Philip Patrick

What Britain’s corona cops should learn from Japan’s police

What Britain's corona cops should learn from Japan's police
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Soon after I began living in central Tokyo I got an unexpected visitor to my apartment – a police officer. He just turned up one day, asked some routine questions, made a few notes, and then left. Slightly alarmed by this – (was it just me? am I on some kind of watch list?), I mentioned the visit to a Japanese colleague, who put my mind at rest: ‘Oh, that’s just regular police work. They do that sometimes. They’re just checking that you’re OK.’

‘Checking that I’m OK’? Is that what police are supposed to do? This was news to me. I’d grown used to the idea of police as people you call when something horrible happens, who then arrive (hopefully); express sympathy (again hopefully); leave, and then (once again… hopefully) take some action.

So to witness police making their presence felt in the community, looking for problems before they have arisen, actually policing the neighbourhood, was an odd experience, and, on reflection, a comforting one. And with Japan under a state of emergency as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, this style of policing is paying off. Britain's police officers could do with learning a lesson or two from their Japanese counterparts.

The first thing you notice about the police in Japan is their ubiquity. They seem to be everywhere. The force operates out of a system of tiny neighbourhood police boxes (koban) of which there are 6,000 in Japan and 1,000 on the streets of Tokyo; there are at least three within a ten minute walk of my apartment. Typically home to just a couple of officers, they appear to do very little except give out occasional directions and log the details of missing pets.

One officer will spend most of the day at the doorway just observing, which is a powerful disincentive to crime. Anyone tempted to mug an old lady, burgle a house, or smoke marijuana in the street, will be disinclined to do so if they realise there is a police officer watching their every move. It is a simple idea. And it works.

The system was set up by a former soldier Kawaji Toshiyoshi, who travelled extensively through Europe in the early years of the Meiji period in search of a suitable model of policing to replace the bands of samurai who roamed the cities. He was particularly influenced by the French gendarmerie, though British elements (‘a people’s force’ ‘policing by consent’ were early slogans) were also adopted, and Toshiyoshi’s own interest in swordsmanship made that a key element of the early force’s training. Gaining the respect of the people was taken very seriously right from the start to the extent that Keystone Cops films were banned on the basis that they might undermine public confidence.

Japan is a truly conservative country where change doesn't happen unless there are compelling reasons, and often, not even then. So though the force has evolved and gone through difficult periods since its inception (particularly the authoritarian and repressive 30s and 40s, and 60s era of student radicalism) and there have certainly been scandals and controversies along the way, the essential elements of Toshiyoshi’s original vision, the patrols, kobans, and courtesy calls, have survived pretty much intact. The swords have gone – officers now carry guns (antique Smith and Wesson revolvers), though it's years since any officer discharged one.

Contrast this with the UK, where our police force has morphed over the years into a reaction force, with the blue lamp replaced by the flashing, screeching siren, the smart tunic, hard helmet and truncheon by body armour and a Taser. Largely absent from the streets, they wait – in an ever-dwindling number of police stations – for crime to happen, by which time it’s usually too late to do much about it, other than take notes, and offer sympathy.

The Corona panic seems to have roused the British police into action, of sorts, but it has been an incoherent messy sort of response, with reports of heavy-handed overreactions and unjustifiable interference in personal liberty. It seems that after years of leaving the streets alone, our guardians are now confused about what actual police work entails, and feel the need to interfere in the minutiae of our daily activities and harass us for insignificant transgressions.

It’s not really like that in Japan. A pattern once established has not been disturbed. Even in this ‘state of emergency’ the police don’t interfere. They are just there. You see them, but you will very rarely encounter them unless they are paying you a visit. Or if you do something silly or bad, of course, which you won’t of course: because they’re there.

On my way home the other day a pair of young Japanese police officers on bicycles, a male and a female stopped right in front of me at a crossing. I had neglected to wear a facemask, and wasn’t sure, if challenged, that I could defend my afternoon walk around Shinjuku as, strictly speaking, ‘essential’. But they paid me no heed, except for an almost imperceptible nod as they rode off, which I interpreted as the Japanese equivalent of ‘Mind how you go sir’.

It was a reassuring, even charming encounter. I strolled home in good spirits with a certain lyric by Roger Miller running through my head.

Written byPhilip Patrick

Philip Patrick is a lecturer at a Tokyo university and contributing writer at the Japan Times

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