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Bureaucracy and Political Incorrectness in Tokyo

A question. What exactly is the function of the shop in this photograph?


I will get to this in good time, but first, a little travelogue.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent the weekend in Tokyo. I did this because Tokyo is one of my very favourite cities, and because the 23 hour plane journey from Sydney to London is much more pleasant if you take a break in the middle. On Sunday morning, I went for a walk around Akihabara, famously the section of Tokyo where you go to buy the latest electronic products. This area consists mainly of a group of buildings filled with small shops and market like stalls selling components and generic products near the railway station, and a long wide street. Down both sides of this street are a large number of seven or eight floor shops that sell nothing but electronic equipment, in this case mainly consumer equipment. And, mixed in with the electronics shops, are manga shops. These are seven or eight floor shops selling nothing but comics. The comics sold on the lower floors are fairly innocuous, but get steadily more pornographic as you ascend the building, and those sold on the top level are quite hard core.


As I walked down the street, I was repeatedly approached by young Japanese women in short skirts who would hand me flyers about electronic products, or (usually in broken English) attempt to ask me if I already had DSL. (My answer, which was “Yes”, and “Anyway, I live in London” was not what they were looking for, although one of them thought it would be cool to live in London).


Not too different from what I might find in certain places in the west. But things would get stranger. Some of the laptop computers I saw in these shops were extremely impressive: the sorts of things that can only be bought outside Tokyo with great difficulty. I asked a salesman whether it was possible to buy one laptop in particular tax free, as if I bought it I would be taking it out of the country the next day. Apparently though, there is a complicated bureaucratic procedure that has to be gone through to do this, and in particular there is some form that he certainly did not have and that I should have obtained at the airport. Clearly he didn’t sell many computers to foreigners.

Large department stores will however provide some assistance to foreigners who want to buy tax free goods. Well, sort of.


But there did not seem to be much of this in Akihabara. And anyway, I was informed at the last possible moment, that laptop did not come with the English version of Windows. So, no laptop for me.

However, walking frustratedly down the street, I saw one shop on the other side of the street that was not an electronics or comic book store, the one that I posted the picture of at the top of this article. I was so intrigued by “Smokers’ Style” that I crossed the road and went in. This may or may not have been a good thing, as I was struck by an almighty stench when I entered. Yes, it was exactly what I might have guessed. I was in a room containing nothing but enormous ashtrays, vending machines, a few racks containing what looked like the sort of magazine you get on airlines advertising overpriced in flight duty-free goods that are only actually purchased by people in business class who have forgotten that it is their wedding anniversary, and Japanese men puffing on cigarettes.


I am not sure how this is quite profitable, but someone has set it up in Tokyo. Of course, if it was in London the Blairites would have denounced this place repeatedly and then shut it down, and heaven knows what Michael Bloomberg would have done in New York, but the Japanese seemed fairly relaxed about it. To this non-smoker, the environment was mind blowingly disgusting. None of the research attempting to connect passive smoking with cancer is particularly convincing, but this place would be an ideal location to test extreme cases, because this place must have more intense passive smoke than any other location in the known universe. But no harm in that. (At least, not to anyone other than the smokers, and that’s their business). Non-smokers simply don’t go in, unless they are curious foreigners like me. So I was out of there.

And I had other missions on my mind. Because so far I had only scratched the surface of how politically incorrect one can be in Tokyo. I headed for Shibuya, where I had a beer and some whale meat. Definitely red meat, a little gamey, the steak probably tasted a little more like lamb than beef. Delicious, though.


Here’s to scientific research.

17 comments to Bureaucracy and Political Incorrectness in Tokyo

  • Japanese sales tax of 5% is rarely worth the hassle of trying to get a rebate on. Even with the 5% added the computer (or digital camera) is way cheaper than in Europe. But if you do wantto do it then I seem to recall you just need the receipts when you go to the airport and to get the refund BEFORE you check in the bag containing the electronic thingy you just bought.

  • Michael, I saw the same shop when in Tokyo last month and wondered why they even thought there was a need for such a place given that Starbucks is just about the ONLY place in Japan one can’t light up in. Most of the Starbucks I noticed had more patrons standing immediately outside than sitting inside, while the Caffe Excelsiors were generally packed on the 2nd (smoking) floor.

    I was struck by the massive air ducts throughout the shop, sucking up the smoke and causing gale-force winds in the immediate area.

    BTW, despite 25 years of valiant searching, I have never found an electronic product that cost less in Japan than in either Hong Kong or the United States, including anything in Akihabara (excluding items that aren’t normally available overseas).

  • Andy

    I got back from a 2 week trip to Japan (including 1 wk in Tokyo) at the end of October. One of the coolest memories I have is sitting at some coffee shop in the Yaesu Mall (next to Tokyo Station Mall) that was the size of a large closet; I took out a Cuban cigar I bought at the department store and a Japanese woman sitting at the table next to me nearly had a heart attack when I whipped it out – it’s so BIG ;-)I lit it up and it was almost impossible to tell that anyone (including my ozone-depleting, 2nd-hand killer cigar) was smoking in the place. You could have let off a tear gas grenade in there and not noticed it.

    Ah, yes, the Japanese definitely DO get it when it comes to smoking.

  • You Know Who

    ….”so far I had only scratched the surface of how politically incorrect one can be in Tokyo.”

