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4 Japanese Personal Finance Gripes

japanese money

Note: I’m writing this post while completely content with my life in Japan. I’m suffering from very little homesickness and this post is in no way a vendetta against Japan. I’ve wanted to write a critical post about Japanese finance for a while, but in no way is this me being sad and missing home and Chipotle. Well, I do miss that one a little.


The perception of Japan in America is one of futuristic technology, ninjas, and sushi. For the most part, this is accurate. But not much is known about how the Japanese handle their daily finances.

I always thought most countries used debit, credit, ATMs, online bill-pay, and other 21st century finance concoction like Americans. Upon landing in Tokyo in July, I was introduced to a different side of Japanese finance.

The way the Japanese handle their finances seems like they’re ten years behind America.

Here are the 4 aspects of Japanese finance I’ve been disappointed with.

1) Bank Books / No Online Banking

After signing up for my bank account I was issued a bank book. A psychical bank book. It’s blue and has cartoon dolphins on it. Initially, I held it in my hand and just shook my head in disbelief. It’s a little more boxy than a checkbook was in America in 1997.

The bank book keeps a running total of my bank balance because there’s no online banking in Japan. Whenever I head to the ATM to make a withdrawal, I insert my bankbook and it updates my withdrawals, deposits, bills, and provides a running total of the money in my account. I appreciate that it prints out the totals instead of having to balance my bank book, but it’s still a shock to my American finance system. It’s bulky and a pain to carry when I want to update it. I was also issued a bank card so the bank book adds clutter to my financial life.

The no online banking is an inconvenience, but it doesn’t have me cursing the Japanese Ben Bernake. I check my online financial accounts too much already so not having another money website to worry about is fine. But it’s disappointing when I want to see what bills have been charged to my account and I have to pack up my bank book and trudge to the nearest ATM (only .5 miles, but it’s the principle).

*Updated 12/7/09*

I’ve now had a couple people inform me that online banking does exist in Japan, but it appears you have to sign-up for it when you initially go in to the bank to get your account. According to my friend Dawn, who went in to the bank with a girl who speaks wonderful Japanese, it takes 2 months for the online banking to start. I’m not saying this is a universal rule, but this appears to be the case in my prefecture.

Perhaps this is a topic for another post, but the idea of having to opt-in to online banking seems ridiculous. It’s proven that opt-in programs don’t support high percentages participation and I just don’t understand the benefits of the banks not having their customers use online banking.

Anyway, thanks to my readers for the heads-up on this.


2) Credit Cards Exist, But They’re Hiding

I’m pro credit card. I always paid of my balance at home and reaped the rewards from cards. I love the convenience and the ease of not carrying cash. That all changed when I left O’Hare in July.

My post earlier this week about the credit card use of Asian countries showed that Japan is warming up to credit cards but I have yet to see one person pull one out at a store. Cash is king and it doesn’t seem like any of the stores push credit cards. I never see signs saying they accept Mastercard or Visa and it seems like a non-issue. I’m in a rural area of Japan, so it might be different when you get to the big cities. Regardless, it’s very surprising to see no signs of credit cards in my day-to-day life. This leads to my third disappointment.

3) Change is Everywhere

Since cash rules, I find myself carrying a lot of it. Japan also uses change more prominently than America. 100 yen is about a dollar and Japan has change for the 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500. In America, I recall trying to get rid of some change at a store to free up my pockets or bedside table and feeling really good about myself when I handed it over to the 7-11 employee in exchange for another Slurpee. It felt great to be free from the constraints of dirty coins. In Japan, it’s a never-ending battle against my change and one I’ve forfeited because it’s not going to cease until I leave the country.

4) The Non-Existence of Debit Cards

Debit cards are everywhere in America. Even the anti-credit people are usually ok with debit cards. They provide ease and you don’t have to worry about interest rates, debt, or missing a payment. They don’t exist here. I need to do some more investigative work to see if anyone has them, but it seems like debit cards are about as popular as credit cards.

So, why?

Japan is loaded with tradition and their respect for the way things have been is the only reason I can come up with for the four grievances above. The idea of a major country-wide financial change seems unlikely in a country that holds the elderly in such high regard and is inherently conservative towards most topics.

Not everything is negative. My bills and paycheck are automatically withdrawn and deposited into my account. I’m also told by friends that overdraft fees are more lenient. I’m not going to try to test this one out, but if you don’t have sufficient funds in your account for a bill the bank just waits a while to see if you fix it. Pretty trusting of them if you ask me.

I’m sure as the younger generation comes up, plastic and the internet will play a more prominent role in their daily financial lives, but it doesn’t look like any big splashes will be occurring soon.

Which of the four gripes surprised you the most about Japan? Am I being too picky about my money or are these warranted complaints?



Photos by and Mike Cash & iMorpheus

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Tags: bank, Japan, Money

Post Author: Matthew

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