How the Japanese Police Stole my Bike

It was just a matter of time before I got arrested in Japan.

Well, I mean “arrested” is a pretty vague term, don’t you think?  I think so.  You know, like if you’re stopped for, let’s just say, stealing a bicycle, that’s not really arrested.  That’s more like “detained.”  Anyway, that’s my story.  So maybe I was simply detained.  Okay, let’s just agree there are some gray areas.

And my Sunday started so well, too.  As always, I was at Starbucks.  My days are bookends of mornings in Starbucks and evenings in boozy izakaya.  The middle of the day is reserved for naps, and occasionally working.  Or my favorite, napping at work.  Anyway, it’s important to start the day with a giant coffee, to flush all the previous night’s libations from the ol’ liver as soon as possible.  Then somehow evenings always seem to involve some old Japanese geezer pouring me glasses of potato shochu while telling me all about his wife and girlfriend.  Why my days are like this, Hey, it’s a mystery.  Anyway, it’s good to have a steady routine.  Nothing like consistency for one’s constitution.

Writing a Japanese Resume

So I had this enormous black coffee, and I was writing my resume.  And actually “writing,” like using a pen.  On paper.  To write things.  Remember the Middle Ages, with monks?  Okay, well, me neither, but that’s about how advanced Japan is sometimes.  Like you’d think it’d be this great technological country with musical toilets or something, but really there’s only about three people in the entire nation who even know what Wikipedia is, and you have to write your resume in Japanese by hand—work history, essay questions, the whole bit.   And if you blow even one stroke of one character, you have to start all over again, from scratch.  Somebody ought to introduce the Japanese to the concept of Wite-Out, really.  It took me about four hours to finish the first masterpiece page.  I brought a dozen copies of the form, which was good because I’d be almost done, and then some miswiring between brain and hand would cause a random pen mark, and boom, I’d have to start all over again.  I messed up Japanese.  I messed up my own name in English.  I even screwed up numbers.  Crap, using a pen is seriously hard.  Try it sometime.  Okay, maybe it’s just me, but anyway the second page went even worse, to the point where I managed to botch all twelve copies, and had to head to 7-Eleven to print off a few more.  That’s the awesome thing about Japan–you can copy, print and fax from any 7-Eleven.  Plus buy beer there.  What a great country.

My Spidey Sense Tingles

So as I left to bike down to the convenience store, that’s when the dragnet closed in.

The amazing thing about me is that I can spot a cop a mile away.  People talk about gay-dar, like when you know someone’s gay.  I don’t have that.  Everyone in this country looks pretty gay to me actually, so whatever.  But cop-dar, man, I’ve got that for days.  And when I started to unlock my bike, I saw these two guys standing nearby, looking like they were trying not to look at me.  They had ordinary jeans and average pullover tops and normal haircuts, and in one second, I was like, Damn, undercover cops again.

The truth is, the Japanese undercover cops stop me on my bike all the time.  The first time was when this young guy ran beside me and held up a badge.

“Excuse me!”  He said in Japanese.  “Can I talk with you about your bicycle for a minute?”

Racism!  Knew it.  I stopped my bike.  “What?  A white man can’t have a bicycle?” I snapped.  Hey, I know my rights.  Well, actually I don’t, but I’m pretty sure it’s okay to ride a bike.

“No,” he said, “you don’t have a registration sticker.  We stop anyone without one.”  He seemed a little embarrassed.

“Oh.  Well.  That’s different,” I said.  Now I was embarrassed too.  “Sorry, I’ll get one.”  Probably an attitude adjustment would be in order as well.

But of course, because my default mode is set to Lazy as Eff, I never went to the trouble of getting one.  A sticker, that is.  A couple of beers and half a bottle of shochu fixed the old attitude right up.  So as a consequence, pretty soon I was being stopped by undercover cops on a weekly basis.  They’d hold up a badge, I’d say “I know, get a sticker, I know,” and I’d be on my way.  I also noticed that they did indeed stop everybody, regardless of race, which restored my faith in humanity, plus reinforced the fact that I’ve descended into paranoia.  Anyway, all this being stopped soon imbued me with the superpower of detecting undercover cops at a single glance.

How the Arrest Went Down

So when these two guys approached me in front of Starbucks, I didn’t even wait for them to produce their badges.

“Police, right?” I said.

“You know you need a registration sticker, don’t you?”

“‘I’m on my way to get one right now.”

Two more undercover cops appeared.  It was starting to become a scene.  I looked up at the coffee shop—it’s a two-story place with all these big windows—and there was a sea of Japanese eyes staring out at me.  Jeez, that’s a little embarrassing.

