Sunday 16 July 2017

Unmanned Vegetable Stalls: Reflection of a Honest Society?

A mujin-hanbai- unmanned vegetable kiosk
Central Tokyo may be a bustling concrete jungle but over in Western Tokyo we're spoiled by greenery. In particular, various local produce from neighbourhood fields (hatake =畑)is often sold by the roadside at unmanned stalls called mujin-hanbai-jō (無人販売所). The one pictured right (expanded below) sells tomatoes on the top tier (including red and yellow aiko, an unusual kind of elongated mini-tomato) and on the bottom tier (from left to right) pīman (green pepper or capsicum), more tomatoes, nasu (aubergine or eggplant), and daikon (white radish). Everything is notably cheaper than the supermarket at ¥100 each or per bag. Note the white plastic bags hanging top right and the red money-box (chained to the frame) bottom right to deposit your coins.

The grower may or may not be around but if not payment is based on trust. Indeed, Japan is commonly seen as a relatively crime-free society, with people as generally honest and trustworthy (returning lost wallets or phones, for example). This stereotype became even stronger following the Tohoku Earthquake of March 2011 when the media, especially the Western media, highlighted the lack of disorder and looting (which actually wasn't altogether absent). This image was further promoted by Christel Takigawa in her Olympic 2020 presentation; she noted that more than $30 million in lost cash was turned in to Tokyo police stations the previous year. However, an alternative to the "Japanese national character" explanation is that lost-and-found systems are extremely efficient and police-boxes (kōban) prevalent in Japan, making it easier to turn in lost property (see the experiments carried out by Mark West testing whether Japanese and American's turned in lost wallets detailed in Chapter 2 of Law in Everyday Japan, and summarised here).

Certainly, not all vegetable sellers are equally trusting, especially in busier areas. For example, near my local station there is a farmer who sells local produce who is present early morning but later leaves and deposits the vegetables in small-coin lockers (pictured above right) into which you have to insert a coin if you want to retrieve the item inside. More evidence that the Japanese are perhaps not so honest as the stereotype suggests is the stall pictured above left (selling tsukemono or pickled vegetables amongst other things). A closer inspection shows a number of written warnings about taking vegetables without paying - or without paying the right money - noting that such people are simply thieves (dorobō) and appealing to their conscience. A timely reminder that we need to very careful when making generalisations about Japanese society being "crime-free" or Japanese people being inherently "honest."