On April 17 2021, a Facebook page shared the following meme, which asserted that law enforcement in Japan uses paintballs as a means of marking vehicles involved in crime:
Underneath a photograph of a vehicle covered with splotches of orange paint, text read:
Japanese police shoot paintballs at fleeing vehicles so other police can see the vehicle and identify it later if it gets away. The paint is bright orange and difficult to remove.
Aside from the image and text, no corroborating information accompanied the meme. Reverse image searches turned up unrelated stories; an October 2008 blog post featured the image in a post about taxes in Plainfield, New Jersey, and a 2012 news item from Australia attached it to a post about “paint ball bandits.”
A 2019 Facebook post was similar (but not identical) to the long-circulating meme:
To the right in the meme was the standard photograph used in the other iteration, and to the left was a close-up image of an orange paintball. Text at the bottom read:
In Japan, when a person tries to out-run the law, the police shoot the car with orange paint balls. The paint is bright and very difficult to wash off, so it alerts all police and bystanders of the runaway car. Convenience stores use the same method for thieves, but the paint is stored in a fragile, plastic mold, shaped like a baseball, so it’s easier to throw.
Neither of those early variations of the image alone mentioned its origin or source. In September 2014, the claim (but not the image) was the subject of a Reddit r/todayilearned post:
TIL Japanese police fire paint-balls at fleeing vehicles so that other police vehicles can see them and to identify them at a later date if they get away. The paint is Bright orange and difficult to remove. from todayilearned
That post linked to a question and answer column published by JapanTimes.co.jp on May 20 2008, categorized as “reference” and “what the heck is that.” The column was titled “Anti-crime color balls,” and it began with a reader’s submission:
Dear Alice, I’ve spotted pairs of plastic Day-Glo orange baseballs sitting in polystyrene containers behind the counter at banks and convenience stores. My friend reckons they have them in police stations too. Can you please tell us what the heck they are?
Nicholas C., Tokyo
A letter writer identified as Nicholas C. of Tokyo asked about “pairs of plastic Day-Glo orange baseballs” seen in banks and convenience stores, adding that a friend suggested the orange balls were seen “in police stations, too.” Neither the letter’s author nor his friend had any idea what the objects were.
In response, columnist Alice Gordenker explained how the orange paintballs were meant to be used, and that even if they were not thrown, they could serve as a visual deterrent to crime:
Those aren’t baseballs, despite the resemblance in shape and size, and the fact that some models even have fake stitching to evoke the real thing. The orange orbs you observed are called bohan yo kara boru (anticrime color balls). Basically, they’re paint balls — plastic spheres filled with brightly colored liquid pigment. But unlike the fun-and-games variety, these balls are kept on hand in case of a stickup. The idea is to lob one after a robber and mark him to improve the chance of an arrest.
I know what you’re thinking: That’s fine if the pitcher of the local high school’s baseball team happens to be manning the register that night, but can the average convenience-store clerk hit a moving target? I looked into that, and the advice is to aim for the ground near the perp’s feet, because the balls shatter on impact and release their contents in a radius as wide as 10 meters. Or fling for the getaway vehicle since a car or motorbike offers a larger target.
“Even if the balls aren’t actually used, that they are in the store and visible to would-be thieves helps protect the store,” Akihiro Suwa, a public-safety officer with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police told me. “That’s why we, and police departments around the country, ask banks and store owners to include color balls as part of their crime-prevention efforts.”
Gordenker quoted a public relations contact for a large chain of convenience stores, and that individual confirmed the purpose of the balls known as bohan yo kara boru. However, the representative “declined to go into further detail lest the pages of The Japan Times fall into criminal hands” when asked about broader security protocols.
She added that the use of orange paintballs has led to arrests. In the example provided, an employee of a business (not a police officer) marked a vehicle with the paintballs:
Still, arrests do happen thanks to color balls. Just last month [in April 2008], a man held up an agricultural cooperative in Yokohama and made off with a bag of cash. When an employee was able to mark the getaway truck with a color ball, the thief abandoned his vehicle and fled on foot. But the police tracked him down through the truck’s registration and arrested him at home.
Subsequently, she said that specifics about the anti-crime balls were difficult to pin down for what appeared to be security reasons:
I got this much of an answer for you fairly easily, but what I couldn’t find out, and not for lack of trying, was who the heck makes the balls … First of all, there’s no identifying information on the balls. (I peeked at a pair at the post office.) And no amount of Googling yielded a company name. This was strange in and of itself, but then everyone I asked — even the police — claimed not to know. Had I stumbled onto a state secret? Why would everyone shield a company that makes colored balls? One ball buyer didn’t play dumb, but he refused to give up a name or a telephone number. Finally, I convinced him to make a call on my behalf. This got me in touch, if only indirectly, with the company that makes almost all of the color balls sold in Japan.
Through my intermediary, I learned that anticrime color balls were developed about 20 years ago as — I know this sounds weird — an egg replacement. At that time, the nation’s highways had a problem with toll evaders, and toll-booth attendants had taken to throwing raw eggs at vehicles that charged through without paying their tolls. While the police appreciated this effort to mark nonpayers, they felt it was inappropriate to use food for the purpose. So someone came up with pigment-filled balls as an alternative. An improvement, really, since eggs can be washed off but the paint in color balls leaves a permanent stain. The use of color balls spread from toll booths to banks, and, by the late ’80s, convenience stores started to introduce them as well. Most police stations and and police boxes keep them on hand, while newer users include hotels, gas stations and even the Japanese Marine Self-Defense Forces.
