SAPPORO – Japan enjoys a reputation as a country where people can expect belongings left behind on trains or in shops to be returned.
Less well known is that the nation’s police have been struggling to handle a surge in lost items found by railway operators, shop staff and members of the public, with the numbers growing more than twofold in the past decade.
One reason for the trend, according to the police, is the growing use of smartphones, which along with related accessories, are often left behind. There has also been an increase in the number of foreign tourists who leave behind items they no longer need at hotels and stations, they said.
According to the National Police Agency, the number of lost items brought to police stations nationwide jumped to around 27.96 million in 2016 from about 12.72 million in 2007. The spike comes despite efforts to curb the influx of lost property, kept at police warehouses, through a legal reform.
In 2007, an 1899 law was replaced, introducing a searchable database of lost items, halving the period of time police must keep items to three months, and allowing them to sell off cheap items such as umbrellas and clothing if no one claims them within two weeks.
Train operators, hotels and shops — where personal belongings are often left behind — were also newly authorized to retain and dispose of such items instead of the police.
But only 106 business operators across the nation had stored lost items by the end of last year, according to the NPA, partly because private businesses are reluctant to allocate storage space or pay for disposal.
“Problems may occur over how a lost item is stored, especially if it’s something valuable,” said an official in charge of lost items at Hokkaido Railway Co.
One day in mid-September, JR Hokkaido employees carried about 700 lost goods into a police station in central Sapporo, including umbrellas, bags and items of clothing which had been collected at Sapporo Station over the previous several days.
“The number is relatively small today,” a police officer said. Dozens of cardboard boxes and plastic bags containing lost property were piled up in a storage room.
Last year, about 190,000 lost items were brought into the police station, which oversees busy districts and sightseeing spots in the popular tourist destination.
The items keep on coming — from hotels and commercial facilities — and they include belongings of foreign tourists.
“It is difficult to judge whether the items were abandoned or forgotten,” a senior official of the Hokkaido Prefectural Police said of the latter.
Some businesses are willing to handle lost items on their own, either as a service to their customers or simply for the sake of efficiency.
Keikyu Corp., which operates railway networks in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture, opened a lost and found center in Yokohama in 2016 as a courtesy.
In its first year, the center handled about 9,200 items, many of them smartphones. As people who lose something usually first inquire with the railways or facilities they used, a Keikyu official said the company can improve the return rate.
Takarazuka Grand Theater, which draws more than 1 million people annually to its all-women Takarazuka Revue musicals, has also taken the initiative. Much of the lost property at the theater in Hyogo Prefecture consists of small items such as opera glasses and handkerchiefs. By holding onto them, the theater can “avoid the trouble of having to bring them to the police,” a theater official said. If no one claims the items after a certain period of time, the theater hands them over to a firm for disposal.
Masahiro Tamura, a professor of social safety policies at Kyoto Sangyo University, said Japan needs to further reform its system for handling lost items, such as “introducing an even shorter period for keeping lost items and simplifying necessary procedures.”
One of the changes brought in by the 2007 law — the shortening to three months of the period that police must hold onto lost items — was based on the fact that most returned items were claimed within three months.
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