Sunday, May 30, 2004

Strange and Little Known Facts About Tokyo

Lost and Found

With the ingrained philosophy of honesty and integrity, the Japanese have a strange but true system for a city wide lost and found. In each prefecture of Tokyo exists many separate police boxes, which are manned with between two and four policemen. The majority of these law enforcers do not speak English. In addition, each subway station, and in addition, each line within the subway station (could be up to seven different lines) maintains a lost and found.

In Tokyo, if an item is left on a subway train, or found in the street, or left in a restaurant, most if not all items are handed over first locally to either the police box or to the subway lost and found office. These items are then “held” with the name and phone number of the person who turned in the lost item for an unspecified number of days to await their claiming. They wait in a warehouse that houses on a daily basis 800,000 items, each item computer cataloged with time and date of the discovery and location, no matter how trivial. Eyeglasses, mobile phones, dentures, umbrellas, train passes, laptops, shopping bags and of course wallets and purses and jewelry.

The Japanese are exemplary in their honesty, with over 5,000 new items delivered to the warehouse on a daily basis. The most common item? Umbrellas. There are 3,200 umbrellas per average rainy day housed in the Tokyo lost and found.

Every year over 1.5 million items work there way through this complex system, and over $21 million cash dollars (yen), making it the largest lost and found in the world.

Street Names

In a city of over 12 million people, maze-like streets and very few English maps it is a wonder anyone can find anything here. Only about 20% of all streets in Japan even have a name. As far as I can tell, the second most important thing the police at the police boxes do (besides collect lost items) is give directions to Japanese speaking people on where other Japanese speaking people live. Each building has number, but follows no known consecutive numbering system, and a venture to a new location in a different prefecture MUST include a map (which is still pretty darn hard to understand), or a visit to the police box for directions. Even our cab had to stop at the police box - twice - in order to find our apartment house.

In Los Angeles, a city of comparable size, every street has a name. However, I am sure most Los Angelans don’t know where every street it. The benefit of street names? You can LOOK THEM UP ON A MAP! No wonder Japanese people don’t read maps well, they don’t need to. Not that it would matter much to me, an non Japanese speaking person, if the streets were named, as I can’t properly pronounce the names of the streets which actually DO have names. . .

Still, it’s impressive that anyone can find anything, especially the postman.

Vending Machines

I would imagine there is not a spot in Tokyo were you could possibly be more than 100 yards from a vending machine of some sort. Vending is big business. I have seen cigarette vending machines RIGHT IN THE DOORWAY of cigarette store. What is the purpose of this?

And, although the main products being vended here are soft drinks, coffees, and cigarettes, it is possible in some areas to find items such as toothbrushes, condoms, noodle bowls (hot), over the counter drugs, and batteries. Up until a few short years ago, you could even buy beer (what a rush for underage drinkers!).
This is a town that practically invented the mini-market/convenience store. If you’ve ever been to Waikiki Beach in Hawaii and noticed (as if you couldn’t) the plethora of ABC stores, you may have a slight idea of what I speak of. You can’t walk one block in Tokyo without finding at least one 7-11, Family Mart, Circle K, Sunkus, or AM/PM.

So why all the vending machines? I seriously have no idea.


Perhaps due to the major expense and downright inconvenience of owning a car in Tokyo, as in any large city, the majority of cars on the road seem to be taxi cabs. Entering a taxi in Tokyo in unlike entering a taxi in any major metropolitan US city I have ever been in. For beginners, the driver has an auto release for the rear door, so you don’t have to trouble yourself with touching a door handle. Secondly, he will be wearing white gloves, guaranteed. Third, you may be under the misconception you are the first and only fare this taxi has ever had, due to the cleanliness of the interior and still evident “new car smell” that must be available at a special taxi cab driver store as a deodorizer. And finally, he will NOT speak a word of English. Well, actually that third point may be a lot like the US.

With the vast labyrinth of the Tokyo subway and train system and the less used but still efficient bus system, I can’t understand why anyone would ever take a taxi in Tokyo during the day, unless it was from the airport and you would be reimbursed your $250 fare. The taxi’s are very expensive and must negotiate the ever present traffic. The trains are cheap, dependable and today, very sarin gas free.

The taxi’s and the subway must coexist together only because the subway stops at 12:30 AM, an absolute atrocity in a city whose nightlife doesn’t really get started until 11 PM, when all the salary men have finally quit working and adjourned to their local pub for large quantities of alcohol, cigarettes and hostesses. Thus, making the taxi the only possible way to return home late at night/early in the morning. If you are contemplating taking a cab versus walking (anything over a 30 minute walk, in my opinion), be prepared to shell out somewhere in the neighborhood of $30-40.

But after 10 pints of beer and a couple shots, who wants to take a chance of wandering around not finding your home until the train starts back up at 5:30 AM, what other choice do you have?


I smoke. I wish I didn’t, but obviously not enough yet to quit. However, it is estimated that 80% of al Japanese men and 60% of all Japanese women smoke. Not socially smoke, but consume at least 30 cigarettes a day.

Now, in the US, cigarettes cause cancer and are a huge drain on private health care systems and Medicare and probably attribute to over 60% of all deaths. The number one killer. Therefore, the federal and state government continually taxes our cigarettes more and more to offset these costs. And runs numerous, and in my opinion ineffective, anti-smoking campaigns. We all know tobacco is big business in the US, but the fact remains that less than 25% of all Americans smoke.

In Japan, the government keeps cigarette prices low (under $3 pack), and OWNS 50% of the tobacco industry itself, making cigarette sales one of the most lucrative incomes for the government. So, no incentive to get people to quit, but plenty to see more and more people partaking of this most addictive drug. More people smoking equals more money in government coiffures.

Also, in Japan, if your doctor discovers you DO have cancer, the vast majority of doctors will give you a placebo, tell you about your symptoms and SEND YOU HOME without ever saying you HAVE cancer. So much for treatment options at that point. Could it be the government doesn’t want to spend its tobacco income dollars of tobacco related treatments? Nah.


It is very strange for someone who has never experienced tremors to be sitting in their apartment on the seventh floor of a sixteen floor building and watch their drink slosh around in the glass and the furniture sway. Feeling the earth move under one’s feet is quite an unsettling feeling. Since we’ve been here it’s happened about six times that were extremely noticeable and the whole “deer in the headlights” feeling is unavoidable. Not knowing what to do and just freezing in your tracks. They say the best thing is to get in a doorway, but by the time I get to a doorway, it’s passed. Usually just sit frozen and pray it’s not the big one. Haven’t yet been on the actual ground and felt this, or even worse in the subway. Always seem to be in the house. Don’t know which would be worse. Maybe in time I will be outside when this happens and can tell.

It is strange, though.