The unmarked envelope floated into the living room of the home in northeastern Japan, riding the wave of tsunami floodwaters. Inside, the astounded resident found $40,000 in yen notes.
More money has been found in wallets, paper bags, and other containers swept away from their owners and scattered across a landscape ripped apart by the March 11 earthquake. One woman found $26,000 in a purse she had spotted atop a pile of debris. One police locksmith opened the heavy door of a recovered safe to find $1.3 million in yen notes.
What followed is a testament to a culture of honesty and altruism: The Japanese have turned over more than $48 million in loose cash to authorities.
“People tell me they just want the money to go to its owner,” said Kouetsu Saiki, a Miyagi prefecture police officer who oversees the collection, identification and return of salvaged money and valuables.
It will never be known whether the less altruistic pocketed what they found. But add the $30 million collected from recovered safes, and Japanese citizens and authorities in the three main prefectures damaged by the tsunami have helped salvage a stunning $78 million.
Just as remarkable, authorities say, some finders have waived their right to the money even when the rightful owners cannot be found in a region where 25,000 people are either confirmed or presumed dead.
According to Japanese law, any unclaimed money reverts to the authorities after three months. It was unclear whether the government was planning to offer the uncollected proceeds to a general victims fund.
Police officers and firefighters scouring the debris recovered much of the lost cash, but individual citizens have also done their part.
“Everyone wants to help each other in any way that they can,” Saiki said.
The powerful tsunami in March carried away houses, automobiles and safes, dragging many of them out to sea. However, more than 5,700 safes have been recovered, many spotted by residents who summon police to provide the muscle needed to lift the heavy objects.
In privacy-conscious Japan, the names of the finders and the people who have seen money returned have been kept confidential. But Saiki says the stories continue to amaze him.
The recovered safe was the largest single find. The money belonged to the owner of a local company whose offices were swept away. All of the cash, police say, was given to company employees.
“He was so grateful to have his money back,” Saiki said. “He didn’t keep it but distributed it among his workers and their families. It’s not about personal gain here. Everyone has suffered in this tsunami.”
So far, all but $500,000 of the $30 million found in the safes has found its way back to the rightful owners, Saiki said.
Miyagi prefecture has also seen a high return rate in the salvaged loose cash. Of the $24 million that has been turned in to police in the prefecture, authorities have managed to return $21 million to owners.
Altruism and honesty among different cultures are difficult to measure and compare, but in 2003 a University of Michigan Law School professor conducted what he called a comparative study on recovering lost property in the United States and Japan.
The professor, Mark West, left 20 wallets on the street in Tokyo and 20 in New York, each containing the equivalent of $20. In New York, he said, six wallets were returned with the cash intact and two were brought back empty. In Tokyo, finders returned 17 of 20 wallets, all with the cash intact, and all but one waived the right to claim the money if the owner wasn’t found.
“There’s no evidence Japanese people have extreme norms of honesty,” West recently wrote in an email about his 2003 study. “It’s partly cultural training, but mostly the law urges people to hand in lost property to the police.”
Brigitte Steger, a researcher at England’s University of Cambridge, recently spent a month observing the daily lives of people displaced by the tsunami who were still housed in evacuation shelters.
She found that residents were driven toward honest behavior by what she called the social balance that provides the cohesiveness of any community.
“That social balance would be destroyed as soon as you’re caught stealing someone else’s belongings,” Steger said.
Saiki said the case that moved him most didn’t involve cash, but something more valuable: a set of lost family photo albums. When the owner saw the pictures, he broke into tears.
“His family and his home were all lost in the tsunami,” Saiki said. “The photographs in the safe were the only connection he had to his life before the disaster.”
Special correspondent Coulton reported from Tokyo and Times staff writer Glionna from Seoul.