Door-to-door visits are relatively uncommon in Japan. Most Japanese are hesitant to invite people into their homes or to visit other homes, except in formal situations (such as aying respect to the dead) or in the case of very close friends, particularly those with children. Nevertheless, there are seven kinds of people who will come to your home. Sadly, almost all of them are up to no good, and should be avoided at all costs. As April is an especially popular time for some of these scams and nuisances, here’s what to watch out for.
April: Start of the Fiscal and Academic Year in Japan
The Japanese fiscal and academic year runs from April 1 to March 31, which makes the final weeks of March through the beginning of April a period of major upheaval throughout the country. Aside from students moving to college or graduates moving from their college area to the locations of their new jobs, intra-company transfers and job changes all tend to happen around this same period.
With so many people moving to new places, including many who have never lived on their own before, this is a prime season for the door-to-door nuisances that plague Japan. If you’re living in Japan, even if you haven’t moved, here are some of the things that you want to look out for this time of year, based on my experience.
Basic Rule for Answering Your Door
If someone comes to your house that you did not specifically request, and they are not wearing a delivery company or post office uniform, don’t answer the door. After a recent incident in which a on-duty policeman tried to abduct an elementary school girl(link to Japanese article) after reading too many erotic comic books, I would recommend you don’t open your door to cops, either.
This is not to say that you are unsafe in Japan or that everyone that comes to your door is necessarily bad (some are), but most of them are just salespeople and a complete waste of your time. So, save yourself time and stress by ignoring them. Don’t worry: Anyone legitimate will leave documentation in your mailbox.
Here are the seven people that will come to you door, in decreasing order of annoyingness.
The Bad: Scams and NHK
7. Home Inspection Scams
This is something you are more likely to see in areas with a lot of college students moving into apartments for the first time, or perhaps new graduates moving into apartments close to a factory or other facility that hires a lot of new employees each year: False Home Inspections.
When I was working at a university in Shiga prefecture, students reported that “maintenance men” had been coming to their apartment to try to gain access to inspect their fire suppression systems or fire extinguishers. If permitted to inspect they would then find “serious problems” that required repair and replacement and would essentially use the supposed authority of their position to bully the residents into paying absurd amounts of money to replace fire extinguishers and smoke detectors. Fortunately, I never heard of these scams getting any worse than overpaid, unnecessary maintenance work, but it is possible.
Bottom Line: All repairs and inspections of your residence should be arranged by your landlord. If someone comes to your door without your landlord, ignore them. If you get a flyer about an upcoming inspection, take it to your landlord to make sure that it is legitimate (these can be fake to lend more air of authority to the scammers). Never pay for repairs to the basic infrastructure of a rented property unless it’s something that you specifically damaged and you have already arranged it with your landlord. If someone comes to your door dressed in maintenance-like clothing, ignore them.
6. NHK Contract Pressure
Apparently, not all NHK money collectors are a scam. Believe it or not, the tax-funded national broadcaster is actually allowed to send people to your house to ask you to sign up for contracts to pay for the TV channel that they broadcast free. If you have an antenna on your house, or live in an apartment building with an antenna, they will come by. If you have a BS satellite dish, they will demand that you sign a contract for that, too. Their logic is that since you are receiving their broadcast, you should pay for it. Never mind that you can’t avoid receiving it and that NHK programming is generally worthless, unless you really like watching live broadcasts of the Diet. Also, the monthly NHK contract is more expensive than the monthly fees for adult TV channels here. Really, Abe?
Aside: A few years ago a company started mailing out expensive drug shipments to elderly people who hadn’t ordered them, then refused returns and demanded that the recipients pay for what they had received. They went to jail for that, but as far as I can tell, that is precisely NHK’s business model, so it hardly seems fair.
Scam Warning: The door-to-door NHK representatives (contracted companies) are not authorized to collect payments directly. They will issue you contract paperwork that you then have to pay yourself from a bank or convenience store, or something like that. If they try to collect payment themselves, that is a scam.
The people who go around trying to sign you up for contracts are not NHK employees. That job is contracted out to local corporations. I recently saw a recruiting ad for one such corporation in my town here. You can bet that April is going to be a big time for these people, as they’ll be getting in a wave of new employees, like everywhere else, so there’ll be a wave of eager faces hitting your town soon.
