It’s a fake world. Alternatively: All the world’s a stage.

One day two years ago (as Shukan Bunshun magazine reported recently) a 76-year-old woman got something in the mail. A business pamphlet of some sort, something about an “investment diamond” — if she would buy it for ¥1.5 million, the company (A. Ltd., let’s call it) would buy it back from her for ¥2 million, and she’d be ¥500,000 ahead.

Soon afterward there came a phone call. A young man from A. Ltd.; had she received their pamphlet? Yes, she had, she said, and it seemed rather strange. Not at all, said the man, it’s quite routine, this is how the “investment diamond” business works. He was friendly, engaging, “not the sort to lie,” she said later. At one point his frankness expressed itself in tears: “If I don’t make a sale I’ll get fired.” The woman sympathized; she’d think it over, she said.

The next phone call purported to come from “the police.” An “investment diamond scam” was making the rounds, said the “officer” very gravely; had she heard from anyone purporting to be in that line? She had, as a matter of fact.

“From whom, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“From A. Ltd.”

“Oh, A. Ltd.,” said the “officer.” “That’s OK, they’re safe, they’re reputable.”

The rest of the story pretty much tells itself. Ruefully, the swindled woman acknowledges the lesson learned, yet she insists it wasn’t greed that clouded her judgment: “I only wanted to be helpful.”

From primitive beginnings in the “ore-ore” scams (fast-talking caller poses as the child or grandchild of the mark, claims to be in a desperate jam, needs money fast, very fast, immediately, no time to lose, “my bank account number is …,” “please grandma, please, help me, they’ll kill me!”), fraud has evolved over the past 15 years to such a level of sophistication that the only defense, really, is to trust nobody.

And keep your hands to yourself. In your pockets, preferably. Shukan Gendai magazine presents us with an unsolved mystery. A Japanese word that’s gone as global as sushi is “chikan” (“groping” or “groper”). On May 11, a man getting off a late-night train at Ueno Station in Tokyo was seized as an alleged chikan. He protested his innocence; he’d done nothing, groped no one, what was happening? Suddenly he bolted. That was foolish, no doubt, flight being tantamount (so they say) to an admission of guilt. On the other hand, maybe he had seen a movie that was a big hit 10 years ago, “Soredemo Boku wa Yatteinai” (“I Just didn’t Do It”), about an accused groper who really hadn’t done it but had to spend years in prison and in court proving his innocence.

Or maybe, knowing what every informed citizen should know about the law — namely that, guilt or innocence aside, police can detain a suspect for up to 23 days for questioning before a charge is, or is not, filed — he saw flight as the less reckless alternative. And so he fled, only to be recaptured and to bolt again. He ran along the train tracks, shook off his pursuers, scrambled up to the roof of a six-story building and jumped to his death.

So much had already been reported when Shukan Gendai came out with its “scoop.” The magazine claims to know who the man was. It doesn’t name him, but identifies him as the manager of a posh Tokyo hotel, a man with a sterling reputation among his colleagues and in the industry at large, a man thoroughly dedicated to, and remarkably successful in, his business. The overwhelming consensus among acquaintances the magazine speaks to is that chikan would be totally out of character for him; he would never have done such a thing. Of course, people do sometimes behave out of character, it’s not unheard of. They get stressed, lose their bearings. Then again, not all women who cry “chikan” are 100 percent trustworthy.

Sometimes, as in the movie, it’s an honest mistake. Confused, humiliated, in shock and under intense pressure, the victim identifies the wrong man. Sometimes it’s less innocent — a shakedown, easy money. No one wants to be a sucker, but it’s better than being a suspect. (Maybe taking out “chikan insurance” is a good idea, the fact that it’s available being a measure of the risk.)

The mystery Shukan Gendai leaves us with may never be solved. To wit: What really happened that night on the train? Was a crime committed? By the suspect? By the alleged victim? By someone else, who’s now laughing at the havoc he caused and what he got away with? By someone eaten up with remorse to the point of turning himself in some day and thus solving the mystery after all?

Once upon a time crime was committed by criminals. It still is, but maybe not exclusively. It’s hard not to suspect that at least some of the fraudsters at work out there think of themselves not as criminals but as artists — actors or scriptwriters delighting less in the pecuniary rewards than in the increasingly ingenious exercise of serious dramatic talent. Other examples Shukan Bunshun provides excuse that flight of fancy, if such it is. In one, a stranger emailed an elderly lady, reproaching her, rather sharply, for failing to keep an appointment. Appointment? She’d made no appointments. The young man apologized profusely. He’d made a mistake. Typed the wrong address! So kind of her to let him know! “Let’s be email friends, shall we?,” he wrote. The lady was only too pleased. It was almost like being courted.

At one point the young man said, “I wish you could be my girlfriend.” He asked her opinions, solicited advice, told her about his activities, introduced her to other young people, all of them poor students, rather hard up for money. Well, she had plenty of money, she’d be happy to help, what did they need? And so on, matters only coming to a head much later when the woman’s bank account grew too depleted to cover the monthly fees at the senior citizens’ facility where her husband resided.

To believe that everyone is out to get you is paranoia. Not to believe it is to be dangerously innocent. There’s a middle ground between those two extremes, but it’s shrinking.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.