Photo: Courtesy Suruga Bank
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Suruga Bank: Helping foreign nationals thrive in Japan

By Louise George Kittaka

It can be difficult for foreign nationals to navigate and access even basic banking services in Japan. Getting a loan is usually out of the question if you don’t have permanent residence.

Fortunately, help is at hand from Suruga Bank, which has launched a range of services specially created for non-Japanese customers. Kosuke Kato, vice president of Suruga Bank, tells us about these services and why the bank is committed to helping foreign nationals build their lives in Japan.

Japan Today: Please give us a brief introduction to Suruga Bank and your goals as a company.

Kosuke Kato: We are a regional bank headquartered in Shizuoka Prefecture but with branches around Japan. Our bank was established in 1895, so we have a long history.

We are what is known as a “challenger bank,” which refers to smaller banks that provide innovative solutions that the larger banks might not offer. Generally, challenger banks are quite new. In our case, we are an established bank but our goals align with challenger banks, as we are committed to supporting customers who may find it hard to deal with bigger banks.

What makes Suruga Bank different?

We consider every customer an individual with unique needs, and we strive to meet those needs.

In Japanese, we want our customers to be able to say: “Atte yokattta, deaete yokatta,” which can be translated as "I’m glad to have found you.”

It isn’t easy for some people to get the financial services and assistance they may need in Japan, so we want to be the bank they can turn to.

Can you give us some specific examples?

Almost any bank offers mortgages, for example, but sometimes self-employed people have a hard time getting one. This is due to the way the Japanese tax system is set up, as the self-employed can reduce their tax burden by claiming expenses against their income. So even though they might be a successful business, their income on paper seems low — and that’s what major banks look at when deciding who gets a mortgage.

We try to consider each customer from multiple perspectives. Back in 2000, we were the first bank to offer housing loans tailored specifically for women — another sector of the population that was often overlooked in the banking sector. We were also an early adopter of internet banking, ahead of the bigger banks. And now we are expanding our services created with foreign nationals in mind.

Why did you decide to start these services specially aimed at foreign nationals and why is there a need for them?

Foreign nationals are making major contributions to the economy and are important members of their communities, so we want to support them!

While people with permanent resident status have generally the same access to financial services as Japanese nationals, it can be very difficult for those without it. In 2021 we formed a specific department to promote “financial inclusion” initiatives. One of our goals was to introduce a comprehensive range of services for non-Japanese who are trying to build their lives here.

What are some of the services you offer specifically for non-Japanese?

There are several, but two of the main ones are:

●      Mortgages: These are usually difficult for foreign nationals without permanent residence. Another obstacle in obtaining a loan is that many non-Japanese haven’t lived here long enough to build up much of a credit history, so we want to help these customers. This side of our business has been going for some years, and currently around 30% of our mortgage loans are to foreign customers. More about Suruga Bank mortgages for foreign customers.

●      Car loans: A lot of people need a vehicle to get to their jobs or to get around in daily life for themselves and their families. Until now, those without permanent residence had no choice but to take out loans at high interest rates. We started our car loan service for foreign nationals without permanent residency in February 2022. Moreover, applications can be made online and the loan can be repaid at ATMs in convenience stores with a special card issued after signing the contract. More about Suruga Bank auto loans for foreigners.

Let me add that we don’t automatically direct all foreign nationals towards these services, and those who can take out loans under the same conditions as Japanese citizens can certainly do so with our bank! We want each customer to get the service that best suits their needs and situation.

Suruga Bank was a pioneer in Japan in terms of internet banking. Can you tell us about some of the online services you offer for non-Japanese?

Since May 2022, we’ve been offering a smartphone bank account plan specially curated for international residents. You can set it up online without even the need to physically visit the bank. This is quite unusual in Japan. We offer support services in English, Chinese, Portuguese, Vietnamese and Spanish, through a partnership with Polyglot Link.  When a foreign customer calls our call center and needs language assistance, the operator connects to Polyglot Link's interpretation center via a three-way call connection. More about Suruga Bank accounts for foreign customers.

Another example is a service to make it easier to send money abroad, which is something that a lot of international customers ask for. We’ve partnered with PayForex to offer an easy-to-use online service for sending money overseas quickly and economically, for direct deposits of ¥1,000,000 or less. We are the first regional bank to offer this and PayForex is available for more than 200 countries and regions, in over 35 currencies.

What kind of customers are you hoping to attract with these new services?

As I mentioned, every customer is an individual with unique needs and we don’t profile people based on age, gender, nationality or income level. We are hoping to connect with and serve people interested in building a life in Japan, and we want to have an ongoing relationship with them.

Perhaps they start out as an online banking customer and begin to build their credit history with us. Then they may move on to a car loan and even a mortgage down the road. And if they want to obtain permanent residence, we can help them get the financial paperwork needed for that, too. We do ask that our customers speak some Japanese — a very basic level, such as greetings, is enough! We’ll take it from there.

Looking ahead, how does the bank want to expand these services for non-Japanese?

Our foreign clients are our valued customers, no different from our Japanese customers in that respect.

We want to provide services that make life easier for them, and to help them thrive in Japan. We know things aren’t perfect but we are committed to listening to and learning from our clients!

One area in which I think we want to improve is having foreign nationals on our staff. At the end of the day, we want our customers to say: “I’m glad to have found you!”

Learn more about Suruga Bank's services.

Suruga Bank mortgages for foreign customers

Suruga Bank auto loans for foreigners

Suruga Bank accounts for foreign customers

©2023 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Sounds promising. I may check them out. In the last couple of years, I have NOT been able to do most procedures online at my Japanese banks, credit card providers and phone carrier. They require paper documents sent back and forth through the post office, taking weeks. Updating my password at my card company, for example, took over 2 weeks. Ideco renewal was 4 months. Crazy.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Just remember "Buyer beware" .

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Trusting a Japanese financial institution is like trusting an abusive partner. They say that they will do their best to treat foreigners right. In little to no time, they will revert back to their old abusive ways. Once the foreigners sign up, they will remove all the foreign-friendly services and focus on Japanese customers.

Beware of the bait-and-switch! You have been warned!

-4 ( +3 / -7 )

Why so much negativity , does anyone have any real negative examples ?

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Maybe renting a suit and a nice car with the last remaining yen and then using their offered help with permanent residence would be a good attempt worth trying. lol

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

"After opening an account, in principle, we will guide you in Japanese. If you do not understand the instructions in Japanese, we may refuse your use."

That's what they said in their homepage!

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

It isn’t easy for some people to get the financial services and assistance they may need in Japan, so we want to be the bank they can turn to.

I remember when I came to Japan and got my first Bank card, it was ATM Bank card and I could just withdraw my money nothing else. While in Canada you can or Western countries you can get debit or credit card depending on bank. It wasn't so long time ago and not much changed. If you want foreigner to be a part of society threat then equal.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

does anyone have any real negative examples ?

Please read posts before commenting on them. My post has 2 "negative examples." I've got about a dozen from the last year or so alone I could mention but the typing would have worn me out.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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