My husband had a business meeting in Paris last week, and I went along. Paris is a beautiful city, a wonderful city, and we both love visiting there. We had a weekend before the meeting started to wander our favorite sights and streets, and then I went off on my own while he was working. We have been there often enough now, that we feel fairly comfortable on the Metro, and finding our way around — we know where things are in Paris.
However, our trip started off with a somewhat unsettling incident. We had arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport, and took the RER train, as usual, into the city. It is about a 40 minute trip to Chatelet/Les Halles station, where we transferred — luggage and all — to the Number One metro line to our hotel on the western side of the city, near La Defense.
We both are usually very careful about guarding our belongings: No wallets in the back or side pockets, purses and bags closed and secure, and being aware of the people around us. I have a slash-proof travel bag that I always use, and I had backed myself up against the wall of the train — at rush hour the train was crowded, and no seats were available.
After a few stops, a noisy group of teenage girls got on — 3 or 4 of them. One girl tried to nudge me out of my corner, asking questions (in French? or some other language, I couldn’t tell) and pointing to a subway map on the wall beside me. I moved a little bit, but did not vacate my corner. Then they were all over the place, still loudly asking the other passengers questions and pointing to the maps… to distract us all while one the girls started looking for pockets to pick!
My husband never carries his wallet in an easily accessible location, but after going through immigration at the airport, he absently slid his passport into the side pocket of his cargo pants. Luckily… someone else on the train was suspicious of the behavior of these girls and suddenly yelled “Pickpocket!” His passport fell to the floor just as the doors opened and the girls all ran away.
Truthfully, I don’t think they wanted his passport… I think they were just looking for wallets and cash, but it was an alarming “wake-up” for two seasoned, but jet-lagged and weary travelers. Something that has never happened to us before, and hopefully never will again.
I know pickpockets are very common in Paris and other large cities. The Paris Metro announces warnings at every stop in multiple languages (even Japanese). One does have to be very careful of petty crime in most big cities — Paris, London, New York, Atlanta, etc. But, since this is a blog “about Japan,” I also want to relate a story or two from here in Tokyo.
Certainly, no place is entirely without crime, and you have to guard your personal safety wherever you travel, but I have to say that of all the big cities I have traveled to, I feel the safest in Tokyo. And, for that matter, all of Japan. Just a few examples:
Twice, I have come across coin wallets lying along the sidewalk. Japan has a lot of coins — the smallest paper bill is equivalent to $10 — and many people carry small coin wallets. It is easier to have a coin wallet than to dig through pockets and purses to retrieve the right coins. So, twice I have seen these lying either on a wall or fence along the sidewalk. Someone has dropped it, and someone else has found it and placed it in an obvious location, so that (hopefully) the owner will walk back and find their lost property. It would be better to turn it in at the nearest koban (police box), but when pressed for time, the finder just places it in a conspicuous location. I have no doubt (truly) that every coin is still in the wallet. It is also the same with lost gloves, scarves, hats, coats, etc. They are hung on railings, or placed on walls and fences for the owner to come back to find. “Finders, keepers” does not work here.
In coffee shops and fast food restaurants, customers usually find a table or seat first, placing their belongings on the table, and then going to order food. The reason being that these shops are usually crowded, and if you don’t claim a seat before you order, you may not get a seat. I have seen purses, cellphones, packages, and even computers left unattended on tables in restaurants. No one bothers them. Period.
I have seen unlocked bicycles along the street with packages and sometimes purses in the the basket. I have seen little dogs and (yes) even toddlers left in bicycle seats outside of convenience stores. No doubt mama is watching closely from inside as she dashes in for some necessity, but no one bothers anything.
I have no really solid explanation other than that the Japanese (by and large) are a very honest and extremely honorable society. They truly value honesty and integrity. They truly want to do the right thing, and treat everyone with kindness, respect, and honor. Like I said, I am sure there are exceptions, and that there is crime to be found, but so much less than I have seen in other countries.
Japan is an amazing country — an amazing people, and an amazing culture. If only more people in the world could behave this way…