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Banking with the dinosaurs

41 Comments
By Jesse Veverka

I was recently in China on a business trip and, like everyone else who visits the country, I was astounded by the rapid economic growth I saw everywhere. Sure, China is still less developed than Japan in many areas, but in others it has already sailed past its neighbor.

Take, for example, retail banking. Almost all Chinese banks in urban areas have ATMs that accept most cards, both foreign and domestic, 24 hours a day. Many banks stay open past 5 p.m., and some even have hours on weekends and holidays. In other words, in China banking is the way it should be — fast, convenient and reliable. Those of us who live in Japan can only wish that were the case here.

Let’s start with ATMs. For some mysterious reason, Japanese “automated” teller machines keep hours similar to their human counterparts, and most of them won’t even read a foreign card. Those banks that do have ATMs available after hours do incredible things like charging fees for making a deposit. And then there’s the quasi-public postal banking system, which does have ATMs that accept foreign cards. But, like good public servants, the machines don’t work overtime.

As inconvenient as the ATMs are, a trip to a teller window can be even more frustrating. Banks are only open on weekdays, never on holidays or weekends, and most only from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. You must take time off to visit the bank, unless there happens to be one close to your work and the lines are short enough for you to visit during lunch.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Thanks to the web of non-standard "furikomi" fund-transfer fees, which can vary based on the banks involved or even the time of day, you need multiple accounts, lest you get smacked with a fee for just receiving your paycheck. As a result, most people in Japan end up with accounts at several banks, plus the post office, and it’s unlikely these are all within walking distance of where they work. For example, I have a special account at a third-rate bank whose closest branch is nowhere near anything, just because it’s the only way I can "furikomi" my rent to my landlord without paying a fee.

I asked an upper-level manager at one of Japan’s bigger banks why they close so early. “The staff have things to do in order to close up shop at the end of the day,” he replied.

I am not satisfied with this answer. All businesses have to “close shop” at the end of the day; why must banks start that process two or three hours before everyone else? In other countries, big city banks often have branches open past 7 p.m., as there is enough foot traffic to make this profitable. Last time I checked, Tokyo was a big city.

And then there’s banking bureaucracy. How many middle-aged men sitting at desks in the back of the room does it take to “oversee” tellers who should be capable of working on their own? For a country that places so much emphasis on labor-saving automation, Japan’s banking procedures are strikingly manual.

For example, I recently signed up for electronic banking, a process that was anything but “electronic.” After filling out three different forms in triplicate, which involved a teller and two senior employees and a couple of phone calls to clear up their mistakes, I managed to get my account set up. But then I was told I would still have to come to the bank, during business hours only, to use the ATM to put money into the account.

It’s not just that Japan’s system is inconvenient as compared to that in China or the West — it’s inconvenient compared to practically everywhere else. Of the 60-odd countries I’ve traveled to, only two had ATMs less convenient than Japan’s: Myanmar and North Korea — and that’s because they didn’t have any. Even in small post-Soviet countries like Tajikistan, or in war-torn Afghanistan, it’s easier to find an ATM that accepts foreign cards and stays open late.

The commonly heard excuse for all this — that Japan is still a “cash-based” society — doesn’t hold water. The same is true of most of the world’s 200 countries. Japan is famous for championing industrial policy and the state-sponsored advancement of high-tech industry. If that’s what it takes to get the banking system whipped into shape, then perhaps the bureaucrats over at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry should take a hack. Otherwise I know a solution that would work: open up the banking industry to more direct, unregulated foreign competition from firms like Citibank, HSBC and the Bank of China, who understand the concept of 24-hour ATMs and convenient retail banking. This would force the dinosaurs to evolve or face extinction.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

41 Comments
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I've been asking the same questions in the 21 years I've been here. Dinosaurs live here, that's why.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Being inconvenient is Japan's tradition. If you don't like it, that's Japan bashing.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

People use the passmo cards without any trouble (and actually like them). So the excuse that people like cash is silly. Besides you should be able to get cash from an ATM just about any time. I bet it is a union thing. You would eliminate a lot of jobs if people didn't actually have to go to a bank to bank. You would get more competition on the services offered.

