Forget about dealing drugs. If you want to make a fast buck in Japan these days, the action is in Nike sneakers. Air Max running shoes are particularly hot, especially a version with fluorescent detailing that is known here as the "Yellow Max."
"It's ridiculous," says Tatsuro Kukita, a salesman in a shop on Takeshita Avenue, the street of style for Tokyo's teenagers. "These crazy customers - they just think the shoes are fashionable." Mr. Kukita recently sold a used pair for $900, roughly six times the shoes' retail price.
The underside of the trend - the sole, if you will - is that the desire for Air Max shoes is causing some of the street crime that has made brand-name clothing controversial in the US.
No one has been killed for their Nikes in Japan, but in recent weeks at least three people wearing Air Max sneakers have been encouraged to part with them under duress. Thieves have burgled two high school athletic clubs, making off mainly with Nikes. And police have arrested traders for importing fake Air Maxes or defrauding customers trying to buy real ones.
The Yellow Max has long been out of stock in stores that officially represent Nike - where prices are not marked up - since it was one of last year's models. But there is a resale market for Yellow Maxes and other desirable styles in shops like Kukita's, where the shoes are sometimes fake, used, or brought in from other countries by individuals with an eye for arbitrage.
The Air Max frenzy is a combination of some peculiarly Japanese and American phenomena. Japan frequently experiences marketing "booms," in which particular products or celebrities take on stratospheric popularity. A slew of lifestyle magazines and television variety shows feed these trends, consistently reinforcing the popularity of Product X or Pop Singer Z.
There are probably few Japanese teenagers who do not have an item in their wardrobe emblazoned with the letters DKNY - a Donna Karan trademark, which has been a "boom" item for many months.
These booms go beyond declaring something or someone the flavor of the month - the conformist inclinations of many Japanese add a particular intensity to the desire to acquire the fashion item of the moment.
Playwright Tetsu Yamazaki, who often comments on social issues, says the Air Max boom is a reflection of people concentrating too much on having "the same thing as their neighbors."
Unfortunately for Japan, a few people have also decided to import an American way of shopping for brand-name items: Stopping someone wearing the desired accouterment on the street and demanding that he or she hand it over.
Late last month a columnist in the Asahi newspaper described how a high school student in the western city of Osaka was deprived of his Nikes by a gang of six youths on motorcycles. The "humiliated" victim had to walk barefoot to find a police officer, the writer observed. The victim reported that the gang members all had dyed-brown hair, a tip-off that they were rebellious sorts. Fashion-minded Japanese have been tinting their ebony locks for years, but lately more and more young people have been using hair dye as a way to express themselves. (Truth be told, there is something of a boom in brown hair as well, but that's another story.)
Police have worried out loud about rising numbers of crimes committed by young people - often by young men with brown hair. By comparison with most other countries the numbers are minuscule, but they concern people here nonetheless, since safety is a highly valued aspect of Japanese lifestyle.
The National Police Agency says that in the first six months of this year, 140 senior high school students were arrested for robbery. In a nation of 125 million people, it's not exactly a crime wave, but the figure is more than double the 60 such students who were arrested in the first six months of 1992.
Experts, according to the Mainichi newspaper, point to the "Americanization" of fashion and "fashionable crime," and complain that fathers are spending too little time at home to raise their children properly.
Hidehiko Sakai, spokesman for Nike Japan Corp., views the trend with mixed emotions. The popularity of Nike shoes has been good for business, "but we feel that this boom is going too far." He recalls seeing a comic book - an influential medium in Japan - with a plot line that included young miscreants going "hunting" for Air Max shoes. "I think the media are driving kids to do these things - a little bit."
And Mr. Sakai argues that petty robbery among young people is not new to Japan. "In high school and junior high, kids get their stuff stolen. It happens." But incidents involving Nikes are being publicized, he says.
On Takeshita Avenue, even the sense of threat can mean big sales. "A customer walked in," recalls Kukita, "and offered to sell his pair to us." The man apparently felt that wearing the shoes was dangerous. Kukita's boss bought his Yellow Maxes and resold them the same day for $900, the salesman says.
Looking artistic in his ponytail, black turtleneck, and patchy goatee, Kukita chuckles at the folly of his customers. At first his image suggests that he is above all this materialism, that he might be an intellectual earning money for books by selling shoes to teenagers. But he too admits that he has a pair of Air Max shoes, stashed away in his brother's closet for safekeeping. He says he's not sure if he wants to sell them - yet.