Sometimes I’m asked how I came to be interested in crime in Japan. I guess it began in my early days here as a student and lowly paid salaryman in the late 1960s.

Before I could afford a newspaper subscription, I never lacked for sensational reading matter. All I had to do on my morning train commute was gaze upward at a 吊り広告 (tsurikōkoku, hanging advertisement) for a magazine. That finished, I would peer over the shoulders of fellow commuters poring over sports tabloids with huge red or blue headlines, often accompanied by supplementary words like スクープ! (sukūpu, scoop), ズバリ (zubari, no punches pulled), 暴露する! (bakuro suru, to disclose or lay bare) and 新事実 (shinjijitsu, new revelations).

My surreptitious 盗み読み (nusumi-yomi, theft-reading) was an economical way to keep abreast of current events — although sometimes I put Japanese coworkers on the spot when asking them to explain a particularly lurid term I’d picked up from the tabloids.

In mainstream media, crime stories and accidents are reported by a newspaper’s 社会部 (shakaibu, local news department). The earliest newspapers had four pages, and because articles that reported the various crimes and indiscretions of the times typically appeared inside the back page, they came to be referred to as 三面記事 (sanmen kiji, page 3 stories). The term appears to have originated from the now-defunct 萬朝報 (Yorozu Chōhō), a populist, muckraking newspaper launched in 1892 whose motto was 一に簡単、二に明瞭、三に痛快 (ichi ni kantan, ni ni meiryō, san ni tsūkai, one, simple; two, clear; and three, enjoyable).

The first two 週刊誌 (shūkanshi, weekly magazines), launched by the Asahi and Mainichi newspapers, began in 1923. The weeklies’ heyday really started about 1958, when Japan’s postwar economy got into full swing and the average salaried worker began to get extra 小遣い(kozukai, pocket money) from his wife and could at last indulge in discretionary spending.

Of course, you need not rely on print media to pick up crime terms. At your local post office or police station you’re likely to see posters that read 「 この顔を見たらすぐ 110 番! 」 (“Kono kao wo mitara sugu hyaku toban!,” “If you see this face, dial 110 right away!”), followed by something like 「 連続殺人容疑 」 (“Renzoku satsujin yōgi,” “serial homicide suspect”).

Other 凶悪犯罪 (kyōaku hanzai, serious crimes) on a wanted poster might include 殺人未遂 (satsujin misui, attempted murder); 強盗 (go-to-, armed robbery); 放火 (hōka, arson); and 強姦 (gōkan, rape). Or people in the neighborhood might be advised to call if they spot 怪しい人 (ayashii hito, a suspicious person).

In addition to the 110 hotline, police also operate or connect callers to other social services, including 青少年生活相談 (seishōnen seikatsu sōdan, juvenile counseling) and 自殺防止 (jisatsu bōshi, suicide prevention).

Police on patrol or posted to a 交番 (kōban, police box) are colloquially called お巡りさん (omawari-san). This name goes back to the Edo Period (1603-1867) when patrolmen were officially termed 廻り同心 (mawari do-shin). The term was replaced in modern times by 巡査 (junsa, patrolman) — meaning, literally, “roving investigator.”

Other types of police include 機動隊 (kidotai, mechanized riot police), who are posted outside such places as foreign embassies; 刑事 (keiji, investigators or detectives); and 公安警察 (kōan keisatsu, public-security police). The term 憲兵 (kenpei, military police) is obsolete, having been replaced in the Japan Self-Defense Force by 警務隊 (keimutai).

If nabbed by police in 現行犯 (genkōhan, the act of committing a crime), a culprit might warn his cohorts by saying, おい、逃げろ!サツだ! (Oi, nigero! Satsu da!, Beat it! It’s the cops!).

To obtain witness testimony at 犯行現場 (hankō genba, the scene of the crime), police will engage in 聞き込み (kikikomi, door-to-door canvassing). In serious cases, a 逃亡者(tōbōsha, fugitive) might be the subject of a 全国指名手配 (zenkoku shimei tehai, nationwide dragnet).

Of course, 前科者 (zenkamono, people with a previous criminal record) facing a prison sentence are likely to 無罪を主張する (muzai wo shuchō suru, proclaim innocence), using such expressions as 僕は絶対にやってない (Boku wa zettai ni yatte nai, I absolutely didn’t do it), 僕は白だ (Boku wa shiro da, I’m “white,” i.e., “clean” or innocent), or even 濡れ衣を着せられた (Nureginu wo kiserareta, I was made to wear wet silk, i.e., framed).

To avoid the possibility of 冤罪裁判 (enzai saiban, a miscarriage of justice), police must follow procedure while bearing in mind that 疑わしきは罰せず (utagawashiki wa bassezu, suspicion does not equal guilt, i.e., the suspect is innocent until proved guilty).

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