`Air Max Hunting' Shocks Japan -- Holdups, Beatings Blamed On Mania For Used Sneakers

TOKYO - Sure Japan is expensive, but you'd think $500 would buy an old pair of sneakers.

Not if they are last year's yellow-and-gray Air Max model by Nike, which sells for more than $1,000 in one of the oddest black-market fashion trends since Soviet-era Russians paid 100 bucks for tourists' old Levi's.

The mania for these collector-item Nikes, inspired by the Japanese passion for American pop culture - most notably for Nike endorser Michael Jordan - has become so intense that it has spawned another, more unfortunate American trend: mugging kids for their cool clothes.

Police throughout the country report a rash of thefts and holdups the Japanese have dubbed "Air Max hunting," according to press reports. No one has been killed for their fashion choice, as has happened in the United States, but in several reported incidents, youths have been beaten or threatened while their Nikes were taken.

The robberies have come as a shock to Japan, where street crime is rare and people generally don't fear for their safety. But few have questioned why a popular pair of sneakers should cost more than two round-trip air tickets from Tokyo to Los Angeles.

"Everybody wants them; I don't know why," said Denichi Kawasaki, manager of an AC/DC Rag Store in Tokyo that has the yellow 1995 Air Max on display for $1,345.

American labels sell

The easy answer is that the Japanese have the disposable income to spend on brand names and take many of their fashion cues from the United States. Companies like Gap and Donna Karan are hugely popular in Japan, but even the most obscure label will sell if it sounds American. One example: jackets with the name Gerry Cosby, an otherwise obscure New York-based sporting-goods store, are seen on subways all the time in Tokyo.

The more insidious explanation for the Nike phenomenon is that Japanese youth are being exploited by fashion magazines and specialty shoe shops that have convinced the kids that last year's discontinued Nikes - the ones you can't find anymore at list prices - are the really hot ones.

Nike releases new models several times a year and almost never reissues them once the season ends. It's these rare remainders, and in some cases used shoes, that are being sold for big bucks.

The trend is being driven mainly by Japanese fashion magazines for kids with names like "Boon," "Cool" and "Get On!" that are obsessed with American pop culture and have decreed Nikes to be the hippest shoes to wear. All three magazines have Nikes on the cover of their latest issue.

But it hasn't been enough for the magazines to feature the latest models. They also hype the old out-of-stock Nikes. The only place to get these shoes is at one of the specialty shops that scour the globe to find unsold or used pairs.

Kids exploited

The shop owners, who advertise heavily in the magazines, have pushed for the trend because they used to make a lot of money importing new Nikes that the Oregon-based company did not offer in Japan. When Nike expanded its selection here, the shoe stores found a new niche in old shoes.

"There was a demand from the street, but they exaggerated it," Nike Japan spokesman Hidehiko Sakai said of the shops and magazines. "The magazines push young kids to buy things. The shops buy big quantities and hold them back until the price goes up."

In trendy shopping areas for teens like Takeshita Street in Tokyo's Harajuku neighborhood, the crowded pedestrian walkways are lined with stores showing the newest Nikes at retail prices - $200 or more - and the older models for $700 to $1,400.

At a store called "Whistle," owner Yoshihiko Watanabe has a rare pair of 1985 black-and-white "Dynasty" Nike shoes on display for $1,300. He found them in a small shop in New Jersey a few years ago while on a scavenging trip along the East Coast. Lately, though, Watanabe said, it has been harder to find bargains while on buying trips abroad.

"People have figured it out," he said. "They've seen the Japanese magazines."

Problems, problems

The demand for old Nikes not only has led to outrageous prices but also has created a serious problem with fakes as well as thefts. Sakai said Nike has tried to persuade the magazines to focus on new shoes. It also tried to short-circuit the trend by reissuing a discontinued version of its Air Jordan shoes. But the ploy backfired: the price for the originals skyrocketed.

Koiichi Tadano, editor of Boon, said the Nike trend started with the 1990 version Air Jordans, released about the time that Michael Jordan's international popularity was skyrocketing and Nike shoes were featured in the Spike Lee film "Do the Right Thing."

"They look cool; they're fashionable and American," Tadano said. "Everybody wants to look cool. But they also want to look a bit different. So with these old shoes you can do that because they are hard to find."

Like the other magazines, Boon shows photos of both new and old shoes and is filled with pages of advertisements from shoe stores offering rare Nikes for up to $2,000.

Tadano acknowledged some responsibility for the mania. He said that to discourage the trend, he won't write about the price or theft of the Air Max model. But he also said he would probably feature them in future stories on Nike. And he said he was powerless to control the advertisers.

"The ads are a major characteristic of the magazine," he said.

The only hope for the trend's demise comes from people like Yukio Miura, 20, a college student who works part-time in a kareoke bar. Miura has five pairs of Nikes, two of which he bought for more than $300 - twice the list price.

After looking over a pair of the $1,300 yellow Air Max shoes the other day, Miura proved how fickle fashion can be.

"Everybody has them," he said. "They're not cool."