The one cop bent down and read the serial number off the bike frame.  They do this.  Then they call it in on their radios, to make sure the bike isn’t stolen.  This happens a lot.

But then another cop actually got on the ground and put his face right next to the frame and started rubbing it.  I was like, What the hell’s he doing?  Can we not make a scene in front of the place I buy my coffee every day?

“This serial number’s been altered,” he said.  “See this E?  It used to be an F.”

“Get the hell out,” I said.  I dropped to the sidewalk too, along with another cop.  So now there’s three guys on their hands and knees like they’re praying to this bicycle in front of Starbucks.  I glanced up and all the customers were pressed to the windows, wide-eyed.

Well, damned if he wasn’t right.  “You’ve got some amazing vision,” I said.

One Tin Soldier Rides Away

Then two more undercover cops appeared from out of nowhere.  Is everybody in this country a cop?  Jeez.  They surrounded me and started asking me questions.  When did you buy the bike?  Do you have the receipt?  Can you eat natto?  Okay, they didn’t ask that.  But freaking just about everything else.  And then we all went to the station, with one guy wheeling my bike.  Leaving Starbucks surrounded by cops was like when the police lead Billy Jack away.  Okay, nobody was holding their fist in the air, but otherwise, pretty much exactly the same.

The Japanese Police Station

The police station was great.  It was this big, white building and everyone spoke Japanese to me, which I always enjoy.  Why take language classes when you’ve got the police?  And we played a lot of fun games, like, Where’d you buy the bike?  See if you can find it using this pile of old Japanese maps.  And we played, How many Japanese people can you fit in an elevator with a stolen bicycle?  Let’s find out.  Good times.

I told them I really try hard not to do anything illegal in Japan, since it might mean being exiled to America.  And everyone seemed cool with the fact that I’d bought the bike from a second-hand shop without knowing it was stolen.  So after fingering the store in question and filling out a bunch of forms in Japanese—including having to do one twice because I screwed up the kanji—they said sayonara and set me free.

It was a bright, crisp day and it felt good to be finally out of the station.  Walking back to 7-Eleven took a long time, since walking is just like biking, only way slower.  Actually, it’s not great.  And I realized I would never see that bike again, which was a little sad.  It was like the cops had just shoplifted it from me.  Which would have sucked, except for one minor detail I’d overlooked mentioning during my language lesson with the police.  See, when I bought the bike, it was 4000 yen, which is like 45 bucks.  Stolen bikes are such a good deal.  And since I ride a lot, I decided to get another one, just in case the first one broke.  So I have a second, identical bike.  Same color and everything.  Yeah, I know, I really ought to pick up a sticker for it one of these days.

45 Replies to “How the Japanese Police Stole my Bike”

  1. I’m thinking of bringing my mountain bike over when I fly out for an ALT gig next year, any info regarding how I’d register it over there?

    1. Great idea to bring your bike. Biking is an excellent way to learn about the area you live in, as opposed to, say, sitting in the subway, where all you see is tunnel.

      It’s super easy to register your bike. All you really need is your address and your gaijin card, which you’ll get once you start working. Just go to the nearest police box and say 防犯登録 (bouhan touroku = crime prevention registration), and point to the vehicle in question. Amazingly enough, they didn’t ask me for any proof of purchase, which seems mind-boggling, but there it is. However, if you do have a receipt for said bike, it’d probably be a good idea to bring it. (By the way, on a completely unrelated note, also bring your actual college diploma with you to Japan, not a copy. Future employers may want to see it.)

      A couple other things. One is, make sure to always use a lock, and try to leave your bike in safe places overnight. Bike theft, while nowhere on par with the U.S., does happen. You could probably lose your wallet on the train and get it back with all your yen intact, but for some reason, it’s almost culturally acceptable to steal bikes. It’s just one of those weird Japan things.

      The second thing is, be super careful as hell. I mean it. Especially if you’re coming from a place where you drive on the right side of the road. You’ve spent a lifetime subconsciously conditioning yourself to react to automotive and pedestrian patterns, and you can’t reprogram that overnight. Plus, there’s a million puzzling Japanese distractions. In my first year, I stepped off the curb looking the wrong way twice and almost got crushed, and that was walking. Even this past year, I turned a corner on my motorbike and went down the wrong side of the street. I read somewhere that the number of accidents caused by foreigners is ridiculously high, and I believe it.

      1. Ah cool, I was curious as to what you needed to get it registered.

        As far as locking etc. goes? I always use at least three locks- two “U” locks, each anchoring to something directly, or with a separate (thick) cable and another 1.5in thick steel cable that goes through both wheels and the frame (and then to a sign post or something).

