Society Koban: Japanese police boxes

By JREF · Nov 10, 2012 · Updated Oct 24, 2018 ·
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    Kōban (交番), translated as “police box”, are the ubiquitous urban police stations in Japan usually located next to train stations, shopping centres, busy intersections, but also throughout residential districts. Originally called hashutsusho (派出所, “despatch station” or “local police station”) in urban areas and chūzaisho (駐在所, “residential police box”) in the countryside, their formal designation has been changed to “kōban” in 1994, with the word “Koban” displayed in romanized letters at the front of all police boxes.

    All of Japan is divided into jurisdictions for police stations, whose areas are further subdivided into jurisdictions for police boxes. The approximately 6,500 kōban and 7,600 chūzaisho are manned by police officers on a shift system (a three-shift system throughout the country, except for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department with a four-shift rotation). Kōban range in size from those in quiet residential areas with one or two men per shift to the over-50-man mammoth kōban found in several Tōkyō entertainment districts, which resemble small police stations. In 2004, a total of 45,000 police officers were posted at kōban, and 8,000 at chūzaisho.

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    Captain Wilhelm Höhn
    It is often stated that the kōban system was inspired by the Continental European model of policing that aimed at extending the government’s reach “into every town, village and hamlet”, requiring a high level of dispersion of police forces. The Prussian model, in particular, drew the Meiji oligarchs’ attention. The Prussian Police official Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm Höhn served as an adviser to the Japanese Home Ministry from 1885-91. After his inspections of local jurisdictions from Aomori to Kagoshima, he recommended an increased diffusion of police forces to allow for more effective surveillance of the urban and rural population. The residential police stations (chūzaisho) were to serve as “snail feelers” (蝸牛の触角 katatsumuri no shokkaku), always alert and ready to react to a potentially unruly populace.

    Kōban usually have an office with desks and chairs in the front part and sleeping quarters and storage areas in the rear or upstairs. Police officers (お巡りさん omawari-san, lit. “Mr/s Walkabout”) sit on duty in the office area to assist callers and patrol the surrounding neighbourhood on foot or bicycle; in theory, they are required to visit each home in the kōban‘s jurisdiction twice a year, a practice known as junkai renraku (巡回連絡) that has become nearly impossible to retain given today’s social mobility and the anonymity of urban society. New police graduates fresh out of police school are always given kōban duty as their first assignment. In recent years, this rule has also been also being applied to female officers who used to be assigned mainly to traffic safety departments handling traffic offences such as illegal parking. A significant number of police officers posted at kōban continue to work at the grassroots level throughout their career, developing close ties with the local community.

    Apart from their patrol duties, one of the omawari-san‘s main roles is to give directions. Kōban usually hold excellent maps of each neighbourhood and are thus often consulted by people unfamiliar with a particular area. They also report crimes, take emergency calls and accept lost and found items. One of their more unpopular activities is to stop unsuspecting cyclists to check their bicycle registrations.

    Chūzaisho, which used to outnumber kōban about two to one, are found in rural areas. A typical chūzaisho is a small house in which a police officer (called a 駐在さん chūzai-san) lives with his family with an office attached to the front for handling police business. The policeman and his entire family, to an extent, are responsible for policing the village community. His relationship to the villagers is often quite intimate and is considered the ideal of police-community relations. However, as a consequence of urban sprawl, many chūzaisho were transformed into kōban in areas near encroaching cities because of the increasingly heavy burden of police work on the lone police officer.

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    Kōbansho in the Meiji Period
    (Photo: TMPD)
    Recent developments and criticism

    While the kōban model has been favourably reviewed by many other countries for contributing to Japan’s low crime rates, it is safe to assert that in a modern and increasingly mobile society free of territorial bonds the “feelers” of the omawari-san do not reach so deep into their neighbourhoods anymore. A series of child murders in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the criminal activities of the Aum cult have shaken the reputation of the kōban as efficient crime prevention and early warning system. Isolated incidents where police officers stationed at kōban were unable to intervene and dissolve social conflicts contributed to the image of helplessness.

    Reportedly, in the past, a lot of female victims of sexual molestation and domestic violence were not taken seriously by male police officers working in kōban. Despite efforts to post more female police officers at police boxes, they usually do not work night shifts. Most sex crimes take place during nighttime. Ironically, the reluctance of manning more police boxes with female officers has been explained with the limited means of self-defence of the exposed police boxes.

    A recent development is the so-called aki-kōban (空き交番, “empty” or unmanned police boxes), kōban without police presence, usually vacant during night shifts.

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