15 Most Common Tourist Scams in Japan

Safety at Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Nagasaki, Nara, Osaka, Sapporo, Sendai, Mount Fuji, Japan Alps, Yakushima
Note: If you can't afford travel insurance, you can't afford to travel. World Nomads Travel Insurance, backed by Lonely Planet & National Geographic, is one we recommend. Check it out before your adventure.

 

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji

 

The “Land of the Rising Sun”, Japan is where old meets new in Asia.

Here, high tech and modern cities are abound, yet many traditional structures and ancient practices are still well preserved.

For instance, you can head to a ryokan, sleep on futons and tatami mats, as well as live in wooden halls with bathhouses. You can also enjoy the best matcha, watch a Kyoto geisha dance, all the while marveling at the beauty of Mt Fuji.

However, despite its reputation of being an extremely safe place, there are still tourist targeted scams and crime around.

So read on to learn how to protect yourself here!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1. Bar scams

Shinjuku night time

Shinjuku night time

 

How it works:

When visiting Tokyo, the areas of Roppongi and Shinjuku are on the whole safe areas, despite their appearance.

However be careful when you are in bars as there are a couple of different scams that take place.

Firstly, an attractive girl will flirt with you all evening and allow you to buy drinks for her.

However, the bartenders will overcharge you and not put alcohol in her drinks meaning you end the night with the girl very sober and you very drunk.

Typically the girl will then lead you outside where a large male will meet you and force you to withdraw cash for them and you are left feeling very sick from the night.

Another scam involves the same girl taking it further with you and taking you home with her.

You’ll wake up in an area you don’t know with her male friend demanding cash from you. They’ll hold you at the apartment until you pay this debt.

The final scam will involve your drink being spiked with a date-rape drug.

Throughout the night you’ll be overcharged for all drinks and then you’ll be forced to hand over your credit cards, cash and other account details.

Due to the date-rape drug, you’ll wake up and not be able to recall what happened to report the incident and will feel violently ill.

 

What to do:

There’s not much you can do besides being cautious when interacting with strangers.

To protect yourself, a good idea may be a good idea to keep a separate bank account just for traveling:

  • Do not keep too much cash in there.
  • Only carry a bank card of that account so that you would not have much to lose.

Alternatively, if you want to make new friends, you can also consider bar hoppings / pub crawls – Klook (best day tour platform in Asia) has some options:

Klook.com

As for drink spiking, do not accept any drinks that you have not seen made in front of you, or to leave it unattended.

Canned or bottled drinks are recommended as it is more difficult for someone to put a sedative inside.

 

2. Bottakuri / bill padding

Osaka, Japan

Osaka, Japan

 

How it works:

Outside clubs, you may encounter an individual on the streets who offer you an hour of unlimited drinks and beautiful women to keep you company for a low price of a few thousand yen.

However, when the hour is up, the club will charge you a significant amount of money.

You will of course, be heavily pressured by male staff to pay the bill.

The club will deny all knowledge of the individual who brought you here and will claim that they are acting independently.

 

What to do:

If the price is too good to be true, it usually is.

 

3. Overcharging restaurants

Japanese food

Japanese food

 

How it works:

The Japanese takes food seriously and it seems no matter where you go, the food is always good.

That is, until you let your guard down.

The first most common sign of a scam restaurant is when you’re approached by a street tout with a menu.

As soon as you say yes, they will quickly usher you into the restaurant and off the street.

They’ll be quick to find out if you speak Japanese (easier to scam if you don’t), despite the rest of Tokyo restaurants being used to English tourists and most providing English menus when needed.

They’ll only be willing to provide you sparkling water, rather than free tap water or tea as in other restaurants.

Everything on the menu will be expensive compared to other restaurants in the area.

Once the food is delivered to your table, you’ll find that it doesn’t match the original pictures in the menu in terms of quantity or items included.

This will be very frustrating as the food will have been priced for the high quantities in the images too.

The food itself will also be of poor quality and taste as though it has simply been microwaved.

When the bill comes, the price will be very high and not even match the menu’s listed prices.

If you question it the waiter will reference taxes that have to be added when there are no hidden taxes in other restaurants in Tokyo.

 

What to do:

Avoid restaurants promoted by aggressive touts.

Do some online research or check with your hotel / hostel staff on recommended places locals go to eat at.

Also, always check the menu carefully (prices, fine print), do not eat what was not ordered, and check your bill carefully.

Otherwise, you can also consider joining a food tour for an authentic, local food experience!

