, I tell Yoshioka when he recounts the story. But what would you have done if he hadn't stopped?

"We would have chased him on our official bikes," he says. He points to a battered bike with a basket on the back.

"Is it fast enough?" I ask him.

"Oh, it can't compete with yours," he says. "But we would have done our best."

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