Mo’ Money in Japan

Allow me to save you some reading time today, by giving you the conclusion of this article in the first paragraph.  Because as any young lady who’s visited my apartment can tell you, Ken Seeroi is all about time efficiency.  Do the dishes? Wash clothes? Take a shower?  That’s just precious time that could be spent doing more valuable things.  Like, I dunno, how about drinking champagne and eating fresh mango slices?  Man, is that ever a delicious combo.  And chicks really dig it.  But you gotta get those mangos in season, that’s the key.  Anyway, where was I?  Oh right, money in Japan.  Carry a freaking lot of it.  Really, that’s about it.

So I was in a Ginza Starbucks a few months ago, teaching an informal English lesson to a slightly overweight young student with long hair and a pretty smile.  We were at a window seat, watching people in suits rush by, when a girl passed in front of us carrying a plastic bag full of cash.  Not like fifty dollars in nickels either; more like ten thousand dollars in yen.  In a clear plastic bag.  I’m guessing she was a store employee on her way to make a bank deposit, and her nonchalant attitude was pretty impressive, like Ho hum, on my way to the bank with my huge bag of yen, oh there’s a Starbucks, oh there’s a fluffy dog, doot de doo.

I looked at my student. “Was that a bag full of yen?” I asked.

To which she replied, “You know, in Japanese, we say ‘en.’”

“Umm,” I said, “let’s not forget who’s the English teacher here.  It’s pronounced ‘yen,’ with a ‘Y.’  And that was one huge pile of yen.”

“En,” she said.

Some Japanese people really need to learn how to let things go, jeez.  Well, anyway, my point is:

You Won’t be Robbed in Japan

Okay, maybe you will.  I mean, sure, anything’s possible.  Like you could walk under a ladder and a black cat could fall on you or something, but the chances are, nobody’s gonna jack you for your cash or club you over the head with an iPad and steal your iPod.  I mean, don’t be an idiot; but still, you’re pretty safe.

Now let me say that when I lived in the U.S., the average amount of money I carried with me was about sixty-two cents.  Because, you know, people in the U.S. have guns.  So I debit-carded everything.  Gum?  Here’s a card.  Six pack of beer, comb, Hershey’s bar, and a copy of Penthouse?  Put it on the card.  Newspaper?  Eh, I’ll read it online.  You get the idea.

That doesn’t fly in Japan.  Japan’s all about the cash.  Sure, if you stay in the Hyatt Regency and eat every meal at Denny’s, you can use a card, but for most stuff on a day-to-day basis, you need cash, and a lot of it.  Which means:

Japan’s the Greatest Country Ever for Robbers

Japanese people carry a ton of cash on them, seriously.  The average person probably has over $200 in their wallet at any given time.  I mean, in yen.  I’ll just use “dollars” from now on so you don’t have to bust out a calculator for the exchange rate, but really, we’re talking yen.  Either way, if there was ever a country where a petty thief could make a great living, it would be Japan.  Not that I’d recommend it.  I mean, you could do better teaching English to plump girls in Ginza Starbucks while telling them about your apartment stocked full of champagne and seasonal mangos.

Anyway, I sometimes look in my wallet and think, Wow, I’m carrying like $600.  And I’m going out tonight.  Better get a couple hundred more.  So my advice to anyone visiting or living in Japan, but especially visiting, is:

Carry a Ton of Japanese Money

Practically, that means at least $200.  I mean in yen.  Or en.  Or whatever, because you can’t spend dollars.  Why carry so much?  Let me give you a few scenarios drawn from the experiences of a close friend of mine, also coincidentally named Ken.

1. Ken, newly arrived in Japan, goes out go eat, but doesn’t completely understand what he sees on the menu.  He orders a beer that’s three feet tall, an onion salad made from an entire raw onion, and a selection of tempura suitable for a family of six.  Then when the bill comes he’s drunk as hell, has horrible bad breath, and is close to heart failure from the buildup of saturated fat in his arteries.  About that time, he realizes he doesn’t have enough money to cover the bill.  This is not well received by the restaurant staff.

2. Ken goes to a bar.  This time he has enough money.  Then at the bar, he makes a bunch of new friends, which is great, since Ken likes friends.  And they want to hang out with him, because he’s such a cool guy.  Or because he’s white.  Whatever.  So they take him to a karaoke bar, which is also great, since Ken believes himself to be a most excellent singer when drunk.  Then after three hours of drinking beer and singing Japanese folk songs, his new friends all decide it’s time to settle the bill and sprint for the last train, and about this time Ken realizes that while he had enough money at the beginning of the night, somehow it’s all mysteriously been spent.  This is not well received by Ken’s former new friends.