  • Klook: best day tours platform in Asia – excellent curation of tours, tickets and transport – popular food tours include:

Klook.com

 

4. Overcharging Kinkaku-ji Temple vendors

Kinkaku-ji Temple

Kinkaku-ji Temple

 

How it works:

Around the Kinkaku-ji Temple there have been reports of vendors returning a smaller amount of change and then claiming that you paid with a smaller note.

 

What to do:

Always check when handing over any bill and when checking your change.

To be safe, say out loud the amount of money when handing it over.

 

5. Disaster relief scam

 

How it works:

You may encounter this scam around Shinjuku and Shibuya in Tokyo.

Well-dressed, English speaking middle aged individuals / Filipinas will approach tourists on the street and show you documentation about a recent disaster.

They’ll be very polite and well-educated on the impact of the disaster as they ask for donations.

However, it turns out that it is all a scam – none of the money collected will be donated.

 

What to do:

Avoid. If you want to help, donate to established charities instead.

 

6. Thai orphans scam

Harajuku

Harajuku

 

How it works:

Another fake donation scam which takes place in Tokyo, around the Harajuku area, is one involving Thai orphans.

The stranger will approach you with a range of information on Thai orphans and the struggles they have.

Next, they’ll ask you to make a donation to the cause.

This is all fake and a scam to generate themselves money, rather than to help orphans.

Such scams are common in other parts of Asia as well, such as in Singapore. There is also a fake orphanage scam in Cambodia where kids are rented by their parents to these sham orphanages.

 

What to do:

Avoid. If you want to help, donate to established charities instead.

 

7. Street sellers

Ameya-Yokochō Market in Ueno, Tokyo

Ameya-Yokochō Market in Ueno, Tokyo

 

How it works:

Although street sellers are uncommon in Tokyo, watch out as it is likely that they are peddling rip-off products or some form of scam.

One of the most common scams is for a man who is seemingly using “magic” to control a paper doll.

He’ll use this “magic” to show how great the doll is and will sell similar dolls to tourists who are impressed by his trick.

In reality, the doll is simply being controlled by a remote control nearby.

 

What to do:

Avoid buying, unless you know how to different real from fake and also know what is a fair price to pay.

 

8. Fake monk

Akihabara, Chiyoda

Akihabara station, Chiyoda, Japan

 

How it works:

You may encounter this at tourist attractions or at train stations such as in Akihabara.

This is where you encounter a man dressed in robes who claim to be from Bhutan. He will tell you his story of how he is travelling and will want you to pray with him for world peace.

Next, he’ll ask you to sign a small book of his alongside the names of strangers to show your support of peace.

Curiously, you’ll notice that all the handwriting in the book is similar.

The monk will then give you a small plastic charm and ask for donations for his cause.

In the book it’ll show you the amount others donated which will be extremely high, such as 30,000 yen.

He’ll of course pressure you to donate a similar amount too.

This is all a ruse and monk from Bhutan is actually just a scammer from China.

 

What to do:

Ignore.

 

9. Fake police

Tokyo

Tokyo

 

How it works:

You may encounter this scam in Tokyo.

In fact, the problem got so out of hand that in 2014, this scam was covered in the Japan Times.

These ‘police officers’ will approach foreigners and demand to see your immigration documents.

They typically target female tourists and will intimidate you until you hand over your personal information.

Next, they will “arrest” you and take you to a more isolated area and then steal from you.

For instance, in 2017, fake police officers stole a whopping 190 million yen from a Chinese student on a Monday morning on a busy street in Tokyo.

The student was spotted coming out of a precious metals shop, where he’d just sold gold bars for cash.

 

What to do:

If you have not obviously broken the law, be very skeptical when a “police officer” approaches you.

Three steps you can use to shake them off:

  • Verify badges and identification. Threaten to call the police hotline (end of this article).
  • Never give your passport if asked. Show only a photocopy of it.
  • If they want to fine you or check your bags, insist to only do so at a police station (use your GPS to find it or check with a local) with a lawyer or someone from your embassy.

Next, you should have hidden your valuables in a money belt or hidden pouch and use a cheap spare wallet with not much cash inside.

This way, the scammers may simply let you go since you do not seem to have much cash.

 

10. Massage parlor theft

Roppongi, Minato

Roppongi, Minato

 

How it works:

In the area of Roppongi be careful of massage parlours and women offering you massages.

If you enter a rogue parlour, once you start to relax during your massage, an accomplice will enter the room and try to steal your valuables.

