Almost No Crime

Ask any foreigner who has been living in Japan for a few months what is his/her impression of the country, and most likely the first answer will be: safe.

Japan is a very safe place. According to latest figures it is also getting safer. Only one gun murder in 2015. Only 0.3 homicides per 100,000 people (US: 4; Russia: 10). Robberies are almost unheard of. I regularly leave my bag, phone, wallet, etc. in public places (coffee shops, trains) for a short while, not giving it a second thought.

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Does this mean less policing? No. Japan has one of the highest ratios of police per capita. The Economist published an article this week about the inventive ways Japanese police find things to do, because they are bored out of their minds most of the time. Here are some examples:

 

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Trumpet Safety

Japan is one of the safest places on the planet, which is another reason it is the closet place to paradise.

In a recent report by the World Economic Forum, Japan ranks in the 4th place, but that is mostly because it is a country prone to natural disasters. Ask any tourist in Japan what they like most about Japan and many of them will say safety.

Safety is ingrained in the culture here, sometimes to what may seem a ridiculous level. Here is a recent example. This 15-second ad, from a soft drinks company, has been pulled off the air after numerous complaints from viewers. Can you guess what the complaints were about?

Check out what happens at 0:08. The trumpet player on the rooftop is surprised by her friends, who rush up and bump into her. For many viewers, this behaviour is considered to be very unsafe. Tragedy is narrowly averted. Her teeth could have been slammed against the trumpet and broken. Or she could have dropped and damaged the trumpet. Or, worst case scenario, she could have tumbled over that fence (reaching to her chest, mind you) and plunged to her death.

We are Japanese; we cannot tolerate such reckless behaviour! Safety first!

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Pointing and Calling

Japan’s rail system is known worldwide for being efficient and punctual, probably the best transportation system on the planet.

Visitors to Japan are sometimes baffled by rail staff standing on the platform and pointing with their fingers in various directions, gestures that are sometimes accompanied also by shouting.

Here’s an example:

This seemingly mysterious ritual is there for a reason. Japan invented a system called shisa kanko (“pointing and calling”) which has been proven to reduce errors by up to 85%. This started more than a century ago, with train drivers calling out signal status, and was later expanded to include all rail staff. Even the Shinkansen (bullet train) cleaning staff – known for the 7-minute miracle – use this system.

Apparently, the physical movement and the vocalization of the task help in raising the worker’s focus and consciousness about the task at hand, thus reducing the possibility of making mistakes

This system is unique to Japan, where the culture permits workers to behave like this in public without feeling self-conscious or silly and without being laughed at by others. I am not aware of other countries where such a system would work (a limited version of it is supposedly used by New York’s subway drivers).

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

 

Lost Property

What happens when you lose something in Japan? Say you drop your wallet, or forget your laptop, or neglect to take the cash from the ATM. In most cases, you get it back.

What you do is call the place you misplaced or lost the item. Chances are someone found it and turned it over to the police. You go to the police station, fill out a report, prove the item is yours – and you get it back. If the item has not been found, you still file the report and wait. In most cases it will be found and handed to the police within a few days.

Yes, that includes lost cash. You don’t believe me? Read this recent article from the Japan Times. Granted, sometimes the bureaucracy of proving the item is yours can be a little irritating, but you do get your property back at the end of the day.

A few personal experiences. Many years ago, my son left his favorite baseball cap in a taxi in Tokyo. We called the taxi company, they located the driver, and he drove to our home and handed us the cap. Around the same time I forgot my coat on the subway. The station called the last station of the line and the coat was put on a train heading back to where I was waiting. A couple of years ago I forgot my mobile phone on the Shinkansen (bullet train). A colleague called Japan Railways, the phone was located at the end stop, hundreds of miles away, and was hand-delivered to my home a couple of days later for a fee of $5.

This works because most Japanese are honest. It also works because there is a reward for those who return property, and the owner must pay out that reward. In most cases the finder declines the reward.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

 

Oversized Garbage

I took these photos on one of my morning walks in Kobe last week:

In Japan, garbage that doesn’t fit into the standard 45-liter garbage bags is defined as oversized garbage (sodai gomi).

In most places, to dispose of this garbage you need to call a special number and get a specific pick-up date. In busy times, such as after the new-year cleaning, there can be a 2-3 weeks wait… After the date is fixed, you need to go to a government office or an authorized shop (usually a convenience store) and buy a sticker in the amount appropriate for the garbage you are throwing away. In the photos above, the disposal cost for the piece of furniture is 900 Yen (about $7.5) and for the suitcase 300 Yen (about $2.5). The sticker goes on the garbage, which is taken out on the morning of the appointed date (and not earlier).

Now, while this may seem a little burdensome (and it is), the end result has two main benefits: the streets are free of garbage people just throw away, and most of this garbage gets recycled.

