“How do you get to the Seibu department store?”

“See that sign over there? It’s under that.”

“Thank you.”

Within seconds of The Japan Times starting its stakeout of the Shibuya Station Koban, the police box’s first satisfied customer asking directions was already on her way. It was 45 seconds past 10 a.m. and, at this rate, over the next 12 hours the box’s boys in (dark) blue would deal with some 1,000 such inquiries. And who knows what else.

“This is a long weekend, so it will be busy,” said one young policeman.

“Street directions. Lost property. On weekday mornings, chikan (sexual molesters) on trains and subways. On rainy days, fights — people bump each other with umbrellas; at night, fights — people get drunk. But during the day it’s mostly street directions.”

The officer hardly had time to get through explaining his list of regular jobs before a purposeful-looking, middle-aged man strode up.

“Where’s the nearest post office?”

“Under the train tracks, up the hill on the left.”

“Thank you.”

Another customer easily satisfied by the officer’s encyclopedic knowledge of this central Tokyo district commonly dubbed “Japan’s youth mecca.”

Around the world these days, not many police forces have functioning police boxes on the scale of Japan — around 1,200 in Tokyo alone — having opted instead for networks of police stations and foot and car patrols. However, over the last few years, it has been suggested that the koban system — Japan’s most visible branch of law enforcement since the system was instituted in 1874 — is partly responsible for its fabled low crime rate. They’re now being copied in Singapore and Brazil.

“And I think in Indonesia, too,” said the Deputy Chief of Shibuya Police Station, Tetsuo Kamei, when I raised the subject during a recent interview at his office. “There’s a policewoman from Indonesia here today, studying the same Shibuya Station koban that you visited,” he said.

Hmm, well, I hope they let her inside, I think to myself. On my visit, fearful that I would disrupt the work of Tokyo’s finest, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) had banned me from setting foot inside the koban, but had been happy for me stand and observe from outside . . . for almost 12 hours.

The policemen were hardly any better off, so for the most part we stood together, gazing out at the big blue sky, the jumble of buildings, the neon, the giant screens and, of course, the famous Shibuya intersection with its rivers of people endlessly streaming into the area’s maze of back streets, its four department store buildings, its thousands of restaurants, hundreds of bars and, maybe, even its 1,340 designated “businesses affecting public morals” (aka sex shops).

But what do these policemen — standing, like lions surveying migrating wildebeest — do all day, I had wondered? And now I was beginning to find out.

“Across the road and about five shops down on the right.”

Or maybe it was six. Either way, the young girl who had been holding out a piece of paper with a clothes shop’s address on it was now happily on her way.

The koban at Shibuya Station is widely reckoned to be Japan’s busiest. On any day it will receive up to 2,000 inquiries for street directions. “That’s about one every 43 seconds,” Kamei explained.

A team of six police officers, led by a lieutenant (keibuho), and occasionally with the help of a “koban counselor” (koban sodan-in), man the police box during the day shift from 10 a.m. till 4 p.m. The next day, the same officers work in the main Shibuya Police Station before returning to the koban the day after for a night shift that runs from 4 p.m. right through until 10 a.m. Then they have the following day off. Lest they be tempted to nod off on the job, though, there are no sleeping facilities in the Shibuya Station koban, just a room where officers can sit down and rest. Equally, there’s no temporary lockup either — nor any cooking facilities, meaning meals are delivered by local shops.

And, speaking of food:

“I heard there is a famous gyoza (Chinese dumplings) restaurant around here.”

“Ando-san, do you know a famous gyoza restaurant?”

“What? Gyoza? Oh, there’s one if you go up Center-gai and make the first left.”

“OK, thanks.”

So who’s Ando-san? He was older than the others, and closer inspection reveals he had a different badge too. He also didn’t have a sidearm.

“I’m what’s called a koban counselor,” he said. “I was a policeman for 40 years before I started this job, almost five years ago.”

Ex-cops such as Ando-san now help out at Tokyo’s busiest police boxes, covering where, for the last few years, there have been cries of understaffing, and at the same time putting their often unmatched knowledge of localities to use.

“We try to answer everyone’s inquiries as politely as possible,” Ando explained.

And the effort seems to pay off.

Ms. Tanaka, in town from Fujisawa in Kanagawa Prefecture, checked with Ando-san the location of a cake shop she was planning to take her daughter to.

“They’re always very polite,” she said. “I always ask at the koban when I am going somewhere. I’m not embarrassed to ask directions.”

By 2 p.m. the waves of people disgorged from each Yamanote Line train looping central Tokyo had merged into a single, unceasing river. Fed by those overground trains and numerous subways too, the flow of 2.4 million people who use this station every day formed a human wave so unrelenting that even Moses would have thought twice before crossing.

It is among those crowds that we got our first real action of the day.

I learned later from Deputy Chief Kamei that Shibuya has one of the highest rates of drug-possession charges in Tokyo — about 10 times the metropolitan average. And, as part of their crackdown, the koban police officers are on the lookout for odd behavior.

“If the officers think someone might be under the influence of drugs (he mentioned blank stares and wandering eyes as clues), they will stop them, talk to them and maybe ask them to submit to a check of possessions. There are a lot of cases where people are caught with amphetamines,” Kamei said.

