The list we have compiled below is not to highlight Japan as a dangerous place, instead, it is more of a guide to ensure you are aware of the potential things that can happen in Japan. Like any country, Japan is also a victim of scams, deceit and danger, and while these may be rare cases, we hope this guide will help to point out some of the more common occurrences that people should be careful of. As always, try to stay aware of your surroundings, and use common sense.
1. Online Scammers
When you think of possible ways to sell online, think Facebook, Craigslist, Yahoo auctions, applications like Mericari and anything else internet auction or private sale related.
The first sign of warning bells is any kind of evasive or overly complex tactics, for example, if it’s too difficult to meet in person or to even go see the physical item you wish to purchase. Try to get a concrete address, email or phone number, for example, Japanese phone emails always have ‘.jp’ in their address. Japanese phone numbers will always have the country code of ‘+81’ too.
As you should with all online related transactions, try to exercise restraint and caution and remember something that seems too good to be true, probably is.
2. Check Your Bill
People make mistakes, and the same saying goes for employees working at cafes, restaurants and bars too. Always make sure to check your bill and keep track of your orders, if you don’t understand something or think there has been a mistake always check with staff in the restaurant. Particularly, if you think something you ordered never came, it is best to tell the staff who should always be happy to amend the bill accordingly.
In addition, always be careful with places that only provide a total, rather than an itemised receipt. If the price seems overly expensive, it is best to check with the staff and/or ask for an itemised list to confirm the price is correct.
In my experience of travelling and living in Japan, mistakes with bills are very rare but have been known to happen from time to time, and in each instance, after speaking to the staff we were able to resolve the issue.
3. Fake Charity Donations
For several years, there have been reports of somewhat questionable people circling the areas of Shinjuku or Shibuya, requesting donations for things like earthquake victims or people living in poverty. These people usually have an ID, will present a compelling story and are polite in their approach too. While I am sure there is some truth behind the stories, it is difficult to know where to draw the line, so caution and care are always best.
Japan typically doesn’t have a strong culture of making donations, instead, they prefer to focus more on volunteerism. If you feel like giving back to the community I would recommend joining one of the main NPOs, or even searching for groups via meetup or facebook, because this way you will be able to ensure your effort and time is not being wasted.
4. Japanese Schools or Lessons
Generally, you would think language schools seem like a legitimate organisation, but like any company, they can go into the red for a variety of reasons. Unluckily, a person I know was a casualty of this unexpected and unforeseen event, paying for 6 months schooling upfront only to lose his hard earned money in the process as the school went under.
Perhaps this is the risk many people face, as international students registering for educational institutions overseas, applying for a visa and paying tuition fees from across the globe. Of course, if you’re in Japan you can reduce these risks by physically visiting the school, meeting the staff and even taking a trial lesson. However, not everyone will be fortunate enough to be in this situation, and in that case, I would recommend checking out agencies like Go Go Nihon or other reputable organisations to process your application.
Likewise in the case of private Japanese lessons, people should exercise caution. I trialled several services before deciding on a teacher and getting a feel for each person’s teaching style. I always believe in pay-as-you-go type systems, rather than up-front, unless you can be certain of the teacher’s credentials (as a referral from a friend) or objective reviews. Alternatively, you could try finding an online instructor through sites like italki, or even from a range of free or very cheap volunteer services and community schools available throughout Japan.
5. Hustlers in Shinjuku or Roppongi
This is mainly focused on the areas of Shinjuku – Kabukicho and Roppongi, which are populated with a diverse scene of nightlife such as bars, karaoke rooms, nightclubs, strip parlours and more. You should be mindful of people inviting you to their bar or club, especially those who guarantee a ‘free’ look or drink.
Kabukicho has long been regarded as the Red Light capital of Tokyo, and for good reason, as you venture down the many shady and secluded alleyways. Here you can discover an underground culture filled with tiny drinking establishments, girls bars, the infamous Robot Restaurant, and a range of other questionable places. Roppongi is similar in those respects, except that it attracts a higher foreign population due to its more English friendly environment.
