A tap on the shoulder leads to a flag in the hand and a request to pay for it.

Recently, one of the big topics on social media in Japan has been foreigners in Japan “selling” flags on the street. We put “selling” in quotation marks because the tactics they employ don’t really conform to the standard way shopping transactions are supposed to happen.

It turns out our own Japanese-language reporter P.K. Sanjun ran into one of these flag sellers not too long ago. In January, he was hanging out in Tokyo’s Ueno neighborhood. Walking around the Ameyoko shopping streets, he stopped in front of the local branch of electronics retailer Yodobashi Camera, where he crouched down to get a better look at the wares being sold by the gachapon vending machines (keeping abreast of capsule toy trends is, after all, part of our job here at SoraNews24).

▼ Ameyoko

But as P.K. was checking out the Pokémon cosplay hoods for cats and other tempting trinkets, he felt a hand on his shoulder. Standing up to see who’d tapped him from behind, he saw a Caucasian man in his 20s, and as soon as P.K. turned around, the man, without saying a word, pressed a Japanese flag into his hand.

Before P.K. could even think “What is this dude trying to do?” the man pulled out a small card and showed it to him. Confused and agitated, P.K. wasn’t sure what language the card was written in, though with its Latin alphabet characters he assumes it was English. But what he didn’t need an translation to understand the part that said “¥500” (¥ being the symbol for “yen”).

At this point, it was clear that the man wanted P.K. to pay him 500 yen (US$4.50) for the flag, which he’d already forced into P.K.’s possession. However, P.K., like virtually every other person in Japan, doesn’t ever find himself randomly walking around town and thinking “You know what? I really want to buy a flag of my home country, and RIGHT NOW!”

So P.K. reversed the handover and put the flag back in the man’s hand, telling him “No thank you” in English, figuring that the silent man was more likely to understand English than Japanese. The man reacted with neither anger nor sadness, and walked away to start handing flags to other people on the street and asking for their money.

P.K. isn’t our only staff member to have a run-in with the flag sellers either. About a year ago, our reporter Go Hatori had a young Caucasian woman in Shibuya, near the famous Scramble Intersection, wordlessly hand him a Japanese flag and show him a card claiming she was deaf, and asking him for 500 yen in return for the flag he hadn’t asked her for in the first place.

▼ Shibuya

In both our reporters’ cases, the encounter was over before they could snap a picture, but photos on social media from others who’ve run into the flag-selling foreigners confirm that claiming to be deaf is a common part of their sales pitch, as is approaching people in busy sightseeing or entertainment districts. It’s currently unknown whether the sudden increase of flag-sellers is because of a coordinated effort by some sort of managing organization, or if the situation is one of individuals copying each other’s cards and tactics.

While this practice of handing over an undesirable item first, then asking for payment while claiming a disability later, has been common in several other countries for many years, it’s been relatively unheard of in Japan until fairly recently, at least on the scale it’s taking on. It’s particularly sad to see it beginning to make inroads in Japan, where the group-oriented nature of society makes it extremely difficult for many Japanese people to firmly turn down a request from someone in need and the value of responsibility and reciprocation is likely to make a large portion (compared to other countries) of flag recipients feel morally obligated to pay the 500 yen. Add in the fact that Japan is extremely self-conscious of the fact that it has a different language and customs than the rest of the world, making many people react to misunderstandings with foreigners by trying to be accommodating, and the flag sellers, either by design or coincidence, appear to be trying to take advantage of the compassionate, caring aspects of Japanese culture.

“Regardless of their identities or motives, if you don’t want the flag, don’t give them any money,” says P.K. “That’s something that goes for any shopping or donation decision: If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.”

Photos ©SoraNews24
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