The other day, I found myself standing behind a group of tourists from Dubai who were clustered around the 券売機 (kenbaiki, ticket machine) in Omotesando Station. They asked me if the machine could take credit cards and I told them it couldn’t and that they’d be better off using 現金 (genkin, cash) for a single-ride ticket.
Many Japanese like to think we live in a キャッシュレス社会 (kyasshuresu shakai, cashless society) but the reality is that genkin reigns supreme — even as the government endorses 電子マネー (denshi manē, electronic money or prepaid cards) and the rest of the world moves to abolish small お札 (o-satsu, bills) and 小銭 (kozeni, change) altogether. The idea to take 一円玉 (ichi-en dama, one-yen coins) and 五円玉 (go-en dama, five-yen coins) out of circulation has been floating around for the past decade, but at most レジ (reji, cash registers) you’ll still see people fumbling to fish them out of their pockets.
Historians and consultants such as Takao Ogasawara have pointed out that Japan is still kind of new to Western-style 資本主義 (shihonshugi, capitalism) and newer still to the concept of フィンテック (fintekku, financial technology), which may account for the delay in ditching physical cash. Sure, the money-savvy have switched to スマホ決済 (sumaho kessai, paying via a smartphone app) and オンラインバンキング (onrain bankingu, online banking) that allow you to make payments, track finances and earn points. The rest of the Japanese, however, remain uncomfortable about breaking up with genkin altogether. Besides, sumaho kessai isn’t an option at places that count, like 祭り (matsuri, festivals), small 飲み屋 (nomiya, drinking places) and my neighborhood bakery.
With one hand on our wallet and the other on our smartphone, there’s also the matter of 仮想通貨 (kasō tsūka, cryptocurrency) to contend with. Things in that field are changing fast — even the name: The government has announced that kasō tsūka is a bad match for the English term and within the year, it will switch to 暗号資産 (angō shisan, crypto-assets), which is much closer to its meaning. The new wave is there, it’s just taking a while to reach the shore.
Interestingly, the Japanese economy used to run on a virtual currency of sorts: rice.
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), rice was a currency. The ruling samurai class was paid with rice, which the farmers grew, harvested and filed as their 年貢 (nengu, an annual tribute/taxes).
Fast forward to the late-1940s, when the Japanese were still struggling with the effects of postwar inflation and 新円切替 (shin’en kirikae, switching to the new yen currency system) that kicked in a year after the surrender. By then, お金 (o-kane, money) or lack thereof, had become a permanent hot topic. Some popular phrases from the era that have remained through the decades include: 金欠病 (kinketsu-byō, literally the “cash-poor disease,” meaning “poverty”); 懐が寂しい (futokoro ga sabishii), with futokoro refering to the front flap of a kimono in which people stored their purses; and, my personal favorite, 無い袖は振れない (nai sode wa furenai, you can’t wave a kimono sleeve that’s not there). That last one, though rarely used in everyday conversation, has its roots in the Edo Period, when it’s rumored that hard-up Japanese would detach the sleeves from their kimonos to pawn or sell.
The Japanese relationship with money remains tinged with humor, though the jargon around it has changed. Debt used to be 借金 (shakkin) but now people are more likely to say ローン (rōn, loan). クレジット (kurejitto) is credit card, but beware of abusing it, or you may find yourself in カード地獄 (kādo jigoku, credit card hell). On the other hand, the Japanese are pretty great when it comes to adding to their savings accounts. According to the government, the 預金残高 (yokin zandaka, total savings) of the average Japanese household in 2017 was just over ¥18 million.
Not all of that cash is sitting in the bank, though. There’s the good old-fashioned タンス預金 (tansu yokin, keeping money in the drawer, usually under your socks) or the more popular 五百円玉貯金 (gohyaku-en dama chokin, saving up ¥500 coins). A friend of mine once financed an entire Honolulu vacation with ¥500 coins. She used to keep them in a huge glass vase and ended up with nearly ¥350,000. There’s even a proverb that describes such a feat: 塵も積もれば山となる (Chiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru, When dust is piled high, it can turn into a mountain).
And the Japanese generally display a preference for 財布 (saifu, wallets). A couple of years ago many were in favor of the 長財布 (nagazaifu, long rectangular wallet), which held all their cash, cards and ポイントカード (pointo kādo, point cards), but now the trend has swung to micro wallets known as ミニ財布 (minizaifu). Apparently, the smaller your wallet, the less you’ll spend and the more you’ll save. It appears most of us have a bit of a way to go before embracing the wonders of fintech.