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Trust no one: Japan’s magazines offer a bleak message

by Michael Hoffman

“Hi it’s me listen I’m in trouble big trouble need money fast oh please Mama — HELP!’

Somehow it won’t go away, this infamous ore-ore telephone scam. It preys primarily on the well-to-do elderly. A fast-talking con artist pretending to be the target’s son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter or some other family connection or connection of a connection (at first it was usually a son or grandson; “ore” is an informal masculine first-person pronoun) relates a tale of woe (pregnant girlfriend, trouble with gangsters, heavy debts, car accident) in such rapid-fire speech as to be scarcely comprehensible, then, in tears, begs for a cash bailout — typically to be transferred into a specified bank account.

Variations have proliferated over the years as practitioners hone their techniques, but it’s all fruit from the same tree, and you have to wonder, considering the huge amount of publicity the scam has received and the dire warnings so widely broadcast: Why are people still falling for it?

The racket’s modern history goes back to roughly 2004, but Wikipedia finds an antecedent in a telegraph fraud in 1915. Technology changes, but every era has its shady characters whose considerable ingenuity is focused on easy money that you and I, or perhaps our parents, are at risk of unwittingly providing if we’re not careful.

Why aren’t we more careful? There have been cases in which bank staff, smelling a rat, have urged customers to reconsider the hasty and sizeable withdrawal they’re making — “Are you sure it’s your son? Shouldn’t you double-check?” — only to be told, “There’s no time!”

In Tokyo alone, police statistics show, there were 959 reported bilkings of this sort in the first six months of this year — slightly fewer than during the same period last year but involving 60 percent more money. Many victims are of advanced age and may not be thinking quite clearly. But that is at best a partial explanation. After all, it takes no small amount of resolve, steadiness and mental alertness to go to the bank, effect the demanded transaction and even rebuff well-intentioned professional calls for caution.

Is it possible the Japanese are natural-born suckers where their children are concerned? Journalist Shunichi Karasawa, writing in Shukan Shincho, thinks so. “In Japan,” he says, “when children weep, parents’ minds go blank.” Their hearts melt, their critical judgment fails them. To the point of taking an imposter’s voice for their own child’s? Well, families are not as close as they once were. Family members are increasingly strangers to one another — but when trouble strikes, it’s Mom and Dad to the rescue! No questions asked — as though skepticism would be a betrayal of a sacred trust.

Parents in other countries love their children too, Karasawa allows, “but Western countries are more individualistic. In the West, even when parents and children live under the same roof, there’s a clear distinction between ‘you’ and ‘me’ ” — a distinction that is less clear in Japan, where the parent-child bond is held to be lifelong, unconditional and self-sacrificing.

Modern life, we all know, makes nonsense of that time-honored ideal, but even anachronistic ideals are more powerful than cynics think. Let a grown child in trouble come crying to the aged parents and they are putty in his or her hands. If it weren’t so, wouldn’t ore-ore have died out years ago?

When something as unquestionably wholesome as family love can be so shamelessly manipulated, the question naturally arises: What else can be? Or to put it another way: Is nothing sacred?

The fear that nothing is may be as old as the hope that everything is. If older parents seem boundlessly trusting, younger ones (some, at least) are boundlessly suspicious. They are “realists”; they repose in no sacred trusts. They follow the news and know that awful things happen.

Are the anxieties generated by that knowledge realistic? Yes, very generally speaking; maybe not with respect to this or that particular situation. Case in point: “Can male day-care staffers be trusted to keep their hands off the little girls in their charge?” asked Aera magazine in its September issue. More specifically: Should they be allowed to change girls’ diapers?

The mere fact that such a question can arise would seem to demonstrate the fragility of the moral base on which any semblance of normal life must rest. Sexual urges seem more varied and less repressible these days. Aera raises no alarms and alleges no instances of misconduct. Its discussion is not of a problem but of the fear of one.

Aera interviews a 36-year-old Tokyo mother whose 4-year-old girl attends a day-care center where the staff breakdown is 10 women and two men, one of whom is in his 30s and unmarried. That’s not a crime and it’s not even suspicious — unless you’re the parent of a 4-year-old girl and prey to wild imaginings that may not be so wild, given outrages that are known to occur out there in the “real” world.

Aera’s informal poll shows that eight of 44 respondents share the mother’s unease. That’s not a fear epidemic. On the other hand, percentage-wise, it’s probably higher than the number of ore-ore targets (most calls are made at random) who bite the bait.

What a bleak picture emerges from the aforementioned vignettes: Trust is simple-minded, mistrust paranoid. We can’t let it end there, and indeed it would be unfair to. Most people, after all, manage (probably) to get through the day, and their lives, if not unscathed, then at least with an unshaken faith that human beings are good and their nearest and dearest positively lovable. The weekly Shukan Post discusses an ancient virtue that Confucius called filial piety — is it still alive? It is, it finds — most notably in an upsurge of affection among aging children for their aged and often infirm parents.

Courtesy of Shukan Post, then, we offer this parting image: of a man of 90-odd, a nursing-home resident, his intellect somewhat clouded, with a habit of telling and retelling (and retelling again) war stories, and singing war songs — a nuisance and a bore, in short. His son, in his 60s, visits him regularly, and one day his voice joined his father’s in song. The father stopped and looked at his son in amazement. There were tears in his eyes. The son blushed a little and said, “I learned it especially for you.”

  • Jeffrey H.

    In a world where Paranoia and Fear seem to be 2 things in this factor, I figure it is hard for many things, to have a budget, to have a job, to have a Relationship with a Female, these are the things that I know of, but in the real world, it seems to only lead to the Human Population to be depleted, never to have a life again, in Japan, it seems to have more problems than here in the US,

    As in a Song that was made by an Artist known as Todd Rundgren would say, a “No World Order” is needed.