A kōban (交番 kōban?) is a small neighborhood police station found in Japan. Kōban also refers to the smallest organizational unit in today's Japanese police system. In addition to central police stations, Japanese uniformed police work is done from small buildings located within the community, a form of community policing. As of 2007[update], there are about 6,000 kōban all over Japan. Since the 1990s, many of them are found with signs in Roman letters: "Koban".
A kōban is typically a two-storied housing with a couple of rooms (although there is wide variation), with from one to more than ten police officers. The officers in these buildings can keep watch, respond to emergencies, give directions, and otherwise interact with citizens on a more intimate basis than they could from a more distant station. Although often translated to English as "police box", the kōban bears little resemblance to the British police box.
The name kōban derives from the name of the earliest structure built in 1874, which were indeed simple boxes meant for standing watch (立番 tachiban?) in rotation (交替 kōtai?), thus creating a compound word consisting of kō (交?) and ban (番?). Soon after, in 1881, kōban were transformed into local community stations with as many as six officers and a new official name Hashutsujo (派出所?) was given to it — although its common name, "kōban" survived. "Kōban" was further systematized and spread out nationwide, playing an important role in the Japanese police system over decades. It was in 1994 when once again the official name of Hashutsujo (派出所?) was changed back to kōban. One of the issues recognized in the last several years as most significant around the kōban system was the existence of aki-kōban (空き交番?, un-manned stations). According to the National Police Agency, this issue was addressed and solved by 2007.
Police officers stationed at kōban serve several roles:
- Maps and directions – providing maps and directions to local addresses, sometimes even personally guiding those unfamiliar with local street layouts and addressing schemes. Additionally, officers can refer people to local hotels, restaurants, and other businesses.
- Lost and found – accepting reports of lost items and accepting found items from members of the public and, if a matching lost item is turned in, notifying the owner of the item to come pick up the item.
- Crime reports – taking police reports, typically for property crimes such as theft and burglary.
- Emergency services – dialing the emergency telephone number "110" in the case of police, fire, or medical emergency. Direct contact can be made with the kōban and assistance will be dispatched.
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