Japanese retail customers' love affair with cash — and some extra free time while working at home — is keeping banks busy despite government calls for people to reduce contact to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
While many metropolitan areas have seen sharp declines in pedestrian traffic since a state of emergency was declared early this month over the COVID-19 pandemic, the banking arms of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc. said total visitor numbers in April declined by just 10 and 15 percent, respectively.
In some residential areas, branches have even seen an uptick. MUFG figures include ATMs, while SMFG numbers do not.
Japan has not logged the explosive outbreak of infections seen in many other countries, but it has had more than 13,600 confirmed cases and at least 394 deaths.
The preference for cash, especially among Japan's large ranks of elderly, appears to be one reason for the busy banks.
"Elderly people prefer cash. It's safer," said Hitoko Taki, 79, who visited an MUFG branch to withdraw some money. "I'm not very keen on 'cashless' whatever."
Japan is one of the most cash-based economies in the advanced world, government statistics show, with its cashless ratio below 20 percent versus 96 percent in South Korea and 66 percent in China.
Working at home has also given some employees time to slip out to the local bank branch.
"I have more free time now after my company introduced telework," said Kanoko Nakashima, 56, who visited an MUFG branch in Tokyo to get a new bankbook after noticing her old one was full.
Many Japanese are wary of online banking and prefer to keep transaction records in their paper bankbooks.
Japanese firms have expanded telecommuting since the virus outbreak. About 40 percent of 1,158 employees surveyed this month by the NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting said their companies had introduced remote working, up from 18 percent in January.
The three largest lenders — MUFG, SMFG and Mizuho Financial Group Inc. — have all said they will keep their bank branches open as a vital part of social infrastructure.
The banks have taken measures against coronavirus infections, such as placing plastic curtains at counters and making staff wear face masks when speaking to customers.
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