An interesting twist to this policy is that nowadays most prefectures do not allow people to simply take this garbage from the street if they like it, unless they get permission from the person who threw it away. Rest assured that the one of the ever-watchful old ladies of the neighborhood will catch you trying and reprimand you. In the bubble days of the 1980s this policy did not exist, and many people furnished their houses by picking up sodai gomi furniture and appliances from the street…

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Train Schedule

I took this photo at Shinagawa station in Tokyo. It shows the upcoming Shinkansen (bullet train) departures.

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At the bottom is a notice, in Japanese and in English, about a planned suspension of service. The trains will stop for 1 hour on Dec. 18, for safety checks.

The interesting part is that I took this photo on Nov. 29. Fully three weeks in advance (and probably longer) of the planned 1-hour suspension in service.

This is a great example of the almost impeccable train service in Japan, especially the Shinkansen lines. Punctuality is of utmost importance, so meticulous planning – such as this scheduled safety check – is de rigeur. Sometimes this fervor for punctuality can lead to tragic consequences, but mostly it leads to unparalleled predictability in train schedules. In fact, the average annual delay in Shinkansen trains, country-wide, is less than 1 minute (!). That’s on a network that transports more than 350 million passengers annually over almost 3,000 kilometers of lines.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Restaurant Seats

This is a photo I took at a Tokyo restaurant yesterday, Sunday lunch time:

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People line up to order their salad, pay, pick up their order and then, if they choose to eat in, they take a seat at one of several tables. So far so good.

Now note the two empty seats at the table, near the end of the line. The restaurant was full, and these were they only seats available. With about eight people standing in line, it is clear that those at the end of the line will likely not have a seat by the time they finish the ordering process.

What would typically happen in such cases? Those people at the end of the line, conveniently standing next to the empty seats, would try to first grab these seats, putting their coat or bag on the chairs, and only then proceed to order. Right?

Well, not in Japan. The people standing next to the two empty seats will (mostly) not grab them. Other people got there first, so it’s only right those people should have the seats. It’s called good manners.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Candles

Tealight candles are just tealight candles, right?

When we moved to Japan, we brought lots of stuff with us from Israel, including tealight candles for using as Shabbat candles:

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When those ran out, we bought the ubiquitous GLIMMA tealight candles from the local Ikea store:

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Then, when the Ikea candles ran out I ordered tealight candles from Amazon Japan. This time from a local Japanese manufacturer called Kameyama:

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And that’s when I realized tealight candles are not all made the same.

Candle wicks are made of cotton, which catch light immediately but are sometimes hard to light up because they droop. (Those who bought cheap Hanukkah candles in Israel will know exactly what I mean). So many candle makers will pour a little hot wax on the wicks during the manufacturing process, so that when the wax dries the wick is straight and doesn’t droop. It makes it easier to apply a flame to the wick this way, but it also takes a second or so longer for the flame to melt through the wax and light the wick. Both the Israeli and Ikea tealight candles have waxed wicks.

But the Japanese manufacturer, Kameyama, characteristically took this a tiny step further. When they wax the wick, they leave a tiny portion on the top un-waxed. This results in a wick that is both straight but also lights up instantly, because the flame catches the unexposed cotton wick immediately.

Ahh… the small things in life.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Going to the Doctor

Today I needed to see two doctors: a GP and a dermatologist. Nothing serious, just standard stuff.

The GP’s office is 1 minute from my home by bicycle; the dermatologist’s 5 minutes. At both places I just walked in, no appointment. At the GP’s there was one person before me, so I waited 5 minutes; at the dermatologist’s there was nobody, so zero wait. At the GP’s I needed a general checkup, including an ECG, and it took 15 minutes. At the dermatologist I needed something looked at, and it took 5 minutes.

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So within less than 1 hour after deciding to go see these two doctors (a decision I made only this morning), I was done.

I paid 4,000 yen ($35) at the GP’s, more than usual because he had to fill out forms for my health insurer abroad. I paid 3,300 yen ($29) at the dermatologist’s, which included medicine. Japan’s national health system has a co-pay element, which is a bit higher than in other countries, but much less than in most countries.

(By the way, last time I visited Israel I wanted to see a dermatologist. There are no walk-ins and the earliest appointment I was offered was 3 months away. I would have gladly paid $30 for an immediate appointment…)

While I wouldn’t necessarily trust Japan’s medical system for complicated stuff, for the regular day-to-day medical needs it is a very convenient and efficient system.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Sinkhole

A couple of weeks ago, a large sinkhole (30m x 30m, 15m deep) opened up in a major crossing in Fukuoka, the 8th largest city in Japan. Apparently this happened following work on an underground line nearby.

How long did it take to fix the sinkhole and re-open the road? One week.

 

Actually, it took only two days to fix the sinkhole, but authorities took another few days to conduct safety checks before authorizing the repair.

As the British newspaper The Guardian put it, this was “a typical demonstration of Japanese workmanship and efficiency”.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)