I changed money in Kyoto at a major bank. It took 45 minutes. They had to fill out a form to convert from dollars to Yen. Then I didn't want all large bills so I had to fill out a different form. I had a native Japanese person with me and he thought it was silly also. (after counting my money 4 times)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It typically takes the major "city" bank at which I've had a business account for more than five years at least 45 minutes to process an overseas wire transfer to an account to which I've been making such transfers for several years. They claim it's because I'm making the transaction at a branch other than the one at which I opened my account. Hello??? Aren't their branches connected by something called DATABASE SOFTWARE??

Even the ATMs at convenience stores, which I resort to despite the additional transaction charges because neither of my banks have branches in walking distance from where I live, have recently started restricting their hours of operation...

Hello!?!? Do they need to give the little man inside the machine who stuffs the cash out the slot a break at night???

The focus has been so intensely on technology (ATMs that print passbook transactions, turn the pages, and issue new passbooks, in addition to accepting coins, which to my knowledge, ATMs in the US still can't do), that ironically they've completely divorced technology from service (the multi-part forms in triplicate required for internet banking).

The passive Japanese consumer loses again.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

All of the bank branches in my home town closed years ago. They were replaced with 24-hour ATM hubs. I'd say it cost about 20 well paying jobs - quite a few for a town of 6,000.

The banks kept making money from ATM "service charges", so they didn't give a damn. Anything that required face to face banking (business stuff, loan negotiations, etc. ) suddenly required a 30km drive to the next town.

Careful what you wish for, I guess.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

On the plus side, I've managed to save a lot of my money because of not having ready access to it. But yes, I agree that banking in Japan is a headache at the best of times. Friends who come and visit from overseas are astounded at how backwards the system is here. It's quite embarrassing.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Hello!?!? Do they need to give the little man inside the machine who stuffs the cash out the slot a break at night???

I talked about this in another thread - it's a legal requirement they keep a staff member present when the ATMs are open in case there is an issue. That's all. Inconvenient for sure. But why can't people - like the author of this article - check their facts on this before going on a several hundred word rant about it?

And also

Banks are only open on weekdays, never on holidays or weekends, and most only from 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

Wrong. Mine isn't much better but it's open on Saturdays, so it is possible to do your banking then.

Otherwise I know a solution that would work: open up the banking industry to more direct, unregulated foreign competition from firms like Citibank, HSBC and the Bank of China, who understand the concept of 24-hour ATMs and convenient retail banking.

Yes, that's EXACTLY what people need - unregulated banking by huge foreign banks. No flaw in that logic. And both Citi and HSBC are already in Japan!

But this argument about "nobody takes foreign cards" reads like it was written years ago. Has the author not ventured into a 7-11? They've been taking foreign cards since 2007 - all of the 7-11s in the country. If you need cash after hours or from a foreign card, 7-11 is the place to go. Easy!

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Iiiissssshhhh....shoganai neeee...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

How many middle-aged men sitting at desks in the back of the room does it take to “oversee” tellers who should be capable of working on their own? ...why must banks start that process two or three hours before everyone else?

I don't know. Why don't you ask someone? You could report your findings here, and we could read them.

I am not satisfied with this answer.

Then why didn't you get a better answer before you finished writing the article?

Last time I checked, Tokyo was a big city.

Obvious facts are not interesting to read.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

But this argument about "nobody takes foreign cards" reads like it was written years ago. Has the author not ventured into a 7-11? They've been taking foreign cards since 2007 - all of the 7-11s in the country. If you need cash after hours or from a foreign card, 7-11 is the place to go. Easy!

That's funny, because my foreign VISA card won't read in any 7-11 stores. Works fine as a debit card (the rare times I have money in the account), but at an atm? Nope. So far the post office is the only place I've found.