Bottom Line: Ignoring these people is the best way to go. Basically, if anyone ever comes to your door and holds up an ID card to the video doorphone or window, you can and should ignore them. (If they’re not a scam or NHK, then they fall into one of the categories below). Alternatively, if they keep coming back, go out there and explain to them in English that you do not speak Japanese and that you only have a TV to watch DVDs from your home country. I, for one, am not going to pay for a channel that I don’t watch!
The Annoying: Sales and Missionaries
4 (Tie). Sales
As I understand it, door to door sales are not exactly allowed, but there are some exceptions and if you live in a residential neighborhood, especially in a house, you are likely to run in to some of these.
For example, a company that is doing construction or renovation can, in typically polite Japanese fashion, go around to the houses in the neighborhood to apologize in advance for the noise and nuisance their work will cause, and, oh, by the way, this is the kind of work we’re doing, and we’re in the neighborhood, so if you need any similar projects, please let us know.
Bottom Line: Ignore anyone in a suit that comes to your door. They may also be wearing an ID (see NHK, above), so you can ignore them on that basis, as well.
4 (Tie). Missionaries
Ranging from the easy-to-identify foreign Mormons to the slightly more stealthy Japanese home-grown “new religions” (like that Aum cult that attacked the Tokyo subways), missionaries can be challenging to spot sometimes. Mormons are easy, thanks to their nametags and suits. For the Japanese religions, the most common pattern I have seen is a pair of 30-40-something aged women with big smiles and questionable fashion sense. The common theme is pairs. They almost always roam in pairs.
Incidentally, just last week, I got a flyer in my mailbox for a Mormon English Conversation School, along with their regular propaganda. Tricky, tricky, tricky!
Bottom Line: Ignore pairs of people at your door, even if they are the first foreign faces you have seen in a while.
3. Junk Mail Distributors
Rated as less annoying than sales and missionaries only because they don’t ring your doorbell. They just leave their junk and go on their way, though you may run into them if you leave your house at the wrong time. “Direct mail” (DM, in Japanese) is still a big thing in Japan. Almost every week, you’ll end up with a half kilogram of flyers from businesses. It’s great if you moonlight as a paper mache artist, but otherwise it’s just crap that you have to pay to throw out.
The Good: Local Autonomous Government and Neighbors
2. Neighbors and Neighborhood Association
If you are living in a house (rented or owned), and in some cases in a smaller apartment complex or row house in a residential neighborhood, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to join the local autonomous government organization, or 自治体 (jichitai). If you live in a rural area like we do, you will probably find that most members are in their late 50s, at least. Because of this, I thought for a long time that the organization was called the じいじ体 (jijitai) or “grandpas’ group.”
That misunderstanding aside, if you are able to hold a basic conversation in Japanese, I recommend joining the jichitai. That is the subject for a later post, but the point with the jichitai and your neighbors in Japan is that you go out and meet them, first. You don’t wait for them to come to you. So, by the time they come round to your house, hopefully you’ve already met them. Again, moving is a subject for another post, but in any case, you’ll get used to the people who live around you and you should be saying hi when you pass them on the street or in the elevator, anyway.
Scam Warning: There are some scam artists who will masquerade as jichitai representatives. I had a mad come to my house in Shiga who claimed to be collecting money for a jichitai project, but he was nobody I’d ever seen before. There are legitimate people collecting money for these organizations, but if you’re ever suspicious, just tell them that you don’t have the cash on hand, but that you’ll bring it to the president’s house later. If they insist on collecting then, you’ll know you have a scammer on your hands.
Bottom Line: When you move to a new area, make sure you meet your neighbors and the president of the neighborhood association (and his wife). It’s good manners, and i will protect you from any impostors.
The Best: Deliveries
1. Packages and Mail
Not much to say here. Deliverymen will always have a uniform and usually a package or a registered mail letter, and if you have a video doorphone, you may be able to see the truck or van parked behind them. (If you live in a typically thin-walled Japanese house, you probably heard it pull up, too). You’ll probably also know they’re coming since you ordered whatever it is they’re bringing!
Bottom Line: Answer the door! Who doesn’t love packages?
And that wraps it up.
Did I miss one, or perhaps fail to cover an important point? Let me know in the comments below?