There are around 280,500 police officers in Japan under the control of the National Police Agency. That is around one police officer for every 450 citizens, a similar ratio to that of the UK, but less than the US. Each of the 47 prefectures in Japan has its own police force. There are also special police units as part of each prefectural force such as riot police (kidotai), railway police and some prefectures maintain Special Assault Teams, trained to deal with terrorist incidents, violent kidnappings and hijackings. Recently a SAT force was involved in the capture of an ex-yakuza member who was holding his wife hostage just outside Nagoya, though one of their number became the first SAT member to die while on duty.
Most visitors to Japan will probably first encounter the Japanese police in neighborhood koban (police boxes) and standing on a small box with a big stick outside Shinkansen (bullet train)ticket gates.
The modern Japanese police service dates from 1874 when the Meiji authorities set up a centralized European-style force to maintain and consolidate its control over the country. A samurai police force had also been maintained during the Edo Period (1603-1868) to deal with civil disorder in the large cities of Edo (Tokyo), Osaka, Kyoto and other castle towns. The famous Shinsengumi, which was charged with assassinating the enemies of the Tokugawa regime in the turbulent 1860s, can be considered a forerunner of today's Special Assault Teams.
As Japan drifted to the right from 1910 to the 1930s the police became an instrument of government oppression and the Special Higher Police (Tokko) were formed as a highly-politicised force to crack down on political dissent and even "wrong thoughts."
After the end of the war the police were decentralized and the 1954 Police Law created the present structure of prefectural police forces under the aegis of the National Police Agency. Japanese police officers are armed and patrol in cars (black and white), on motorbikes, bicycles and on foot.
In general, the Japanese police are polite and helpful when dealing with directions, minor complaints and lost property at the koban level. However, with a conviction rate of over 99% for people charged with offences, questions have been raised about confessions coerced from defendants while in police custody.
Detection and prosecution rates are much lower for serious crimes in Japan including murder and rape. Prosecution rates for such crimes have dropped from 90.5% in 1995 to 59.4% in 2006 according to the Japan Times newspaper.
Japanese police rarely pursue a case if a suspect is not apprehended in the first two months of an investigation. Ichihashi Tatsuya, the chief suspect in the murder of a young English teacher near Tokyo last year, is one of a number of prime suspects still on the lam.
A cursory glance at the Japanese press or japanpolice.blogspot.com also reveals the alarming number of crimes committed by Japan's finest themselves. In 2007, these crimes included murder, fraud, embezzlement, DUI, perversion of justice, doctoring evidence, groping, drug use and illegal interrogation techniques amounting to torture.
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