As for post office atms. The smaller branch ones have crappy hours, but the ones in the main centers (like Shinjuku for example) are open late and on holidays, so that's at least something. Inconvenient, but good to have just in case.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

My friends' MasterCards don't read at all. Quite a headache.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Hello!?!? Do they need to give the little man inside the machine who stuffs the cash out the slot a break at night???

Thank you, I laughed for a good 10 minutes at this.

I usually give in and just go to the conbini and get money. My bank is thankfully big enough where I don't think the service hours matter, though I do hate that if I want to do anything AT the bank, I have to take a day off to do it. Very annoying. Otherwise, I think most of us have found ways to get around the inconveniences. And yeah, 7-11? I haven't had trouble at one of those yet getting money from my American bank account.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

My J wife told me the ATMs close at night to prevent crime. hahahaha

Regarding changing money, just go to the little 2nd floor store above the adult shot in Akihabara and they change your money at a better than bank rate in 2 minutes. No forms and no questiosn asked.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

ahhhh, this article is exactly what everybody who lives in japan thinks. Please translate this into japanese and post it to every bank manager in the country and fingers crossed we might see some change because the banks here are just beyond ridiculous. I find it funny that the best ATM is in 7-11 not in a bank, haha.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Oh, I forgot to mention the one holdout bank with very long hours - Shinsei. I know a couple of their branches are open until 8pm (even the counters), every day of the year except I believe Oshogatsu. Not bad.

There's not that many of them, though.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I tried to use my Visa card at JR West to buy a shinkansen ticket and they said they had to call the bank (in the US), which they did, and that triggered a fraud alert and my account was frozen. Unbelievable!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The foreign banks like Citi and HSBC are here and require a significant minimum deposit each month or they levy a fine (fee).

Having both Japanese and US bank accounts, I prefer Japanese. Some minor inconveniences exist in Japan. But in the US there are many surprise fees or a hard sale for some lame service each time I have to interact with them.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

You ain't heard nothing yet! I just received a check for $100,000 from one of my investments from the US as Japanese Banks will not accept an electronic transfer, as they do not accept routing numbers, but only swift transfer. So, now I got this check for 100,000 that I have to deposit at Citi, and wait two weeks for it to clear. Now get this, Citi can not write me a bankers check to bring over to Mizuho to pay off a loan. They told me I have to do it in cash, or transfer by wire to my account there and then do the paper work to pay it off. Well, if I put 100,000 into that account, my estranged significant other that I am separated from can access the account. And take it all. So since I cannot send money directly to the loan, I have to do it in cash. Sorry, but I won't tell you the citi branch nor what I look like. That is going to be scary carrying that much money around.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Yeah, crazy stuff. I was involved in a land sale with a Japanese law firm for land in Washington State for selling price of $90,000. The buyer came with a brown paper bag stuffed with bills, the lawyer counted it, and the bank lady (about 27 or so) collected it and walked several blocks back to the branch in Japan.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Yeah, crazy stuff. I was involved in a land sale with a Japanese law firm for land in Washington State for selling price of $90,000. The buyer came with a brown paper bag stuffed with bills, the lawyer counted it, and the bank lady (about 27 or so) collected it and walked several blocks back to the branch in Japan.

haha

0 ( +0 / -0 )

ha ha non-24H ATM machine! it getting better now a day because we got 24H machine in most convenience stores. but it still can be very complicate thing to do to get 24H, 7days a week operation time for the machine infront of every bank in tokyo. let give them another 10 years. may be they will able to catch on.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Shinsei bank rocks. Free ATM access. Free bank transfers. All in English. Full internet banking in English. Although many ATMs don't accept the cards.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

seriously. WTF is wrong with japanese banks? it's like a bunch of monkeys running around with their heads cut off. and then charging you to see the show.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This is why I use Shinsei bank. 24hour ATM service, even on holidays and at 7-11's.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

My parents came to visit me in Kochi City a couple of years ago, and tried to cash a traveller's cheque. The staff looked at the cheque like it was a fragment of Illyrian pottery.

It took SEVEN members of staff, a telephone-book-sized "instruction manual" and three telephone calls to process.

