Kyoto Cracks Down on Barkers in Tourist Trap Districts

Kyoto Cracks Down on Barkers in Tourist Trap Districts

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Nakamise Avenue
Picture: Ryuji / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
A revised law aims to eliminate harassment of locals and tourists from Kyoto's top tourist areas. But will it work?

It’s a notorious problem in every major Japanese city. Store barkers who coerce customers – usually verbally, sometimes physically – with the promise of a good time are universally detested by residents and tourists alike. Sadly, laws restricting their behavior have often fallen short. Kyoto this week announced that it’s revising its own anti-barker law to give it more teeth. But will it work?

The Barker Problem

A sign in Roppongi that I saw during a visit there in 2015, warning barkers and stores to knock it the eff off.

The barker problem (Japanese: 客引き [kyakuhiki]; “customer-pulling”) is familiar to anyone who lives in or visits a Japanese city and is in possession of a wallet and a pulse. (And frankly, I’m pretty sure that, for most stores, a pulse is optional.) Barkers stand outside of izakaya, bars, karaoke houses, and sex-related businesses, and entice customers to visit with loud offers in multiple languages. Many aren’t shy about blocking potential customer’s escape paths or following them down the street.

The goal, of course, is not to serve a customer two drinks and send them on their merry way with a smile and a friendly backpat. Many stores encourage customers to get as drunk as they please in the hopes that they’ll keep spending more money.

The strategy is as much a money-maker for stores as it is a money-loser for their poor customers. Some stores find clever ways to tack on additional charges, such as bottles of whisky and sake, or even sexual services from the staff. And some even use not-so-subtle methods of intimidation to keep customers from leaving. Even savvy customers who know such places exist can end up getting bilked out of tens of thousands of yen.

The strategy just doesn’t benefit the stores, however. A blog post written by a man who once worked as a barker during high school shared that the store at which he worked paid barkers a flat 1,000 yen (around USD $9) hourly fee. But he also got a 10-20% commission on sales. This brought his average hourly pay up to about 1,500 yen (USD $14). Not a ton of money, but much more than the typical minimum wage paid at the time. And, obviously, the better a job the store does at trapping customers and saddling them with extravagant bills, the more everyone – including the barker – makes.

Crackdowns Haven’t Been Very Effective

It’s not hard to see why this is problematic. Even residents who don’t enter such businesses have to deal with the noise pollution and harassment that they perpetrate. And tourists who get swindled by such joints are likely to walk away with an unfavorable impression of Japan as a whole.

To combat this scourge, multiple Japanese cities have passed laws restricting barker activity. The laws lay down concrete punishments – such as fines and public shaming – for stores that flout the new restrictions.


The city of Nagoya passed such a law two years ago. Punishments include the publication of the store’s name on an official Shame Roster and fines up to 50,000 yen (roughly USD $473) for continued noncompliance. Sadly, like a missed Pokemon attack, it’s not very effective. Authorities say they’ve only levied a single fine. By contrast, they’ve received over 160 complaints from citizens about barker behavior.

Kyoto Strengthens Its Law

Woman barker advertising for a maid cafe
Picture: Fast&Slow / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Officials in Kyoto know that feeling. Kyoto has also had an anti-barker law on its books since 2015. The law forbids barkering inside of key tourist areas like Kiyamachi and Gion. And it called for a fine of up to 50,000 yen for both the store and the barker.

The problem? A number of businesses have been able to skirt the law by not directly employing barkers themselves. Instead, they hire specialist barker companies to do the dirty work for them.

To combat this, Kyoto revised its ant-barker law. in April. It now stipulates that stores that contract barkers from specialist companies will also have their names publicized and will be subject to a fine. This week, Kyoto publicized the names of three stores caught violating the law – one in Kiyamachi and two near Kyoto Station.

Will it work? Time will tell. Locals have gotten a respite from barkers for a few months thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, for example, the city received zero complaints. However, that number rose to 13 in August as Japan began returning to its new normal.

Personally, I can’t see this changing unless the fines are increased. I’d bet most of these stores don’t give a damn about the public shaming component of the law. And the fine is a gamble that many seem willing to include as the cost of doing business. Unless fines or enforcement increase, I imagine barkering will remain a problem in Japan for quite some time.

Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

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