Using police stations in Japan can be a challenging experience as there are a lot of tricky words and phrases that are only used in a police station context. For a start, simply distinguishing the two types of police stations can be tricky as learners will likely encounter both 交番 and 警察署.
The 交番 are the small police boxes where police officers deal with the common crimes such as すり (stealing bags/ wallets) and 暴力 (violence). As a general rule, most foreign people will never see the larger police stations (警察署) the entire time they are in Japan, as the place is mostly used for bigger crimes.
Therefore for most learners, the 交番 is the place that most foreign people should be the most familiar with. As well as being a place to report crimes, the 交番 performs many other unexpected functions too:
1. Handing in a lost item
財布を見つけた (I found a wallet)
One of the problems with the police system in Japan is that it is a bureaucrat’s dream: a dated entity where form-filling and pencil-pushing are elevated to a fine art. Simply going into the 交番 with a wallet that you found on the street can involve the best part of 30 minutes worth of paper work and a level of detail that from bordering on the ridiculous has strayed deep into the land of the absurd.
Because of this many people will choose simply to rush the encounter. In an effort to avoid filling out forms, I have seen the even most respectable Japanese businessmen create a false sense of urgency by describing their “immediate plans” and then rushing out of the station as if their lives depended on it… only to be seen a few minutes later sitting by themselves in a nearby bar.
The other option is to simply grin and bear it. There is an upside to this option as Japanese people are expected to compensate the finder of their wallet. This is called a 謝礼金 and is typically 10% or so of the money recovered. I had no idea about this rule when I first came to Japan and simply handed in a bag that I found on the street. Imagine my surprise when a week later an incredibly grateful businessman come around to my apartment and gave me 30,000 yen and some 和菓子 (Japanese sweets)!
2. Borrowing money
お金を貸してくれませんか？ (Could you possibly lend me some money?)
The police are also strangely ok with loaning out money. If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of a crime or even lost and penniless, you can actually loan money from the 交番 and simply repay it later. Naturally there are limits to the amount of money you can borrow but this can definitely help you out in a fix.
3. Asking for directions
駅の行き方を教えて下さい (Could you please tell me how to get to the station?)
Another function of the 交番 is to give directions. You’d be surprised how even the most stony-faced police officer can suddenly turn into an extremely polite guide when you ask them for directions. Be forewarned that some officers will overdo it and will insist on showing you on one of their painstakingly detailed maps when a simple point in the right direction would do.
4. Claiming insurance
事故に遭いました (There was an accident)
In the case of an accident, it is worth visiting the station if there was any damage or injury. Of course, any kind of liability or possible claim will involve a baffling amount of official paperwork. Unfortunately this is one of those situations where you will have to grin and bear it as these documents will be essential in the event of an insurance claim.
5. Reporting a crime
Of course, there are other terms that you need to be aware of. To prepare yourself it is worth learning the vocabulary that refers to each of the major crimes that you are most likely to encounter:
- (財布を)盗まれました : (My wallet) was stolen
- すり: pickpocket/ bagsnatcher
- 暴力 : violence
- 叩いた : attacked
- 暴走族 : a biker gang
- 痴漢に遭いました : I encountered a groper on the train
Hopefully, you will never have to learn these words or any of the more serious ones.
Encounters with the 警察 vary greatly, but the 交番 is a major feature of Japan, one that foreign people should not be intimidated by. If in doubt, simply ask for an English speaker英語が話せる方いらっしゃいますか as most stations have access to a translator even if only by phone.