If it can be lost on the teeming streets of Tokyo, it can be found in the city’s cavernous lost-and-found center, where everything from diamond rings to dentures and billions of yen in stray cash await their rightful, if forgetful, owners.

On any given day, about 800,000 items pack the four-story warehouse, with 5,000 new ones trucked in every morning for an annual haul of 220,000 articles of clothing, 30,000 mobile phones, 18,000 eyeglasses and 17,000 wallets.

“I’m not surprised anymore by what people lose,” said the custodian, veteran police officer Nobuo Hasuda, as he pads along the cramped paths between caches of wheelchairs, snow shoes, motorcycle helmets, trumpets, pornographic videos. There are banks of file cabinets labeled “Mobile Phones: April,” “Wallets: March,” and “Eyeglasses: February.”

As Tokyo celebrates its 400th anniversary as Japan’s capital this summer, there is perhaps no better testimony to the city’s rapid rise from tiny 17th century fishing village to megalopolis of 12 million people than it’s downtown lost-and-found.

“As the city gets bigger and people get richer, they simply have more things to lose,” Hasuda said. “No other city in Japan has a system so complex.”

Recently, someone turned in a martial arts suit for traditional fencing — freshly used and still reeking of sweat. “We had to wash it out because it smelled so bad,” Hasuda said, gesturing to the bulky blue garments strung between steel racks to dry.

Last year, about 1.62 million articles coursed through the center, making it possibly the world’s single biggest lost-and-found. Add together the coins and notes found in people’s lost wallets, and the center’s haul comes to 2.5 billion yen.

About 250 hopefuls visit each day to see if their lost keys, briefcases and billfolds are in the labyrinth of gray steel cabinets.

Resembling some sort of Salvation Army superstore, its basement is as big as four basketball courts and set aside only for umbrellas — of which 300,000 were stacked to the ceiling last year — about 3,200 for each rainy day.

A 2.2-ton freight elevator shuttles the smorgasbord of goods between floors, while workers on cherry-pickers snag items from the top shelves. Jewelry, computers and other valuables are locked away in a vault.

Typical of a country obsessed with order and detail, every item is scrupulously labeled with time and place of recovery, then computer archived — no matter how seemingly trivial. One Good Samaritan turned in a phone card worth only 35 yen. It’s now tagged and waiting in a drawer cluttered with half-used train passes.

Sometimes honesty pays off. Back in 1980, a single cash stash of 100 million yen went unclaimed, and its finder became keeper, Hasuda said.

The stockpiles of lost goods in Tokyo are so big, in part, because a national lost-and-found law requires police to store items for six months and two weeks. After that, the items can be claimed by the finder, or else revert to the city.

Items at the lost-and-found department of New York’s Grand Central Terminal, by contrast, are kept for just 90 days, though items worth more than the equivalent of 600,000 yen must be kept for three years. It has an average daily inventory of 4,000 goods and donates unclaimed possessions to charity.

Tokyo keeps the cash and sells the unclaimed goods to junk dealers, adding 295 million yen to its coffers yearly.

Both Tokyo and Grand Central claim a respectable 60 percent or so of lost items get back to their owners. There are other things in common: even in a supposedly mechanized and impersonal age, the people at lost-and-found will take the trouble to track down the owner of a lost cell phone.

Hasuda’s staff of 30 police officers tries to contact owners of other items whenever their identities can be gleaned from turned-in documents, letters, bills or business cards.

Tetsuro Takahashi was one of them. The center called his cell phone operator when his red clamshell mobile turned up there two weeks ago.

“I’m pretty lucky,” the 30-year-old said after reclaiming the phone on a sunny afternoon. “I had been drinking and didn’t even notice when I’d dropped it on the train.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.