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Selling Snake Oil in Japan

After cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, a fifty-something-year-old American man, someone I have never seen around town, taps on a microphone a few times then jumps right into his presentation.

From the get-go, it stinks of some multilevel marketing scheme and, looking around the room, I can see that it’s the same old crew that has come together to push it: guys who were doing Amway, then NuSkin, then Noni. And now they’re gung-ho about something called Rexall Showcase: a new name to the old scheme of pushing overpriced supplements and dubious weight loss products on family and friends and kicking the profits up the pyramid.

“This is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for, folks!” the speaker exclaims. “This is The Golden Opportunity! The chance to get into a business when it’s just getting off the ground. Amway, NuSkin, yes, they’re all good business models, excellent business models, in fact, but if you really want to make money with them, why, you should have gotten into the business twenty, thirty years ago. Folks, I’m tellin’ ya, Rexall Showcase is the opportunity you’ve all been dreaming about!”

As I listen to him, I must admit that what he is saying doesn’t completely lack merit. Imagine being able to have entered into a business like Amway when it was first taking off, before overeager fools irretrievably ruined its reputation. But today? Try to become a millionaire in Amway today and you’ll probably die trying. Your hair and skin will look fantastic, though. You might even feel fantastic, too, if you can manage to swallow their horse-pill sized megavitamins.

The American tells us he has been living in Japan for over thirty years, longer than anyone else in the room. “I’ve been here since Nixon was president!”


“And all these years, I have been running a business. Several businesses, in fact!”

He’s quite successful, he assures us, saying that he even supplies Fukuoka Airport with his products.

There are oohs and ahs.

“And, let me tell ya, folks, I know a good opportunity when it comes up from behind me and kicks me in the ass.”

More laughter.

The American talks like a snake oil salesman, but the others in the room eat it up; so eager they are to get their grubby little hands on cold hard cash that what he is saying must sound like the sweetest of music to their ears.

And then, he invites a long-haired douchebag by the name of Clive up to the front and says, “Clive has been blowing us away . . . Tell me again, how much did you earn last month?”

“Two million yen.”

There are whistles of astonishment and why wouldn’t there be? Two million yen for a month’s worth of work is a respectable amount of cash, twice what I am making, working what amounts to three jobs. But, why is this “very successful” guy dressed like someone who is only earning a tenth that amount? The Canadian, a former strip dancer at a “ladies’ club” that went bust years ago, is wearing ripped Levis, old cowboy boots, and a dowdy sports jacket. Any moment now I expect him to tear the jeans off and start jiggling his nuts.

“See, I told you it was fishy,” Akané whispers into my ear.

“Fishy doesn’t even begin to describe it. This is borderline fraud what they’re doing. Let’s get out of here.”


This is an excerpt from A Woman's Hand, a sequel of sorts to the novel A Woman's Nails. The novella was inspired by events which happened about fifteen years ago.

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