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Okinawa police scramble to stop people from sleeping on road; over 7,000 cases in 2019

A person is seen sleeping on the road in this image provided by Okinawa Prefectural Police's Yaeyama Police Station.
A person is seen sleeping on the road in this image provided by Okinawa Prefectural Police's Yaeyama Police Station.

NAHA -- Police in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa are puzzling over how to prevent people from sleeping on the road while intoxicated, with over 7,000 cases recorded in 2019 alone, some resulting in fatal accidents

    Okinawa Prefectural Police are likely the only force in Japan that keeps statics on the phenomenon, called "rojo-ne" in Japanese, which literally translates as "sleeping on the road." As to why people do it, whether it's the warm climate or the residents' easy-going manner, police aren't sure.

    "I didn't even know the term 'rojo-ne' before coming to Okinawa. I think it's a phenomenon unique to Okinawa," said Tadataka Miyazawa who took office as the prefectural police chief in December 2019. According to the force, there were 7,221 emergency calls made in relation to people sleeping on roads that year. Sometimes people fall asleep not on the sidewalk but on the roadway, and there were 16 accidents caused by these snoozers in 2019, including cases where they were run over by cars. Three men died as a result of rojo-ne that year.

    Though Okinawa had previously asked people to refrain from going outside due to the coronavirus, 2,702 emergency calls were made from January to June this year -- similar to the number in the same period last year. There have been two traffic accidents and at least one robbery connected to the problem.

    Furthermore, trouble in nighttime entertainment areas is unceasing, including accusations of theft and one person who started a fight with a passerby who woke them up to help them.

    Why are so many people falling asleep on the road in Okinawa?

    The prefectural police commented, "First of all, I think we're the only ones collecting statistics on rojo-ne," indicating that it is difficult to compare the situation in Okinawa with that in other prefectures. However, it is believed that the warm climate, with an annual average surpassing 20 degrees Celsius, and many residents' love of alcoholic drinks especially "awamori" Okinawan liquor may be the underlying reasons.

    Police say some people sleep using the curb as a pillow, apparently because they are cool and comfortable, and there are cases in which women take off their clothes in the mistaken belief that they've arrived home.

    Not only is it dangerous for those sleeping, but people driving at night or early in the morning are at risk of running them over. Police have woken people up and asked them to go home, or held them under temporary custody if they were too drunk, among other measures. They have warned against the rojo-ne practice in a radio broadcast. Yaeyama Police Station, which covers areas including the island city of Ishigaki, held a photo exhibition on rojo-ne at the city hall in December 2019.

    Police have tried various ways to raise awareness of the dangers of sleeping on the road, but they say there has not been any improvement.

    "We will take a strong position against habitual offenders," stated Tatsuo Oshiro, head of prefectural police's traffic section. Sleeping on the road violates Article 76 of the Road Traffic Act banning people from lying on the road in a way that obstructs traffic, and offenders can be fined up to 50,000 yen (about $468). Police plan to crack down, including making arrests, and are discussing when and how to clamp down with the Public Prosecutors Office.

    Oshiro added, "Don't get me wrong. Alcohol isn't bad; it's bad to drink excessively. We want the residents of Okinawa to drink appropriately."

    (Japanese original by Nozomu Takeuchi, Naha Bureau)

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