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In Tokyo, finders are reluctant keepers

Yoko Banda was standing outside of Tokyo's central lost-and-found office the other day, holding in her hand the miniature, high-tech camera she'd found six months earlier.

Since no one had shown up to claim it, the office had removed the film and given the camera to its finder, as regulations stipulate. "To him this is nothing," she says, speculating about the owner and shaking her head.

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A brief visit to the lost-and-found office indicates just how far most Tokyoites are from the simple life. Its warehouse holds millions of lost and forgotten items - apparent evidence of a society so replete with things that its members can't be bothered to keep track of what they own.

The lost and found office - a small part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police - is testament to something else: a society remarkably free of crime where individuals, businesses, and the government care about trying to return items to their owners. The loser of a wallet or video camera in Tokyo stands a good chance of retrieving his or her property, especially with a little wading through huge quantities of lost goods.

But says administrator Yoshiko Itoh, "the value people place on things has changed." Surveying detailed statistics of the rising number of items that have flowed through the warehouse in recent decades, she says, "people easily give up when they lose something."

Take umbrellas. In 1998, nearly 400,000 came into the hands of the lost-and-found office. For every 135 lost umbrellas, one person showed up to claim one. In 1966, Ms. Itoh points out, there was a claimant for every 32 lost umbrellas.

During the years of Japan's ongoing economic stagnation, the amount of lost cash has declined sharply, but Itoh says the drop-off may be due to the rising popularity of credit cards. As far as items go, the numbers are on the increase.

The variety of goods in the warehouse is stunning. Umbrellas are one thing. But what about skis, speakers, baby strollers, brand-new tires? How about rows of video cameras, CD players, and radios? Drawer upon drawer of cellular phones? What does one make of "lost" wheel chairs? Or golf bags? Or a huge stuffed teddy bear?

All these goods, after their six months in the warehouse, will be returned to their finders or sold at auction. Itoh won't speculate, but perhaps the original owners just got tired of the clutter.

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