Because Japan’s crime rate is very low compared to most other countries, the police officers I see in Japan are not apprehending criminals or breaking up fights. Instead, their main duty seems to be giving directions to lost souls. I myself have been that lost soul on many occasions, but because of Japan’s complicated address system and twisting narrow streets, there are plenty of lost Japanese souls as well. What makes police officers so handy for providing directions is the Japanese system of placing tiny police boxes, called koban, in strategic locations in towns and cities throughout Japan. There are more than 800 koban in Tokyo alone, manned by officers who know their districts like the backs of their hand. It’s kind of like having a tourist office in every neighborhood.
Unlike in most cities in the United States where police officers generally roam the streets in police cars, which physically separates them from the general public, Japanese police officers patrol their neighborhood on foot or on bicycle, making them highly visible to the public. They often stop to chat with local residents. They know which shops have closed and which restaurants have newly opened. Just mention the name of your destination, and they’ll probably know exactly where it is. If not, they have maps on hand to send you on your way.
Most koban are very tiny, with only a front room equipped with a desk and a back room. Some are architecturally appealing, either because of historic features or because they were designed to complement the surrounding neighborhood. I was able to see the interior of a koban—nope, I wasn’t arrested!—when I visited the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum on the outskirts of Tokyo. Among its many thatched farmhouses, traditional Japanese- and Western-style residences, shops and other structures dating from the mid-1800s to the 1940s was a brick koban from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) that used to stand beside the Manseibashi Bridge in Kanda. An employee dressed in period police clothing was in the front room, presumably to give directions to lost souls on museum grounds. The back room contained a small tatami area so that police could rest in shifts.
I know that police officers must attend to duties like helping someone locate a lost pet, arbitrating a dispute, or taking down information regarding lost or stolen property, but most of the time they seem to be waiting just for you and to point you in the right direction.
And by the way, if you get lost looking for the Edo-Tokyo Open air Architectural Museum or the bus that will take you back to the station, you can get guidance on the main street near the museum’s entrance—at a koban, of course.