He was careful to explain that “under the Police Execution of Duties Law, if someone is acting strangely the police have the right to stop them and talk to them — it’s what we call shokumu shitsumon (police questioning).” However, he said, “searches of possessions may be done only with the consent of the subject.” (He added that “foreigners acting suspiciously are also subject to police questioning.” And it is worth noting that officers also have the power to demand to see foreigners’ alien registration cards, even in the absence of suspicious activity.)

Judging from what I was seeing, the police at Shibuya Station Koban are less interested in whether you look drugged out than whether or not you’re a man, your pockets are bulging and your eyebrows are plucked.

OK, so maybe the plucked eyebrows part is a coincidence. You see, men with plucked eyebrows in Shibuya often also have red- or yellow-dyed asymmetrical crew cuts, gold jewelry, sunglasses and either pajama-like tracksuits or half-open floral shirts. By my reckoning such people have about an 80 percent chance of being approached if they do so much as glance at the Shibuya Station Koban.

And cowering in front of The Japan Times’ finest will do them no good, either. One guy standing in front of me was quickly surrounded — one cop on either side — and asked to bring himself and his bum-bag inside. Apparently not realizing he had the right to say “no,” he apologized to his stunned girlfriend and glumly did as he was told. Two minutes later he was back, red-faced and leading his friend quickly away.

“Swords, box-cutters, drugs,” reeled off a policeman, when I asked what kind of things he’d found in such “consensual” searches before.

Mr. Bum-bag, it seems, was clean. But what if he had refused to submit to the search in the first place?

“Saying no is likely to make the officer think there’s some reason you don’t want to have your possessions checked,” explained Kamei.

“And in that case the officers will persistently endeavor to persuade you.”

In the event, it seems Mr. Bum-bag required very little persuasion at all — and with two burly policeman on either side of him, who could blame him? The way the officers used their bodies to project authority was startling. Do they learn that, I wondered?

“When you become a police officer . . . you have to train in either judo or kendo,” explained Kamei. “You have to deal with criminals and that training gives you a certain level of guts,” he said.

Koban duty itself is a must for police officers too. “Every policeman starts from the Community Police Affairs Section (of their assigned station), so life as a policeman always begins in a koban,” said Kamei.

And how would this place get by without them? By about 3:30 p.m. there was a queue of people lined up to ask for directions. Four officers were outside, churning through them — a last spurt before the changing of the guard at 4 p.m.

By 5 p.m., though, the elderly shoppers of the daylight hours had largely given way to shoals of short-skirted, bejeaned and T-shirted young people.

“Shibuya is an entertainment area, so it is more likely that drunkenness and crime occur here than in other areas,” explained Kamei.

So, what exactly happens if, say, a fight breaks out somewhere? I asked.

“If there is a fight in a bar, then the proprietor will usually call 110. That call goes to the Communications Command Center at the MPD, from where orders are dispatched. Every policeman has a radio to receive that communication, and they are listening to it all the time. If they hear something that is in their area they go there immediately.”

So if I call 110 from my home, then the officers from my local koban will turn up?

“That’s right. Then the police go to the scene and if, for example, there are people injured or it is obvious that some incident has occurred, then the officers will secure the participants. At the same time, the Shibuya Police Station, which has also monitored the initial orders, will have sent a car to the location. The protagonists are put in the car and taken back to the station, where detectives question them and, if necessary, make arrests.”

How often do policemen have to use their guns?

“It’s not very often,” Kamei said. “I’ve been a policeman for 26 years and I haven’t drawn my gun once. But, when we deal with fights we will use keibo (police sticks — like the long wooden ones officers are seen holding outside police stations) or sasumata (a long-handled pole with V-shaped metal prongs on the end, used to restrain knife-wielding assailants).”

By about 8 p.m. it was looking like our sasumata wouldn’t be called for; there had been no major action and no fights.

Then suddenly two big cops appear through the crowd leading two teenagers wearing tight black T-shirts, gold necklaces, dyed crew-cuts and, you guessed it, sporting plucked eyebrows.

Into the koban they went, but out they did not come. Well, not for five minutes, anyway.

When they did reappear, I couldn’t resist the urge to say hello.

“What happened?” I asked, in the most macho Japanese I could muster.

“Mochi-ken, mochi-ken,” they said, with practiced disgust. Mochi-ken, I quickly deduced, is their argot for mochimono kensa — a check of possessions.

“Oh, what a bummer,” I said. “What did they do to you?”

“They touch you, man,” said one — Yuta, from Shinagawa Ward.

“And they look in your pockets and in your bags. It’s a real pain in the ass,” added the other — Makoto, from Adachi Ward.

They told me, with evident pride, that wherever they go they are searched. I scratched an unplucked eyebrow and was about to say I couldn’t possibly imagine why.

“It’s because we’re young,” said Yuta.

“And because of the way we look. We’re dressed up, you know, kind of showy-like,” added Makoto.

And did the police find anything on them?


Well, it wasn’t a fight, but it was still eye-opening — figuratively speaking, that is. And with that my 10 p.m. finish line was rapidly approaching. Quiet day? Then suddenly this:

“What are you doing, eh?

“You’re a bunch of idiots!”

“Hey! Hey! Sir, calm down. Now, what’s the matter?”

“What’s wrong with you?!

“I said I wanted to go to 2-29 Dogenzaka and you guys pointed me in the wrong direction!”

“There must have been some kind of mistake. So, tell me again where you want to go . . .”

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