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THEIR TIME IS YOUR MONEY

Patience pays off for firms on standby to queue for you

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

With queuing playing such an important role in Japanese life — just watch any breathlessly excitable TV magazine program fearlessly reporting any day of the week on long lines outside noodle shops or dog groomers — there are even those who cash in on the phenomenon directly.

For the many benriyas (convenience companies) around the country that undertake any legal odd jobs, the business of lining up is now one of their most important sources of income.

Hiroshi Miyauchi, 48, has worked at Tokyo Benriya Jimusho for three years, one of many such companies in the capital.

“Up to 20 percent of our work is lining up for a client, such as for buying tickets for a popular concert, getting limited-edition brand items, or for otaku (geeky) people to buy collectors’ items at comic markets,” he said, citing Tokyo Big Sight in Koto Ward as a particular money-spinner, as it is often a venue for sales fairs of comic books and character goods.

While the average hours they queue are around six and the prices they charge around 15,000 yen, it is not rare for people like Miyauchi to have to stay in a line for more than 72 hours to get special brand items from makers like Hermes, he said.

The company gives discount for long queuing sessions, like 51,000 yen for 24 hours.

“Nights are tough, especially when it’s winter, raining or a combination of both. Even when people in front or behind me drop out, I can’t do it because it’s work, and that’s hard.”

On cold evenings, he said that colleagues will often bring him hot food and a futon or a sleeping bag if he’s going to be there overnight. But if it’s raining, he said, then even the warmest sleeping bag is no use, and he’ll just crouch all night holding an umbrella.

Among all the demanding queuing jobs he’s done, though, Miyauchi said that those to hand in application forms for famous private kindergartens are the worst. Now a veteran of several of these “events” — where he usually poses as an uncle of the client’s child — he commented: “I don’t understand why kindergartens employ such a system (where they only accept applications from a first-come, fixed number of people who physically hand in their forms), but because of that we have sometimes queued for as long as five consecutive days, around the clock, on three 8-hour shifts.”

Despite using such an irrational system, kindergartens claim it is forbidden to queue, and send teachers out every few days to scatter the line.

“When the teachers are out of sight, though, we of course emerge from our hiding places like behind trees and queue again. But it’s incredible, people always politely queue exactly in the same order as before!,” he chuckled, adding that people also cooperate with each other to take turns to go to the toilet or have a quick bite to eat. Miyauchi said he himself does not eat or drink during such queuing shifts — usually 8 hours at a time at his company — as it is bothersome to have to go to the toilet.

500 registered members

His company currently has eight staff, all male, with an additional 500 registered members on its books. These people are called on when they need women, people of a certain age, or lots of help.

Four years ago, when the company just started and had no registered staff, Miyauchi said they often used homeless people living in parks if rush jobs came in.

“It was nice because they were happy to have work and did it for just half the price,” he said. “But unfortunately, there were complaints from regular customers when we sent them to queue at brand shops.”

Although his company also provides “stoolies” to line up outside and make shops and restaurants look popular, he said that such requests don’t come along so often.

“Even when we did that kind of work, not many passers-by reacted,” he said. “I think what’s more important is that the items on sale themselves must be attractive.”

Nonetheless, Miyauchi said he could be almost certain that at least the first 10 people in line at any popular limited-edition brand sale would be agents like him. However, unless the clients live far away — in which case he pays on their behalf and sends the items by post — he said that to avoid any problems with payment he always gives over his place in the line to the client before the end.

And, even though his company’s home page claims its staff will do anything unless it is illegal, Miyauchi said it does not cooperate when it senses that the client is a company trying to do side business. Typically, he explained, these are firms who are looking to use agents to line up and buy lots of items and then resell them at a high markup. Dubbed “Ten-buyers” (wordplay using the Japanese word tenbai, meaning “resell,” and “buyers”), such companies often attract police attention.

In one case, for example, a Shinjuku Ward company president was arrested in April for buying loads of Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation portable computer games after enlisting a host of foreign students to line up in queues and claim a consumption tax waiver on the items, saying he was going to export them outside the country. In fact, the man was aiming to make a killing by selling them as new for the full retail price.

Meanwhile, Miyauchi said that other interesting queuing jobs the company gets include lining up to get public gallery seats for famous court sessions.

“We had a dozen staff out to get seats for Aum Shinrikyo (now Aleph) guru Shoko Asahara’s district court ruling in 2004, when he was handed the death sentence. We were overjoyed because we won two tickets amid loads of people.”

He believes his client at the Asahara trial was from the media. But in the case of the trial of economist and former Waseda University graduate school professor Kazuhide Uekusa — who was arrested in 2004 for using a mirror on a station escalator to peep up a high school girl’s skirt, and groping another one in a train in 2006 — he thinks that from the way he behaved, the client was most likely from the university.

Another interesting queuing job he recalls doing was to secure the best pachinko machines at a pachinko parlor, he said.

“Often, a client would check a pachinko parlor the day before and decide on about three machines he thinks pay out the most balls.

“Then, on the day of the job, me, another colleague and the client would queue from about 8 a.m. to secure these machines, then play for about an hour after the parlor opened at 10. When we knew which machine was the best, we’d hand it over to the client.”

Although he said some people who do the job have a hard time passing the time during the long hours of queuing — even with books to read, computer games to play and portable chairs to sit on — some find it enjoyable, making friends and chatting with other liners.

In reward for the boredom they may have suffered, at the end of a three-hour session of such work, Miyauchi said one of his company’s staffers would normally be paid about 9,000 yen.

Theatrical skills

Some of their other assignments, though, require more ingenuity and sometimes even theatrical skills, he said.

One typical job of a benriya involves participating at a client’s wedding, posing as friends or a guest of honor. This often happens when the social status of the bride’s guests and groom’s guests are not felt to be in balance, or when one or both sides have no friends or are unemployed, but want to pretend they have friends or a job by having their “friends” and “bosses” present.

“I once attended a wedding where all 70 guests — virtually everyone there apart from the couple and their relatives — were staff sent from my company. It was a hassle having to practice speeches as the groom’s boss or his best friend at high school,” he said.

But just imagine if the groom failed to turn up . . .

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All together now: Let’s form a line
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