 

What to do:

Be careful of street touts, do some online research or check with your hotel / hostel staff on recommended places to go.

 

11. Prostitution scam

Shibuya, Japan

Shibuya, Japan

 

How it works:

There is a prostitution scam where you will end up being charged a large sum of money without actually spending the evening with the girl.

It starts with a stranger approaching you on the street and asking if you’d like to meet a girl.

Should you agree, his accomplice will now enter the scene and show you images of girls to choose from.

A one-time fee will be demanded and you are assured that you will not have to pay any more money for the evening.

Once you arrive at the hotel however, the accomplice will request for another sum of money to act as a refundable deposit to ensure the girl’s safety and that you do not breach any of their rules.

Next, when you enter your assigned hotel room, you will face an intimidating man who looks like someone from the Yakuza who will ask you for another sum of money!

Since you have come this far, most victims are likely to pay.

Finally, when the girl arrives, she will demand another sum of money as she claims that she does not receive any of the earlier fees.

Once you hand that over, she will find an excuse (e.g. going to the toilet) to leave the room and you will never see her again.

 

What to do:

Avoid such activities.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Sexual harassment on train

Tokyo train

Tokyo train

 

How it works:

Unfortunately, in Tokyo, due to the insanely crowded and packed trains, you may be at risk of molest / groping.

 

What to do:

If you find yourself violated, shout “Chikan” which means pervert in Japanese.

 

2. Fake car accident

 

How it works:

Even in low crime Japan, you may encounter the practice of staged car accidents should you choose to drive a rental car here.

In a rather infamous case, an elderly Chinese was awarded 100,000 in compensation after pretending to be hit by a car in the area.

In another reported case, a local woman claimed to have seen a Chinese man fall onto her car intentionally.

Following an examination in a hospital, doctors found that he was not even injured at all.

Staged accidents like this are done in order to win payoffs and drivers are threatened to pay to make the legal case against them stop.

Another variation is that of a scammer throwing a damaged phone onto the road, claiming that the driver of a car which just went to by to have knocked it out of his hand.

 

What to do:

Make sure that your rental car has a functioning in car camera.

Next, while driving, stay alert of your surroundings.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Pickpocketing

Street in Tokyo

Street in Tokyo

 

How it works:

Although Japan is really safe and street crime is rare, there are still occasional cases of pickpocketing.

Areas to watch out for include Narita Airport, crowded tourist attractions and busy transportation hubs.

 

What to do:

Stay alert and watch out for suspicious characters, though that is easier said than done.

The best solution is still, to not make yourself look like a target. 

Further, make it impossible for thieves to steal from you with these methods:

  • Carry a photocopy of your passport instead of the actual one.
  • Don’t look like an easy target: wallet in front pocket, small valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch, large valuables in an anti-theft bag, most valuables in hotel safe.
  • Get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – our review) which covers theft.

 

2. Vacation rental scam

Hot spring inns in Yamagata

Hot spring inns in Yamagata

 

How it works:

Just like anywhere around the world, you may encounter this scams as it is so easy and lucrative for scammers to pull off.

These fraudulent listings are usually found on online classified ads portals, where there is pretty much no consumer protection.

Do be wary of these red flags:

  • Prices that are too good to be true.
  • Illogical descriptions because they copy and paste without any edits.
  • Dodgy sounding reviews.
  • Difference in photos provided and pictures seen with Google Street View.
  • Payment only by bank transfer off the booking platform (note: they will use names that include the original booking platform to make it seem like you are still dealing with the platform).
  • Or payment to a foreign bank account or via Western Union / MoneyGram (sure sign of a scam as transfers are irreversible).
  • Owner is overseas, insists on only using English in emails and emails are worded in poor English.
  • If the “owner” refuses to provide more details or to allow for a tour of the place.

 

What to do:

First, only book via legitimate accommodation platforms such as:

  • Agoda: leader in Asia with the best selection and rates here generally.
  • Homestay: if you are up for gaining genuine insights of Japan by staying with a local host!

Next, some due diligence to be done on individual listings:

  • Search online reviews and Google the names of the owner.
  • Call the phone number provided on the listing.
  • Grill the “landlord” by asking specific questions, such as room dimensions or something unique as seen in the photos.
  • You can even pretend something exists in the online photos and test if the “landlord” can call your bluff.
  • Search if the property has another online presence or contact number and engage that to see if they are consistent.
  • Test the owner by requesting for a visit from a local friend – it doesn’t have to happen, you just want to test the owner’s receptiveness.
  • Finally, do not pay in full upfront and do not make payment off the platform.

