Every year, the National Police Agency sponsors a nationwide traffic safety promotion campaign that is mainly carried out at the community level. In my neighborhood in Tokyo, the campaign involves setting up tents that are manned by local volunteers.

Three years ago, when I first moved to this neighborhood, the volunteers would hang banners with slogans on guardrails and keep an eye out for jaywalkers and reckless bicyclists. Two years ago, the volunteers could be seen sitting under the tents drinking tea and chatting among themselves. This year, the tents were erected and the banners hung, but there were no volunteers in sight.

This steady deterioration of resolve coincided with a steady influx of residents that accompanied a boom in apartment construction in the area. The legendary social cohesiveness of Japanese society is mostly based on small communities of people who have known each other for many years, and so it is hardly surprising that this cohesiveness cannot withstand the urbanization that has continued apace for the past half-century.

However, many social institutions still operate under a village mentality that does not take into account the more complex and fluid urban dynamic that characterizes Japanese life right now. The police force is perhaps the most obvious example. The beloved koban (police box) system is predicated on the idea that the people who live in a particular neighborhood have a working relationship with police officers. But when neighbors living in concrete apartment buildings can no longer be bothered to acknowledge the people who live right next door to them, how can they be expected to interact voluntarily with the police? In the neighborhood where I used to live, the koban was manned by a robot.

Last month, in an effort to expand the police-community relationship, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department uploaded its mapping system onto its Web site ( www.keishicho.metro.tokyo.jp/ ). The color-coded map shows the incidence of crime throughout the city. Visitors to the site can see where different types of crimes like burglary, muggings, assault, murder and rapes occur more frequently, right down to the street.

The police said that at first they were afraid the site would attract complaints from homeowners claiming it undermines property values, but many citizens are actually demanding such information. The purpose of making it public “is to work with residents to curb crime.”

According to NHK’s “Closeup Gendai,” there are now about 2,000 citizen patrol groups in Japan. Considering the potential danger, one might think the police would oppose such groups, but according to NHK they approve of them.

Crime mapping is actually a fairly common tool among city police departments in the world, but Tokyo may be the first one to use it as a public relations device. According to Yomiuri Weekly, a similar system was used by the Giuliani administration in the ’90s to reduce crime in New York City. However, in New York’s case, mapping was used by the police to focus its manpower and resources more effectively. In Tokyo, the purpose seems to be to show citizens where they need to be more careful.

As with the traffic safety campaign, the police want citizens to educate themselves in crime prevention and by doing so avoid falling victim themselves. They do this by making their homes burglar-proof, avoiding certain areas at certain times, and being vigilant about suspicious people.

These are normal concerns for anyone living in an urban or suburban environment, but it’s assumed that such defensive measures go hand-in-hand with police efforts to prevent crime and catch criminals. In that regard, the police themselves are curiously absent from the Web site. The maps tell us how many crimes occurred in a given area, but not how many arrests have been made there.

Transparency has never been a virtue of the Japanese bureaucracy, and the police force is no exception. As a result, despite the storied image of the kindly neighborhood omawarisan, the police are generally not trusted. During and before the war, the authorities used “neighborhood associations” (tonarigumi) to report the presence of communists and other undesirables, so the idea of working with the police makes some residents, particularly older people, uncomfortable.

But even beyond the usual antiauthority sentiments that people tend to harbor toward the police, in Japan they are viewed as ineffective and even dishonest. When the National Police Agency recently surveyed people about a proposal to keep money collected as traffic fines at the local level, the majority of respondents said they were against it, believing that the policy would result in traffic-ticket quotas. Obviously, the police should be consistent about cracking down on traffic violators, but people don’t trust them, and one reason they don’t trust them is that the police are seen to be arbitrary in the execution of their responsibilities.

Money that is spent on superfluous safety campaigns might be more effectively spent elsewhere. Last week, a government white paper declared that the number of annual traffic deaths had decreased by half since it peaked in 1970 and attributed the decline to “tougher road traffic laws,” not citizen self-education.

The police often cite shortages in manpower when they are criticized for not fulfilling their duties effectively, but one has to wonder where their priorities lie. The Tochigi Prefectural Police have announced that they will hire a private security firm to protect children in the wake of a series of gangland shootings, saying that, with 700 officers assigned to the case, they couldn’t spare anyone to make sure children aren’t hurt, presumably by stray bullets. Maybe they should just give each kid a map.