The Japan Times just published a really weird article about ‘overcharging scams’.
These are actually more of a worry for foreigners in China, where it’s known as the ‘tea house scam’ or the ‘English student scam’. It involves people, usually pretty girls, persuading foreign tourists to go to a tea house with them. The will spend an hour or so chatting, before being presented with a hugely inflated bill. The owners of the shop will threaten to either call the police or furnish the unhappy visitors with a beatdown themselves if the cash is not forthcoming.
In any case, a few establishments in Japan operate on similar (but not exactly the same – we’ll come to this later) principles, and the Japan Times has produced a handy article about them. Here is is. See if you can spot what’s odd about it:
‘On any given evening, you can see noisy quarrels between club staff and customers outside the local police box,’ attorney Katsuyuki Aoshima tells Asahi Geino (May 2), adding, ‘The police treat these as civil claims between the shop and the customer, and won’t get involved, adopting the position of neutral mediators. The club staff know this, and refuse to back down from demanding the full amount. In an overwhelming number of cases, the customers are worn down by their opponents’ persistence and wind up paying.’
But such claims have continued to soar, and on May 29 TBS TV news reported that the Tokyo Metropolitan Police finally cracked down on a Kabukicho club called Lumine, whose 36-year-old manager, Yoshihiko Okumura, and one other employee were arrested on charges of having intimidated two male customers by refusing to allow them to leave the club premises until they forked out ¥240,000.
In the four months since Lumine opened, TBS reported that it was the target of 214 complaints — accounting for nearly a quarter of all complaints about such scams received in the first four months of 2015.
The shocking TBS news footage showed an overcharged customer making a mad dash for freedom, hotly pursued down the street by a club employee. Manager Okumura, who shamelessly mugged for the TV cameras, seemed to revel in his notoriety, pedaling about on a folding bicycle with the word bottakuri (rip-off) brazenly displayed on its frame.
NHK news of June 2 reported that this year alone, police have received at least 1,000 complaints about overcharging by clubs in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district — a figure said to be up by tenfold from a year ago.
‘The ordinance to prevent bottakuri, enacted in 2000, initially had a major impact,’ explains Tominao Kageno, an author who once operated such an establishment in Kabukicho, to Asahi Geino. ‘As long as a club made a minimum effort to adhere to the law, it would not be charged.’
So then, what’s behind the recent surge in claims?
‘With heavier penalties for fraud, the cheats who’ve been bilking the elderly in those ‘It’s me, send money’ scams have been shifting more and more to rip-off clubs,’ Kageno suggested. ‘Perpetrators found guilty of fraud now face imprisonment without any leniency; but a first offense of the bottakuri ordinance may just involve a fine of several hundred-thousand yen.
‘So it’s likely they view it as a low-risk, high-return operation.’
The term for rip-off — bottakuri — is derived from bōri (‘excessive profits’) and dates back nearly a century to the notorious rice riots that occurred in Tokyo in the summer and autumn of 1918. Brokers and corrupt government officials had colluded to raise prices, causing extreme economic hardship and social unrest that brought down the government.
Aforementioned attorney Aoshima mentioned several case studies that could be described as typical: One customer, informed by a tout that the charge would be just ¥5,000 per hour, stayed on the premises for two hours and received a bill for ¥460,920. Another man, promised a ‘set’ system for only ¥3,000, sat through three hostess turnovers, during which the gals ordered 15 drinks.
‘With a 40 percent service charge, his bill came to ¥128,600,’ relates Aoshima. ‘On top of that, an inexplicable ‘penalty’ was added to his tab.’
In another case, a customer promised a charge of just ¥4,000 for 70 minutes was billed ¥239,400.
‘After handing over the entire contents of his wallet — ¥49,000 — he was badgered into signing an IOU, to which a photo portrait and copy of his identification were attached,’ Aoshima says.
‘If you find yourself in a place that seems fishy, to the extent possible try to record what the club staff tells you, or shoot a movie,’ Aoshima advises. His website (in Japanese) warns people in advance and offers legal advice to those who have been victimized.
Meanwhile Shukan Jitsuwa (June 11) took note that GSK, an association of Ginza merchants, recently issued an advisory warning that similar practices are on the increase at local bars, particularly those that have been acquired by Chinese. In the past such establishments might ‘skim’ data from a customer’s credit card, but they appear to have escalated their illegal activities to include rip-offs, not to mention spiking customers’ drinks.
‘One reason (foreigners) have been running rampant can be blamed on the Organized Crime Exclusion Ordinance,’ says a club owner in Tokyo’s Ginza district. ‘The gangs, which used to make the rounds as stand-ins for the police, have been put out of action. So you could say this trouble is a by-product of the ordinance.’
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo has also taken note of the local perils. On June 1 it issued ‘Tips for a Safe Night Out in Tokyo.’
After beginning, ‘Every year hundreds of thousands of tourists have safe and enjoyable visits to Tokyo,’ it urged caution in all entertainment and nightlife districts throughout Japan.
‘The Roppongi and Kabukicho areas are considered high-risk areas for crime, and the Embassy receives reports of drink spiking, credit card fraud, extortion and even assault in these districts.’
Among its advice was, ‘Never enter a bar or club that employs a street hawker to draw in customers! Some establishments … put touts on the street to drum up business. These touts can be very aggressive, and many incidents … take place in establishments that use them.’
If you said ‘They never actually mention what’s being overcharged for‘, you’re right on the button.
And it’s naked ladies.
Occasionally it’ll be the relatively chaste ‘hostess clubs’, hinted at obliquely in the article, but usually it’s strip-clubs-with-benefits and the like.
And usually, in these places, an inflated bill is not a big deal. Due to Japan’s rather odd prostitution laws, sex is most often sold as something else. Frequently it’s ‘massages’ or ‘strip shows’, just as in the West, but if you go to Kabukicho you’ll also find a bunch of restaurants with menus along the lines of ‘Sukiyaki: 40,000 yen’. The idea is that you go in order your sukiyaki, the waitress brings it, and then you have sex with her. It’s also generally accepted that the bill will be hugely inflated – paying 40,000 for sukiyaki is ridiculous anyway, but there’ll be miscellaneous service charges added on by the threatening mob guy on the front desk, which you pay without demuring because you knew they’d be there all along, and even had an idea of the approximate total amount.
This, obviously, only happens in establishments that target Japanese patrons. For one thing, most Western tourists have no idea what ‘40,000 yen sukiyaki‘ actually means, and for another they wouldn’t understand the overcharging system and would get drunk and belligerent and cause problems.
As Steve Schulz puts it: ‘Actual Brothels don’t allow gaijin customers. Gaijin have this rude habit of objecting to the 200% overcharges that Japanese sex-bars routinely put on after you thought you paid for everything. Here is the rule, dood : If there is a guy from Nigeria telling you about a sex-bar, it is not one. The real sex-bars have guys from Nigeria paid to keep your foreign ass out.’ (I’ve been hit on by the Nigerian bouncers in Kabukicho before, incidentally. I wasn’t sure whether I was subverting the system or being subverted by it.)
So what’s up with that Japan Times article? They have an actual criminal guy talking about it, so it must be legit, surely?
In fact, the explanation can be gleaned from the information he gives. He makes it sound as though the people doing this are guys who used to run ore ore sagi scams (where you ring up an old person pretending to be a young relative in trouble an needing to be wired money). In fact, these are usually run by low-ranking mob groups – largely because you don’t need a huge amount of capital or smarts to pull it off (the same guys do a lot of boiler room scams), and the risks and returns are traditionally pretty low. However, as the guy quoted in the article mentions, the Japanese government has cracked down on these scammers lately, so they’ve had to find other lines of business.
One of these other lines would appear to be the tea shop scam. While the criminal gangs who traditionally ran sex bars would keep their over-charging within certain recognised limits, the new kids on the block seem to be simply looking to make a quick buck by taking individual customers for all that they can get. This would explain why both foreigners and Japanese are being targeted, and why the Japanese victims are willing to complain to the police.
However, the more interesting point here is that this story contains a wealth of fascinating detail about Japanese culture that is liable to amaze, educate and entertain foreign readers, and yet the Japan Times‘ writer seems to have gone to enormous lengths to avoid including any of it.
I have no idea why. According to his biography he has lived in Japan since 1966, so he must know all about this.