Last month, I withdrew some money — ¥100,000 to be precise — from an ATM near Tokyo’s Shibuya Station.
I was on my way to a meeting and was in such a hurry that, while remembering to grab my bank card and receipt, I completely forgot to collect the cash from the machine — 10 crisp ¥10,000 notes.
It wasn’t until I was paying for some pancakes after lunch that I realized my wallet was considerably lighter than it should have been and retraced my steps.
A telephone operator on the other end of the help line at the ATM informed me that no money had been handed in and advised me to go to the police.
I filled out an incident report at the Shibuya Police Box and recalled the sequence of events to an officer, who then made a few futile telephone calls. He handed me a case number and told me not to lose it. At this point, I was resigned to the fact that I’d just lost about $1,000.
At 10 a.m. the next day, I received a call from the Shibuya Police Station.
“Did you lose anything yesterday?” a voice at the other end of the line asked me.
“Yes,” I replied, somewhat surprised. “I did.”
“What did you lose?” the officer asked.
“One hundred thousand yen in cash,” I replied. “At an ATM.”
I went over the sequence of events again at the officer’s request before he said: “Money doesn’t usually have a name attached to it, so do you have anything to prove it’s your cash?”
I informed the officer that I had a receipt that showed I had withdrawn ¥100,000 from the ATM at 9:49 a.m.
“OK, please come to the station before 5:15 p.m., go to the Accounting Division, ask for me, and bring some identification and your receipt.”
I went to the station around noon and after filling out one more piece of paper, they handed me back the cash.
“I’d like to leave a reward for the person who handed it in,” I told the officer.
The officer replied that the person who found the money declined any claim on a reward and asked to remain anonymous. And that was that.
So before I go any further: Dear do-gooder with no name — thanks!
People often say how honest Japanese people tend to be and how often lost items are returned (umbrellas, of course, being the only exception — I think we can safely say they’re communal property). I’ve heard stories of shop staff chasing customers who forget to take their change down the street.
Mark Karpeles, founder of Mt. Gox Co., once the world’s largest Bitcoin exchange until it collapsed in 2014, also marveled at the honesty of many people in Japan.
“When I first arrived (in Japan), sometimes I’d absentmindedly leave my laptop on a park bench and I was amazed that it would still be there when I came back. Or people would run after me with the laptop and give it back.”
(From a cybersecurity perspective, a CEO who leaves his laptop on a park bench may not in fact be the best guy to handle millions of dollars’ worth of crypto-currency transactions but that’s another story altogether.)
So why are Japanese people so good about turning in lost items?
According to the Kyoto Police Department, people who find lost items can either return it directly to the owner or take it to the nearest police station. If you wait more than a week before doing either of these things, you lose your right to collect a reward. This encourages people to turn lost items in quickly.
Anyone who finds an item of lost property is entitled to three things by law.
First, they earn a right to a reward. Moreover, if no one claims the item after three months, the person who hands in an item of lost property becomes its owner (except when mobile phones, credit cards and other items containing personal information are involved). Finally, if for some reason costs were incurred in taking care of the item, the finder is also entitled to be reimbursed.
In fact, Article 28 of the Lost Property Act states that a person who has lost an item must pay a reward to the finder of between 5 percent and 20 percent of the value of the object. People who find lost property must request a reward within one month.
In my case, I would have gladly paid a reward. There is no penalty for not honoring the legal obligation, but who would be such an ungrateful cad?
Some argue that honesty is its own reward, but people who hand in lost property in Japan could potentially receive a little bit extra for their trouble. If you find a wallet on the subway, therefore, be sure to do the right thing — the pay-off is usually worth it.
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.