The Handbag


I’ve come to realize that there are some fundamental differences between different nationalities in relation to honesty. After having lived in Japan for a year now, I still haven’t got over the fact that practically nothing seems to go missing here – ever (apart from your individuality).

The other day, someone had left their handbag on a bench here in Osaka. She (I assume) was nowhere to be seen. It was a public place and there were hundreds of Japanese people there – me and my kids were the only Westerners. I wanted to see if anyone would take the bag, and stood there for 10-15 minute pretending to do something else, but really I was focusing on the bag and its whereabouts (and making sure it got to its rightful owner).

Nobody took the bag. In fact, no one went near the bench on which the bag was. It was like an abandoned dog’s turd that no one wanted to touch. For all I know, the bag is still there waiting for the owner to return and collect it.

Forgotten bags which the owner goes and collects from where they left them hours or even days later is not front-page news in Japan. Japanese people are generally extremely honest and things rarely get taken dishonestly. You are unlucky if you get pickpocketed in Japan – and if you were to lose your wallet or handbag, the chances are that it was stolen by a non-Japanese person (probably by someone from China or perhaps Liverpool).

The following examples also illustrate the fact that dishonesty is really not a desirable attribute over here.

  • People are over the top precise – what is not theirs, they do not want. I mean, if you leave a tip in a restaurant the waiter runs after you and returns the money. If you owe your friend 980 JPY, and you give them 1000 JPY, they force you to have the 20 yen change (10 pence / 15 cents).
  • If you leave your valuables in a restaurant or on the train (e.g. a camera, iPhone) the chances are you’ll be able to and collect the item from the restaurant or a train station the following day or even weeks after you left it there.

So no need to have a heart attack in Japan if you notice that you left your passport on top of the toilet paper holder in the cubicle of a domestic airport toilet. Just return to the toilet and collect it from there (and hope no-one has wiped their bum with it).

Talking about airports, Kansai International Airport in Osaka has not lost a bag in 20 years – that is: not a single lost bag for the duration it has been in operation. London Heathrow on the other hand… well let’s just say that members of the baggage handing staff has been sacked previously for opening people’s suit cases and stealing all the valuables (probably our Chinese and/or Liverpudlian friends again). I am sure this is not the case only with Heathrow, but many big airports in many big cities.

Japanese people not only occasionally misplace their things in public places but they also seem to deliberately leave their handbags, phones and laptops in classrooms, coffee shops and hospital waiting rooms while they go elsewhere for an undefined duration of time. I can’t say anything other than after having lived in England for 14 years, I think Japan and it’s culture of honesty is refreshing.

A typical situation in England is more like the following (this is a true story):

I walk out of a toilet cubicle and accidentally leave my Topshop bag full of new clothes in it. I wait outside for a while for the next person to come out. She doesn’t for a long time. Eventually I can hear her shout to her friend outside.

The cow in the toilet: Is she gone already?

Me: No. I’m still here.

The cow in the toilet: (silence)

Me: Sorry but I left my clothes bag in there.

The cow in the toilet: (silence)

Me: I’m happy to wait.

Eventually, the cow opens the door and walks out with my bag of stuff but makes no attempt to give it to me. Luckily I have a resting bitch face, so you can image what my active bitch face is like. She handed the bag over.

If you are not with the in crowd and do not know what a resting bitch face means, I’ll let you in on it. The default, natural or expressionless expression of a person who has resting bitch face is annoyed, bitchy or angry. Victoria Beckham is a good example of a person with resting bitch face. My husband says I have it as well.

Anyway, getting back to the honesty of Japanese people, over the past 12 months we’ve adopted the Japanese approach of leaving stuff unattended (other than our kids), and so far nothing of ours has been stolen. For instance:

  • We frequently leave our children’s scooters (worth £50-90 each) outside supermarkets or restaurants when we go in. We basically just dump them there. So far they haven’t gone missing. I suppose no Liverpudlians have happened to walk past them with sticky fingers. You see, the sad thing is that although I love England and I miss England dearly, in England those scooters would not stay outside the supermarket/restaurant longer that a passer-by can say ‘Ker-ching’. This means that, when in England, we have to ferry the scooters with us into the supermarket and push them around in the trolley with our groceries.
  • I’ve started leaving my handbag, laptop and everything else in an unmanned and unlocked classroom at my work place ( which is a University) when I go to things like a 2h departmental meeting. I’ve worked there for a year now, and as far as I am aware, nothing of mine (or anybody else’s) has ever gone missing. Not even penis (damn auto-correct, I means penis, argggghhhhhh, PENS)!
  • At amusement parks, when you go on a ride, you often leave your bags unattended in a space provided (see photo below). We now leave our purses, wallets, mobile phones, home keys and driving licenses unattended and hop on a rollercoaster without thinking about it more than Katie Hopkins thinks about things she lets escape her lips. I mean, we (like Katie) know it’s risky and could result in us getting is deep shit but we do it anyway.


Writing this blog post might have been a mistake, as I am suspecting half of the population of Liverpool is booking flights to Japan as we speak. But if any of you Liverpudlians out there that think that Japan is a fertile land for you to plunder, think again. Japanese people can spot an 80s tracksuit at 100 yards, so if you want to come robbing you’ll have to make an effort and dress like this typical Japanese man (see photo below).

