Two of Japan’s most respected institutions — kiosks and koban (police boxes) — have gone empty in recent weeks, upsetting many who regularly depend on them. The shock waves are still reverberating around the country, but especially in Tokyo, where their essential everyday services were reported closed in numerous areas.
Those who rely on these omnipresent parts of daily life, which includes pretty much everyone at some point, may find it hard to believe that these familiar oases could actually go left unattended. Kiosks are microcosms of Japan’s super-convenience, while koban both reflect and ensure a relatively safe society. Both are too much a part of daily life to imagine really being gone.
Even though the operations at most koban and kiosks have not yet been reduced, the hassle of finding another place to buy a magazine or getting somewhere without clear directions will remind many that two of Japan’s most basic values are safety and efficiency. Whenever important symbols of a country start to fall apart, people should take notice.
The amazing efficiency of the kiosks is, if nothing else, a remarkable achievement, deserving perhaps a begrudging or bemused respect. Mini-economies in and of themselves, the kiosks offer immediate availability of goods in the best location imaginable. Geared toward those on the go, even newspapers are folded to be easily grabbed by one smooth motion on the run to a train. In kiosks, few human needs go unanswered.
Commuter-consumers know that wherever they wait in line, everything from an allergy mask to a white wedding necktie to a pick-me-up snack can be bought in a five-second transaction. People not need plan ahead too much because anything lost or forgotten can still be found, right on the platform. What kiosks really sell is a little spontaneity, and in a high-pressure, over-planned society, that is a much-needed thing.
Perhaps, though, times are changing. The competition from convenience stores and the transformation of train stations into shopping malls have reduced the profitable monopoly of the ultimate retail space. The rush-around salaryman lifestyle of the bubble years, too, has shifted. The demand for one-cup sake, and an energy drink for the ensuing hangover, may already be a thing of the past.
The kiosk obachan, surely the toughest salesclerks in the country, may even have to be replaced by part-time workers. Perhaps all they need is a marketing makeover, though it is hard to imagine kiosks stocking nose rings, funky hats or music downloads that appeal to fashionable, cash-ready young people. Kiosks seem caught in the middle, not only of platforms, but also of social trends.
Koban, too, may be less used and respected as they once were. Stories of found bags, returned bicycles and casual kindnesses are common, but in recent years, these small, passing successes have too often been taken for granted. Online map services have no doubt lowered the numbers of people asking for directions, but crime is a social trend that will not disappear soon.
It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that the koban system has worked too well to be needed, but they are clearly effective at what they do. Their diminished presence, however slight, would effect not just crime rates, but how people feel about their daily lives. Koban, like kiosks in a different direction, clearly contribute to the overall quality of life in Japan. The most effective part of any koban is its very presence.
While reports of mistakes and incompetence are well documented, the total lack of local police may be a recipe for disaster. Critics are right to decry the imposing, invasive presence of some elements of the police, yet the local koban is a symbol of Japan as recognized as Mount Fuji, a sign of assurance amid change and a point of reference on every map.
While consumer convenience and a regulated society spring from these humble little buildings, over-consumption and intrusiveness are the flipsides of the benefits. Kiosks encourage unneeded spending. Koban, too, seem excessively controlling, with maps of all residences and more personal information on local citizens than in any other country in the world.
However, protest against these sides of these two institutions is not the real reason they have gone empty. Mainly, profitability and personnel have conspired to let the services lapse. No more of these little boxes of immense helpfulness should disappear because of budgets. Some parts of social life should be supported regardless of profitability.
Koban and kiosks are already deeply integrated into public life, and remain deeply valuable. The ever-ready convenience of kiosks and the mental security of koban are two of the basic certainties of Japanese life. Without them, many people will have to go without clear directions or between-meal nibbling. Bring back the koban! Bring back the kiosks!
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