Tokyo Off Time!

Tokyo Off Time - Part 3 - Business As Usual

Copyright (c) 1994-1996 James C. Liu

Copyright notice: This article may be freely copied and distributed provided that the header and authorship remains unchanged. No part of any of the Tokyo Off Time! series may be commercialized without the author's permission (address given at the end of the article). This work is non-fiction. Any similarities to other characters, fictitious or real is purely coincidental. Opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not reflect the opinion of any institution, company or corporation.

Cash and Carry

One thing I forgot to include in my previous issue of Tokyo Off Time! about basic survival skills in Japan was setting up a bank account. Two people have emailed me and asked about this topic. Getting an account is actually straight forward. Gaijin must provide proof of a permanent address and some money to put into the account. The gaijin registration card is the best form of ID since it has this information on it. If you don't have your card yet, like I didn't when I went to get a bank account, the bank staff will want to see a passport.

Most Japanese register a HANKO or stamp with the Kanji for their name. Foreigners can usually have the option to use either a hanko or a signature. I don't recommend using pre-fab hanko because anyone can buy a copy and impersonate you. It's better to get a custom, one-of-a-kind hanko made. I'm using a using signature. The only drawback anyone has told me is that many Japanese banks won't perform lots account administration unless you go back to your home branch. I guess I'll find out if I ever move out of my apartment.

I'm now banking with Fuji bank, and my branch is close by in Jiyugaoka. I also recommend Dai-Ichi Kangyo. Both banks seem to have branches almost everywhere. I'm told that most banks support electronic deposit as well as electronic bill paying.

In the few short weeks I've been living here, I've grown to appreciate the meaning of "cash and carry." Unlike the US, credit cards are not ubiquitous. Most stores and small restaurants still only take cash. Other people have told me that this is rapidly changing. Many stores now DO accept the standard credit cards. But I now feel naked without having at least Y30,000 (around $300) in my pocket. The small shops, corner markets, and restaurants in my neighbourhood all seem to function strictly on cash. Going out shopping, I see grandmothers whip out wads of several hundred thousand yen (thousands of dollars) in crisp 1 man yen notes.

Carrying a lot of cash in one's wallet doesn't seem to be a big deal in this country. For example, last week, I went to the JSPS office in Kojimachi to pick up my dislocation allowance and first stipend. One of the young program coordinators, Ms. Kaori Kinoshita handed me a HUGE sum of cash. The envelop was pretty thick with a wad in there. Gee. I was dressed in a dark double-breasted suit, and if this was the US, I might have been mistaken for a "Professional Cleaner" being hired for a hit.

Stores I've noticed that take credit cards are all the major, and expensive department stores. For example, Seibu, Mitsukoshi, and Isetan. Most of the ethnic food restaurants in Shibuya, Roppongi, Ginza, and Shinjuku also take credit cards. All the major hotels and shops inside the hotels take them as well. However, my favourite Thai restaurant, Bangkok II, in Roppongi is a cash only establishment.

Getting cash during the day is easy. Many banks have ATMs with english language support. And if you have problems, usually someone in the branch speaks english and you'll get personal service. The ATMs also have almost no limit on how much one can withdraw. You can withdraw from any ATM even if its not your bank. But the charge is usually Y103 for interbank ATM withdrawals, double on the weekends. Citibank cards seem to work in most ATMs but not at all Sakura Bank or Mitsubishi bank.

However, for such a cash-based society, access to cash is extremely difficult after business hours. To my amazement, Japan's banks close down their ATM's after 7pm on weekdays, and after 5pm on weekends. On national holidays, the banks, including ATMs are closed completely. The machines handle transactions after 8:45 am. Is this bogus or what? We're talking about automated teller machines. I've heard some independent theories on why Japan is so. My favourite is the conspiracy theory that states that Japanese banks are conspiring to reduce consumption and increase savings by providing difficult access to cash.

