You might have heard about how safe Japanis compared to Canadaor America. People can walk the streets at night, or in the park, without fear. People are honest and law-abiding. They turn in to the police all manner of lost and found items. You can leave your purse on a park bench, come back later and it is still there, contents intact, all the result of a conscientious people who prize honor and for whom shame is the greatest vice. These kinds of tales are apocryphal, but they are true. I have been told directly by acquaintances that they have picked up ¥1 coins from the street (about one penny) and turned it over to the police at the nearest koban (neighborhood police box). If no one claims the found item (including money) within a certain period of time then it becomes the property of the finder.
On Saturday, November 3, 2007I witnessed this incident with my own eyes: an old woman turned in to a convenience store clerk a ¥100-coin (about a dollar) she found on the sidewalk outside the store. I saw it play out right in front of me almost from beginning to end. The woman was in front of me on the crosswalk. Her slow pace (because she was using a walker) was an obstacle to me on my bicycle. I could not get past her because of other traffic, so I got a really good chance to fantasize strangling her - I mean watch her. The pedestrian light began flashing red before we reached the safety of the far side, but we made it. And when we did she suddenly did what so many Japanese do, she stopped immediately in her tracks with no regard to others around her or to what might have been directly behind her (me on my bicycle). I had to jerk my bicycle to one side to avoid hitting her. (I have personally witnessed crashes resulting from this antisocial behavior and have only narrowly missed some accidents of my own.)
The old lady stopped so suddenly in order to bend down and pick up something shiny on the sidewalk that caught her eye. Right at that moment I paid it little mind because the convenience store door was only a few meters away, so I got around her as quickly as I could to pursue my shopping goal. It took less than a minute to make my rounds of the shelves and collect my purchases, and when I walked up to the register the old lady with the walker was just making her way in the door. Her hand was stretched in front of her and holding a small silver coin. I imagine she stretched out her hand as soon as she picked up the coin from the sidewalk outside and walked the few meters into the store like that, like a comedic movie character, or a cartoon. She was headed straight for the clerk in front of me. “The old bat!” I thought. “Why is she is in my way again?” I then watched her turn over the coin as a lost-and-found item. Because the store was the nearest commercial enterprise to the place it was discovered I suppose it seemed logical to her that the store was its point of origin - from a customer either entering or existing. But I disagree with it all. I mean, it’s one thing to be admirably honest and conscientious, but quite another to make a nuisance out of yourself by acting out a fantasy of civil responsibility. A ¥100 coin hardly seems to warrant going to that much trouble. Who cares? Furthermore, the “trouble” was not only to herself but to the rest of society because the woman turned herself into a significant traffic hazard by stopping to retrieve it, and she did it (probably) unwittingly because, like most Japanese, she displayed no consciousness of the world around her. Oblivious. That’s how people are.