Dear Alice,

I have noticed whenever I pass a police station in Japan, that there is almost always a policeman standing out front holding a pole. Is this some form of punishment? If not, what the heck is the rationale for using manpower in this way? It would seem a better use of taxpayer funds to have the officer doing something more useful.

Nick T., Tokyo

Dear Nick,

When I got your question, the first thing I did was stroll over to my local police station to see if I could confirm your observation. Sure enough, right there at the front stood a handsome young officer, holding a very big stick. Sometimes the best approach is the direct approach, so I marched up and asked if he was in some kind of trouble. "Me?" he said, obviously taken aback. "No, not at all." He then assured me he was engaged in official police business called ritsuban.

Now before you add that to your flashcard pack, I should caution that it's not exactly standard vocabulary. It's not even listed in my big green Kenkyusha dictionary. And while it's written with relatively easy characters— the ones for "stand" and "guard" — the Japanese friends I tried that combo on all misread it as "tachiban." I did find "ritsuban" in a bilingual glossary of police lingo, but the English equivalent offered was "point duty," which is a term I've never heard before and probably doesn't communicate much to the average English speaker.

"Ritsuban" basically means to "stand guard." It's a practice that dates back to the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Japan set up its modern police system. But it's important to understand that the officers you've seen outside police stations are doing more than protecting the facility and watching out for trouble. They are also making themselves visible to reassure citizens and deter those with criminal intent. Most importantly, though, they are making themselves accessible and available for anything that might come up, whether a true emergency or a simple request for directions. In effect, it's like moving the front desk out onto the street.

Some readers might appreciate a word, at this point, about the officer's stick. It is called a keijō and isn't meant to support the body while standing, as people sometimes presume, but rather to fend off possible attackers. It originates in a martial art developed centuries ago by samurai of the Fukuoka clan to subdue enemies with a minimum of bodily harm. The keijō was adopted as standard equipment by the Tokyo police around 1930, and it soon spread to police forces around the country. Today, Japanese police do carry guns, but whenever possible they respond with less deadly weapons first.

You may have also noticed that police often stand out in front of kōban, the one or two-room substations found in neighborhoods throughout Japan. They are conducting ritsuban, too, even if they aren't holding a stick. To get the facts on this, I requested an interview at the National Police Agency, which is the central coordinating agency and sets standards and policies for police forces throughout the country. Hiroki Okita, assistant director of the NPA's Community Police Affairs Division, explained that ritsuban is one of the most basic tools in Japanese-style community policing.

"Every police officer in Japan, regardless of rank or specialty, has conducted ritsuban at some point in his or her career," he told me. "In Japan, our emphasis is on early intervention and crime prevention, through vigilance and close engagement with residents. The kōban is the center of that activity, and the first assignment for every graduate of the police academy is to work at a kōban as a chiiki keisastukan (community police officer).

There are more than 87,000 officers — about one third of the national force — currently working at the kōban level, about 7 percent of whom are women. The main responsibilities of a community police officer, as mandated by law, are to conduct patorōru (patrols on foot or bicycle); go out on junkai renraku (routine visits to homes and workplaces to offer crime-prevention advice, listen to residents' concerns and take down emergency contact information); and, of course, to conduct ritsuban. At kōban, officers can decide for themselves whether or not to hold a keijō while on ritsuban duty. Often they do without, in order to appear friendlier and more approachable.

Visible policing makes residents feel safer, according to Okita, and acts as a deterrent to crime. It's difficult, obviously, to quantify either factor, but communities do lobby regularly for increased patrols as well as keeping kōban staffed around the clock. And every year there are cases when an officer on ritsuban catches a criminal or stops a crime before it can happen.

Okita shared one arresting example of an officer who was doing ritsuban duty outside a kōban at a busy Tokyo intersection. He noticed an elderly lady passing by who looked tired and disoriented, so he approached her and offered her a seat inside.

As she was resting, he engaged her in conversation and learned she had just come to Tokyo and was on her way to deliver money to her son. The officer immediately suspected one of the so-called "Ore, ore" ("It's me") scams, in which fraudsters telephone elderly people and pretend to be a relative in urgent need of money to help them out of a jam. (Last year, such scams bilked unsuspecting Japanese of more than ¥40 billion). He convinced the woman to let him help her call her son, who, it turned out, had not contacted her and had no idea she was in Tokyo.

The fraud might well have succeeded if the officer hadn't been outside and noticed the woman appeared stressed.

"Ritsuban teaches an officer to be observant, and to become sensitive to even small changes that signal that something is not right," Okita explained. "It's the very basis of Japanese police work — the starting point from which everything else evolves."