3. Ken, now carrying an extra cushion of cash, goes out to a different bar where people don’t yet hate him.  I know, it’s kind of a theme.  Anyway, he has a pleasant evening of modest drinking, restrained karaoke, and makes it to the station with plenty of time to spare before the last train.  Okay, maybe he stops to get one last can of malt liquor at the convenience store before heading to the station, but anyway, he’s got some money left over.  And he gets on the train and then just as the doors close he realizes, Shit, wrong train.  And the train turns out to be an express straight out to Saitama and it’s the last train and now it’s 1:30 a.m. and Ken’s in dark and scary Saitama and there’s no way back home except for a $50 taxi ride, which exceeds the amount of money in Ken’s wallet by about $49.  Ken is perplexed by this situation, but drinks the malt liquor anyway, since maybe that’ll make things clearer, and anyway it looks like it’s going to be a long night.

4. Ken, pockets now bursting with yen, is walking home late one evening through the red-light district.  It was an accident, I swear.  Then, walking past a club, a doorman asks him if he’d like to have a beer and talk to some pretty girls.  Ken says no, because he’s not that kind of guy.  He’s a serious and upright individual, with principles.  Three minutes later, he’s drinking beer on a velvet couch, surrounded by a crush of pretty girls.  Good times!  He sings a bunch of karaoke and everyone tells him what an excellent singer he is.  But Ken’s no idiot, so he only has two beers.  Well, maybe he has three, and buys one or two for the girls, but still.  Finally he gets up to leave and when he’s presented with the bill, it comes to approximately as much as one month’s rent.  Suddenly, the doorman who was so nice has been replaced by a totally scary yakuza thug.  Again, Ken’s situation is less than well-received.

A Few Final Words of Financial Advice for Japan

Now, you’re probably not going to be a complete moron like some people I know, but still, my strong advice is, carry way more cash than you think you need.  And as a final note, I’ll add that Japanese ATMs have the bizarre tendency to be closed when you most need them, like late at night when accompanied by the yakuza.

And a final, final note:  Don’t get the idea that Japan’s expensive.  That’s flat-out not true.  It can be much cheaper than the U.S., if you understand the system.  But until you can speak, and especially read, Japanese with a fair degree of competence, the chances of screwing up and having to fork out some bucks is pretty high.  And since you can’t fall back on credit cards, problematic situations are likely to develop, to put it mildly.

Okay, and one extra final, final note:  there is some purse-snatching that occurs in Japan.  Apparently the nation’s not immune to crime, although it’s much less than most places.  Except maybe Switzerland or something, but all they eat is cheese with holes, so who wants to go there.  Anyway, you’re more likely to run into problems not carrying enough money, rather than carrying too much.  Just don’t go strolling at night with a clear bag full of cash.  Wait till daytime.  Mo’ money, no problems.  That’s how we roll in Japan.


26 Replies to “Mo’ Money in Japan”

  1. Ken,

    Great piece, I laughed so hard… well, it was real hard and this was another comedic masterpiece (in the Future to be refered to as a CM) from a true hedonist with a heart and a great great read. Bravo!!

    1. Ah, you flatter me, stop. No, don’t stop. Oh, stop. No don’t.

      Seriously though Bud, thanks for always reading.


  2. Hi Ken,

    Great article as usual! I can totally relate – I found myself victim of the no-card policy once in Japan, and I handled the situation by giving my passport and my friend as hostages to the petrified waitress who looked like she was about to cry. All sorted out in the end.

    Is there any actual (official or otherwise) reason why they don’t take cards? Admin costs? Tax evasion?

    1. I’m going to say the answer is “no.” I doubt there’s any solid impediment to places accepting cards. Would it cost a bit more? Sure. Would the owner have to fess up and pay more taxes? Probably. But if tomorrow everybody stopped using cash and switched to cards, I have a feeling that by the day after tomorrow all the shops would accept them. I suspect it’s more that’s-the-way-things-have-always-been than anything. I honestly don’t know how this country got a reputation as a technological powerhouse, but maybe that was back in the 90’s or something.

      Yeah, I’ve had to do the same thing on several occasions: leave friends or valuables hostage and run back to my hotel for cash or try my luck at an ATM. Definitely something to avoid.