So that was half a day gone of their holiday. And they wonder why tourists don't fall for the Yokoso Japan line?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I don't often need to go to the counter in the bank but when I do, the woman serving me (always a woman!) usually has to take all the paperwork to one of those middle-aged men in the background (always men!) for approval. Even for fairly simple routine stuff like an address change. Wouldn't it make sense to have counter staff who are sufficiently trained to take responsibility for processing transactions?

Something a bit alarming happened when I needed to replace my lost cash card. In addition to my pass book and my gaijin card to prove my identity, they asked for my 4-digit secret number. Not the PIN of the cash card but the one I gave when I opened the account but subsequently never used and therefore could not remember at all. She told me the first digit (!) in case it might help me to remember the rest of it. I still couldn't remember so after a long discussion the middle-aged man in the background decided they didn't really need me to tell them the secret number after all. She told me the number (!) so that I would know it for next time. (But I never use that number so I've forgotten it again.)

Another time when I was waiting for them to process my transaction (getting something done at the counter always seems to involve a lot of waiting) I happened to see another teller counting a wad of about fifty 10,000 yen notes for another customer. After straightening all the creased corners she put them through the counting machine. She turned them over and put them through the machine again and it gave the same number. Then she counted them by hand to check!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Stonecoldsoba! I love the last paragraph. Can't wait to see when I wheel barrel in my 800 ten thousand yen notes. I might hire Alsok to guard me from CitiBank to Mizuho. Important I think as these days, kids with baseball caps, hit you in the head, steal your cash and clothes and leave you with your shoes only. I read that here in teh crime section and it has me scared. Banking here really is horrible. Andby the way, Shinsei cannot send money to a direct borrowed loan account either. No one can. It has to go into the bank account first so the wife that is separated can see it and take it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I tried to use my Visa card at JR West to buy a shinkansen ticket and they said they had to call the bank (in the US), which they did, and that triggered a fraud alert and my account was frozen. Unbelievable!

I also had this happen to me, when I went to make a purchase with my Visa. My account was flagged and I had to call the bank overseas to clear things first. There are some things that are convenient in Japan, but banking is definitely not one of them. Goddog, please be careful and try not to look nervous when you're in transit with your money!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I once had to special order a bankcard here from Mizuho that would work in South Africa. I asked them if I could use it everywhere. Nope. Two cash machines in ALL of South Africa - Cape Town and Jo'burg. I went to both and neither worked. I had to call my mom to put money on my visa account so I wouldn't be killed over cash advances while I was there. It had the nice little C mark that says it could be used anywhere. It was a lie. Japanese banks suck. Too many staff trying to look busy and getting nothing done.

I get revenge by keeping a piggybank with coins that I haul in once every six months to a year. Heavy as hell and I love watching the female staff struggle with it and then men trying to help them out.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

tmarie: There is a coin box in Mizuho bank atm machines. Look to see if yours has one too. Dump it all in there and make that guy that got rehired at 1/3 of his salary to work until 65 but with a reduced work load because obviously he is now to old to do anything of value but sit in the machine and count loose change and push bills out the front door, and also to reject bank books and cards at a whim. revenge comes both ways.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I just saw on TV the winners of the M-1 comedy competition had to get the 10,000,000 yen prize money in cash because they said if they transferred it to their banks it would take 3 months. lol

