Many Happy Returns for Lost and Found


This is where it all ends up, everything from bowling balls and crooked dentures to purses, cell phones and umbrellas. Welcome to the Tokyo Metropolitan Lost and Found, a veritable monument to the misplaced, the abandoned, the rejected.

Drop something in a public restroom or in a subway corridor in Tokyo and there’s a good chance you’ll get it back, here in one of the most honest nations on Earth, even if you don’t necessarily want it. And like so much else in Japan, the lost-and-found system is traditional, very well organized and rigorously maintained.

Although this nondescript building doesn’t get much natural light, the 34 people who run the institution can read the seasons as easily as experienced gardeners. Shorter days and colder winds bring skis and snowboards over the transom. Warmer weather sprouts surfboards and swimsuits. March--when most Japanese students graduate--brings stacks of diplomas, while June yields wedding gifts. And any time of year, a good rainstorm will produce 3,000 umbrellas almost immediately.


Clues to the nation’s spirits and prosperity can also be found in this river of castoffs. Recent tough economic times find more people claiming items they might once have written off. And smaller expense accounts relative to those of the flush 1980s mean fewer drunk salarymen are out on the town, resulting in fewer dropped wads of cash.

Also in evidence to those keeping track of the 1.6 million items recovered each year in Tokyo, population 11.9 million, are the cycles of technology. The early 1990s saw a rush of Walkmans and pagers. These days, it’s more likely a laptop computer or cellular phone, some of which ring plaintively from a drawer’s inner recesses until their batteries eventually weaken and die.

And there are cases with a hint of mystery, like the odd wheelchair. “How did [the owners] ever get home?” wondered Isao Sato, a section chief. “Were they suddenly and miraculously cured?”

Handling the forgotten and the forgettable is no easy chore. But like many other Japanese institutions, the Tokyo lost-and-found system relies on honor, discipline, detailed rules, bureaucratic oversight and public shame to keep people in line.

Any item found on a subway platform or national rail line within Tokyo city limits is sent here in a matter of days. Items left on street corners may eventually show up if local police kiosks can’t turn up an owner. Bags found with weapons, drugs or other contraband merit a police investigation. All told, about 72%, by value, of items turned in are returned to their owners.

Michiyo Moriyama, a 42-year-old nurse, said she never expected to see her wallet again. “I didn’t even bother to report it,” she said.

Within a week, however, she was summoned to come pick it up. It didn’t have any identification inside, but the staff traced her through a video rental card. Best of all, it still contained her $100 in cash. “I couldn’t believe it in this day and age,” she said. “What a great system!”

The most important ingredient in making this finely tuned service work is the Japanese themselves, most of whom are encouraged from childhood not to embarrass their parents or their community. Comparative statistics aren’t available, but sociologists say citizens here seem to be more diligent about returning lost items than people in other countries.

Ayako Ogata, a researcher with the Life Design Institute, a Tokyo think tank, attributes this in part to Japanese social conditioning from a young age, reinforced by the omnipresent neighborhood police kiosks, known as koban. “We’re taught by our parents to return items to the koban,” she said. “But in America, I understand there’s no such koban.”

Harumi Nakano, a staff member at the lost and found, also cites a national emphasis on teaching the equivalent of the golden rule: Think how you would feel if you were the one who lost something.

Bureaucrats don’t push the limits of human nature too far, though. To buttress this admirable inclination to do the right thing, planners have woven in some very practical incentives. By law and social convention, the owner of lost property must give 5% to 20% of an item’s value to the finder as a thank you gift. And if no one shows up to claim an item after six months and 14 days, it’s finders keepers.

This system--elements of which date back to before 1868, the start of Japan’s modernization period--has produced some eye-catching chapters in lost-and-found history. A bag with $89,600 in cash was found a few years ago and returned to its owner, although the staff can’t remember how much the good Samaritan received. And 20 years ago, the equivalent of $950,000 at today’s exchange rates was found; no one claimed it, so the lucky finder kept it all.

Many complain, however, that traditional values in Japan are breaking down under modern pressures. “Of course, the Japanese are human beings,” Nakano said. “There are always some bad people who don’t return things.” Only about a third of the people who claim they lost cash are reunited with it. Still, an impressive $23 million is returned to owners each year.

To prevent abuse and false claims, the center makes all claimants fill out a detailed report about who they are, what their item looks like and how and where they lost it. “It’s really a hassle to fill out all these forms,” said Yoshiteru Yamada, 17. If the center staff believes you, they hand over the article, with the caveat that you must return it if someone else makes a more convincing case.

Far more common, however, are unclaimed items. That’s when the center’s three in-house sleuths get to work. If the item is not listed in a claims database, the staff uses whatever clues are available. Wallets are relatively easy because they may contain driver’s licenses or bank cards. Mobile phones, likewise, can be tracked through the telephone company. Other searches may take more indirect forms. Once the search is narrowed down, the suspected owner is notified by postcard.

Lining the inner recesses of the massive, dingy building are metal shelves, drawers and carts, the contents of which are neatly itemized, dated and bundled. Wallets, purses, mobile phones and small bags live on the first floor; clothing and larger items on upper floors. Holding bags are color-coded: orange for articles from bullet trains, blue for regular trains, green for subways.

The most common items here are umbrellas--393,961 in 1998 alone. While 99% are never claimed, they are still dutifully collected and marked on the minute chance an owner shows up.

“Oftentimes, the owner is not really forgetting something. It’s more like garbage,” said Sato, the section chief, pointing to some cheap plastic umbrellas. “Unfortunately, though, you can’t just assume it’s rubbish.”

A back room houses large, unwieldy items such as boom boxes and golf bags, baby carriages and beer kegs. There’s a several-hundred-pound cash register collecting dust in one corner and a 50-gallon fish tank fully equipped with pump and lights in another.

With the flood of consumer castoffs coming in--an average of 200 cell phones, 470 wallets, 606 credit cards and 1,079 umbrellas each day--the center auctions off anything not picked up by the deadline. Proceeds go to the Tokyo government.

Katsumi Ichikura, a 52-year-old businessman picking up his $300 cell phone, said he didn’t care so much about the monetary loss. More important to him were all the contact numbers programmed into the phone. “I’m very happy,” he said.

And for homemaker Michiyo Miyata, 53, who lost a library book, the nicest thing was the knowledge that she could now finish the book. “I’d only read half of it.”

Still, the center is a bit too efficient for some, said Yamada, a high school freshman who came to get his cell phone. “I’m not really happy,” he said. “I really wanted a new one, but my parents made me retrieve this old thing.”