Kōban (交番), Japanese "police boxes", are the ubiquitous urban police stations of Japan.

Kōban are next to train stations, shopping centres, busy intersections, and residential districts. Called initially hashutsusho (派出所, "despatch station" or "local police station") in urban areas and chūzaisho (駐在所, "residential police box") in the countryside, their formal designation has been changed to "kōban" in 1994, with the word "Koban" displayed in romanized letters at the front of all police boxes.

All of Japan is divided into jurisdictions for police stations, whose areas are further subdivided into jurisdictions for police boxes. The approximately 6,500 kōban and police officers man 7,600 chūzaisho on a shift system (a three-shift system throughout the country, except for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department with a four-shift rotation). Kōban range in size from those in quiet residential areas with one or two men per shift to the over-50-man mammoth kōban found in several Tōkyō entertainment districts, which resemble small police stations. In 2004, a total of 45,000 police officers were posted at kōban and 8,000 at chūzaisho.


Captain Wilhelm Höhn
It is often stated that the kōban system was inspired by the Continental European model of policing that aimed at extending the government's reach "into every town, village and hamlet", a system that required a high-level of dispersion of police forces. The Prussian model drew the attention of the Meiji oligarchs. The Prussian Police official Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm Höhn was an adviser to the Japanese Home Ministry from 1885-91. After he inspected local jurisdictions from Aomori to Kagoshima, he recommended an increased diffusion of police forces to allow for more effective surveillance of the urban and rural population. The residential police stations (chūzaisho) were to serve as "snail feelers" (蝸牛の触角 katatsumuri no shokkaku), always alert and ready to react to a potentially unruly populace.

Kōban usually have an office with desks and chairs in the front part and sleeping quarters and storage areas in the rear or upstairs. Police officers (お巡りさん omawari-san, lit. "Mr/s Walkabout") sit on duty in the office area to assist callers and patrol the surrounding neighbourhood on foot or bicycle; in theory, they are required to visit each home in the kōban 's jurisdiction twice a year, a practice known as junkai renraku (巡回連絡) that has become nearly impossible to retain given today's social mobility and the anonymity of urban society. New police graduates from police school are always given kōban duty as their first assignment. In recent years, this rule has also been applied to female officers who used to be assigned mainly to traffic safety departments handling traffic offences such as illegal parking. Many police officers posted at kōban continue to work at the grassroots level throughout their careers, developing close ties with the local community.

Apart from their patrol duties, one of the omawari-san 's primary role is to give directions. Kōban usually hold excellent maps of each neighbourhood and are thus often consulted by people unfamiliar with a particular area. They also report crimes, take emergency calls and accept lost and found items. One of their more unpopular activities is to stop unsuspecting cyclists from checking their bicycle registrations.

Kōbansho in the Meiji Period
(Photo: TMPD)
Chūzaisho, which used to outnumber kōban about two to one, are found in rural areas. A typical chūzaisho is a small house in which a police officer (called a 駐在さん chūzai-san) lives with his family with an office attached to the front for handling police business. To an extent, the policeman and his entire family are responsible for policing the village community. His relationship with the villagers is often quite intimate and is considered the ideal of police-community relations. However, due to urban sprawl, many chūzaisho were transformed into kōban in areas near encroaching cities because of the increasingly heavy burden of police work on the lone police officer.

Recent developments and criticism

While many other countries have favourably reviewed the kōban model for contributing to Japan's low crime rates, it is safe to assert that in modern and increasingly mobile society free of territorial bonds, the "feelers" of the omawari-san do not reach so deep into their neighbourhoods anymore. A series of child murders in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the criminal activities of the Aum cult, have shaken the reputation of the kōban as an efficient crime prevention and early warning system. Isolated incidents where police officers stationed at kōban could not intervene and dissolve social conflicts contributed to the image of helplessness.

Reportedly, in the past, many female victims of sexual molestation and domestic violence were not taken seriously by male police officers working in kōban. Despite efforts to post more female police officers at police boxes, they usually do not work night shifts. Most sex crimes take place during nighttime. Ironically, the reluctance to operate more police boxes with female officers has been explained by the limited means of self-defence of the exposed police boxes.

A recent development is the so-called aki-kōban (空き交番, "empty" or unmanned police boxes), kōban without police presence, usually vacant during night shifts.

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