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Change trays

by

Special To The Japan Times

Dear Alice,

I am very curious about those small trays that are used in Japan when settling daily cash transactions. Instead of handing your payment to the clerk, or setting it on the counter by the cash register, here you are generally expected to put your payment into a tray that is presented expressly for the purpose. The clerk takes it away and returns it with your change. In restaurants, the check is often delivered on a rectangular tray made of leather, while in banks and post offices, the trays are usually plastic. So, what the heck are these trays called? And what is their origin and purpose?

Bernard T., Tokyo

Dear Bernard,

I have to say, I had a lot of fun with this question, mostly because it took so many people by surprise. Pretty much everywhere I posed it, I got responses like, “Ehh, nandarō!?” (“Gee, what are they called?”). Or, “Shojikina tokoro, kangaeta koto wa nai.” (“To be honest, I’ve never given them any thought.”) People seem to pay into the trays every day, yet never pay them a second thought.

I started my research at the Currency Museum in Tokyo, figuring that an institution devoted to the study of money was sure to have to have a ready answer. But much to my surprise, and despite the fact that the trays are in use in virtually every bank in Japan, the museum doesn’t have a single example in its collection. Nor does it have documents referring to them.

“It’s an interesting question,” the curator I spoke to allowed, “but I’m not aware of any records on the subject.” He suggested I inquire across the street at the museum’s parent organization, the Bank of Japan.

I was pretty sure the venerable BOJ had more important matters to attend to, but I gave it a try. A public-relations officer kindly agreed to look into the question, but two days later, after what sounded like an exhaustive search, he called back with apologies.

“I’m afraid we have no information at all,” he said. “This is a piece of banking history that seems to have slipped through the cracks.”

Although no one pays much attention to these trays, they carry a veritable payload of names, as I learned by consulting the professional-supply shops that sell them. Tsurisen torei (change tray) is one common moniker. Kaikei-bon (settlement tray) is another. Some suppliers sell them simply as koin torei (coin tray). But the name that really surprised me is karuton, which comes from the French word “carton.” (In French, “carton” originally referred to the pasteboard used for making paper boxes, but was later extended to refer to the boxes themselves, as well as other objects made from pasteboard.)

Fortunately, this discovery gave me a new angle to work on. First, I consulted dictionaries to see when the word “karuton” entered the Japanese language, hoping this would give me a clue as to when the trays themselves were adopted. The earliest reference I found was in a tome titled “Atarashii Kotoba no Jibiki” (“A Dictionary of New Words”), published in 1918. The entry, which I’ll translate, reads: “A round tray into which merchants put change. Recently, a type has become available with rubber on the bottom so coins won’t jangle around.”

So now I knew for certain that these little trays were in use for almost a hundred years ago. But was it possible their use was a much older custom? Not likely, according to Yuji Tanaka, a curator at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum.

“During most of the Edo Period (1603-1868), only the lowest order of itinerant merchants took payment immediately,” Tanaka explained. “Virtually all other merchants did business on credit.”

Typically, shopkeepers would make collections twice a year — during the o-Bon season in the summer and again at the end of the year. Clients would hand over their payment wrapped and in paper, and it would have been unseemly for the merchant to open the package in front of the client to confirm the amount was correct. There was no custom of making change.

But in the early 18th century, a shop called Echigoya, which later evolved into today’s Mitsukoshi Department Store, introduced fixed pricing in exchange for payment on the spot. Trumpeted under the slogan “Genkin kakene nashi” (“Cash sales, no bargaining!”), the idea proved popular with customers but, even so, the competition continued to work on credit.

Many decades later, the same company experimented with keeping goods constantly on display, which was a radical departure from the usual sales method of za-uri (seated sales), in which a customer would sit at the front of the shop and the merchant would bring goods out of a store room one by one for the customer to examine. By 1900, the company had switched all its branches over to cash sales of goods on display, and gradually other merchants followed suit. Cash transactions became more common. Tanaka surmised that change trays were adopted sometime after these changes in the market, but couldn’t say precisely when or by whom.

