Dear Alice,

Having moved to Japan about a year ago, I have grown accustomed to the pleasure of living in a country where most people wear gentle expressions and polite smiles. Lately, however, I’ve been disturbed by an increasing number of fierce scowls! These come my way from trucks, including even the Coca-Cola vehicle that comes to fill the vending machine near my apartment. It’s not the drivers who are glaring at me; it’s a pair of very scary eyes on a sticker on the trucks. There’s some Japanese written on the sticker, which I suppose explains what the heck those eyes are about, but I can’t read what it says.

Gunter S., Tokyo

Dear Gunter,

I can’t tell you how relieved I feel! For months now I’ve been convinced that someone was watching me, keeping me under constant surveillance. When I couldn’t catch anyone at it, I began to worry I had a case of creeping paranoia. But as soon as I read your mail, I understood the source of my discomfort, and yours — it’s those eyes on the trucks!

The writing on the sticker indicates it is part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s fight against crime, so I swung by Tokyo’s headquarters in Shinjuku to see what I could find out. Hideyuki Sawamura, a police officer on loan to the Office for Youth Affairs and Public Safety, told me the stickers are called ugoku bohan no me (moving anticrime eyes) and are intended to encourage truck drivers to keep their eyes open for criminal activity while out on their daily rounds and report anything suspicious to the police.

Launched in December 2005, the program started with stickers on about 5,000 trucks, including 1,000 belonging to the metropolitan government and another 4,000 vehicles operated by public utilities and private companies. There are two main versions of the stickers: The one for municipal vehicles reads bohan patoro-ru (anticrime patrol), while the private-truck version carries the slogan hanzai o minogasanai! (I don’t overlook crime!). Both feature a big, attention-grabbing pair of eyes done up in the kumadori style of makeup that is used in kabuki plays to project strength.

The very boldness of those eyes makes the sticker a touch controversial, so it should come as no surprise that it was designed by none other than Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a man who doesn’t exactly shy away from controversy.

Staffers presented him with several designs intended to express the program concept, dareka miteru zo! (Someone’s watching!), but Ishihara rejected them all as way too tame. Then and there, he picked up a pen and sketched the eyes that made the final design, a glare so discomforting that many of the companies that had agreed in principal to cooperate were completely taken aback. Not a few complained, “Eh? Sonnano uchi no torakku ni tsukerun desuka? (Cripes! We have to put that on our trucks?)”

Somehow such reservations were overcome, because the stickers are now affixed to more than 100,000 vehicles in the Tokyo area, and these days companies come asking to participate.

“Almost every day we get a new inquiry,” Sawamura reported, “and an increasing number of companies are picking up the costs of printing stickers for their fleet.”

Readers outside of the Tokyo area may have seen the stickers because Tokyo has permitted groups in other parts of the country to use the design, ranging from a trucking association in Tochigi Prefecture to the Shiroyamadai Support Club, a neighborhood-watch group in Hashimoto, Wakayama Prefecture. But can something as simple as a pair of scary eyes actually make a dent in crime?

“Unfortunately, we have no method of quantifying how effective the program is,” Sawamura conceded, “but we do hope that the stickers have contributed in some way to the documented drop in crime in Tokyo.”

He showed me the statistics: last year, there were 244,618 crimes reported to police in Tokyo, continuing a steady downward trend in crime since 2002, when a record 301,913 incidents were reported.

“The stickers seem to empower not only the drivers of the trucks that carry them, but also residents who see the stickers and may feel safer.”

In recent years, Tokyo citizens have started playing a more active role in community safety: In 2003 there were fewer than 200 citizen patrol groups in Tokyo; now there are about 3,000.

Still, there are those who feel that Ishihara’s strong eyes come on just a little too strong.

“I’ve never even jay-walked,” my friend Itsuko complained just the other day when we walked past a truck with the sticker, “but those creepy sanbakugan make me feel like I’ve done something wrong.”

Those creepy what? Itsuko looked at me the way she does when she’s trying to figure out whether I don’t understand because I’m foreign or just because I don’t know anything. Then she explained that sanbakugan (written with the characters for three, white and eye) are eyes with small pupils that sit high under the upper lid and have a larger than usual white area, just like the eyes on the sticker.

According to Japanese teachings about ninsogaku (physiognomy; the theory that character can be evaluated according to physical appearance), anyone with sanbakugan automatically gets classified as having the worst possible character. Famous people with sanbakugan, according to Itsuko, include politician Yukio Hatoyama and TV personality Hirohide Yakumaru.

We walked a little farther and I asked, although I probably shouldn’t have, if Westerners ever have sanbakugan. “Of course,” said Itsuko smugly. “John F. Kennedy, for one. And Ringo Starr!”

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