    Hmmm, could I suggest not only the whale meat restaurants, but the girly bars where they dress up as school girls, the bar which looks like the interior of a subway train and customers our encouraged to grope the girls hanging on to strap handles acting as short skirted commuters, the S&M club where you are invited to pour hot wax on the semi-naked girls suspended from the ceiling.

    Of course as a round-eyed Anglo you’ll appreciate being barred from Casinos and the “Japanese Only” brothels. The Japs are so un-PC its amusing.

  • Jim Burdo

    It seemed like every other shop in Akihabara advertised “duty free”. I just had to show them my passport to get a duty-free Canon Wordtank.

  • I remember visiting Akibara Bck in ’89. There were a lot of items that were not available in the US, and never did come here, like a sort of boom-box computer with the first CD-ROM drive I had ever seen. What I found particularly fascinating were the home appliances for the local market, like toilet seats with built-in swing-arm bidet spritzers and rice-cookers with more controls than a 747. I paticularly liked a little clothes dryer that hung from your shower rod and basically blew hit air from a hair-dryer type heater onto a maximum of 2 wet shirts. Everything was designed for people living in apartments about the size of the back seat of my 1996 Chevy.

  • I was in Tokyo for the first time a few weeks ago and spent the morning at the Tsukiji fish market. It has nearly ruined domestic sushi for me….

  • Whoever


    Living in central London as I do, and therefore being used to apartments the size of the backseat of your 1996 Chevy, these gadget sound handy. Perhaps when the property market finally collapses the people converting warehouses into shoebox apartments will switch to importing Japanse consumer home appliances.

  • Anyone get the flyer-distributing gal’s phone number ? 🙂

    I’m hoping that I’ll be able to travel to Tokyo in early November next year. 11/03 will be the fiftieth anniversary of Gojira – which was re-edited and re-released as Godzilla two years later. Maybe a blogger bash could be arranged.

  • And 11/05 will be a big day, too – my 44th birthday.

  • Mark Smith

    Forget whale meat and gadgets. Friday or Saturday evenings at such establishments as What the Dickens are what makes Tokyo such a magical place for the lonely male gaijn 😉

  • I found that shops in Akihabara that had big “Duty Free” signs tended to have relatively small sections devoted to duty free products for westerners, and the selection of products in those sections is not all that large. Shopping duty free in the rest of the stores seemed harder, judging by the reactions I got. Of course, I was looking at computers, which are more localised than things like cameras, which tend to be the same for everyone. It may have been that if I was looking for a camera, things would have been different. Or it might have been that I just chose the wrong stores. And I didn’t see a GST refund counter at the airport, although that doesn’t prove that there isn’t one. (Certainly if you buy tax free in Australia you have the option of either getting the shop to look at your passport and ticket and fill out a form and not charge you or getting a refund at the airport. This is a good state of affairs, and in Japan it at least wasn’t nearly as obvious).

    As for prices, like the Ronin I have generally found Japan to be expensive for electronic products, especially compared to places like Hong Kong and Singapore. (Both these places are more expensive than they once were, but bargains can certainly still be found if you know where to look). I thought the prices in Japan this time were reasonable though. Competitive with western prices, but not necessarily cheaper. Akihabara is a fabulous place to visit just to look around though. You can get some idea where electronics in Japan are going, and where the west may or may not follow. I have various thoughts on where the mobile phone market is going that I must write up as another post.

    And yes, the Tsukiji fish market is a must see in Tokyo. I didn’t go there this time, but I did so on a previous visit.

  • Kresh

    I spend a few days in Tokyo while in the US Navy and found it to be a SMASHING place. Especially nice was the little coffeshop chock full of old jazz records. *sigh* Possibly the best coffee I’ve ever had in my life…and not just because of the beans.

    Then again, the girls handing out the caffinated gum in the downtown area were nothing short of stunning. The gum wasn’t too bad either, but it was the first spicy gum I ever had. Worked far too well, I’ll add, and made the train ride back to base very interesting.

  • RE: Duty-Free/Tax refund at airport in Japan: Like Michael, I’ve never seen a tax refund kiosk at any of the four airports I’ve used. All stores have the capability of allowing duty-free shopping on-site. I’ve been told that some places don’t want to be bothered, although I’ve never had that problem for any purchase over $100 anywhere in Japan.

    There is a standard form for it. The passport gets a copy of the form stuck inside next to the Japanese disembarkation form and both are removed when exiting Japan. Although I’ve never thought about it, I guess the seller ends up paying the tax if the customer loses/removes the certificate from the passport before departure because that is the only way the government can verify that the item actually left.

  • Friends of mine who were born in Japan, but left by age 5, always have liked shopping for electronics in Tokyo when they visit relatives. It’s not that things are cheaper than anywhere else, it’s all about the stuff that never makes it across the Pacific! Japan is the most wealth Asian nation, and with the living space pressure, it’s the biggest market for small and neat electronics.

  • Brian

    “A couple of weeks ago, I spent the weekend in Tokyo. I did this because Tokyo is one of my very favourite cities…”

    Two surprises: you spent the weekend in Tokyo? Hell, simply getting there from the airport must have taken up a fair chunk of the time. And you say it’s one of your very favourite cities? You must have been in some pretty bad places!
    By the way, I hope you enjoyed the whale meat: it contains more heavy metal per pound than just about any other food you can buy.

  • Michael, did you go to the same restaurant as I did? I have a post about it here, see if you recognise the menu.