Some Notes On Managing Money In Japan

A sakura tree in bloom in my neighborhood in the countryside of Hiroshima, April 2017

Money — for better or worse, it makes the world go around. Getting used to managing it in Japan is more of an adjustment than you’d think. The first week I was here, I went to an ATM to withdraw $100 for a night on the town, and still being unfamiliar with the denominations I ended up taking out 100,000 yen instead of 10,000 — that’s about $1000 USD. Woops! Also, OUCH (Good thing I had been saving for a while)! But I’m not just talking about getting used to how its counted or the color of the bills. After making the jump and starting to work, I had to get used to thinking about and managing money differently as well. Here are just a couple of way that dealing with money in Japan is different from the ways of the West.

  1. In Japan, Cash Is King

The first thing that struck me by surprise when shopping our eating out in Japan was just how little credit or debit cards were used. With only a couple of exceptions, the majority of the places my friends and I ate out at or shopped would not or could not accept credit cards. That’s not to say that credit cards aren’t available or accessible. However, Japan is, by and large, a cash-based society. Why? It’s unclear. A quick Google search shows that opinions on the reasons for this are largely mixed. Some say that the Japanese feel that hard cash is much easier to track and manage, while making another mode of purchase more common would only serve to compliment matters. Whatever the reason, most veteran expats here strongly recommend having a few hundred dollars in usable hard currency available when you arrive in Japan so that you can pay for things like food, drink and transportation properly. That should be able to tide the average visitor over for at least a few days.

Some people traveling to Japan, however, are in it for the long term. That means that you’re probably going to need access to more money over the course of your stay until the paychecks start rolling in. This brings me to my next highlight…

2. Japanese ATMs: The Pros

Since use of a credit or debit card for basic daily transactions was out of the question, I got into the habit of visiting my local branch’s ATM as often as I could remember to be sure I was never caught out on the town and an empty wallet. The more times I went, the more features I began to notice in Japanese ATMs that simply weren’t a thing in America. Interestingly enough, these features seemed to emphasize the management of a user’s currency as the responsibility of the individual. For example, every person that signs up for a bank account in Japan gets a corresponding passbook — known in the States as a checkbook. Now, in America these were and are still popular among the older generation, but have slowly fallen out of prominence in the 21st century with the rise in popularity of Online Banking. Many young people in the United States and Europe find it a hassle to keep a record of their cash’s comings and goings in their bank account when a perfectly accessible computer keeps track of it for them. However, online banking has not caught on the vigor that it has in other parts of the world. So, in order to make record keeping a little bit easier, ATMs in Japan will accept checkbooks as a mode of access to a bank account, as well as automatically update your current balance and include your most recent transaction. Once you complete your transaction, the machine returns your checkbook. Voila — an updated paper copy of your bank records. And to those who would still rather not go through the trouble, don’t worry: ATM cards are still readily available at all banks, and can be used just as they would back home for accessing funds.

Another cool feature of Japanese ATMs is the inclusion of a coin deposit feature. Many of my friends back home in the States have probably visited a Coinstar at one point or another in their lives to get their collected loose change converted into bills. Because of Japan’s preference for cash, this loose change quickly turns into a mountain in very little time. As a convenience to the customer, some ATMs at busier branches have a coin deposit option available during regular business hours, no extra fees or exceptions. So grab that handful of 1 yen coins you’ve been tucking away!

3. Japanese ATMs: The Cons

While you are able to do a lot of cool things at ATMs in Japan that you can’t in the United States, they also have a lot of drawbacks. The first is that many bank ATMs are only open when the banks themselves are open. That means if your particular bank branch closes at 6 PM, you’ll find the ATM shuddered up and shut down. So if you’re just started working in Japan and you need the moolah, make sure to withdrawal earlier in the day so you’re not stuck with empty pockets at night. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck paying insane branch fees. These fees vary by bank and sometimes by amount, so be aware of the ATMs available in your area by your specific branch so you can avoid them.

That’s all from me on managing money in the short-term here in the Land of The Rising Sun. The next time you’re planning a visit, be sure to keep these useful tips in mind. Safe travels and happy spending!

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