A few days ago, Japanese Twitter user @makibikeisi was walking along the street near Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood when he came across a Caucasian man. In and of itself, that’s not such an unusual thing for that part of town, seeing as how Akihabara’s connection to anime, video games, and other Japanese pop culture exports has made the district one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist attractions.
However, this encounter was different, as @makibikeisi says in his tweet.
“I was walking from Akihabara to [nearby neighborhood] Ochanomizu when suddenly a Caucasian guy put a Japanese flag in my hand. When I asked ‘What’s going on?’ he showed me a small piece of paper and indicated he wanted me to pay him 500 yen [US$4.50] and showed me an Olympics logo.
When I said ‘No thank you,’ he acted like he was going to grab me, but I slipped away.
Everyone, please be careful.”
@makibikeisi isn’t the only person in Japan to have had this sort of experience lately. Several other Twitter users say they’ve also been approached by foreigners on the streets of major cities and asked to pay for flags.
▼ “There’s a foreign woman on Meiji-dori Street near Ikebukuro walking around and selling Japanese flags. When I took a video of her from my car, she came over to try to sell one to me too.”
Other Twitter users who responded to @makibikeisi’s tweet reported seeing flag-selling foreigners in Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shinbashi districts, both of which have stations which are major rail hubs for the cities. Several say that when they tried to refuse the flag, the foreigner would then follow them, stepping in front of them to block their route of escape.
In multiple cases, the sellers also produce a card with stiffly phrased Japanese and English text claiming that the seller is deaf and asking the person who has handed the flag to “sponsoring [sic] our travel expenses.”
The identical phrasing found on cards seen months apart suggests that the flag sellers are copying the text from some sort of template, and that it’s not a message drafted by the individual selling the flags.
Since @makibikeisi was focused on getting away from the seller, he didn’t carefully read through everything that was written on the card, but he does seem to recall it indicating some sort of hearing disability, though after stepping away he observed the man having spoken conversations with other people.
So the question then becomes whether the cards are truthful and the sellers actually are deaf, or whether they’re a dishonest ploy for sympathy in an attempt to open people’s wallets. Really, though, it doesn’t make much of a difference. If the sellers are lying about being deaf, that’s despicable. And if they’re not? Then they’ve come all the way to Japan without actually budgeting for their vacation, and are relying on the trusting and hospitable nature of the Japanese people to treat them to the pleasure trip they can’t otherwise afford.
Note how in @makibikeisi’s incident, the first thing the man did was put a flag in his hand. Likewise, the woman in the video taken near Ikebukuro starts off by trying to hand the man in the car a flag, with no initial indication that she expects any compensation in return.
That’s not how selling is supposed to work. Putting your wares in someone else’s possession first, then asking them for money second, is extremely rude, and arguably a form of intimidation. It’s an especially cowardly tactic to employ in Japan, a country that’s famous for wanting to avoid direct confrontation and flat rejection, and which is acutely aware of how it lags behind other countries in foreign language proficiency, and thus often responds by trying to be as accommodating as it can when bumping up against a language barrier.
Arguably the best thing about Japanese culture are how helpful and hospitable the country’s people are, but those aspects depend on an atmosphere of honesty and responsibility. Streetside scams that breed suspicion, or pushy panhandling that pressures people into helping out of fear, will erode those positive attitudes, as well as sour the country on inbound foreign tourists in general, and hopefully these flag sellers will find a more appropriate source of income before those things happen.