About a month before I was to meet Sony Bank to hear about their new service for foreign residents, I was at one of Japan's megabanks, changing personal information related to my bank account. I was there with my 6-month-old son, hoping to finish as quickly as possible and rush back home to feed him. Instead, I spent the next three hours desperately trying to remember how I wrote my strokes of signature two decades ago. The problem was that I had to write the exact same signature I had used when opening the account (when signatures were still acceptable), or I couldn't complete the procedure — but there was one stroke that I was just not getting right. "A tad longer and tilting to the left," the clerk kept giving me hints, but the harder I thought about it, the harder it was to get it right.
While my unpleasant bank anecdote was, to a greater degree, my fault (I am after all responsible for remembering my signature), it made me think about other banking problems foreign residents in Japan continue to face today. When Japan Today recently asked our readers what some of the main issues they have had with banking in Japan were, we received over a hundred comments within a few hours. Insufficient English support, lack of flexibility, and incompatibility with foreign banks were just a few among the most commonly expressed ones. Many mentioned complicated paperwork and inconvenient business hours — while some summarized the chain of problems all too well: "The bank wants me to have a phone number, and the phone company wants me to have a bank account first. #firstworldproblems."
It shouldn't, however, be so difficult to address the issue. A record 2.8 million foreigners were registered as residents in Japan last year, including a record-high of 1.65 million workers. Given the eased immigration control law, which went into effect in April 2019, and the influence of international events like the Tokyo Olympics and the Osaka Expo in 2025, the numbers are only likely to continue increasing. With this comes the pressing need for stress alleviation in various spheres of life in Japan, and banking is undoubtedly in the top three.
Luckily, Sony Bank's new service for foreign residents, English online banking, was just launched, vowing to ease some of Japan's most frustrating banking issues.
Created by internationals for internationals
The new service, English online banking, launched on March 30, 2020. It comes with Sony Bank WALLET, an international cash card with Visa debit functionality that is easy to navigate, and available with English support. It can be used in Japan and more than 200 countries and regions to pay instantly, to withdraw cash in 11 currencies (10 foreign currencies and Japanese yen). This new service also enables customers to remit funds abroad from Japan in English. Launched by Sony Bank, an exclusively online bank founded in 2001, the new service differs from the competition because it was created "for internationals by internationals."
"In every step of the way, there were always international people involved," says Ruth Marie Jarman, CEO of Tokyo-based consulting firm Jarman International KK, who, herself, recalls having similar banking problems when she first arrived in Japan over three decades ago.
Sony Bank and Jarman got together in 2018 with the mission to make Sony Bank "the most foreigner-friendly bank" that can help foreign residents start their lives in Japan as smoothly as possible. The team studied a sample group of approximately 50 foreign residents from mostly English-speaking countries, who had lived and worked in Japan on average longer than 11 years and had basic to intermediate level of Japanese language proficiency. The purpose of the study group was to point out the main banking issues foreign residents in Japan have and find solutions. Not surprisingly, the key issues the group pointed out were very similar to the responses Japan Today's readers pointed out:
"Number one was lack of English support, number two was lack of flexibility, and number three was (that Japanese banks were) 'too conservative,'" Jarman says. "So those were the three things that Sony Bank decided to address: provide English support, flexibility, and (refrain from) being too conservative."
Sony Bank’s English online banking: Easy, Fair, Smart
Based on the data they collected from the study group, the Sony Bank team founded their new service on three keywords: easy — to use and obtain, fair — same services apply to all, and smart — go entirely cashless in Japan and abroad.
To open an account at Sony Bank and obtain the Sony Bank WALLET, customers need to simply download the Sony Bank “Open Account” app, provided entirely in English, and fill in the necessary personal information. Instead of a hanko (personal seal), required by most Japanese banks now, customers only need to scan their residence card (with a valid address in Japan), and their health insurance card. Unlike most other banks that require a minimum of six months of residency in Japan, Sony Bank imposes no restrictions related to one's visa status or length of stay in Japan — provided that they have a valid residence card and health insurance card.
It takes approximately 10 days to receive your Sony Bank WALLET. Inside Japan, this card can be used as a debit card for payments at stores where Visa is accepted. Outside Japan, the card can be used the same way, at stores where Visa is accepted, and holders can also withdraw cash in 10 foreign currencies from local ATMs, including US Dollar, Euro, British Pound, Australian Dollar, Canadian Dollar, Swiss Franc, Hong Kong Dollar, New Zealand Dollar, South African Rand and Swedish Krona.
The Sony Bank WALLET also has perks that any users can benefit from — including a minimum 0.5% cashback on all shopping done inside Japan, and a 3% discount at Sony stores. Card holders are also entitled to minimum four times fee-waived cash withdrawals per month at Sony Bank's 90,000 partner ATMs inside Japan — and you can even earn a 1,000 yen present if you use your Sony Bank WALLET more than five times by the end of the second month after the month in which your card was issued.
In terms of language support, aside from providing all details in English on its Open account app and English website, as well as having online banking entirely in English, as of present, Sony Bank also offers an online live chat in English during the day, as well as telephone-based night support from 5:30 pm to 9:00 am (weekdays) for card loss and unauthorized use cases only. The bank is, of course, looking to later expand to other products and services, but one step at a time.
"We know that the first few months in Japan are a really tough period," says Noriko Rzonca, Executive Officer at Sony Bank's Digital Transformation Department. "As a start, we want to make sure that we cover the fundamentals (for starting a life in Japan)," Rzonca says. This means, she explains, to ensure that newly-arriving foreign residents can set up an account in a language they understand, at their convenience, and make it as quickly as possible without any unnecessary stress.
"It's the first time after 32 years of living in Japan that I feel like I'm in control of my finances at a bank," Jarman says. "I am truly excited about this."
For more information on Sony Bank WALLET, details on how to open an account and other related FAQs, see here.© Japan Today