Japan

9 Travel Scams In Japan & How You Can Avoid Them

Travel scams in Japan & how to stay safe while travelling


For most people, a trip to Japan is paradise, with its beautiful cherry blossoms to spot, ski resorts, and glorious food. But just like travelling anywhere, it’s also a place where unlucky encounters with scammers can ruin your vacation. To ensure your next trip to Japan is subarashii, here’s a list of travel scams in Japan and how to avoid them.

Trigger warning: there are mentions of trafficking and dubious consent in this article.


Is Japan safe for travellers?


Despite being one of the most honest countries in the world, there are still people who try to take advantage of others. So how do you avoid falling for scams? It may sound overplayed and common-sensical, but truly, being vigilant is the best way to avoid getting scammed. Always look out for indicators of suspicious goings-on, double-check prices, and be on your guard against strangers.

There are a few areas in Japan that are known to have the highest number of tourist scammers, specifically Shinjuku, Roppongi, and Akihabara in Tokyo. This doesn’t mean you should avoid these districts, but it’s something to remember ahead of your visit. Additionally, some of these locations have been outfitted with signs and broadcast announcements, reminding you to stay alert.

Some other measures include getting good travel insurance, notifying your bank that you’re travelling, turning on spending alerts on your credit cards, and having local contacts who can aid you in case things get out of hand.


What should I do if I get scammed in Japan?


If, in spite of your best efforts, you still get scammed, there are steps you can take to reduce their impact.

The first step would be to call the police and explain your situation to them. The emergency number for the Japanese police is 110 – it’s toll-free and you can even call from payphones. You can also try contacting your respective embassy in Japan, especially if there is passport theft involved and no way home.

Finally, you can report your incident to Japan’s Anti Fraud site, which allows the police to categorically solve your issue. The site also has other resources and news for you to keep handy.

For Singaporeans, keep a list of all the important contacts you need to have in Japan, which you can find on the MFA website.


Most common travel scams in Japan


1. Hoodwinked by fake monks at temples


The Fake Monk scam is one of the most infamous travel scams in Japan. The scam involves a person disguised as a monk and crouched near temples and shrines, waiting to hit on unknowing tourists. Their usual modus operandi is to sell bracelets and trinkets marketed as donations for the temple, while they pocket the cash.

Another version of the scam involves a “monk” promising to show you around the temple, and then charging an excessive amount of money after the tour.

How to avoid: Although donations are common practice and monks are a common sight, you can always double-check with locals around. Traditionally monks simply wait with their alms-bowl for donations, instead of selling items, which could be another useful indicator.


2. Getting served roofies or enormous bills at bars


One of the scarier cons in Japan is the bar scam, most commonly seen in Shinjuku and Roppongi. There are two ways this grift goes about:

The first involves a person approaching you on the street, claiming their bar has an all-you-can-drink special for very cheap, with attractive escorts or freebies.

A horrifying surprise awaits when it’s time to pay the bill. You’ll see that nothing was really free or cheap, and is actually priced at thousands of dollars. If you’re unable to pay, the bar owner will send thugs with you to an ATM and beat you up till you cough up the cash, or worse.


Golden Gai alley in Shinjuku
Image credit: @kennethkingong via Instagram

The other form that the bar scam can take starts with the same premise: a person coming up to you advertising their bar, or groups asking you to party with them. This time, however, the drinks at the bar are spiked with a sedative, which leads you to black out, your cash and cards left to their mercy.

How to avoid: There isn’t any other way to avoid this besides simply ignoring the hard sell. Politely refuse, and walk on. Spontaneity is fun and all, but no one wants to be stripped penniless and stranded in a foreign country.


3. Fake charities asking for donations


In the same vein as the monk scam are fake charities asking for donations. These are prevalent in many countries, even in Singapore, and all use the same tactic of tugging at your heartstrings to gain access to your pockets. The usual charities quoted are disaster relief or orphan causes.

The worst part of these hoaxes is that they take away funding from actual causes, as the risk of being hoodwinked deters potential donors.

How to avoid: There really is no right way to avoid these scams, aside from assuming that everyone who approaches you for donations is working a grift. You could ask for more information, a website, or how exactly the money goes to the charity, which usually wards off the tricksters.