 

D. KEY SAFETY ISSUES

This is not meant to be a fear mongering exercise, as most visits are trouble free as long as you exercise some common sense.

However, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Information below has been compiled from:

 

1. Violent crime and terrorism

Map of safe and unsafe regions in Japan

Map of safe and unsafe regions in Japan. Source: smartraveller.gov.au

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Violent crime: rare, though there have been cases of drinks spiking and assault at entertainment and nightlife districts
  • Hazards: exclusion zones around the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant due to unhealthy radiation levels.
  • Hotspots: Roppongi, Kabuki-cho, and other entertainment and nightlife districts: scenes of violence between criminal syndicates.
  • Terrorism: no recent history, but should not be taken for granted.
  • Civil unrest: n.a.

 

What to do:

Stay alert and don’t look like an easy victim (e.g. looking like a tourist / flaunting valuables).

Not exactly a hotspot, but Airin / Kamagasaki is Japan’s largest slum so you might want to be careful around there.

Do not / avoid travelling to these areas – Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

 

2. Medical care

Tokyo Medical University Hospital

Tokyo Medical University Hospital. Source: Rs1421 / Wikimedia

 

How it works:

Healthcare standards are high in Japan.

Diseases to vaccinate against / watch out for include:

  • Insect borne diseases: dengue, chikungunya, Japanese encephalitis, Lyme Disease, malaria, tick-borne encephalitis.
  • Food and water borne diseases: travellers’ diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis A, schistosomiasis.
  • Animal borne disease: avian influenza, rabies, rubella.
  • Human borne disease: HIV, hand, foot and mouth disease.

 

What to do:

If you can’t afford travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads – our review), you can’t afford to travel, as:

  • Emergency health services can cost a bomb.
  • Insurance providers can make complex logistical arrangements to get you the best medical treatment fast.

Vaccinations to consider:

  • All travellers: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, flu shot.
  • Some travellers: Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Japanese Encephalitis (if in rural areas / outdoors), malaria (if in low altitude areas), rabies (if traveling outdoors or working with animals).

Prevent insect bites:

  • Protective clothing.
  • Insect repellents.
  • Insecticide treated bed / cot nets.
  • Plug-in insecticides.
  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass.

Food safety:

  • Practise safe hygiene such as washing hands with soap.
  • Only drink bottled water or water that has been boiled.
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, ice cubes, uncooked and undercooked food.

 

3. Natural disasters

 

How it works:                                          

A brief summary:

  • Earthquakes and tsunamis: in a major earthquake zone.
  • Volcanoes: 110 active ones.
  • Cyclones: May to September, Southern Japan more at risk.
  • Snowstorms and avalanches: December to March. Mountainous areas in Western Honshu and Hokkaido at risk.
  • Rainy season: July to September, may trigger flooding, especially along Indus River and in Sindh and Punjab districts.

 

What to do:

Effective preparation and prevention involves staying at the “right” place, travelling at the “right” time and getting travel insurance (e.g. World Nomadsour review) that covers natural disasters.

Check the latest media reports, weather forecasts and sources such as:

Reacting to one:

  • Earthquakes: drop (to hands and knees), cover (head and neck with arms), hold on (to sturdy furniture); expect aftershocks.
  • Tsunamis: signs include abnormal ocean activity and load roars. Protect yourself from an earthquake first if there is one. Else, get to a high ground as far inland as possible.
  • Volcanic eruption: avoid areas downwind and river valleys downstream of the volcano, do not drive in heavy ash fall, seek shelter (if no need to evacuate) or high ground if no shelter (crouch down away from volcano, cover head with arms).

 

4. Transport safety

 

How it works:

Roads are well maintained and driving here is safe, though some factors to watch out for:

  • Not knowing Japanese may hinder understanding of road signs.
  • Congested city traffic.
  • Narrow roads, no legal roadside parking though many are illegally parked curbside and blocks traffic partially.

As for public transportation:

  • Subway, trains and bus networks are well developed, safe and convenient.
  • Taxis are safe and reliable.

 

What to do:

Check latest media reports and weather forecast.

Stay alert, wear seatbelts, keep doors locked and windows up.

 

E. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Police in Japan

Police in Japan

  • Police: 110
  • Fire, ambulance: 119
  • Coast guard: 118
  • English helpline in Tokyo: 03-3501-0110 (only operational Monday to Friday, 08.30 – 17.15)

 

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