        I’ve ridden around Honshu (literally) a few times, and I recall an incident in Tottori where I parked (probably illegally) in front of a train station. When I got back all the other bikes seem to have been cut off and taken away, and it looked like someone attempted to cut the locks on mine (and failed miserably). I seem to remember a ticket being on my bike, but I was just way too hung over to care and kept going down the coast…I probably should have tried reading it though 😛

        As it is, since I’ll be running my folding mountain bike, I’ll probably attempt to store it bagged and indoors overnight so I can avoid any issues with theft. (That and it’ll be more protected from rain etc.)

        1. Sounds like you’ve done a lot of cycling. Me too. Great sport.

          In terms of locking bikes in Japan, you probably know, but during the day bikes aren’t generally locked to anything. There’s just a lock through the rear wheel. Often bikes will be moved, for one reason or another. Maybe because Japanese people feel a virtually uncontrollable need to arrange and re-arrange everything. At any rate, if you lock your bike to a fixed object, it’s a sure bet that eventually someone will try to move it, even resorting to tools, which might get ugly.

          In contrast, it’s not uncommon to see even expensive racing bikes locked with nothing more than a thin cable through the back wheel. If you’re just leaving it for an hour or two, that may be fine. Also, it’s pretty uncommon for people to steal parts, such as seats and wheels, especially during the day. The upshot is that, if you do want to really lock down your bike to something, you may need to find a place where the powers that be won’t feel compelled to move it.

          Nighttime is a different story. Keeping your bike indoors is the best bet, or at least locking it securely at your apartment complex.

          Perhaps the best solution is to get a second bike, a mamachari, which you can leave pretty much anywhere with little fear of it being stolen, since it’s the same bike everybody else already owns. Ride your nice bike to and from work and on weekend rides, but when you need to leave a bike in front of the station all day, or overnight, take the mamachari.

    1. I got a call from the police a few days afterward, saying they’d located the original owner. I was happy to hear that, in the way that you’re happy to hear than an ex-girlfriend got married. I mean, that’s great and all, but still I couldn’t help but picture my bike flying off to heaven.

      1. “I was happy to hear that, in the way that you’re happy to hear that an ex-girlfriend got married.”

        Ken, if I could put you in a juicer and bottle your pulpy musk, I’d label it ‘Wit’ and sell it at only the finest perfume counters.

      2. After watching a vid on stolen bikes in the U.K. and hearing the plight of the victims in the comment section, I’m glad the Japaense police seem to be decently vigilant about this.

        1. Yeah, I am too, actually. I wasn’t too crazy about having my stolen bike stolen from me, but if it gets back to its original owner, I’ll be happy.

  2. I guess thats Japan for you… Im from Mexico, so we dont usually act like that over here (as in, youd probably wont have the same treatment for a stolen CAR), enjoy Japan!

    1. Yeah, patrolling for stolen bikes seems a strangely misplaced emphasis, but I guess there’s just not enough crime to go around. Not that I’m complaining.

      Mexico, eh? Beautiful country, from what I’ve seen. Although somehow I did manage to get arrested there too, but that’s another story. I guess everybody’s got things they’re good at, and maybe that’s just my thing.

  3. Just stumbled across your blog! hilarious! (“can you eat natto?” haha)
    I imagine myself running into this scenario at some point in time. I ride around on my friends bike (which she inherited from a friend, but doesn’t like to cycle) and a mountain bike which was left for me by a long line of people. I assume they are all registered to other people! Eek!

    1. A lot of folks seem to ride bikes that are either inherited or sort of borrowed permanently. It looks like, as long as you have some sticker or other, you’re okay. The moral of the story seems to be, hey, if you’re gonna steal a bike, make sure you steal one with the sticker on it.

  4. For some reason I feel like getting something from Starbucks now! 😉

    I never ran into any problems. I got a very, VERY old bike from my workplace. I once parked it in the wrong place and got a warning tag, but that’s about it.
    I had more issues with the super old tires.

    Now, I have a car. I also bought a new bicycle that I pretty much never use. Such a waste.

    Free Japanese lessons are always great, but considering you lost 4000yen-ish, I wouldn’t consider it a free lesson anymore! ;P

    1. Congrats on getting a car. My jealousy knows no bounds.

      Yeah, “free” is kind of a relative term. Maybe “bonus” would be more accurate. Anyway, it’s the best way I can deal with the fact that the cops stole my beloved stolen bicycle.