4. Being trafficked by dodgy model scouts


Flattery stings with this scam in Japan. The model scam involves a person complimenting a tourist – usually a solo female traveller – on the street, and asking them to join their modelling agency, or to model for a shoot.

When you do end up joining their gig, you could find yourself exploited for a horrendously NSFW shoot. On other rare occasions, victims were drugged and sold into the commercial sex industry. In other cases, you might be charged a membership fee, which the scout pockets before ghosting you.

How to avoid: The best practice would obviously be refusing, but model-scouting on the streets is actually quite common in areas like Tokyo. So if you really do want to try your hand at modelling, you can always ask for more information before giving away your details or following them.

Do the necessary background checks on their supposed agencies, don’t follow them alone, and meet with them in public spaces. If your gut tells you something’s up, you might be wise to listen.


5. Shopping scams and fakes


Japan has some of the most stylish trendsetters around. But just like anywhere else, there are often knock-offs and fakes that flood the market in tourist-heavy shopping areas, in particular Shinjuku and Harajuku.

You’d either be getting a deal that’s too good to be true or paying an authentic equivalent for a knock-off. These can not only ruin your bank balance but also be all for nought if you thought you’d purchased an investment piece.

How to avoid: It’s a good rule of thumb to do as much background work as you can before making a big purchase. Find out how to distinguish between knock-offs and the real thing, and have a strong stomach to dodge hard-selling vendors.


6. Booking a hotel that doesn’t exist


This has only ever happened once on record, but in 2023, an unfortunate group of people turned up at their hotel in Japan, only to find that it didn’t exist. The hotel was listed on a credible booking website, but still somehow managed to slip through the cracks of verification, with fake images and write-ups.

How to avoid: The easiest way to avoid this is through thorough research. Check out reviews from different credible booking websites and look for the hotel’s own site and social. As an added security measure, you can even reverse-image search the photos posted by the listing.


7. Meet-n-greets with a high price tag


This hustle involves a person, or a group of people – usually women – asking unsuspecting tourists to take a photo with them. All is well, until the photo is taken and an exorbitant charge is slapped on the victim. If they don’t pay up, the scammers will hue and cry until you pay up in embarrassment.

Though it’s extremely simple, scammers have still been able to extort quite a bit of cash from tourists this way. Thankfully, it isn’t a common trick but has been reported in touristy areas in Kyoto.

How to avoid: This is another case of politely declining to get out of it. Claim that it’s for privacy reasons, or pretend you’re otherwise engaged on a phone call.


8. Getting counterfeit change from vendors



Image credit: Bank of Japan

Japan is a very cash-based society, with cashless transactions being inaccessible in many tourist-heavy spots. Because of this, some Japanese vendors and taxi drivers could give you your change in counterfeit notes. Using these notes in further transactions can risk getting you in trouble with the authorities, leaving you with a new rolodex of troubles.

How to avoid: Luckily, Japan has several security features on their banknotes like watermarks, semi-transparent patterns, and tactile marks that you can check for. It may take a few minutes of your time, but it will well be worth it.

You can find the full list of security features of Japanese banknotes on the Bank of Japan website.


9. No-show escorts & scheming pimps


For those who want to explore the red-light districts of Japan, look out for scam prostitutes and pimps. As soliciting on the street is illegal in most areas of Japan, fake prostitutes contact victims on social media and ask for hefty down payments before meeting. The victim usually arrives at an agreed location to find that their rendezvous never shows up, with no trace of them on social media.

Sometimes pimps and brothel owners may approach you on the streets, talking a big game about their businesses, only to take you and threaten you with large bills before any service has been rendered.

How to avoid: Partaking in the commercial sex industry requires a lot of careful research, which can be difficult due to its taboo nature. For the most part, try to avoid any down payment requests, and definitely turn down sleazy pimps on the street.


Beware of these travel scams in Japan

Don’t be too spooked by all these scams or be put off travelling to Japan, as it’s still one of the safest countries in the world. You’ll find that most of the preventative measures are not too complex – follow your instincts and walk away when something seems fishy.

If you’re planning your Japan trip soon, check out our guide on the best time to visit Japan to escape more crowded, scam-prone seasons. While you’re at it, you can also read our Japan transport guide, so that you know your stuff before travelling around the country.

 

Ezekiel Sen

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