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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tokyo Losers Are Not Weepers




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 rest room or 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 bathing suits. 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 also can be found in this river of castoffs. Recent tough economic times find more people claiming items they might once have written off.


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 personal pagers. These days it's more likely a laptop computer and mobile 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. Bags found with weapons, drugs or other contraband merit a police investigation. All told, some 72 percent, by value, of items turned in are returned to their rightful owners.


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.


Bureaucrats don't push the limits of human nature too far, however. 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 percent to 20 percent 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 rightful 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.


Many complain, however, that traditional values in Japan are breaking down under modern pressures. "Of course the Japanese are human beings," said Harumi Nakano, a staff member at the lost and found. "There are always some bad people who don't return things."


Only about a third of the people who claim they lost cash are reunited with it. Still, an impressive $23 million is returned to owners each year.


The most common items lost are umbrellas f 393,961 in 1998 alone. While 99 percent are never claimed, they are still dutifully collected and marked on the minute chance their owner shows up.


"Oftentimes the owner is not really forgetting something. It's more like garbage," said Sato, the section chief, pointing to some cheap plastic umbrellas. "Unfortunately, though, you can't just assume it's rubbish."


With the flood of consumer castoffs coming in f an average of 200 cell phones, 470 wallets, 606 credit cards and 1,079 umbrellas each day f the center auctions off anything not picked up by the deadline. Proceeds go to the Tokyo government.


Katsumi Ichikura, a 52-year-old businessman picking up his $300 cell phone, said he didn't care so much about the monetary loss. More important to him were the numbers programmed into the phone. "I'm very happy," he said.


Still, the center is a bit too efficient for some, said Yoshiteru Yamada, a high school freshman who came to get his cell phone. "I'm not really happy," he said. "I really wanted a new one, but my parents made me retrieve this old thing."