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Community Safety in Arakawa

July 28, 2009

Far from the skyscrapers and bright lights of Shinjuku, where we had our last interview on community security and safety development (anzen anshin machizukuri), Arakawa-ku is a defiantly shitamachi (‘low-town’ or working class) area to the north-east of Tokyo just north of Ueno and outside the Yamanote-sen JR railway loop line that has for much of the last 40 years defined the boundaries of the richer parts of the city.

Bordering the Ara river and split by the Sumida river, it was traditionally a marshy place liable to flooding. It was also a place with a large buraku (outcaste) population and Minowa (in the north of the ward) contains the mournful Jokan-ji (or Nagekomi – ‘thrown-away’) temple, where prostitutes who died in the Yoshiwara pleasure district were cremated. The place has been hit hard by disaster. It was levelled twice in the the Twentieth Century, first by 1923 Kanto daishinsai (Great Kanto Earthquake) and then again by the firebombing in the last years of WW2.

Nevertheless, its rough, industrious, hardworking spirit has continued, and these days, despite the march of secure manshon (high-rise housing) down the post-war avenues, it remains a place full of small industrial units, especially recycling businesses and clothing wholesalers and manufacturers in Nippori, small bars and family restaurants, and lots of ordinary housing, even some of the last remaining dojunkai (early concrete public housing) constructed after the earthquake. It’s also the starting point of the last remaining tramway (streetcar line) in Tokyo, the Toden Arakawa-sen. I like it a lot and it’s where my wife and I have lived in Tokyo in the past, and where we still stay when we return (there will be more pictures in a later post).

It was natural then to turn our attention to the place as a case-study area, mainly because it is so different from Shinjuku and the other areas that have gained so much attention from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s recent initiatives. We met with three officials from the Community Safety section of the local administration: the boss and two guys who had been seconded from the city police and the fire service respectively. The boss was full of enthusiasm for the direction that Arakawa-ku has taken, which although they don’t use the term ‘machizukuri‘ is far more about real community involvement than some places that do.

The HQ of Arakawa community safety

The HQ of Arakawa community safety

Arakawa has no comprehensive CCTV strategy, although the police do consult with the developers of large new buildings on its installation. That’s not to say that they don’t have a certain degree of ‘CCTV envy’ of those places with the latest high-tech gadgets that Arakawa can’t afford, but they are not dazed by the glamour of cameras and are realistic about both the limitations of CCTV and the appropriateness of such systems for their city. Instead they concentrate on using and enhancing the natural surveillance capacities of the local communities. They make a great deal of use of volunteers, retired police officers and ordinary local people, who do their own patrols, including the delightful wan-wan (‘woof-woof’) patrol which, judging from the posters, involves mainly older female residents and very small dogs! Participation in the various community initiatives is encouraged through the use of techniques like professional rakugo (traditional comic monologue) performances in schools and community centres. They also run community patrols in miniature versions of police patoka (patrol cars), which not only look more friendly but unlike the US-style police cars can get through much narrower streets.

The cute community patrol cars

The cute community patrol cars

However these diverse community projects are being stitched together in quite an innovative way, with the use of small anzen anshin sutashion (security and safety stations), which are a bit like community versions of the police koban, the miniature two-person police boxes which dot the city. Indeed the officials referred to them as minkan koban (‘people’s koban’). These small help stations, staffed mainly by ex-police don’t just provide ‘security’ information, they also deal with social security in the broader sense, offering help for older people with benefits, for example. In almost all cases, they have replaced koban that were closed by the police. So one could argue that this is essentially the local authority being forced to pick up the bill for services that used to be provided by the police and at the same time is actually losing real police service. However, the strategy overall is a valiant attempt to make ‘community safety’ less an issue of exclusionary security and more one of inclusivity and community development, more a natural and intimate part of everyday life that does not involve new forms of external control.

Of course, crime isn’t really a massive issue here anyway. Arakawa has consistently had the second or third lowest crime rates of all the 23 Tokyo wards. But even since the introduction of these initiatives, crime has fallen still further from the relative high point it reached a few years ago. And hardly a CCTV camera in sight…

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