  3. Great article Ken 🙂 Man, your coincidentally named friends really have some bad luck! Well, at least Ken #3 has a good head on his shoulders; you never know when you’ll need some malt liquor to help get you through the night. Always be prepared.

    1. And that’s why I wear cargo pants. Cell phone, hatchet, flask of shochu, wad of cash, you never know what you’re gonna need. Then as long as there’s a convenience store where I can buy some new undies, I’m good for a week. Sleeping indoors is overrated anyway.

  4. Oh, this is funny, Ken! Thank you!
    Feel bad for all those other Kens though.

    You are right on the spot with two myths that I find myself explaining to friends often:
    – Japan is not expensive. That is unless you are addicted to clubbing or drinking or velvet couch lounges with MULTIPLE girls.
    – Credit card is obscure and rarely used. Yes, the country that has robotic nannies and shinkansen often doesn’t accept anything but cash.

    One thing that I ran into was exchanging money.
    Basically, on one of my earlier trips I only wanted to exchange enough of good ol’ USDs to not lose on the exchange conversion back if I don’t spend it all.

    So I got some yen at the airport, and kept the rest of the cash in USD. Little I knew how difficult it is to find a USD/YEN exchange in the countryside, when I ran out of cash yen. There were no big banks, and I had to go to post office. This created a small panic, since they don’t get many foreigners and forms are in Japanese. I had to write my LOCAL address in Japan (name of the hotel) a couple of times, and boy, is my kanji bad! Luckily I had a hotel business card with me and managed to copy it after a few attempts.

    I wonder how people with less popular currencies do? What if their currency is not exchangeable at the post office? They might be under false impression that their, say, Thai or Indian or Korean Visa card will be enough.
    But then they sit at that small yakitori izakaya, and they are not even given a menu! All they see is a bar with wooden (I’m serious) price tags in Japanese with Japanese numbers, hanging above the chef’s head.

    Anyway, my advice, if you don’t want an inconvenience, exchange a lot of money in the major city in advance, before venturing into the mountains!

    1. You’re completely right. The thing is, visitors should be a bit careful when venturing outside their sphere of competence without enough cash to cover mistakes. There are plenty of large hotels and restaurants with picture menus that accept credit cards for people who don’t speak the language, so no one should be put off from visiting Japan. But . . . if you want to get away from the crowds and see a bit more of “real Japan,” if you’re going to walk through that door of a small izakaya in the countryside or stay in a minshoku, then you need to be prepared. And by that I mean strapped with cash. I personally wouldn’t think a thing about carrying a thousand dollars worth of yen for a weekend trip. Not that you’d need it, but hey, you never know.

  5. Great article Mate! Really enjoyed that one. The only thing I worry about going missing in Japan is not my wallet or iPhone but my umbrella or my bicycle. They have to be kept safe under lock and key 🙂

    1. Yeah, those are the two things, right? You could lose your wallet with a 100,000 yen in the subway and somebody’d find you and hand it back to you untouched. But if it’s raining outside and somebody needs an umbrella, better watch out. It’s like musical chairs. You don’t want to be the last guy out of the bar.

  6. Awesome topic Ken! I once left my passport on the plane in Shimane once. The flight attendants tracked me down in baggage and handed it back. Then I promptly left it on the city bus on the way to the hotel. The hotel called the bus which promptly drove back to the hotel, not the bus stop, and gave it back. So I feel pretty lucky about the safety/theft factor.

    But cash. My word. I’d done exactly what Ken#1 did. As well as Ken #2. I think the scariest was doing all the paperwork for the working visa when you arrive. They tell you what each stamp and form costs, but there are all sorts of little things that add up quickly.

    The lessons here can not be understated. You need cash and lots of it on hand at all time. They should put that next to the yokoso at the airport.

    1. “Welcome to Japan, We Don’t Accept Credit Cards.” Yeah, I could see that. Visitors to Japan are often worried about the language, but really, this is the #1 thing they should concerned with. I have a feeling there’s a lot of people with similar stories out there.

  7. I agree.
    It’s certainly something most people from Western countries first need to get used to and I was no exception.
    Now, especially when I’m off traveling for 2 weeks I often carry around around 10man (1000$US).
    As you know I’m off to explore more and more the unknown and far away spots of Japan and I end up on really small islands with only one post office / ATM, so you better have all the money you need on you. Of course, they won’t accept credit cards there. Cash is the king.

    But even on the main island it’s like that. Even more with foreign credit cards!

    And if you come during certain times of the year (nenmatsu, Golden Week etc.), the ATMs will be closed for several days and you can’t get any cash, so better have a huge amount of cash in your wallet from the start!

