After three years here, I believe the essence of the difference between Japan and India can be summed up thus: In India, nothing works, but everything can be arranged (for a consideration, of course); in Japan, everything works, but nothing can be arranged. One of the surprising aspects of life in Japan is an antiquated banking system for ordinary customers. Combined with the wonderful politeness and extraordinary self-control of Japanese society, the end result can be a frustrating sense of impotence, for one is not allowed explosions of rage as a way of letting off steam.

Many years ago, I started a Japanese studies program at my former university in New Zealand. We wanted to bring over a Japanese candidate for interview. The interview was arranged at short notice, and we did not have the time to process the payment for the air tickets through the regular university system. I phoned the travel agent in Tokyo and offered to pay for the ticket on my credit card — a routine procedure at the time in New Zealand. To my astonishment, this was not possible, and we had to make alternative arrangements.

Credit cards have become routine and commonplace, but not checks. Automated teller machines are also very common, so perhaps this is not quite the cash-heavy society of international folklore. But in many respects the banking practices of Japan are reminiscent more of India than a typical Western industrialized country. One by one, we discovered that services that we had taken for granted in Australia and New Zealand were far too radical and revolutionary for Citibank in Tokyo — even though Citibank was said to be among the most progressive banks operating in Japan.

The first awakening came when my wife and I asked to open a joint account. “Sorry, we cannot do that.” I can no longer remember whether we were more surprised or shocked. In the end my wife was graciously given permission to “operate” the account, but everything still has to be in my name. This is the first time in almost three decades of married life that we have not had a joint account. Not surprisingly, she worries sometimes about retrieving her financial life if something should happen to me.

When we asked for a checking account, it was the bank staff’s turn to look blankly at us.

Our next encounter with surrealism was when we wanted to authorize automatic payment of the rent each month. “Very sorry, cannot be done.” The initial line was that the computer could not handle this request. When I pointed out that the computer could handle direct payment for telephones and electricity and gas, the response was that these were public utilities. Still smiling, I said that if the computer could handle payment of a variable amount each month to one designated account, it could surely handle the simpler task of paying a fixed amount each month to another account. Perhaps we could keep the fact of the second account holder being a private landlord, and not a public utility, a secret among ourselves and not tell the computer? That’s when I discovered the cross-cultural barriers to humor.

Still unable to come to terms with what we were being told, I asked if that meant, for example, that I could not authorize a set amount of money being transferred to my son’s account each month. With an indulgent smile for a pupil with a learning disability, the official said that was correct. I informed him that was precisely the arrangement with our bank back in Australia vis-a-vis our son. (Mine is an example of a modern globalized family: When the children grow up, they stay behind in the family house and the parents are the ones who move to another country.) I am still not sure whether the look of reproach on his face reflected sadness at the laxity of fellow-bankers in Australia, or a belief that, confronted with the facts of life in high finance, I had resorted to a petulantly tall story.

Fast forward to the next shock. I have my ATM card, with all the appropriate signs on it for its usability in many countries around the world. The first overseas ATM at which I tried to withdraw money in local currency, the result was another victory for machine over man. Upon returning to Japan, I went back to Citibank, and complained politely that I must have been issued with the wrong card by mistake. The friendly official nodded helpfully, ran my vital statistics through his whirring computer, and informed me that because I was not living in Japan, I could not have a bank card with international ATM facilities.

I smiled back with equal firmness, and asked him to check again. He would find out, I was sure, that the bank had my apartment address to which they sent my statements of account regularly; my employment details; and, what is more, I said with my clinching argument, my salary was paid into my account every month. In other words, I ended triumphantly, I not only lived in Japan, I even worked here, and the bank had all that information miraculously to hand.

Indeed yes, said my helpful interlocutor. (Or was it interrogator by then — I forget: these things become hazy after a while.) But I was in Japan as a diplomat, not as a resident. But didn’t that make it easier to have an international ATM card? “No.” Mine not to reason why, mine but to wince and cry.

And now I have just been informed that the same mysterious restriction applies to Internet bank-transfer facilities, even for transactions within Japan. Residents may do so, but foreigners cannot. Talk of technology transfer denials!

There must surely be a logic to all this. But to my economically untutored mind, it is a very personal explanation of why Japan still finds itself stuck in a recession that is as unmovable as the banking practices. I mean, we are in the 21st century or did I just dream that?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.