I decided to set history aside and focus on the reasons the trays are so widely used. The cashiers I interviewed all agreed that the trays are convenient because there’s less risk that someone will drop a coin and set off a scramble to retrieve it. The trays also make it possible to spread out the bills and coins so customers can see at a glance that they’ve been given the correct change. And as one shopkeeper explained it, offering change in a tray feels more polite than simply placing money in a customer’s hand. “Japanese prefer not to touch other people’s hands and the tray creates desirable distance,” he commented. “So you could say that using a tray is an expression of reserve as well as an extension of good customer service.”

Puzzled by something you’ve seen? Send a description, with a photo if possible, to: whattheheckjt@yahoo.co.jp or Alice Gordenker, L&C Department. The Japan Times, 4-5-4 Shibaura, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8071.

  • http://registeredalien.weebly.com gpiper

    Unsurprisingly, everyone misses an essential point here. We in capitalist liberal democratic societies have convinced ourselves of the virtue of greed and money and totally forgotten its dodgy history. But consider this: money is obscene and it taints us. Money is an existential abomination, but a necessary evil. Since money is essentially evil it is fitting that we create mechanisms to regulate contact with and exchange of it. So I greatly appreciate these little cash trays at banks and shops as a kind of barrier that somewhat protects us – the customer and the vendor – from excessive taint of money on our souls. I don’t mean as a barrier to germs inhabiting the surface of the currency. I mean they serve as an acknowledgment that money is a little dodgy. Their existence in Japan – even if people no longer remember their origin – indicates that awareness of the moral dilemma at least used to be high(er), even if it is currently extinct. Of course the trays have some mundane and vaguely practical function: they help the vendor display change to the customer for confirmation; they help prevent embarrassing spillage onto the floor, etc. But those are only quaint justifications revealing people’s ignorance of the spiritual and existential debate associated with money. Let people know – teach them, remind them – that although money is important it is not THAT important!

    • J.P. Bunny

      I certainly wouldn’t mind being tainted with a bit more of this obscene money.

    • Hendrix

      Lighten up man ! … whats with the ” i’m above money” banta? …

      • http://registeredalien.weebly.com gpiper

        I guess you missed the part where I said that money is important.

  • raptorjesus169

    You said the word karuton was adopted into Japanese around 1918. Isn’t that around the time Japan was getting more cultural influence from Western countries? Seeing as these trays are used quite a bit, at least in America, it would make sense that these coin trays were also a by product of that influence.

  • Mike Brown

    you can hand the clerk your money if you want. I promise, they won’t turn it down.

  • srbh

    Alice – if you get a chance to ask follow-up questions, I also wonder why change is always given “big notes first”. Our American “logic” follows the form of starting with the transaction amount, and then adding change until it equals the amount given by customer. Yet another example of “logic” not being universal….
    Scott

  • Jambor Jambor

    There is a much older custom that seems so similar it is hard to imagine that it is not related. When passing an item to someone – say a cup to a house guest – one is traditionally never supposed to hand the item directly to the other person – i.e. never directly from hand to hand. Typically this meant placing the item on a tray (お盆) and offering the item on the tray to the person (or at least placing the item in front of the person for them to pick up). You can see examples of this today in, for example, formal Shinto ceremonies a ceremonial square tray is often used (折敷) or frankly at any fancy kaiseki restaurants.

    I’m not sure about the origin of the custom, but perhaps the action of taking something out of someone’s hand feels too close to taking it forcefully from them – i.e. for the same reason it is considered impolite for two people to hold the same piece of food by chopstick (for example, if passing food between people from chopstick to chopstick).

  • marcellus00

    “Coin trays” are common in Russia too. But, as I think of it, I don’t how to call them)

  • Michael

    One name for these trays that comes up with the most hits on a Bing image search is “check tray”.