Okay, it is not entirely true that one can't access cash after hours. There are a few ATMs still open. But these are operated by loan sharking, usurous corporations like Takafuji, Yen Shop, Eiffel, and Lake, which give cash advances on credit cards. There is however, one bank that has 24 hour ATMs. This is Citibank which has ATMs located in most popular locations like Aoyama, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza, Roppongi and Shimbashi. However, there is a catch: depositors must maintain a Y300,000 minimum balance or incur a Y1030/month fee.

Dealing with Mama-san Bell

Japan sure is a strange country. All I want is a necessity of life known as a telephone, but they're making it a pain in the shiri. Instead of just going down to the local NTT office, I'm in the process of buying a phone-line from a fellow nethead. Why? Well, if you buy from NTT, phone lines are currently Y72,000 for the basic line and another Y10,400 for hook-up if they gotta send a guy out. Of course, you get Y46,000 back when you sell your line back to NTT. Why the big deposit and the loss? Who knows...NTT has a monopoly. They naturally will gouge their customers.

The concept of a phone-line is abstracted from Americans. In America, if one moves to another place in the same city or area code, usually, all one has to do is to call the phone company and they transfer your number to the line at your new place and bill you $34.95 (PacBell prices...your rates may differ). In America, utilities along with the local PUCs have established that the phone-line is just a physical wire. The utility builds it, maintains it, and bills customers to use it. We don't quibble over details of what kind of wire is used. We just lease the service from the utility. The actual assignment of numbers into a database is just the overhead of having some representative type it into the terminal.

However, in Japan, one not only leases phone service from NTT, but one must also buy the right to have a personal phone line which entitles the owner to have a single phone number installed somewhere the person chooses. For that right, each purchaser of a phone line must pay Y72,000 to Mama-san NTT. Whether this is a hefty deposit one pays is for renting computer disk-space and file-cabinet space at the local NTT office where a hard copy of your actual phone-line agreement is kept...I don't know. Why does NTT do this? Don't ask me. Just remember, NTT is a monopoly.

Of course, gaijin who know better, want a better deal. A way to save a few yen is to buy a line from another gaijin who's going away. The netter I'm buying the line from tells me that the Tokyo Weekender publication is a good source for this kind of stuff because it lists all sorts of classifieds for 'sayonara sales.' NTT then only charges Y824 to switch the line to the new address and any hardware service charges (around $100 for a guy to go out and plug you in.) In fact, once you agree to take over someone else's line, you get a new phone number and new listing in the phone book. Geez. It makes me wonder what the deposit is really going for. There doesn't seem to be any difference between someone going stone-cold turkey into the NTT office and starting a line from scratch and someone who buys someone else's line...except a substantial savings by going the latter route.

Buying someone's phone-line is relatively easy. There's a form the seller gets at their local NTT office. It is a transfer of ownership form. The seller and buyer both fill out the form (with the obligatory new address) and present ID to the clerk the the local NTT office (local to the new address). If both of you can't make it and show ID simultaneously, then the seller needs to fill it out and then obtain a verification of signature from their embassy or consulate. There's like a Y2,800 charge for the stamped and sealed signature verification, which my net-friend said he paid. Once the signatures are on the form, the NTT clerk will assign a new address and phone number to the new owner and charge him the hook-up charges (which appear on the first bill). There's an additional Y824 processing fee.

As for me, an NTT guy is coming out to my apartment on Friday between 1 and 3 in the afternoon. After that, I'll be plugged in. The monthly charges for basic service is around Y1,900. If you want call-waiting, it's an extra Y290 per month. Not bad. All calls are then billed at Y10 for the first 3 minutes, local and varying rates between just a few yen per minute to many yen per minute depending on the distance.

Actual phone-sets cost a lot here. You can get a cheap one for around Y3,000 at BIC Camera, but I recommend buying a Sony or Panasonic cordless phone with all the features in the States and bringing it here. Ten channel, or better yet, the new 900 MHz zillion channel phones are recommended because everyone in Japan uses cordless so you don't want lots of static and overlapping frequencies. Buying in the States and importing will be about half what they charge here for similar cordless phones and I haven't heard of any problems. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Jaa, James


hanko a signatory stamp with a person's kanji engraved on it
kanji Chinese characters used in Japanese language
NTT Nippon Telephone and Telegraph