Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Banking in Japan
When I first arrived in Japan, I got hired by Nova conversation school and got my first taste of "how things work" in Japan from a financial point of view. First of all, your company chooses the bank you will be paid into based on the bank it does all its business with. The Japanese don't use checks except for rare business transactions so you're paid by direct transfer. If you're new and can't read or speak Japanese, a representative of the company will usually dutifully trot down to a bank with you and you can sit around being confused and writing exactly what you're told to write onto the various forms shoved in front of you.
You can open other bank accounts at different banks, of course, but you'll have to manage moving the funds from the bank your company uses to the bank you want to use and you'll have to pay a transfer fee of about $3.50 each time you make a transfer unless you want to carry around wads of cash. Since you don't get any interest to speak of on Japanese bank accounts (.2%-.5% in general on regular savings), there's really not much point in sending your money somewhere else.
Most mundane business is done using automatic teller machines (ATMs) rather than dealing face-to-face but one does need to do some activities with a real person. The process of arranging for payments to be made as automatic deductions from one's bank account, sending money overseas, and buying traveler's cheques are among those activities which require interaction with a real person. It was the latter which took my husband and I to our bank today.
Dealing face-to-face is a predictably drawn-out experience when it comes to anything requiring foreign currency exchange of any kind. There is never a line for such things so you can get waited on right away. The clerks are meticulous every step of the way and feel obliged to point out the exchange rate on a digital display at least twice to make sure you know what you're getting into. We actually were told four times by two different people.
Once you've communicated what you want, the clerk skitters off and gets the proper forms. You fill them out while she (or he) watches over your shoulder. If you make a mistake, you generally get to do it all over again. The form is then taken away and carefully scrutinized by crack teams of bank personnel for 10 minutes or more (this happens no matter how long or short the form is) and you're asked to move from the seat in front of the desk and sit in a waiting area.
Invariably, someone will rush over to you and say they require something else. It doesn't matter what you give them initially. You could give them every document you own and all your identification and they'd still need something else. If you give them your gaijin card, they'll want your passport. If you give them both of these, they'll probably want your employment contract. I don't think they really need the information, they just have to come over and ask for one more thing.
When the forms have endured all the scrutiny they can bear before bursting into molecules from the sheer force of the inspection they've received, you will be called back over to receive whatever it is you came for. In our case, it was $1000 worth of traveler's checks. The exchange rate we paid was 122.58 yen to the dollar. The math is pretty easy on that one so I said "122,580 yen" when the fellow (who spoke English) came over to explain the cost. He wouldn't take my word for it though and used a calculator twice to verify the total. He repeated the process for the 1% fee though anyone with a grade school education could have done it. Form must be followed at all costs.
After some confusion about where the envelope was to tidily put away all the paperwork and cheques, they gave us the pen and package of pocket tissues pictured above and thanked us with a smile. They are at times pointlessly meticulous but always polite.
Our current bank is Mizuho which was a new bank created from the consolidation of some other banks (including my former bank Daichi Kangyo). At some point in the not too distant past, a lot of banks joined up because of fiscal imprudence on the part of the banking industry on the whole. I guess that merger helped Mizuho scrape up the funds for a better mascot so we now get "Hello Kitty" gifts. In the past, Daichi Kangyo's motif was a pink flower design and no cartoon characters were associated with it. My first bank account ever in Japan had Peanuts characters as mascots. Snoopy was on my first banking card.
I'm never sure why banks feel obliged to have cartoon characters as a part of their advertising or card designs. I'm pretty sure that it does nothing to improve the number of people who bank there since so many people just use the bank their companies use. It certainly doesn't improve any sense of the bank being reliable or trustworthy to know "Hello Kitty" is on their side.