Sweets we bought on the street turn out to be suspiciously delicious.

After finishing work the other day, our Japanese-language reporter Yuichiro Wasai was walking to the station to catch a train home when a young woman called out to him. He’d never seen her before, and for a second he almost thought she might be about to ask him out on a date.

It quickly became apparent, though, that the woman didn’t speak much Japanese at all. Instead, she pointed towards the sign she was holding, on which she’d written, in Japanese:

“I’m having trouble making ends meet during the coronavirus pandemic. Please buy my homemade chocolate.”

Speaking in broken Japanese, the woman said she was a foreign student currently going to school in Japan, and this set off some warning bells in Yuichiro’s head. Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been an increase in non-Japanese people selling various trinkets on the street, usually with some sort of story about how they’re in Japan on a student visa but no longer able to support themselves. Their stories are often vague and lack specific details, though, and it’s hard to get answers to any further questions, as the sellers often say they don’t speak Japanese well enough to understand the query or convey the answer. In other words, it’s hard to tell if they’re legitimate students going through a rough patch, or just scam artists looking to profit off kindhearted people’s sympathy.

When Yuichiro asked if he could take a picture of the woman’s sign, the woman said no, he couldn’t, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence. “What if she’s lying?” Yuichiro thought. “Maybe this is part of some scam operation and I’ll be funding a bunch of fraudsters?” But then the little compassionate angle aspect of Yuichiro’s psyche settled on his shoulder, and in his stomach. “Maybe she’s telling the truth, and anyways, you know you like chocolate, dude. She’s asking 500 yen [US$4.80] a bag, and if she honestly is hard up for cash, you’d be helping her out.”

There’s another wrinkle to the debate, which is that unlicensed selling of goods on the street like this is technically illegal. In the end, though, Yuichiro decided to buy some of the woman’s chocolate, and actually ended up getting two bags, since he didn’t have any coins on him and didn’t want to look like a cheapskate buy asking a starving student for change for a 1,000-yen bill.

Once he got back home Yuichiro took a look at what he’d bought, and yeah, the bag definitely had a cute, do-it-yourself vibe to it, totally in keeping with someone who’d whipped up a batch of chocolates in their kitchen.

The bags were clear on their backside, and flipping them over he could see each morsel was individually wrapped. There was even a best-by date sticker on them, and this indication of care towards his gastronomic health was a nice, reassuring touch.

Yuichiro had actually never eaten a woman’s homemade chocolate before, and he was curious to see what the pieces looked like. Unwrapping one, he found its outer rustically bumpy.

Now it was time for a taste. He was still a little worried, though, and so he kept a paper towel handy to spit the chocolate out into if it tasted suspicious. He then took a deep breath, followed by a bite, and…

it was delicious! Creamy and sweet, the flavor quickly convinced him that the woman must be a confident chef, and he nodded in understanding of why someone with her talents would think to make money with her culinary skills if she were in a financial pinch. The chocolate was so good that Yuichiro quickly reached for another piece, and before he knew it he’d finished off an entire bag.

But while his stomach was now filled with chocolate, something else was stuck in his mind. Remember how each piece of chocolate was individually wrapped? Something about the graphic design looked just a little too polished. He also was curious about the message written on the wrappers: “bianco cuore.”

Granted, a bit of European-language text on Japanese packaging isn’t anything new, but something about this seemed significant. So he Googled the phrase, and learned that there’s a brand of candy with the exact same name that you can buy online from Rakuten, and also at Costco branches in Japan.

But hey, maybe that’s just a coincidence, right? The only way to be sure would be to order some, so that’s exactly what Yuichiro did.

After a few days, his Rakuten shipment came, and he opened up the box to inspect them side-by-side with his remaining bag of “homemade” chocolate, starting with the individual wrappers.

▼ Left: “homemade” chocolate
Right: Rakuten chocolate

Next, he unwrapped one piece of each (again, “homemade” on the left, Rakutan on the right).

And last, he took a bite of each.

Conclusion? They’re exactly the same, and since Bianco Cuore, according to the package of the bag he got from Rakuten, is made in Italy, there’s no chance at all that the chocolate Yuichiro bought from the woman was made in her kitchen.

Still, bighearted guy that he is, Yuichiro still wants to give the woman the benefit of the doubt. “Maybe she didn’t understand that the word she wrote on her sign tezukuri, means ‘homemade,’ and just thought it means ‘delicious?’” he theorizes. “Japanese is a tough language to learn, after all.”

Speaking from the perspective of someone who studied Japanese as a second language, though, that excuse would be hard to swallow. Tezukuri comes from the words te (“hand”) and tsukuru (“make”), i.e. something you made/cooked with your own hands, and since practically every foreigner learns te and tsukuru before they learn tezukuri, it’s pretty easy to grasp that it means “homemade” in regards to food.

Speaking of linguistics, in Japanese the word amai means both “sweet-tasting” and “gullible.” We’ve got a hunch both definitions apply to Yuichiro’s experience, but hey, it’s hard to be too upset when life gives you an excuse to buy three bags of chocolate.

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