By Graham Earnshaw, Reuters
TOKYO, Aug 17, Reuter – Gary, a young New Zealander, glances warily at a police box 100 meters (yards) away and then down at the aluminium prints he has spread out on the pavement in central Tokyo.
“I’ve had to move twice this evening already, and I’m pushing my luck a bit here,” he said.
Nina, a young Israeli, stands under a railway bridge in the fashionable Tokyo shopping district of Ginza and offers the same aluminium prints to commuters hurrying past.
She is also keeping an eye out for police, and for gangsters known as Yakuza who sometimes demand kickbacks.
With Japan a front-runner for the title of the world’s most expensive country, many foreign tourists and even some foreign residents are becoming street vendors to make enough money to get by.
But unlicensed street vendors are illegal in Japan, and a police spokesman in Tokyo said he had never heard of a foreigner applying for a permit.
“It’s so expensive in Japan,” said Nina, 25, who like most of the street pedlars declined to give her full name.
“Many budget travellers in Japan get hold of some of these pictures and take them out to sell to make enough money to see them through here,” she added.
The pictures sell for 1,500 yen (10 U.S. dollars) each and on a good day, a seller can make as much as 50,000 yen (350 U.S. dollars). On a bad day, he may make nothing at all.
“More and more sellers are not just travellers passing through but residents trying to make ends meet,” said Bruce from Sydney, Australia, an array of jewellery and artifacts from Zaire spread out before him.
“There’s no way you can make real money, just enough to live on,” he said.
There are no official figures on the number of foreign hawkers in Japan, but an Austrian traveller doing a brisk trade in garishly-coloured surfing shorts bought in Bali estimated there were perhaps 200-250 working the Tokyo area.
Almost all the vendors sell the multi-coloured aluminium prints of yachts, pandas, pretty girls and rustic scenes, made in England and destined for suburban Japanese living room walls.
“They’re mostly sold by Israelis here,” said English teacher Stephen Donne from Guildford in Surrey who is trying, with little success so far, to move fake French designer polo shirts he bought in Hong Kong.
“The Israeli travellers have a tough time in this country. They can’t get proper jobs, but they have a way of buying a whole load of these aluminium prints very cheap,” he said.
The Yakuza gangsters are probably the main hazard, both for foreign street sellers and local Japanese doing the same thing.
“Sometimes the Yakuza come and nicely tell you to pack up and sometimes they come not nicely and tell you to pack up,” said the Israeli girl Nina. “Some people pay to keep them away, but I just leave. I’m only here a couple of months.”
“The Yakuza are a big problem,” agreed Eri, another Israeli working his pitch outside a disco in the entertainment district of Roppongi. “They want money or they beat you.”
Some vendors, however, do pay the Yakuza protection money.
“The pay-off depends on the place,” said Casey Davis from southern California, who is having a hard time interesting Japanese shoppers in his Nepalese silk trousers and Indian Hindu calendars.
“If you’ve got a really good spot it could be as much as 10,000 yen (700 U.S. dollars) for one night,” he said.
Another problem is territorial disputes between hawkers trying to hold on to choice positions.
There is a lot of competition. On a recent evening there were six people selling the aluminium prints in Roppongi — four Israelis and two Iranians.
“You have many enemies when you sell things in Japan,” said the surfing short vendor, Gernot from Linz.
He’s making more than enough to live on, but has to work hard to do so.
“On a normal day, I start work about 10 or 11 a.m. in the morning and finish around 1 a.m. It doesn’t leave much time for seeing Japan,” he said.