What Surprises Non-Japanese While Living in Japan? (5): Umbrella Pilfering

Umbrella Pilfering

The Japanese are famous for their honesty. Over the years, foreign visitors have been amazed at how wallets have been left in very public places – restaurants and restrooms – and they have been returned with its content completely intact.

There is one exception to the impressive honesty of the Japanese – how people sometimes “borrow” the umbrellas of strangers. This is not universal meaning every Japanese thinks the same way, but often seen in Japan.

One American living in Tokyo tells the story of what happened when he was working late one night. “A Japanese colleague and I decided to grab some dinner and we realized it started raining. I remembered leaving an umbrella behind and went to get it. But it wasn’t in the rack,” he recalls. “My friend offered to share his umbrella. On the way there, I kept complaining about how Japanese people borrow the umbrellas of others without asking. My friend nodded in sympathy. We got to the restaurant and my friend folded his umbrella. I took a good look at it and realized that he took mine!”

Umbrella borrowing is not one of those “immoral young people” phenomenons.  Older Japanese -- people who would not take one yen from a lost wallet – are guilty at times. Japan is in a part of the world susceptible to squalls – short periods of sudden, intense rain. Thus, the sudden need for an umbrella is frequent. In addition, there is a custom of not bringing wet umbrellas indoors so there are plenty of umbrella stands left unattended outside shops and offices. People do often leave umbrellas behind so some shops will offer to “lend” unclaimed umbrellas to customers in need of one. This is the most likely origin of “umbrella borrowing” in Japan.

One Japanese woman commented: “I recently went out to buy lunch with the principal of an international school and an Australian teacher who recently arrived in Japan. It was raining and rather than search for their own umbrellas, both quickly picked up the first umbrellas they saw. Within 15 minutes, we were back at the school and they both returned the umbrellas. But I was surprised to see how foreigners quickly adapted to this Japanese practice.”

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