Why you need more cash in Japan

Opinions Tokyo Life - November 24th, 2013

Allow me to save you some reading time today by giving you the conclusion of this article in the first paragraph.

by Ken Seeroi, Japanese Rule of 7

Because as any young lady who’s visited my apartment can tell you, Ken Seeroi is all about time efficiency. Do the dishes? Wash clothes? Take a shower? That’s just precious time that could be spent doing more valuable things. Like, I dunno, how about drinking champagne and eating fresh mango slices? Man, is that ever a delicious combo. And chicks really dig it. But you gotta get those mangos in season, that’s the key. Anyway, where was I? Oh right, money in Japan. Carry a freaking lot of it. Really, that’s about it.

So I was in a Ginza Starbucks a few months ago, teaching an informal English lesson to a slightly overweight young student with long hair and a pretty smile. We were at a window seat, watching people in suits rush by, when a girl passed in front of us carrying a plastic bag full of cash. Not like fifty dollars in nickels either; more like ten thousand dollars in yen. In a clear plastic bag. I’m guessing she was a store employee on her way to make a bank deposit, and her nonchalant attitude was pretty impressive, like Ho hum, on my way to the bank with my huge bag of yen, oh there’s a Starbucks, oh there’s a fluffy dog, doot de doo.

I looked at my student. “Was that a bag full of yen?” I asked.

To which she replied, “You know, in Japanese, we say ‘en.’”

“Umm,” I said, “let’s not forget who’s the English teacher here. It’s pronounced ‘yen,’ with a ‘Y.’ And that was one huge pile of yen.”

“En,” she said.

Some Japanese people really need to learn how to let things go, jeez. Well, anyway, my point is:

You Won’t be Robbed in Japan

Okay, maybe you will. I mean, sure, anything’s possible. Like you could walk under a ladder and a black cat could fall on you or something, but the chances are, nobody’s gonna jack you for your cash or club you over the head with an iPad and steal your iPod. I mean, don’t be an idiot; but still, you’re pretty safe.

Now let me say that when I lived in the US, the average amount of money I carried with me was about sixty-two cents. Because, you know, people in the U.S. have guns. So I debit-carded everything. Gum? Here’s a card. Six pack of beer, comb, Hershey’s bar, and a copy of Penthouse? Put it on the card. Newspaper? Eh, I’ll read it online. You get the idea.

That doesn’t fly in Japan. Japan’s all about the cash. Sure, if you stay in the Hyatt Regency and eat every meal at Denny’s, you can use a card, but for most stuff on a day-to-day basis, you need cash, and a lot of it. Which means:

Japan’s the Greatest Country Ever for Robbers

Japanese people carry a ton of cash on them, seriously. The average person probably has over $200 in their wallet at any given time. I mean, in yen. I’ll just use “dollars” from now on so you don’t have to bust out a calculator for the exchange rate, but really, we’re talking yen. Either way, if there was ever a country where a petty thief could make a great living, it would be Japan. Not that I’d recommend it. I mean, you could do better teaching English to plump girls in Ginza Starbucks while telling them about your apartment stocked full of champagne and seasonal mangos.

Anyway, I sometimes look in my wallet and think, Wow, I’m carrying like $600. And I’m going out tonight. Better get a couple hundred more. So my advice to anyone visiting or living in Japan, but especially visiting, is:

Carry a Ton of Japanese Money

Practically, that means at least $200. I mean in yen. Or en. Or whatever, because you can’t spend dollars. Why carry so much? Let me give you a few scenarios drawn from the experiences of a close friend of mine, also coincidentally named Ken.

1. Ken, newly arrived in Japan, goes out go eat, but doesn’t completely understand what he sees on the menu. He orders a beer that’s three feet tall, an onion salad made from an entire raw onion, and a selection of tempura suitable for a family of six. Then when the bill comes he’s drunk as hell, has horrible bad breath, and is close to heart failure from the buildup of saturated fat in his arteries. About that time, he realizes he doesn’t have enough money to cover the bill. This is not well received by the restaurant staff.

. . . as a final note, I’ll add that Japanese ATMs have the bizarre tendency to be closed when you most need them, like late at night when accompanied by the yakuza.

2. Ken goes to a bar. This time he has enough money. Then at the bar, he makes a bunch of new friends, which is great, since Ken likes friends. And they want to hang out with him, because he’s such a cool guy. Or because he’s white. Whatever. So they take him to a karaoke bar, which is also great, since Ken believes himself to be a most excellent singer when drunk. Then after three hours of drinking beer and singing Japanese folk songs, his new friends all decide it’s time to settle the bill and sprint for the last train, and about this time Ken realizes that while he had enough money at the beginning of the night, somehow it’s all mysteriously been spent. This is not well received by Ken’s former new friends.

3. Ken, now carrying an extra cushion of cash, goes out to a different bar where people don’t yet hate him. I know, it’s kind of a theme. Anyway, he has a pleasant evening of modest drinking, restrained karaoke, and makes it to the station with plenty of time to spare before the last train. Okay, maybe he stops to get one last can of malt liquor at the convenience store before heading to the station, but anyway, he’s got some money left over. And he gets on the train and then just as the doors close he realizes, Shit, wrong train. And the train turns out to be an express straight out to Saitama and it’s the last train and now it’s 1:30 am and Ken’s in dark and scary Saitama and there’s no way back home except for a $50 taxi ride, which exceeds the amount of money in Ken’s wallet by about $49. Ken is perplexed by this situation, but drinks the malt liquor anyway, since maybe that’ll make things clearer, and anyway it looks like it’s going to be a long night.

4. Ken, pockets now bursting with yen, is walking home late one evening through the red-light district. It was an accident, I swear. Then, walking past a club, a doorman asks him if he’d like to have a beer and talk to some pretty girls. Ken says no, because he’s not that kind of guy. He’s a serious and upright individual, with principles. Three minutes later, he’s drinking beer on a velvet couch, surrounded by a crush of pretty girls. Good times! He sings a bunch of karaoke and everyone tells him what an excellent singer he is. But Ken’s no idiot, so he only has two beers. Well, maybe he has three, and buys one or two for the girls, but still. Finally he gets up to leave and when he’s presented with the bill, it comes to approximately as much as one month’s rent. Suddenly, the doorman who was so nice has been replaced by a totally scary yakuza thug. Again, Ken’s situation is less than well-received.

A Few Final Words of Financial Advice for Japan

Now, you’re probably not going to be a complete moron like some people I know, but still, my strong advice is, carry way more cash than you think you need. And as a final note, I’ll add that Japanese ATMs have the bizarre tendency to be closed when you most need them, like late at night when accompanied by the yakuza.

And a final, final note: Don’t get the idea that Japan’s expensive. That’s flat-out not true. It can be much cheaper than the US, if you understand the system. But until you can speak, and especially read, Japanese with a fair degree of competence, the chances of screwing up and having to fork out some bucks is pretty high. And since you can’t fall back on credit cards, problematic situations are likely to develop, to put it mildly.

Okay, and one extra final, final note: there is some purse-snatching that occurs in Japan. Apparently the nation’s not immune to crime, although it’s much less than most places. Except maybe Switzerland or something, but all they eat is cheese with holes, so who wants to go there. Anyway, you’re more likely to run into problems not carrying enough money, rather than carrying too much. Just don’t go strolling at night with a clear bag full of cash. Wait till daytime. Mo’ money, no problems. That’s how we roll in Japan.

Ken Seeroi is the author of the blog, http://japaneseruleof7.com.

Image: tamaki/Flickr