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putting a price on where you were last night

Alibis as an industry:
While the Japanese economy remains a mess, one type of business seems to be doing well: the alibi-ya, whose name comes from the English word alibi and the suffix ya, meaning a seller. In essence, they are conjurers who make people at the margins of Japanese society look dignified and respectable.

The alibi-ya are the marketplace's way of reconciling a shame society -- one that emphasizes peer pressure and public shame to achieve good behavior -- with what are regarded as shameful industries. Japan, more than most industrialized countries, has strict bounds of propriety and plenty of minders to see that they are adhered to. As everywhere, they often are not.

Women in the sex industry are frequent clients of the alibi-ya, which enable them to tell mom and even boyfriends about their fine jobs in a trading company. The alibi-ya provide name cards, pay stubs and an impressive position in a decent line of work -- all totally fictitious. If a caller tries to reach the young woman while she is at her nonexistent job, a polite receptionist will explain that she has stepped out but will return the call shortly. Then the receptionist passes on the message.

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The alibi-ya business sector is, of course, a tiny one by the standards of Japanese industry, and it began only about a decade ago. At first it involved just telephone answering services, but now it supplies various phony employment references and pay stubs to help clients rent apartments or obtain credit cards. An alibi-ya can even provide a fake boss to make a wedding speech about what a wonderful employee the bride was.

Broadcasters are also entering the alibi-ya business. Japan's cable radio system, with its crystal-clear reception on dozens of channels, carries one called the ''alibi channel.'' It broadcasts the honks and rumble of roadside traffic so that a subscriber can turn on the radio and make a call that sounds as if it were coming from a telephone booth on the street.

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MAJOR train stations also have the equivalent of alibi shops, selling specialty gifts from all over Japan. Thus if a businessman has forgotten to get a gift for a friend while on a trip to the southern city of Fukuoka, he can go to Tokyo Station and get a typical Fukuoka product like hot pickled pollack roe. Or he can tell his wife he is going on a business trip to the northern island of Hokkaido, and then on his way home from his girlfriend's house swing by Tokyo Station to pick up an appropriate Hokkaido gift, like Rishiri Island dried kelp.

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