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I used my HSBC Visa in Tokyo for an Amazon online order. My dad received a phone call from the Home HSBC bank. Quite puzzled as to why and how that happened.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The first time I tried to cash traveller checks in Jp back in 96, it took at least 3 of the teller ladies to go over, scrutinize, fill out forms, verify with the old geezers in the back sitting on their hands pretending they're working. Almost an hour later, I got a couple hundred dollars cashed. Same thing happened a couple days later at another bank. And no, this is no some random inaka village in Shikoku, this was in Tokyo. Hate to think if I had landed in Takamatsu or somewhere like that back then without a yen to my name. But I'm sure some nice Jp people would take pity on me and put me up. Yeah, in this case the Jp consumer loses. China, a different story. I don't have a bank acc. here in China cause I keep all my cash in the house, but I used to have one and every time I had to deal with the banks, it had always been quick efficient service. Like getting tc's cashed out in 5 minutes when there's no line ups. Or depositing a few tens of thousands of rmb(yeah, they max out a 100rmb) in under 10 minutes. Or sending money from one bank to another acc. in another bank in 3 minutes or less. Yeah, I guess it's because they have like 1.5 billion people, so if the banks are slow and the Chinese love their cash, there'll be riots at the banks and the CCCP would fall. On the other hand, my Canadian bank, rbc, has probably the easiest online banking I've ever used and they send out all my new visa cards ups no charge and they gave my Jp wife an extra platinum card when I requested even though she has no Cad. status since we've been living abroad since we were married, compared to when she tried to get me a yamada electronic store mastercard as her spouse and they refused because I was a gaijinsan and hence cannot be entrusted with a holy grail jp credit card. So yes, the banking system in jp is backwards and if somebody like Bank of China gets there, with no minimum in your acc. like citi or hsbc, they'll clean up. It'll be ironic when foreigners start changing their money in Jp at the BOC branch instead of a Mitsubishi bank or something. The 711s I've never tried, but hey, I'm there to buy necessities like high calorie soft drinks and cigarettes, wat, I can check reward points on my visa card while I'm there, great thanks. And yes, I'll grab that 3rd Kirin too while I'm at it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I totally disagree. There aren't many reasons to go to a bank anymore anyway. The furikomi system is fantastic. Where else in the world can you transfer money to anyone else's account at an ATM? Sure it costs a bit but I'd take that system over a cheque any day. Totally unnecessary but I love knowing I can deposit and withdraw coins at many ATMs! Classic stuff! Also, Japan still has the highest ATM withdrawal limits of any country I know (was 2 million yen a day at some banks until a couple of years ago). I'm not surprised about the Traveller's Cheque story someone mentioned above. I haven't used a TC for many years and don't feel any need to. I also like Shinsei Bank because there are no fees and 7-11 is open 24 hours.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I had a large bag of coins that I wanted to deposit, so I took them to the teller window. She asked me how much was there, and was mildly shocked that I didn't know. I didn't count it because they are the ones with the coin counting machine. The next time I had a bag of coins to deposit and the teller asked me how much was there, with a straight face I told her a ridiculously large amount. She stared at me for several seconds, probably wondering how she was going to reconcile my claim versus the actual value of the coins. She can't come out and call me a liar, can she? Eventually I let her off the hook and told her that I was just joking. She was visibly relieved.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Where else in the world can you transfer money to anyone else's account at an ATM?

I would just do that over the net in Australia...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

True! But of course that can be done in Japan as well.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

i also have had trouble with using my credit card. the funny thing was the fraud agent I talked to on the phone did not know what questions to ask , I had to tell him who I was , middle name etc. funny. I had to go to 4 different banks and finally had to open a new account to deposit a government check . so now I carry a big wad of cash when I travel .

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The coin box only takes a certainly number of coins - I've tried it before and had to keep switching machines as they became full. Better to take it to the counter and watch them try and carry it!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Oh and the issues I had finding my sister a cash macbine that would take her card from gaikoku when they came to visit. Thank GOD for city bank!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

As usual pure exageration with flawed details.

Everybody knows you are not charged for receiving furikomi.

Plus it's hard to believe that it was the bank staff's fault that forms were filled out wrong. Let's see foreigner filling out forms in another language for the very first time or staff who have processed the same forms hundreds of times in their native language. Who likely made the mistake?? I'm sure the staff said it was their fault.....

Oh an electronic banking is electronic banking. How did he think the cash was going to get in his account? Magically appear?? You have to put money in to make it work: furikomi, deposit or something...

Anyway, I'm not selling the efficiency of the banking system, which isn't particularly good. It's completely unfriendly for anything international in nature, but if you're having trouble with ordinary domestic transactions, you're just dumb....

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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