  5. It sounds that you enjoy your time with Japanese cops. Why didn’t you call your Yakuza friend, you know, the one you impressed with your martial art style? I am sure you would have wasted no time in the station, but fair enough you would have missed a few more Japanese lessons for free.

    1. Given the number of police and yakuza I run into on a regular basis, it’s probably just a matter of time before they both naturally converge. If that happens, I promise you’ll be the first to know.

  6. I love your writing style and your humor! 🙂
    My co-worker just gave me a bike today. I certainly hope that I don’t get stopped. I should probably ask him if it is registered!

    1. If it’s got a sticker on it with little numbers, you’re most likely okay. I mean, what’re they gonna do, arrest you? That’d be crazy. Just tell the Japanese police you’re friends with Ken Seeroi, and it’s like a Get-out-of-Jail-Free card.

  7. Japanese cops are total morons.
    one potentially stolen bike from long time ago and suddenly there is a bunch of them on you like flies, but a man getting almost murdered in the station, and they all pretend it didn’t happen.
    Useless chickens is what they are.

  8. Very interesting story, you are such an excellent writer!

    Believe it or not, I found you by googling on ‘how to say i stole your girlfriend japanese’, I kid you not.

    Whether I steal anyone’s girlfriend or not (and if she’s Japanese, that would be even more LULZy), I’ll be sure to register the bike first thing if I ever go to Japan. Definitely.

    1. Good to know Google’s algorithms are hard at work. No doubt there’s a ton of people using those search terms. I await the flood of web traffic.

  9. Man, my suggestion is if you’re going to cry racism, go back to your home country. The cops here don’t care, especially when theft is involved.

    It gets tiring hearing about hipsters throwing an attitude at an LEO, then wonder in amazement when it all it does is attract grief upon themselves.


    That aside, the cops in Tokyo are indeed scary serious about bike theft. Hell, I got pegged riding away from Itoi on one occasion, and from another local dealer with a frame and messenger bag full of parts strapped to my back. It was funnier than hell because like your situation, I’m fairly certain I spotted both cops loitering around, then they hit me when I was leaving the shop.

    1. You mean like go back to America and cry racism? Pretty sure they’ve got that well-covered.

      I’ve never actually understood that “go back to your home country” sentiment. Does that mean when something isn’t right that the best response is to leave? What about all the problems in the person’s home country? “Well if ya don’t like it, then go back to Japan.” Seems tiring, what with all the running back and forth like a basketball game.

      I’d think the better response would be to try to address the problem. Don’t like racism? Speaking up might be an option. But I guess running away’s good too.

  10. Did they change the rules about the whole register things? I bought a 10’000 yen bike in Japan last year and after reading your story I asked my wife if we should register it but she said that’s not necessarily.. Now I am not sure if I could run in trouble next time I’m riding it..on the other hand, since I’m the only white person in this area (Kagawa, Shikoku) they might know to whom I belong…and the bike. What do you think? Will be back there in spring for three weeks.

    1. My guess, based upon my all-encompassing knowledge of Japanese law, is that the police crack down on this stuff in some areas more than others. Shikoku? Ah, you’re probably pretty safe. Half the population there already knows the other half. Still, it might be fun to drop by the neighborhood police box with your bike, just to see what they say.

  11. My suggestion is not to buy or ride the typical mamachari bikes. It sets you up for probes and checks. Just get a gajin looking bike and your good. I never get stopped, but I know lots of people that ride them ugly japanese bikes and get harrassed

    Also, I been smashed on a bike in Japan; its not a fun experience. Once on a motorcycle as well, and the guy run off, but somebody found him, brought him to the koban where I was bleeding (no kyu kyu sha for me) and they didnt even arrest him. I hobbled with the offender to the crash site and got a lecture from the police.

    This guy is telling jokes etc, but thats not how we talk to police here. They will mess you up if you do. Japan is a one way country, it their way or no way.

    Expect the worse in Japan, because it will eventually happen

  12. Hi! I don’t know if you’re still reading this but I was in a bike accident a few days ago, a car was involved. I was the only one injured but the driver was a little drunk and could’ve stopped, -although it was a red light-. I forgot my passport that day at the place where I’m staying and the bike was borrowed, and old, so they seemed to not care much about it after they saw it wasn’t stolen. I ended up at the hospital and the police station and was cited for an interview/system thing next week.
    What happens if I don’t show up to the police station for the meeting they asked me to come to? Also, your blog is hilarious!!

    1. I have no idea, but I’d show up, for sure.

      It sounds like you’re just visiting, since you didn’t mention a residence card. I don’t know if the police and immigration systems are connected, but it’d be close to my worst nightmare to be stopped at the airport going in or out of Japan.

