Just about the dumbest way to get in trouble with the law while living or traveling here.
Japan doesn’t really present a minefield of potential legal problems for resident expats and foreign visitors. Failing to show sufficient respect for religious or political figures and ceremonies, for example, don’t constitute criminal offenses, and, honestly, common sense is generally enough to keep you on the right side of the law.
Of course, the flip side, that failing to use common sense can get you in trouble pretty easily, is also true. Poke around Japan travel/foreigner lifestyle Internet forums, or hang out with a group of long-term expats, for long enough and you’ll eventually hear about someone coming across a vacant bicycle somewhere in Japan, deciding to hop on it for a ride, and getting stopped by the police before they ever got to their destination.
The incidents almost always happen late at night, often after the bike borrower has been out at the bars and missed the last train. With their feet tiring as they trudge down the street, they stumble across a bicycle that they claim they thought was abandoned, so what’s the harm in taking it and riding it home?
The first problem here is that it’s hard to determine whether or not a bike is abandoned just by looking at it. No chain? In Japan, it’s not all that unusual to see cars left running with keys in the ignition while the driver pops into a convenience store to buy a drink, so an unchained bike doesn’t necessarily mean the owner doesn’t want it anymore. Parked in an out-of-the-way place? Many neighborhoods prohibit bicycle parking next to the train station, so if the first part of a commuter’s daily trip to the office or school is by bike, he might make a point of stashing it in a side alley a block or more away from the station.
The bigger problem, though, is that even if the bike is abandoned, in the eyes of the law, that bike isn’t trash. If it hasn’t been disposed of properly, it’s still the property of its original owner. Someone else riding off on it is technically theft, and theft isn’t something that Japanese society takes lightly.
Japan’s low crime rate means that police officers often have a lot of time on their hands, and if they see someone riding past the local koban (police box) in the middle of the night, especially on a bike that he doesn’t look all that accustomed to, there’s a chance they’re going to stop him and check if the bike is his. Fibbing your way through this is tough too, since bikes in Japan have to be registered at the time of purchase, and bear a sticker with their registration information, and once they figure out that the bike isn’t yours, the incident is now handled as a theft.
That means contacting the rightful owner. If you’re lucky, the bike will have indeed been abandoned, and/or the owner won’t want to press charges, but even then you’re not quite out of the woods. Along with law and order, another thing Japan loves is paperwork, so you can expect to be processed, have the situation documented, and asked to sign forms corroborating the written account. Oh, and this is all going to be taking place in Japanese, since most neighborhood koban don’t have multilingual officers on duty. If your Japanese proficiency isn’t up to the challenge of the legal proceedings, I suppose you could ask to be allowed to contact your embassy or consulate and request a translator, provided you don’t mind sitting tight for the several hours that’s going to take.
Unfortunately, stories like this have been going on for years. There was a group of nitwits I knew in college in Tokyo who pulled this stunt, and I‘m sure they are going to be people carrying on the tradition for years to come. Just don’t let yourself be one of them, OK?