Koban - Japan's Police Boxes 交番

Koban near Nagoya Station

One readily recognizable feature of Japan's streetscape are its police boxes or koban (交番), sometimes known as poliboxes. Koban are often located near Japan's train stations on main shopping streets as well as close to important government buildings.

There are now approximately 6,509 koban (police boxes) throughout Japan (2004 figures). Koban began as small shelters for Tokyo's fledgling police service in the 1880's back in the modernizing Meiji Period of Japan's history.

Nowadays Japan's koban are often known for their quirky styles of architecture: there are koban with owls on their roof, the roof as a spire (see image of the koban in Ginza, Tokyo, below) and koban painted in Mediterranean colors.

Sometimes koban are designed to mirror architectural styles found in a town as in the koban in Tajimi below.

Koban near Sugabashi, Tokyo
Sugabashi Koban police box, Taito ward, Tokyo

History of Koban

One of the newly modernized Japan's government advisors, a German named William Hoehn, oversaw a massive increase in the number of local police stations from 1,560 in 1880 to 12,832 in 1890 - an important part of the early Meiji oligarchy's firmer hold over the newly reforged nation.

The contemporary Japanese police service originated in 1874 when the new Meiji government established a centralized European-style police force to reinforce its authority over the country.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867) a samurai police force handled outbreaks of civil disorder and crime in the large cities of Edo (Tokyo), Osaka, Kyoto and other castle towns.

Koban are supposedly manned around the clock, though it is not uncommon to see the smaller koban left vacant.

Koban in Ginza, Tokyo.
Koban police box in the fashionable Ginza district of Tokyo
Koban, Ginza.
Strikingly designed koban police box in ritzy Ginza, Tokyo
Koban in Azabu, Tokyo.
Koban police box in the Azabu distict of Tokyo
Koban, Yagoto, Nagoya.
Koban police box in Yagoto, Nagoya

Koban Counter Street Crime

Downtown koban police box in Shinjuku ward. Tokyo.

Koban have been touted as the answer to rising street crime in several countries, and police forces from the UK and USA have had a look at the koban system.

The koban system has been adopted to a certain extent in some other countries namely Brazil, Fiji, Mongolia and Singapore.

Koban are often located near stations, banks and busy entertainment areas and are supposed to act as a community policing center: a deterrent to criminal activity as well as providing a rapid response post in the case of actual wrongdoing.

More often koban are used by the public to ask directions, find street addresses (the police have excellent local maps) and to report lost property.

Koban usually have a red light or a pair of red lights above the doors and the five pointed gold police star or badge. The five pointed star is also seen on cap and shoulder badges on Japanese police uniforms.

Koban outside Higashi-Nakano station, Tokyo.

The role of koban as a deterrent has been called into question after incidents involving people running into police boxes to escape a beating or much worse from the yakuza (Japan's mob), some have been dragged out from under the noses of the frightened Japanese police officers.

Koban are certainly not staffed by the elite of Japan's police force, more often elderly or young officers (female officers are not usually seen in koban outside Tokyo and don't do the night shift).

Each koban is usually staffed by a group of 4 police - 3 officers under the command of a sergeant working on 3 shifts of 8 hours under the control of the city or ward police station.

Kumamoto Station Koban, Kumamoto, Kyushu, Japan.
Kumamoto Station Koban, Kumamoto, Kyushu, Japan

In rural Japan, koban are replaced by 駐在所 chuzaisho (residential police boxes), where a single officer and his family live.

The architectural style of Japan's koban is predominately gray steel or concrete boxes, but Tokyo especially does have some interesting designs.

Koban at night, Taito ward, Tokyo.
Koban in Taito ward, Tokyo
Koban, Tajimi, Gifu Prefecture.
Koban in Tajimi, Gifu prefecture designed to fit in with the traditional black-painted wooden houses in town

Guide Books on Japan