      If you did nothing wrong (other than not having your passport), I suspect the police will be reasonable and the whole thing will go away quickly.

      By the way, did the cops get the other guy’s information? Hit and run is kind of a big thing here.

  13. It could really go many different ways. I dont fault or blame the police in Japan. I have actually never had any issue with them, its always the locals. They try to spread the blame, this is what I have found. They may also “mark” somebody (Ive been told this) and not arrest them until latter. I dont expect fair treatment though. Its not black and white, its like what comes around goes around kind of thing. Hard to explain.

    Ive been done wrong by Japanese, and very reluctantly gone to the J cops, but they never arrested the other person, instead try to diffuse and settle.

    I had a hit an run experience. The guy was latter found, but not arrested. He was a salaryman and scared shitless, but very unconcerned with my welfare. No ambulance was called either. The police clearly helped him out. Its why I said it could go many different ways.

    1. Hit and run is surprisingly common in Japan. When things go sideways here, punishment can be severe, so people do whatever it takes to avoid blame. Running away’s a good option. I mean, no perpetrator, no crime, right? You can generally file that under “Japan’s a safe country.”

      1. In Japan, punishment is severe, so everyone does their best to avoid “justice”, “one’s day in court”, “closure”, and all those western kinds of ideas.

        My favourite (true) story is of some years ago, when I was an assistant language teacher in a small, rural town in Kyushu. I arrived at the local junior high school one morning to find hushed and serious conversations among the teachers. It turned out that a man had been exposing himself to the junior high school girls while they were walking to school.

        “Have you called the police?” I asked. “No,” I was told, “That’s not necessary. We’ve made a map showing the location of the flasher. We’ll distribute it to all the girls with alternative routes, so they can walk to school safely.”

        1. Yep, I’ve heard the exact same thing at at least three schools. There’s always some neighborhood crazy perving on kids, sometimes very young ones. But that’s no crime. No crime here. Japan’s very safe.

  14. hey funny blog here i know its a bit of an old post but i have been searching the internet for a while. i am currently in japan and have my custom travel bike with me, not really sure how they would register it and i dont speak Japanese yet, (working on it) . only here for 3 months but a little worried about a out of place melanin enhanced american male riding and custom expensive bike with no serial number… currently in Fukuoka but will be traveling to shizuoka and matsuyama as well ….

    1. That’s a tough question, really. Tokyo is a massive place, and there are a ton of bike shops, selling everything from hundred-dollar mamachari’s to multi-thousand-dollar racing bikes. What kind of bike are you looking for, and how tall are you?

      If you just want some basic transportation, get a mamachari (basket bike). New, they’ll run you the yen-equivalent of under $150 for a basic model. Just look around for a bike shop or “home center” (hardware store) near you.

      Used bikes are generally purchased from second-hand shops (in Japanese, a “recycle shop”). There aren’t as many of those stores in Tokyo proper, but if you can find one, you should be able to pick up a basic bike for $60 or less.

  15. Ah, I should have been a bit more specific. I’m average height, looking for a hybrid for the daily commute from Shimokitazawa. Nothing special, as I have to keep it outside.

    1. Unfortunately, I don’t have a specific shop to recommend. I would say, however, that if your commute is under about 5K and not too hilly, you should consider a mamachari. They’re inexpensive and reliable, and have things great for commuting that most hybrids don’t, such as fenders, a basket, and a chain guard. Plus you’ll look stylish.

  16. Thanks! I’m gonna be the talk of the town with my new mamachari. Looking forward to your next blog post.

    1. wait – go to a sayonara sale!
      Like you I lived near shimokitazawa and commuted from there. I recommend yamate dori to shinjuku dori if you’re going north side of tokyo, or through shibuya crossing if going south side. over the hill to omotesando is just a bit crowded and smelly from trucks. I started with a mamachari from the bridgestone shop at yoyogiuehara station – the owner is great guy and always ready to do free tune-ups or tires. Then later I stumbled upon a sayonara sales and got an aluminum frame crossroad bike for super cheap, it cut my commute time by 10 minutes! There are always rich expats leaving behind stuff, just look around.

      1. Man that was exactly me when I left Japan…basically gave away a bunch of great stuff for next to nothing…;/

  17. I was looking for information on how to register a bicycle in Japan and stumbled upon this blog. It was both helpful and fun to read. You could easily write stand up comedy monologs or something.

    1. You know, a few people have said that. Enough that I’m actually starting to wonder if it might be true. Encouraging a fool is a dangerous thing, but thanks nonetheless.

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