Japan’s reputation as the most crime-free of the major industrialized nations is crumbling. It has always been a relative matter and if any proof of the change were needed beyond the daily headlines, the National Police Agency has just provided it. In a regular semiannual report, the NPA announced that the number of criminal cases reported nationwide in the first six months of the year soared past 1 million for the first time since the end of World War II. But that was only the beginning of the bad news.

At the same time that the overall crime total for the period rose by 120,135 cases, or 12.1 percent, the number of police arrests was down by 281,073, a decrease of 20.1 percent. Critics are being quick to note that this has not been a good year for the nation’s police forces. A series of scandals resulting from instances of dereliction of duty, criminal malfeasance and coverups of wrongdoing by fellow officers has led to calls for major police reforms. A first reaction to the statement by an NPA official that the arrest rate has fallen because investigators are simply unable to keep up with the increase in crime may be that it sounds like an excuse for failure.

More careful consideration suggests otherwise, at least to the extent that it is unfair to expect the police to be able to step in and immediately solve all crimes, including those for which the victim is often partly to blame. These include pickpocketing, bag-snatching, credit-card theft, and bicycle and automobile theft, to name just a few. Despite the increase in criminal activity and the constant attention given to it by the media, Japan remains a country in which many people continue to have blind faith that valuable items left untended or unlocked will somehow fail to tempt the thieves, domestic and foreign, who are increasingly among us.

Calls by both the police and the operators of public transportation systems, for example, for at least rudimentary care with personal valuables continue to go largely unheeded. Wallets are left in suit coats casually draped on unwatched restaurant and bar chairs or hanging from hooks beside empty long-distance train seats, open purses dangle from customers’ arms in busy supermarkets and shopping centers, and bags containing large amounts of cash just withdrawn from ATM machines are unthinkingly tossed into bicycle baskets, while the rider’s attention is elsewhere.

While the rise in serious juvenile crimes such as murder, assault and robbery — up more than 30 percent for the period — continues to make headlines, until they personally fall victim many members of the public pay less attention to the rise in the theft of credit cards that drivers leave in full view on car seats and dashboards after paying expressway tolls, and then forget when they stop at a rest area or convenience store. As the police and credit-card associations keep reminding people, determined thieves are not dissuaded even by locked cars. Why help them by leaving the car unlocked and the key in the ignition?

What the NPA official who commented on the declining number of arrests actually appears to have said was that the police have maintained their arrest rate for serious crimes, but have been unable to keep up with the dramatic increase in theft cases like the ones just described. It is not clear what his definition of “serious” is, but the agency’s own numbers suggest otherwise. The arrest rate for crimes such as murder, arson and burglary also fell in the first six months of the year — by 11.2 percentage points for an overall rate of 65.1 percent.

Yet it is clear that preventable theft of all kinds continues to increase, probably abetted by the slow economic recovery. In the first half of the year, burglary cases rose by 23.8 percent (for 2,313 reported incidents) and robbery by 15 percent (200,277 cases). Especially alarming in a country where it once was common to leave the front door unlocked at almost any hour is the sharp increase in robbery involving the picking of door locks. The reported 13,886 cases represent a nearly fourfold rise over the same period in 1999. There were 6,311 such robberies in Tokyo alone, a 52 percent increase, often of high-rise “mansion” apartments while residents were out or away.

The NPA’s acknowledgment that the police are unable to handle the number of thefts now occurring is regrettable but perhaps not surprising, given all the extra demands being made of them. It has never been possible, even under the most rigid of dictatorships, for all of a country’s criminals to be apprehended. Japan’s police do a better than average job, keeping this nation remarkably safe. At the same time, the agency is giving the public a wakeup call: Seeing that crime does not pay is everyone’s responsibility. The times call for sensible property-security precautions, including, where necessary, the use of more effective locks and other antitheft devices.

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