It’s not uncommon to walk down a street in Japan and see a lost items box. The Japanese have a reputation for honesty, and the lost and found system is legendary. If you leave something behind on the train or at the restaurant, it’s almost guaranteed that someone will pick it up and turn it in. Lost and founds in Japan aren’t like they are in most places. They’re more like a national database of everything left behind. And not just phones, umbrellas, wallets, and other personal items: everything. This means that if you lose your dog in Kyoto, you can just go to the local lost and found there, and they’ll help you find it. And if your dog got loose while you were on vacation in Hokkaido? The lost and found will even help arrange to get it back to you.
The Japanese word that refers to this kind of thing is “mottainai,” an adjective that describes something that has been wasted or thrown out when it could have been used for something else. This idea has been around for centuries but was popularized by Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, who encouraged people to think about what they were throwing away before actually throwing it.
It is astounding how many items are returned to their owners even though they have no identifying information attached to them. According to a survey conducted by the Japan Productivity Center, over 60% of items turned in to Lost & Found centres are returned. How do they manage this? There are multiple systems in place to help Japanese people retrieve lost items. The largest system is simply cultural. It is so ingrained in Japanese values to return any item you find that people will go out of their way to make sure things get back where they belong.
The staff at Japan’s thousands of lost and found offices work together every day to reunite lost items with their rightful owners. Often this means posting flyers or combing through receipts to determine who the owner is. If they can’t figure out who the owner is, they’ll hold onto the item for at least three months before discarding it. It’s not uncommon to see flyers posted on community boards advertising an item that has been lost, such as a cellphone or wallet. These flyers are posted by concerned citizens who have found the item and want to return it to its rightful owner. Those who post these flyers will usually include a photo of the item and details about how someone can get in touch with them to claim it.
The Japanese have a unique (some call it ‘positively insane’) attitude to losing things. The very fact that something like a lost & found office exists points to this particular cultural phenomenon, and it’s not just limited there: it’s almost impossible to lose anything in Japan. That’s not to say that theft doesn’t exist or that people aren’t careless with their things—it does. But for the most part, when you lose something in Japan, you’ll find it again, usually in the most unlikely places.