The Astonishing “Lost and Found” Culture of Japan

If you lost an umbrella, what would you do? Perhaps it’s now in a garbage bin or in the hands of a lucky stranger. Whatever the truth, many people assume that they would never get that umbrella back.

Unless, of course, you lost it in Tokyo.

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In this busy city is the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Lost and Found Center, which has a 4-storey warehouse filled with missing objects – all neatly labeled and cataloged.

“On any given day, about 800,000 items pack the four-story warehouse, with 5,000 new ones trucked in every morning for an annual haul of 220,000 articles of clothing, 30,000 mobile phones, 18,000 eyeglasses and 17,000 wallets.”

There are some items that elicit questions as well, such as wheelchairs:

“How did [the owners] ever get home?” wondered Isao Sato, a section chief. “Were they suddenly and miraculously cured?”

Even money is kept in the Center and is almost always returned:

“Consider that in 2002 people found and brought to the Tokyo center $23 million in cash, 72 percent of which was returned to the owners, once they had persuaded the police it was theirs.”

Take the experience of Tokyo magazine editor Mikako Kato, who lost her wallet 5 times – and each time it was returned to her. All her credit cards, and even large amounts of cash, remained untouched. Like Mikako’s wallet, around 75% of the wallets that were reported missing in Tokyo were brought into the Lost and Found center.

Sometimes, however, the money is left unclaimed for over six months. In those cases, the finders get to keep it. They can get really lucky, too.

In 1980, a man found a stash of 100 million yen – around $2.8 million US today – and ended up keeping it when it remained unclaimed.

But Japan’s honest lost-and-found culture doesn’t end with missing sundries and cash. There are also several projects aiming to reunite people with the objects they lost during the 2011 tsunami.

One of them is The Lost and Found Project, which recovers, restores, and returns photos that were swept away by the tsunami. “After the disaster occurred, the first thing the people who lost their loved ones and houses came to look for was their photographs,” said Munemasa Takahashi, the artist who leads the project.

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So far, Munemasa and his team have returned over 20,000 photos and 1,200 photo albums to their proper owners. The rest, especially the photos that were badly damaged, are exhibited all over the world.

More Than Just Objects

The thousands of items that are lost and found in Japan each day are more than just missing belongings. In the case of the Lost and Found Project, the restored and returned photos are part of rebuilding lives. For the Tokyo Lost and Found Center, its collection of deposited items are proof that a system that rewards honesty can work really well.