As a wise person once said …
‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’ – Robert Heinlein
6. Random People Knocking on your Door
You may be familiar with those unwelcome NHK visits, but what about those other random and unpredictable encounters.
One day at around 11 am on a weekday, I was surprised to hear someone trying to open my fortunately locked main door, who then proceeded to press the doorbell. When I went to answer the door, I came face to face with someone who not only reeked of alcohol but appeared to be dressed in his pyjamas. At first, he seemed lost for words but then began to ask me in broken English if I wanted to buy a newspaper, of which he had no visible products to sell me. I think the fact that I was a foreigner who answered the door, was more of a surprise and potentially a detriment to him, than to me, and I quickly ended the conversation and sent him on his way.
7. Real Estate Companies
There are probably two main things to mention here, the potentially stratospherically expensive application process, and the equally dubious exit process.
The application process has traditionally been a costly experience, with the inclusion of things like:
- 敷金 (しききん or Shikikin) – Deposit, which is usually an upfront payment of around 1-2 months rent in advance for leasing a property. This is refundable upon leaving the property, minus any cleaning and maintenance costs.
- 礼金 (れいきん or Reikin) – Key Money, a gift or gratuity payment is given to the owner of the property for allowing you to lease and stay in their place. This can sometimes be the equivalent of a months rent, or even higher.
You may also be interested in our full introductory guide to rental property related vocabulary.
When taking into consideration the above expenses, plus insurance and other agency fees, the initial payment required can sometimes equal up to 3, 4 or even 5 times of the actual monthly rental cost. As a general rule, I recommend that everyone shops around to find the best deal, as there are places where you can avoid Key Money and other costly fees.
Once you have finished up with your property lease, it’s usually also the time you expect to receive your 敷金 (deposit) back. Of course, this happens only once the agent has inspected the property for any damage, completed cleaning and finalised any maintenance that may be required.
However, recently on several forums and facebook group pages, I have heard of a few cases where people have been refused refunds of their deposit or received very little back. The reason usually involving minor reports of damage with excessive cleaning or repair costs.
Consequently, it should go without saying that taking detailed pictures of your rental property and documenting any existing damage prior to moving in is paramount. You should also report any existing damage to the real estate agent too, to confirm they acknowledge the current condition of your property and to ensure they try not to use your deposit for repairs once you leave.
8. Girls Bars and Kyabakura
Girls bars and Kyabakura (or Hostess bars) are the lonely or unsatisfied man’s escape into a virtual realm where younger and pretty woman will sit and drink with you for as long as your wallet can take the financial beating. The reverse works for females too, where a range of Host bars (males) will keep any happily paying customer content or as far as their budget will take them. With promises of nomihoudai (bottomless drinks) and great conversation, it sounds too good to be true, and sometimes it is.
While you can drink as per the prices on the sign, where it starts to get out of control is via the lady’s drinks or even more so if you buy a full bottle of Champagne for instance, which is beyond many people’s affordability.
As a precaution, make sure to check the prices of lady’s drinks and bottles if you are so inclined if anything to make certain you don’t exceed your own funding constraints.
This is probably an obvious one, but in any country where English is not the native language, confusion and misunderstandings are bound to happen. So, it is particularly important to be aware of your surroundings, whether its the average price of drinks, how many items you actually wish to order or even just ensuring the place you visit is reputable.
In the situation where you think language could pose a problem, make sure to bring someone at least semi-fluent in Japanese. In addition, I have even heard of some restaurants confirming that the guests can communicate in Japanese prior to allowing them to proceed with their booking. Therefore it is best to make sure you can fulfil their request, just to prevent any complications during your visit.
10. Strangers Requesting Money
There have been several reports of homeless people requesting money from foreigners, or even pure strangers approaching people for spare change. In any case, keep an eye on your valuables and never feel obliged to hand anything over, as it is difficult to know people’s true motives and handing over anything of value could make you a target.