National / Media | Japan Pulse

Plight of ‘Mizuho refugees’ stirs debate on banking services in Japan

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Imagine wrapping up a tough work week and jumping into a three-day weekend. Maybe you just plan on lounging around at home with the air conditioner on at full blast. Or perhaps you’ll hit the road and head out of the city to get a welcome break from urban life. At some point you’ll probably need to withdraw some cash for the weekend, so you venture down to your nearest ATM … and find out the whole system is down until the following Tuesday.

That was reality over the Marine Day holiday weekend, at least for those using Mizuho Bank. Mizuho Financial Group Inc., the parent of Mizuho Bank and one of the country’s largest financial institutions, halted ATM and online banking services over those three days to conduct data transfers. This move left many without a way to withdraw funds. Other banks, including Prestia, also limited service, but Mizuho attracted significant online attention.

Luckily for them, social media never shuts down, offering a place to commiserate with others and complain about Japan’s cash-centric society, which continues to persist in 2018. So many people ended up affected that a popular buzzword emerged online — “Mizuho nanmin” (“Mizuho refugees”), which spread across Twitter and other social network platforms. It was an episode of inconvenience that showed how internet users in Japan gripe, and a rare moment when many voices came together around a shared topic to vent.

Like most viral frustrations in 2018, Mizuho did offer plenty of advance warning on this one. The bank’s website laid this info out along with future dates where services will be shut down (make your notes now). It was also advertised on TV and on trains across the country, but it could be understandable that someone could miss the spot airing and, uh, not pay attention during their commute. Mizuho also sent plenty of emails and letters announcing the news to users, however. My sources for this? My inbox, both digital and physical.

When the holiday weekend arrived, social media started buzzing. A fair amount of users offered up warnings to others, reminding them to take out money or risk having no cash until Tuesday, with some even sharing lessons learned from before. Others used the moment to joke about just how much dough they were taking out.

As Saturday rolled around, however, the “Mizuho refugeesstarted emerging. People checked their wallets and realized they were now in a pinch. Some folks, after multiple failed attempts to find a machine that would spit out some money, celebrated the fact they had a piggybank on hand for just this moment (or, in one case, a total of ¥221). The majority, though, did not. Others bought ice cream first before realizing they had just put themselves in a pickle, or arrived in Niigata with only change in their pocket. And then the complaints really revved up. Some declared a desire to change banks or at least cancel the account they have, while others shifted blame to Japan as a whole.

Trending instances like this give those who aren’t directly impacted chances to jump into the fray as well. Some Twitter users reported watching young people stare slackjawed at signs placed on ATMs in train stations. Others documented purported “refugees” in the wild. Twitter user @hikosaemon made the history of Mizuho’s internal workings sound like popcorn-movie material, while others took the chance to make some real goofers about the situation (which at least one person used to praise India). It was a moment to shine for the nation’s pawnshop association mascot (but it ultimately didn’t really work). Plenty of others kept reminding the void that, actually, plenty of ads and notices had been put out by Mizuho.

The Mizuho stoppage also gave people a chance to push the argument that Japan should embrace more cashless methods of consumerism. Simply complaining about an inconvenience is Web 1.0 — now highlighting a solution alongside griping is the de rigeur. A fair amount of popular tweets wondered why credit cards and other noncash options weren’t bigger in Japan, and hoped this might spur a discussion. Some people celebrated places that took cards.

Odds are pretty good that this single incident shared online won’t move the issue on. If nothing else, the one thing that everyone should get out of this whole “Mizuho refugee” incident is that anyone banking with this company should prepare accordingly for Sept. 8, 9 and 10 — the date the system is scheduled to go down once more for maintenance. Print out the bank’s list, and if you put your money somewhere else, make sure they won’t be pulling anything similar soon. It might also be smart to take out a few hundred thousand yen just in case of an emergency — ATMs might not be available in the event of a disaster and, even then, turning to Twitter won’t get you very far.