The Mystery of Japanese Integrity

If you’re a foreigner and you’ve been here longer than a few months, I’m pretty sure you’ve experienced this. You’ve been on a train, at a restaurant, out with your friends, or somewhere in Japan, and forgotten an item that’s valuable enough to make your heart sink a little. Now, I can’t say everybody has been so lucky, but have you ever gone back to that place and found the item exactly where it was? Or, gone to the lost and found to find that nothing has been stolen??? It’s so fascinating to me. What makes this country so different?

Let me start off by saying I’m not complaining at all. I think it’s wonderful, that people return things here in Japan. I remember my friend and fellow teacher, Koji finding money once, and taking it to the police station. I thought to myself “Now that’s pretty freakin’ honest.” With money, that’s not in a wallet, it can be extremely difficult to figure out whose it is. I don’t know about you guys but where I come from, when it comes to loose bills, there’s generally a finders keepers philosophy (you know…you find it…you keep it). If it’s an uncomfortably large amount of money, though, I think most people in America would return it (or just take a little and leave the bulk, lol :D ).

Now I know you can never generalize. There are plenty of Americans who don’t take things. I am also certain there are some Japanese people do steal. I mean there have to be some people who do, right? But I am so curious as to why you can leave something, even something valuable, laying around in this country, go back, and still be able to find it. It’s something I could never do in my hometown. When I’m in any public place in Georgia, I don’t leave ANYTHING lying around, because more often than not, it WILL get stolen.

I remember my freshmen year in college, I was studying for final exams and I just went to the bathroom, that’s all…the freakin’ bathroom, and a student actually stole my Biology book! During final exams no less!! Guess where I eventually found the book? At the bookstore! Someone wanted to make a few measly dollars by selling my book back to the bookstore for the textbook buyback program. I had thoroughly labeled my book, so it was very easy to identify. The clerk was nice enough to give me my textbook back at no charge.

But back to Japan. I have seen people pick up a person’s dropped item and literally chase after them to return it. I’ve seen it happen twice this week alone. I just wonder what that’s about. Why is the likelihood of finding your item higher than the not finding it in Japan? Why is it the opposite in many places in the U.S.?

I really would like to conduct an experiment, I’d like to put a hidden camera on a Japanese train car, and just leave an expensive item (like an iPad or something) laying on the seat. I’d just like to see what happens. I’d also like to do the same in America and compare the two. But I guess I don’t have an expensive item to blow, so I’ll have to hold on that experiment for a while.

I am a little stumped on this one and wanted to hear your thoughts? Why is the integrity factor so much higher in this country? I heard Please leave your theories, thoughts, and stories in the comments section below.

Donald Ash

P.S.-If you want the perfect example of what I’m talking about, read Alana’s comment about her Kyoto Shinkansen experience in the “An Accidental, Pornographic, Stinky, Ironic Japanese Train Ride” post.

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  • Petaris

    On my first trip to Japan I lost my camera lens filter case. Its pretty slim and looks a bit like a woman’s clutch wallet. It had about $120 worth of filters in it and I thought I had lost it for good. We went back and someone had turned it into the lost and found. I have also seen obviously forgotten bags or items on the train and people just ignore them. They will sit on either side and just leave the item sit where it was, even if the available seating is limited. Its a cool thing to experience. :)

    • Donald Ash

      Man, Japan is truly unique in that regard. Why do you think it happens like that, Petaris? Why is it that returning items (i.e.-not stealing them) is the norm here? I just can’t quite figure it out.

      • Petaris

        I’m not exactly sure why it is like that but I certainly appreciate it. If I had to guess it probably has to do with people feeling less entitled to things and maybe the lack of the finder’s keeper’s attitude. Maybe its just that they would feel too shamed if they did take something, even if it was left behind.

  • Wow. That is pretty awesome about Japan. I can tell you that in Colombia, whatever is left alone for 2 seconds becomes the property of someone else. My friends have left cameras and phones in taxis, and when they call, no one knows anything. It is really sad. I like your experiment idea, but I am sure you and your readers already know the outcome.

    • Donald Ash

      NIRA!! Big sis! I miss you!

      It sucks that you can’t leave anything lying around there. Which place do you think they take your stuff faster? In good ol’ Georgia? Or Colombia?

      You’ve been there quite a while, huh? Do you think you’ll make it permanent? I know I get that question a lot , so I figured I’d ask somebody else.

  • Taiwan is pretty bad. Cannot snooze on the train there.

    Yeah…Japan is amazing like that. And hardly any looting after the 3/11 event.

    Hmmmm…..dunno. Very strange place.

    But glad to live here. :)


  • Jess

    I lost my sobriety there after a night of drinking habu saki in Naha, Okinawa! Never did find it after that night, and I definately wasn’t chased down to return it! I may have been chased away though!

    • Donald Ash

      LMAO! I still haven’t made my way to Okinawa yet, Mr. Dillard, but I’m trying to go sometime next year. If you have any recommendations, please do tell.

  • Jesse

    Lost my iphone 3 times…. got it back twice. The third time I wasn’t so lucky.

    The first time it slipped from my pocket on the subway.. I went back the next day to the line I thought it may have fallen out on. They told me someone handed it in at a station a few minutes down.

    Second time I left it outside where I was staying.. It was there for over 12 hours before I realised.

    Third time was my own fault, I went out on the town without any pockets… derp.

  • ra kun

    it might be cultural or even genetic. i’m a 1/4 japanese and know the feeling. it feel good to know that you made somebody else’s day rather than then you have the thought of someone else’s despair at the back of your mind. when almost a whole country is that honest, to steal something would feel like walking down the street naked.

    • Kuran

      It’s more cultural and personal than anything else, I don’t have any grade of Japanese blood and I don’t like to steal things, it would make me feel bad. In my case, I can say it’s part of my personality and mentality, cultural? Impossible, I see what others do in my country.

  • Fiona

    I live in Vancouver, Canada and I’ve generally always found people to be very honest about other people’s things, much like you described Japan. I take ferries a lot and it’s not uncommon for a person in a row near you to ask if you will watch over their luggage while they go to the washroom or the cafeteria. I’ve even had complete strangers leave their charging laptops or phones with me (not that I could have gone very far with it)! It’s too bad that Georgia doesn’t operate the same way!
    But enough about that, your blog is fantastic and as someone preparing to head off to Japan, it makes for a very helpful and informative read. Thank you so much for all of the effort you put into it!

  • Brenton Stewart

    Superior People. Integrity is Key to Success !

  • SergioTakahashi

    When I lived in Osaka, me and my japanese friend found a wallet on the sidewalk and he said “leave it there, the owner will walk back the way looking for it”. Genious

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