    I also agree that Japan is generally very safe.
    Being careful is a good thing, but you shouldn’t have to worry about your money.
    People came running after me because I forgot my “otsuri” (change) in a vending machine. 😉

    1. Ah, the holidays. That’s an excellent point that I forgot to mention. ATMs are closed on some holidays, but not on others, and if you spaced and forgot to get out enough cash beforehand, you’re gonna be eating the leftover contents of your kitchen for a few days. Peanut butter and rice, I’m sure that’ll be delicious. For that reason, it’s also a good idea to have at least a couple hundred bucks stashed at home, just in case. Freaking stash money all over the place! Just, uh, don’t forget where you put it.

      1. Peanut butter? Did I see you write peanut butter? I horde the stuff I get from the US and its the only thing I ask people to bring when they visit. Please, no sugar-peanut butter. Just peanut better. Chiba, with all it’s peanuts is ripe for a new start up. Have you tried Pocky with peanut butter? Don’t.

        Zoomingjapan, you’re right, as you get outside the big cities, cash, and large amounts of it, is critical. I need to take notes as I think I forget to tell visitors about this. But I have to ask, do people in these far off places just have stacks of yen in their house? I think the biggest bill is only 10,000 so where do people keep all of this money?

        1. I don’t know if there are any Japanese people who have a lot of cash at home.
          If you live far away from the next ATM, I can imagine people do, but that also means they live in a very remote place and probably even leave their doors unlocked without having to worry.

          1. I can’t speak for everyone, but I do know one Japanese household that keeps a couple thousand dollars worth of yen on hand.

            One thing to think about is that after the Tohoku earthquake, there were a lot of power outages. No power means no ATM, which means no money, which means no beer, which is bad.

            Of course, there are risks either way. Pick your poison, I guess.

      2. ATMs… ATMS!!!! Good lord, for a country of the modern, a country of progress, the ATMs in this country could drive a man to drink…. if you could ever get money out of em that is. However, I have found a solution to this world ending problem, get a Shinsei bank account and know where your nearest 7/11 is. Shinsei has “modernized” ever so slightly, in that they joined the late 90’s in the rest of the world, and don’t seem to close when the rest of the inaka (or not so inaka) banks do. Also they don’t charge money to take out of the 7/11 machines, so win win.

        1. I did run into problems with ATMs, but not since I have a post office bank account.
          Even in the deepest inaka or remote islands where there are not conbinis, you’ll find a post office and that’s how I survived during my last vacation! 😉

        2. I think anyone visiting Japan for the first time would probably be surprised at how un-technological it really is. Except for the toilet seats. Those are great. Kind of hard to get money out of them, however.

          All I know is that I carry 3 ATM cards, two for Japanese banks, and one for Citibank in the U.S., and a couple of times I’ve been at 7-11 at like 3 a.m. unable to get anything out. That is not a good feeling.

          1. It’s that moment when you see your first Fax machine in Japan, then realize they are everywhere, that your brain just stops. That is if you were old enough to use fax machines back in the 90s. The yougins just look at em and go What’s this fancy thingamabob?

            1. Yeah, that’s some newfangled technology. It’s like the transporter on Star Trek, only for paper. I predict this fax technology is gonna catch on big.

  8. The span of technology is stunning here. Fax machines that will be around for another 20 years and yet they can make frozen head on top of beer to keep your beer cold in summer. But the ATM can’t be used prior to 8am.

    I shudder to think of a location in Japan without a conbini.

  9. Really? All the Swiss do is eat cheese with holes in it? That’s about as accurate as this statement….The sushi restaurants in Pittsburgh are extremely authentic and just as good, if not better than Japanese restaurants 😉

    1. Ah, so I’ve apparently aroused the ire of yet another nation. Ken Seeroi, spreading joy and goodwill throughout the globe. I really ought to work for the U.N. But fear not, Swiss people, I still love you, what with your cute wooden shoes and windmills. Such a nice country.

  10. Haha, yeah the whole ATM closing thing tripped me up initially. Though it does kinda remind me of that Chris Rock sketch…why’re ATMs open 24 hours?! When’s the last time you needed money at 3AM…for something good?! Though good ole 7/11 does provide for our unsavory monetary needs 24/7 now, right?

    Yeah I always kept at least a Fukuzawa in my wallet, and using my saifukei for train tickets and little stuff like going to the conbeni…tended to work out alright…but then again I didn’t get pulled into sketchy places like you seem to every night…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *