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Image: Midorisyu on Flickr

Last week I did the unthinkable – left my iPhone on a train.

I’d just stepped off a Tokyu line express at Kita Senju in the north-east of Tokyo. Reaching into my pocket to check my Twitter account for the 76th time in 20 minutes, I found to my horror that it wasn’t there – nor in any of my other pockets.

There followed an agonising wait of almost two hours as the station staff phoned ahead to stations down the line to ask them to search the train – but at each one they reported that they’d just missed the train.

The situation was made a little more stressful by my losing my wife at the same time, but that’s another story…

Finally, the call came through – it had been handed in at Koshigaya station, some 12 stops down the line.

Would this happen anywhere else? I’m pretty sure that had it been the UK that’s the last I would have seen of it.

Initially, I thought that this was simply because Japanese people are honest and altuistic – but a tip-off from my friend who found the police knocking on his door six months after he’d claimed his lost-then-found wallet from the local koban (police box) prompted me to look into the subject a little further.

The reason for their visit was simple – my friend had failed to pay a reward to the finder of his lost property, and thus was breaking the Japanese Finders’ Law.

Japanese finders’ law creates well-defined incentives to encourage finders to report their finds and disincentives to misappropriation. To use Levmore’s (1986) finders’ law vocabulary, Japanese finders’ law provides a simple system of carrots and sticks. Japanese civil law provides that a person who finds a lost article shall deposit it with the police, or with the security office of the building in which it is found, if such an office exists. The law then provides two carrots. First, if the owner claims the object, he or she must pay the finder a fee of 5 to 20% of the object’s value. Second, if no one claims the object in a specified period of time, the object is returned to the finder (Civil Code [Minpo] 1896, 1898; Ishitsubutsuho 1899).

Japanese criminal law also provides a stick. Although Japanese law contains no penalties for nonrescue (a finder is free to look the other way from lost property3), a finder who misappropriates the property for his or her own has committed embezzlement and is subject to a fine of up to 100,000 yen and imprisonment of up to one year. I have found that while prosecution of adult offenders for the ordinary appropriation of lost property is rare, embezzlement of lost property is the second only to larceny in the number of juvenile cases brought by police to prosecutors (Tamiya & Hirose 1998:155), and adults are often prosecuted in particular situations, such as when the acquisition is connected with a more serious crime or when intent is particularly obvious. Even when prosecution is not initiated, the process of investigation in Japan is often a punishment in itself.


My (Japanese) partner however tells me that a lot of people aren’t really aware of the law (especially young people), and that it’s being handed in would more likely be due to the fact that that is the done thing. I guess ultimately it depends on the individual stance of the people who ignored it and / or the person who handed it in.

Whatever the reason though, I’m glad I was able to get it back so swiftly. Two hours with no Twitter access was almost more than I could bear.

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