Big brother is not watching you

I regard Sydney as a reasonably safe place.  In public I do tend to keep my handbag either tucked under my arm, or with its contents well hidden from view, but that’s about as much as I feel compelled to do to protect my belongings.

It doesn’t surprise me to see that my city ranks number 12 on a list of the top 15 safest cities in the world.  It surprises me even less that Tokyo is number one on this list.

Japan is well-known for its high level of safety and low levels of crime, making it an attractive destination especially for those travelling alone or with children.  Violent crimes and murders are rare and terrorist acts almost unheard of.  Respect for human rights is high and stringent laws prohibit the possession of firearms.

The 2010 Global Peace Index (GPI) compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) ranked Japan as the third safest place in the world, behind New Zealand and Iceland, countries with much smaller populations than Japan.

In addition to a superior level of safety and security, the general honesty in Japanese society is evident from the number and type of items handed in at Lost and Found counters in the Tokyo Metropolitan area.  In 2008, more than two million items were handed in, among which were umbrellas, clothing, wallets, ID cards and mobile phones.  The amount of cash among the lost property totaled 2.7 billion yen. [1]

We had barely left the airport terminal before evidence of this honesty manifested itself.  When handing over a banknote for a purchase in any other country, one can expect rounding to occur, usually in an upwards direction, before receiving one’s change.  Japan is not like that.  Expect not only to receive change, but to receive the exact amount down to the last yen.  Your wallet will soon be at risk of bursting with an accumulation of unwanted coin.

This environment seems to have fostered a relaxed attitude in locals towards personal safety and the security of their possessions.  In one of the busiest stations in the world, Shinjuku, we regularly travelled on the escalators behind people whose wallets were hanging out of their back pockets or whose backpacks were open for all to inspect the contents within.

And it didn’t stop there.


These bags on a suburban train remained unattended for a full five minutes while their owner was occupied in the toilet.  In some parts of the world, we would have hastily made for the other end of the train or, worse, tried to force a door and take our chances by hurling ourselves from the train before it blew up.  Of course, no such thing was going to happen here.  And the only people paying any attention to the bags were us.


Another example of temporary “bag abandonment”, this time in Starbucks at Matsumoto Station.  Again, the owners had disappeared either to relieve themselves or order a coffee.  Their possessions didn’t warrant a second glance.  Other than from us.


The tasting room of a saké brewery in Yudanaka, the bottles lined up on the counter for a self-administered free tasting.  We could drink as much as we wanted of the available range.  And we did.  The sales person was discreetly occupied in another room, available only when we were ready to make a purchase.  Even the expensive stuff in the cabinet was unsecured.

There is a down side to coming from one of the safest countries in the world, however.  When Japanese travel abroad, their lack of situational awareness can make them easy targets.

In the first few months of 2013, 10 Japanese died in an Algerian hostage crisis, three Japanese tourists were killed in February in a vehicle and knife attack in Guam, while two weeks later, four Japanese were among 19 tourists who died in a balloon crash in Luxor, Egypt.

An article in (the Japanese) Weekly Playboy of 25 March 2013 warned against taking anything for granted abroad and cautioned travellers to hide their wallets and credit cards, and above all to stifle their sympathy for animals and children who could potentially cause them harm.

Whatever happens to Japanese travellers abroad – and I don’t doubt that they’re savvy enough to become street smart – there is nowhere I’ve been in all my years of travel where the level of safety is anywhere near that found in Japan.

Well, to be fair…..perhaps New Zealand.


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8 thoughts on “Big brother is not watching you

  1. It’s a common stereotype, but it’s often said that if you were to drop your wallet on the streets of Tokyo it’s more likely someone will chase after you to give it back rather than run off with it! It seems like your experience is living up to that! 🙂

  2. It’s great being able to walk home in the middle of the night without having to worry about a thing. But the lack of situational awareness in Japanese…yeah, I’ve encountered that plenty of times. Yakuza, in general, only commit violent crime against other yakuza, so when I warned my students traveling to the U.S. about gangs they were completely oblivious. “Guys, yakuza may only bother other yakuza, but gangs in the states bother everybody!” I’m still not sure if they got the message…

  3. Coming from here, this post is almost impossible to grasp. Sounds like you’re writing about another planet…

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