Home > Focus on Japan 2004 > You Don’t Miss It

You Don’t Miss It

November 8th, 2004

Something happened to me tonight that rarely ever happens in Japan: I got panhandled. When I lived in San Francisco, and especially when I went downtown, panhandling was a daily nuisance–and you quickly learned never to give them anything, unless you enjoy being followed around for ten minutes by an annoyingly persistent bum making ever-increasing demands for larger denominations to be handed over. I once tried to give a guy what spare change I had, and he kept upping the ante with slick sob stories and lies about when local eateries closed, until he finally tried to convince me to give him $20, but he’d pay me back–he actually told me that he’d just been released from prison and so he really needed the money, but if I gave him my address he’d be sure to mail me back the money. Really, he actually tried that on me. I don’t know if he was an idiot, or if he thought I was.

But here in Japan, it almost never happens. The first time it did was way back in the 80’s when I was traveling in Japan, and a street person approached me as I finished buying a train ticket and asked for change–a good perch for him, people could not easily deny they had change after collecting it from the machine. There may have been one other time in the intervening years, but if so it has receded far enough into distant memory that I cannot recall the specifics. So it was a bit of a jar to have someone come up to me tonight and ask for money. I don’t know if the panhandlers target foreigners, but I suspect they do–I have the feeling that other Japanese would probably simply ignore him. Not from callousness, but rather because his behavior is unusual and strange, and the automatic reflex is to ignore such things, pretend they aren’t happening. As for me, I had just finished dealing with an enormously frustrating situation (another story) and did not feel quite so generous–regretted in hindsight, actually. But not too much. Just like some elderly people on the train tend to spot me on the rare case I get a seat and come to stand right in front of me because they’ll know I’m most likely to give it up, I often tend to resent it when I feel I’m being hit up because of my ethnicity.

Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with the panhandling every day here. It’s something you don’t even realize is missing until you see it like I did today. But you really don’t miss it.

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  1. November 9th, 2004 at 08:02 | #1

    I had a bit of a scary experience with panhandling once in Tokyo too. I had just gotten off the overnight bus to Tokyo, it was 6 am and I was pretty tired. I went into a train station and used the washroom. A Japanese man followed me into the ladies washroom and asked me for money in English. It scared me as there weren’t many people around, but I didn’t give him any.

    That was a few years ago though, maybe one reason I don’t go to Tokyo anymore?

  2. November 10th, 2004 at 05:09 | #2

    Not much has changed in SF. There are few places you can go in the city without seeing panhandlers and while most are rather passive, just sitting with a sign or asking as you pass by, all too often the rather aggressive panhandler will come up either demanding money, or just following you down the street for a bit. Homelessness and panhandling has remained one of the hot political issues in SF for over a decade now. While I did not get panhandled on either of my trips to Japan, it was my last trip when i started to see the homeless encampments around some parks and realize what a big problem it is there.

    Unfortunately it is all too easy to generalize on the people that are out on the streets here. There are of course those who choose to hang out on the streets and survive off the small amounts of money they can collect, and addicts to various substances to whom what money they can get can support their habits. Then of course there are many who just can’t afford a place to live in one of the most expensive cities in the US. But of the most aggressive of those I feel are those with mental illnesses who have few options. The lingering result of the Reagan policy of closing many institutions during his term of governer of the state of CA.

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