By the time manufacturers and pawnshops that stock name-brand products can take measures against existing counterfeit items, a new wave of fakes has already hit the consumer market and the cat-and-mouse game continues. The number of seized fake goods imported from overseas reached a record high last year, and experts say Japan has been targeted internationally due to its lax regulations.
"We cannot set a price on the item because it does not meet our firm's standards."
This was the answer given in mid-December to a young woman who brought a purported Celine brand tote bag to an outlet of a national pawnshop chain in the Ginza district of Tokyo. The bag in question was a top-selling item, and - if it had been genuine - the offered price would have been from ¥120,000 to ¥130,000 (from S$1,468 to S$1589).
However, upon closer inspection, it was poorly sewn and had a strong smell of adhesive. A descriptive brochure for the bag contained incorrect kanji characters, and the woman was ambiguous about where she had purchased it, saying, "An acquaintance of mine bought it for me." As a result, the shop refused to buy the bag.
The shop reserves the right to refuse to buy goods if it is difficult to determine whether they are genuine.
Aside from certain luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Hermes, for which fakes have long been rampant, there is no surefire method to detect counterfeit products. It is necessary to pay extra attention especially when a supposed brand-name product does not come with a certificate of authenticity issued by the brand or vendor, or is missing its original packaging.
"New counterfeit brand-name products keep cropping up, and I would say that 70 per cent to 80 per cent of them are brought to the shop intentionally," a 38-year-old shop manager said with a frown.
The young woman in question apparently intended to sell a counterfeit product, and she also tried to sell the same bag to a different outlet of the pawnshop chain, according to the shop.
The Japan market for counterfeit brand-name products is said to be worth ¥500 billion. In January, fake bracelets were sold under the popular US accessory brand Chan Luu at department stores in Tokyo and other cities, and the department stores ended up recalling them.
According to the Finance Ministry, 28,135 items were seized by customs at airports or ports in 2013 as they were suspected to violate intellectual property rights, up 5.7 per cent from the previous year to reach a record high. If they had been genuine, the estimated value of the goods would have been about ¥13 billion, with more than 90 per cent of them imported from China.
Handbags were most common among the seized items, accounting for 44.5 per cent, followed by garments at 15.6 per cent and shoes at 10.4 per cent.
"While the number of seized counterfeit brand-name goods has been increasing year by year, only a small portion of such goods are intercepted at the border," said Takayuki Tsutsumi, director of the Union des Fabricants' Tokyo office, which is engaged in efforts to eliminate counterfeit products. "The brand-name products that counterfeiters target tend to change every year or two, so it can be difficult to take countermeasures."
About 70 Western and other brand-name makers belong to the union.
Though individual brand-name makers have come up with their own anti-counterfeit measures, their efforts have still failed to prevent damage resulting from the sale of faked goods. While they can apply to the Japan Patent Office to obtain trademarks or design rights and seek the suspension of imports of fake products at customs, it takes several months to obtain such rights. Therefore, "they cannot keep up with the speed of faked goods going into circulation", Tsutsumi said.
In 2010, UGG Australia, an overseas brand famous for its boots, put a special hologram seal on boxes and boots to prevent their products from being counterfeited. However, the seal was later counterfeited, and the company was forced to introduce a new seal.