Lost your phone in Japan? You’ll probably get it back

How efficient lost property management in Japan reunites lost wallets, phones, keys and umbrellas with their owners.

Japan - lost and found - PLS DON'T USE
Honesty on the part of the finders as well as Japan's successful lost property management system mean that many lost objects are reunited with their owners [JJ O'Donoghue/Al Jazeera]

Osaka, Japan – When Maithilee Jadeja reported her lost phone to police in February 2017, she had both a precise and vague location. It was in a shallow crevice, somewhere near the summit of Mount Aso, Japan’s largest active volcano. She had dropped it while taking photos.

Two months later, back in Kyoto, where Jadeja, 20, is a student, she got a letter from the police in Kumamoto Prefecture, more than 500km away.

A hiker had found her phone and handed it in. The screen was broken in places. “Would she like it back?” the letter asked.

A few phone calls and a week later the phone arrived in bubble wrap. “I turned it on and, amazingly, it worked,” Jadeja recalls. “It was so heart-warming that someone had gone to the effort to do this.”

In Japan, stories involving lost phones, wallets, cameras and keys frequently have happy endings.

It requires honesty on the part of finders, but also a huge national effort to report, catalogue, store and eventually reunite rightful owners with their lost items.

Umbrellas are often lost - and handed in to the police [JJ O'Donoghue/Al Jazeera]
Umbrellas are often lost – and handed in to the police [JJ O’Donoghue/Al Jazeera]

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Loser’s paradise

Mark D West, author of Law in Everyday Japan: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, and Statutes, and dean of the University of Michigan Law School, describes Japan as a loser’s paradise.

In 2016, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s Lost and Found Centre handled 3.67 billion yen ($32m) in lost cash; about three-quarters of the total wound its way back to its rightful owner, according to police data. 

Discounting cash, Tokyo police handled about 3.83 million items of lost property last year: credit cards and driver’s licences dominated the haul. As did umbrellas; Tokyoites handed in 381,135 lost umbrellas.

West ascribes Japan’s success in lost property management to a few factors.

“Japan has a well-developed law, people know there is a potential finder’s fee involved with a return, and they know to return items to a koban or to the lost and found at a department store,” he says.

The koban, or police box, is at the nexus for managing lost property in Japan. There are about 6,000 police boxes spread throughout Japan’s cities and suburbs. Often, they’re no bigger than a single room, but they’re the first port of call when you lose or find something.

Japanese are encouraged from a young age to hand in lost items at the police box or the koban [JJ O'Donoghue/Al Jazeera]
Japanese are encouraged from a young age to hand in lost items at the police box or the koban [JJ O’Donoghue/Al Jazeera]

Starting early

Parents and teachers make a point of emphasising the role of the koban when it comes to reporting lost and found items. Most children in Japan will have gone to a koban, or at least know where one is.

Toshinari Nishioka, a former policeman who teaches at Kansai University of International Studies, says even when a small amount of money is handed in by a child, the police officer will still go through the same procedure.

“Even if it’s only one or five yen, the officer would take it seriously and tell him: ‘You did a great job.’ They do this to cultivate the child’s self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. The police officers’ job isn’t just about cracking down on criminals; they also try to increase the good deeds of the local community.”

But as West says, replicating Japan’s lost property management system would require extensive administrative costs, as well as directing police away from other duties. With one of the lowest murder rates in the world and a falling crime rate, Japan can afford to turn its attention to managing lost property.

Kenji Takahashi buys unclaimed items from the police to sell in his Osaka shop [JJ O'Donoghue/Al Jazeera]
Kenji Takahashi buys unclaimed items from the police to sell in his Osaka shop [JJ O’Donoghue/Al Jazeera]

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Unclaimed items

Mayuko Matsumoto, from Shiga Prefecture in western Japan, recalled an incident from when she was a toddler. She was walking in her neighbourhood with her mother when they found a wallet that contained about 10,000 yen ($100).

“My mother took me to the koban and we handed it in. The policeman gave me some sweets in return,” Matusomoto says.

Sweets are not the incentives enshrined in law. Under Japanese law, if the owner claims the object, then they are obliged to pay the finder a reward of between five and 20 percent of the item’s value. If an item goes unclaimed, the object can be given to the finder. 

Items that go unclaimed after the statutory three-month storage period may be recycled back into society through shops such as Tetsudo Wasuremono Kensho, run by Kenji Takahashi, 37, in Momodani in central Osaka. Takahashi, along with a handful of other sellers in Osaka, buys unclaimed items from the police in Osaka.

His ramshackle shop is the last stop for neck ties, sunglasses, motorcycle helmets, smartphone cases, prayer beads, walking canes and golf bags. And umbrellas. He sells about 10,000 umbrellas a year.

“I think that our business is playing a role as a final repository of the wasuremono [lost item]. They’d be thrown away if we didn’t buy and sell them on. All round, it’s a good system,” Takahashi says.

Outside the shop in a cage is Sasaki-san, a cockerel and the shop’s mascot. Takahashi found him on the street five years ago while coming home from a late night out. “He was lost,” Takahashi says, “so I gave him a home.”

Haruka Iwamoto contributed to reporting.

The cockerel that Takahashi found five years ago sits outside his shop [JJ O'Donoghue/Al Jazeera]
The cockerel that Takahashi found five years ago sits outside his shop [JJ O’Donoghue/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera