People who are obviously not from a particular area can be easy prey to local scammers. In Japan, foreigners cannot help but stand out – and as such should be vigilant insofar as who they trust.
The Japanese crime rate is extremely low – illustrated by the fact that Japan has been in the top ten of the Global Peace Index for over ten years. Japanese people are generally extremely hospitable towards foreigners and will go out of their way to assist visitors while expecting nothing in return. Petty crime is far less common than in other cities – locals will leave their belongings at café tables when they go up to order, which you would be very unlikely to see in other countries. However, Tokyo is still a major city – and as with any densely populated area, there are scams in operation. Being aware of common scams to look out for will go some way towards ensuring that your lack of experience is not taken advantage of on your Tokyo trip.
Here are some scams that I have personally heard about in Tokyo.
1. Monks Asking for Money
When wandering the streets of Tokyo, you may be approached by what appears to be a monk. This person, generally clad in orange robes, will often have very good English and will engage you in a conversation about their temple and its charitable efforts.
They will then present you with an official-looking book of signatures, claiming to be from people who have donated to their temple. They will urge you to join this elite list via a cash donation. Don’t fall for this – the person you’re speaking to is most likely not a monk, nor affiliated with a temple. In the vast majority of cases, they are a scammer looking for an easy buck from a gormless tourist.
If you are passionate about supporting local temples, visit and donate directly.
2. Ore Ore Scam
This one is generally aimed at local people rather than foreigners, but is still worth knowing about. The scammer will approach someone on the street, exclaiming “Ore! Ore!” (“It’s me! It’s me!”) and behaving as if they recognise the person in question. They will attempt to persuade the victim that they are long lost relatives, taking advantage of the natural tendency of Japanese people to behave politely and avoid conflict.
When the victim appears convinced that they do in fact know the scammer, the scammer will claim to have fallen on hard times personally. They will request a cash loan from their “relative”, promising to pay this back as soon as possible while escorting their victim to the nearest ATM. Of course, the repayment will never come.
3. Rip Off Bars
This one is particularly common in the Kabukicho area of Tokyo, well-known for its excellent nightlife. Male tourists who are on their own are generally the target of this one. A nightclub promoter will approach you in the streets, encouraging you to come with them into a high-end bar. They will promise cheap drinks and beautiful women. Sounds excellent, right?
This common scam usually culminates in the victim racking up a sizeable bill for “services”, including cover charges for things as outlandish as the music being played. If you refuse to pay the bill, you might be threatened with violence – so the easiest option is often to part with hundreds of dollars in order to keep the management sweet.
4. Drink Spiking
This one is commonly seen in the Roppongi area of Tokyo, and generally targets solo tourists (both male and female). The victim will have their drink spiked, and the scammer will either take their belongings (including passport), bring them to an ATM to empty their card, or will be sexually assaulted.
This is a very nasty and violating scam. In order to minimize the chances of falling victim to it, socialize in groups (there are many nightlife tours that you can join if traveling solo) and always keep your eye on your drinks.
5. Disaster Relief Donations
Similar to the monk trick, it is common to see well-dressed and well-spoken individuals approaching tourists to ask for donations to hurricane relief funds, or something similar. Politely decline this requests and move on – any above-board charity will have a veritable website where you can donate online. If the person becomes irate or pushy when you decline their request, you can be certain it was a scam.
6. Thai Orphans Scam
This is another way for scammers to source easy cash donations from tourists and seems to be particularly rife in and around the Harajuku area of Tokyo. If you are approached by someone claiming to work for an organization supporting Thai orphans, do not get sucked into a conversation or offer a donation. Again, any legitimate charity would have a verifiable website where you could donate to their efforts online.
7. Model Scouting
There have been stories of model scouting scams targeting young women on their own on the streets of Tokyo. If a person approaches you claiming to be a model scout and invites you to follow them to their agency headquarters, do not follow. Women have unfortunately fallen victim to rape and serious assaults under these circumstances. A genuine modeling agency would be able to provide you with contact details that you could go away and verify to arrange an above-board visit at a later stage.
8. Ice-cream Trick
This is a trick to look out for in crowded areas or on public transport. The scammers act in pairs for this particular trick. One scammer will drip some ice-cream or spill some of their drink onto you. They will then alert you to the spillage and assist you in cleaning it up.
While the first scammer is distracting you, their partner will reach into your bag and take your valuables.
9. Beggar Trick
Again, this trick usually occurs in pairs. A scammer will approach you pretending to be a beggar – asking for some loose change for a hot drink or a place to stay. You might be inclined to give them whatever spare change you have on your person – don’t.
There is usually another scammer watching you, who will then be aware of where you keep your wallet. They will pick-pocket this shortly after you hand over your donation.
10. Practicing English
You might be approached by a young person claiming to want to practice their English when in Tokyo. While this may well be genuine, watch out for where the interaction leads you. I very nearly fell for this scam in Beijing (it’s also a common one in China). If the eager student suggests going to a café for a coffee and a chat, politely decline – there is a scam whereby café owners will serve victims with a massively inflated bill, and then split the takings with the young scammer who brought them there. While interactions with the locals can be a highlight of a Japan trip, be wary of being brought to places.
11. Restaurant Scams
While not technically a scam, many restaurants will add charges to your bill for sitting in, and for items that were brought to the table without your request. This can be a nasty surprise for tourists.
On a more sinister level, some restaurants will deliberately overcharge, or will “drop and swap” your change. This means they will “accidentally” drop the change you are owed and give you a lesser amount instead. Be sure to thoroughly check your bill and change before leaving the premises.
Please note though, the vast majority of Tokyo restaurants are extremely honest will do the opposite of this – I’ve been chased down the street with my change before when I’ve left coins on the table.
12. Car Accident
While it is unlikely that you will be renting a car on your trip to Tokyo (traffic is congested and public transport is excellent) if you are driving in the city this is one to be aware of. A scammer will purposely cause some form of a car accident with you – whether this is jamming on their brakes so that you will run into them, or falling against your car when walking or cycling.
The scammer will then generally claim that they are absolutely fine, and insist that there is no need to contact the authorities over such a minor incident. When you have left the scene, they will contact the authorities claiming that they have been the victim of a hit and run. You will then be subject to a sizeable claim.
A Very Unlikely Encounter
I feel I should put another disclaimer here about how friendly and honest the Japanese people have always been towards me on my travels. It would be easy to read this article and think that everybody you meet in Tokyo is out to get you – they’re absolutely not. The vast majority genuinely want to help you and offer sincere hospitality. Keep your eyes open for scams, of course, but don’t let fear stop you from experiencing the true warmth of this incredible city.