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In low-crime Japan, some people find the cops too mild-mannered

April 20, 1997

TOKYO (AP) _ During his 15 years as a Tokyo police officer, Tadashi Kohara has never once drawn his gun.

In all that time, in fact, he has resorted to physical force only once while making an arrest: He pinned down a drunken man who punched him.

Like most Japanese police officers, Kohara, a chubby 34-year-old who looks more like Dilbert than Dirty Harry, rarely encounters the kind of violent crime that his American counterparts risk their lives to fight.

Most calls to 110 _ Japan’s equivalent of 911 _ are about shoplifting, traffic accidents, a mouse setting off an office alarm, an occasional brawl.

That means Kohara and other police officers on the street are seen more as community helpers than as tough guys battling criminals. And that is becoming the focus of criticism from a public increasingly worried about crime.

``Officers are kind,″ said Masako Akazawa, who runs a dry cleaning shop. ``But they don’t do a good job of preventing crime.″

While Japan’s crime rate is low compared to many industrial countries, there is public unease that serious crime may be on the rise, mostly because of the sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway two years ago that killed 12 people and sickened more than 5,000.

Government figures show 2.43 million crimes were reported in all of Japan in 1995, about 9 percent higher than five years earlier. There were 1,281 murders, just 43 more than in 1990 but 395 less than in 1986. The number of assaults dropped to 6,190 in 1995 from 10,808 in 1986. Thefts, however, steadily crept up over the decade to 1.57 million in 1995.

Yoshihide Kuroki, an official at the National Police Agency, contends the subway attack was an extreme crime that is unlikely to happen again. But he concedes his officers need to be reminded not to be too laid back.

``Japan is too peaceful,″ Kuroki said. ``What we stress is to be on guard and dodge the sudden attack.″

Changing the mellow image may take some work.

For instance, motorcycle gangs speed through residential areas right in front of officers, breaking every traffic rule in the book, knowing they won’t get stopped.

``We could catch them if we wanted to,″ said officer Norio Oshima. ``But they would get hurt and we would get hurt.″

Indeed, police on the beat devote little time to dealing with actual crime.

One recent evening on duty, officer Kohara played with a lost 3-year-old boy until his mother showed up. Later, he asked a homeless man to move from an underground passageway.

Kohara spent most of his time giving directions to dozens of pedestrians searching for theaters, banks, offices and stores in Tokyo, a maze of streets with a chaotic address system.

One woman going to a French restaurant even stopped him to ask about proper dining etiquette. Another man complained about a video game in an arcade that he kept losing at.

``It’s worth it,″ Kohara said. ``Especially if that person stops to say, `Thank you.′ ″

He is one of 24 officers assigned to the Shibuya ``koban,″ one of the 1,200 neighborhood police booths equipped with a tiny kitchen and a sleeping area where officers can catnap on a futon.

Kohara’s koban polices an area roughly three-quarters of a mile long and one-third of a mile wide containing about 4,000 households and 400 businesses. It sits outside the Shibuya train station, a site often swarming with rowdy youngsters headed for a night out on the town.

Most officers are assigned to the koban, which are the backbone of Japan’s police patrols. Japanese police are credited with using ``community policing″ _ keeping down crime by befriending the people in the neighborhood _ long before American law enforcement groups caught on to the idea.

People who lose their wallets know a koban will lend them bus or train fare to get home.

There are few complaints about excessive use of force by Japanese police. Officers are trained not to shoot unless they have been stabbed several times, and strict gun-control laws mean they run into few suspects carrying guns.

Nevertheless, human rights groups have accused the police of abusing the rights of some suspects in custody.

While Japanese citizens have the same constitutional right to remain silent as Americans do, there is no requirement in Japan for police officers to inform suspects of those rights. And detectives can hold a suspect for questioning without a lawyer for weeks, sometimes for months.

That can result in forced, false confessions, attorney Yuichi Kaido said.

``The Japanese police may not be as violent as the American police, but they can carry out long, exhausting interrogations in ways that don’t leave visible scars,″ Kaido said.

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