Typical Japanese man's look (photo borrowed from the internet)

Typical Japanese man’s look (photo borrowed from the internet)

18 thoughts on “The Handbag

  1. This is very interesting indeed. Does it have a connection with the religion perhaps?

    Still in the 70’s in Helsinki people left their babies in the prams to sleep outside small shops to quickly get inside to do what ever errands. I suppose mothers still had their eyes on the pram outside. In the late 80’s I remember reading in Helsingin Sanomat, the main newspaper in Finland, that a baby in a pram had disappeared. Eventually after a couple of hours the baby was found safe and sound, it was just a senile old woman who had started pushing the pram. As the baby woke up and started crying, and this woman could not do anything to calm the baby or not even tried to mind the baby, this behavior caused the public to notice something was wrong. Anyway I would not believe that anyone could leave their babies sleep in the public anymore.

    A couple of years ago we had a couple of teenaged visitor from Finland here in Stresa in Italy, my goddaughter and her friend. My goddaughter dropped her mobile phone in a parking lot. First of all it was a problem for me because it was a market day and this small town was full of people and I could not get hold of her. Eventually we saw each other at the main square. She was crying and telling she no longer had her mobile with her. As we got back to the house to consider what to do next, the door bell rang. There was an Italian man who had found out our address – the Finnish people in Stresa, because he had figured out from the menu of the phone that it was set in Finnish.

    • What a great story! So, there are honest people in Italy as well – and helpful, given that they had gone through the trouble of figuring out that the phone belonged to a Finnish person and finding out the address of Finns in the town.

      I don’t think Japanese people’s honesty is to do with religion. I think the Japanese are a bit like the Finns: (1) They are brought up to follow the orders that the authority gives them, (2) they are quite black and white in their behaviour (I feel the distinction between the right and wrong way of doing things is much clearer here than for instance in England), (3) there is peer pressure in Japan for people to do what everyone else does and (4) one of the most attractive and important personal attributes in Japan is to be ‘kind’. I think these facts about Japan and Japanese people might explain their honesty.

  2. HAHAHAH I must say I laughed a lot reading this article. I have been to Osaka many times, and it truelly is another world, I loved it!
    Also funny because the greedy unhonest people are everywhere nowadays, and it’s hard to find places like Osaka still being good!
    I have lived most my life in Brazil and I must say I got worst situations of unhonesty there!

    • You’ve been here? On a holiday?

      It is great here – even in big cities like Osaka (5 million people) or Tokyo (30 million people) – things rarely go missing. Like you say, there aren’t many places like Japan left in the world.

  3. An intriguing story! We live in a very safe place too where things don’t get stolen. I haven’t locked my front door in years and my neighbour’s bicycle gets stored outside his gate resting up against the fence post. Stuff just doesn’t go missing unless it gets blown away by the gales! Town is a different story though….

  4. Amazing examples! I’ve got one more: In urban Copenhagen new mothers park their babies’ prams outside the gym for the duration of their gym class. Usually there is a baby monitor in the pram and Mum takes along the parent unit – to hear if the baby should wake up and cry. Because the only imaginable thing that could go wrong!

    • I suppose leaving your baby unattended (for the duration of your workout!) is the ultimate test for safety. So, I’m guessing the Danes are at least as honest as the Japanese….

  5. Very interesting! I would never have guessed people are so honest in Japan. Enjoyed reading a few of your other posts too…especially the one on shoplifting! Will definitely keep the tip in mind when visiting japan 🙂

  6. I read somewhere that people who live in Japan get a bad habit of using their phones to save their spot at a bar while they’re going to the bathroom haha. That’s amazing, and surely different from where we are. I mean, we love Vietnam but here, people guard their stuffs more than their kids sometimes 🙂

    • Yeah, that’s exactly how it is over here 🙂 I have to tell my students, who are Japanese, not to leave their stuff lying around when they travel to foreign countries. They are oblivious to the fact that safety and honesty are not the norm everywhere in the world. 🙂

  7. Great topic. Too bad about the honesty in the world in general, but yes, Japan felt so safe. In Hong Kong also we saw a big pile of knapsacks on the grass along the park and a cell phone clearly visible on top of a rock next to them. No one was hovering next to them. Kids in the baby buggies when we were young mothers, not a thought about the dangers in Finland!

  8. I guess there is a mixture of dishonesty and honesty wherever you go. I was on holiday (In England) a long time ago and I left my wallet in a phone box. It was full of my holiday money. When I went back to the box, hey presto it was gone! Some days later I received a call from the police to say the wallet had been handed in and all the money, too!!! Someone maybe wrestling with their conscience.

    Interesting about the honesty of the Japanese.

    • Yes, that’s true – there are dishonest people even in Japan. But, I guess proportionally there are fewer people in big Japanese cities (like Osaka and Tokyo) that would at first opportunity go for your handbag, laptop bag or wallet than in many non-Japanese big cities (like New York, London or Rome).

      Nice story – happy endings are always good 🙂 T also tends to forget things, but we also had a happy ending here yesterday: T and T went to a park and found a football that they had left there about 2 months ago. 🙂

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