The column concluded:
… why all the secrecy? The best answer I got was that there’s no need to market the product because legitimate users get purchasing information from the police. And the manufacturers would just as soon keep a low profile among the public at large. While it is possible for individuals to buy balls from security-goods wholesalers, so far there hasn’t been much of a problem of misuse.
Of note is that the column’s findings suggested that the practice originated with toll collectors, not police officers, and was primarily used as a non-violent approach to putative crime by business owners and employees, not police. Although obtaining the devices seemed to be a guarded process, the lengthy response described them as a deterrent used by civilians to aid police (or as a panopticon-style visual crime deterrent.)
That piece was published in 2008; by 2018, a post to Reddit’s r/japan suggested that the orange paintballs were somewhat easier to find:
One commenter suggested the orange paintballs were not hard to find, ten years on:
There’s no secrecy at all. You can buy them on Amazon. The question is, why would you need them?
A 2019 post to r/Damnthatsinteresting looked to have been a share of the same meme; a top comment read, “Studies show that people in orange cars get away with much more crime in Japan.” One user responded to the original post:
A lot of stores in Japan have bohan yo kara boru, which are basically paintball grenades, near the register. The idea is to splash thieves with paint.
They aren’t terribly effective, but serve to deter some criminals.
Another user shared a November 2006 video demonstrating the orange paintballs in a convenience store, a video that was the focus of a 2010 Neatorama.com post. In August 2020, a submission to the subreddit r/Bad_Cop_No_Donut noted in the title that the claim sounded “fake”:
A May 2015 Metro.co.uk item (“These orange balls are thrown at shoplifters in Japan – and they might be genius”) rediscovered the orange paintballs, and described them as a tool for retail store owners (once again, not law enforcement):
They might look like luminous baseballs, but these mysterious orbs are actually Japan’s secret weapon in the battle against shoplifters.
They’re locally known as bohan yu kara boru and are meant to be flung at suspected thieves, covering them with orange paint and making it pretty obvious who they are so they can be tracked down quickly in a crowd.
The prospect of a public shaming is probably quite a deterrent against stealing from any store, too.
However, while they seem like a pretty effective idea they haven’t actually been used much since they were first developed eight or nine years ago.
Our search for information on use of the orange paintballs specifically by law enforcement in Japan led to a February 2020 news item from JapanToday.com, “Police shoot at vehicle after driver takes off during questioning.” It reported:
A police officer fired two shots at a car that drove away after the driver was questioned in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, [on February 4 2020] … At 3:40 p.m., a police patrol responded to the call and a 33-year-old sergeant approached the car to question the driver seated inside.
Police said the driver appeared to be in his 40s to 50s. After a few minutes of questioning, the man drove off, hitting another police officer, 35. The first officer drew his gun and fired twice, once in the air as a warning and a second into the front right side of the fleeing vehicle.
We were able to find the story because of a comment left by a reader proposing that police use bright paintballs to mark vehicles involved in crimes:
set up drone teams of cops to chase fleers that would avoid bystanders getting hit,
have cops use paintball type guns that shoot bright un-washable dye ammo, inform all residents nationwide that whenever they see any vehicle, person, whatever with that dye to immediately report location to police
We found no indication that law enforcement in Japan used paintball guns to mark cars, but it appears that they do, on occasion, fire live ammunition at vehicles.
Finally, an undated post on TheTokyoTourist.com titled “Do Japanese Police Carry Guns?” said at the start:
Do Japanese police carry guns? Yes, they do. A handgun has been part of the standard equipment for the police force since 1949 after it was introduced by the Allies during their occupation after World War II.
Just prior to a section about whether Japanese police carry “other weapons,” the site provided context as to why an officer firing two shots in 2020 might be notable:
We already know that the number of annual gun deaths in Japan is extremely low. And because there are so few guns in the country gun crime, in general, is also very low. Only six shots were fired by Japanese police nationwide in 2015. The police carry guns, but they very rarely use them and only rely on them when it’s absolutely and unavoidably necessary. So what other means of force do the Japanese police have? To a foreigner, some of these seem strange!
Next, the site explained a “burrito arrest” (using a futon), and then included a section titled “A Paintball Gun!” It suggested that police in Japan may have piloted a paintball gun as the meme claimed, but that it was ineffective and quickly retired from use.
Immediately thereafter, TheTokyoTourist.com explained the use of bohan yu kara boru by shopkeepers and other businesses:
There’s not much information about the Japanese police paintball gun out there because it wasn’t in use for very long. It was introduced in 2009 and was originally intended to be a tool the police could use to mark fleeing criminals, making them easier to follow and identify later. The paintball gun featured a laser sight, but the paintballs moved so slowly it was hard to hit the intended target. The Japanese police paintball gun is not in use today.
But the paintballs are not dead! Although not primarily used by the police, these large paintballs are called bohan yu kara boru (anticrime color balls). These are used by convenience-store clerks to throw at robbers to mark her/him to improve the chance of an arrest. You can see these large paintballs behind the counters in Japan.
A meme claiming that “Japanese police shoot paintballs at fleeing vehicles so other police can see the vehicle and identify it later if it gets away,” and that the paint is “bright orange and difficult to remove” has long circulated on social media. The claim appeared to stem from a misunderstanding about bohan yo kara boru and their purpose in Japan. It is true that the brightly colored balls of paint are used as visual (and sometimes direct) shoplifting deterrents (and that there was a long history of flinging objects at fleeing criminals), but police in Japan are armed with guns that are loaded not with paintballs, but with bullets.