Folding wallet with a coin compartment
The wallet. The keeper of money.
My trusty wallet back in the United States was a beaten leather thing that was falling apart at the seams. It had holes so wide that unbeknownst to me whatever change I kept in it would fall out. But it’s not as if I kept money in it, maybe twenty dollars at best.
It mostly held receipts, credit cards, and my driver’s license. It was so light it wouldn’t even make a good paperweight. Why am I telling you all of this? Well it’s because my Japanese wallet is the complete opposite.
My Japanese wallet is filled to the brim with every type of membership card, point card, IC card imaginable. But probably unique to Japan, because of all the coinage, my wallet even has a coin purse sewn into it that separates my coins by denomination: 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 yen (1, 5, 10, and 50 cent, $1, and $5 respectively). More coins than I’m used to handling.
Japan is still very much a hard currency country; there are many small businesses and “mom and pop shops” that don’t accept credit cards. Plus, with the absurd amount of vending machines and convenience stores in Japan you will never die of thirst if you carry a few 100 yen coins.
Your Residence Card is a must. For foreigners this is an essential item to carry at all times. Instead of carrying your passport to prove that you are a documented alien, this card has everything: type of visa, visa expiration, name, and photo.
On the back there are a series of blank spaces for your address to be officially written in by the Prefectural Ward Office when you move. As for moving itself… that’s a whole other mess worth several blog posts.
Cash, Debit, and Credit Cards
For getting hard currency, and again it’s important, a cash card is necessary. Depending on the bank where you open your account, you can choose to receive a bank book or an “eco-friendly” cash card.
But don’t confuse a cash card with a debit card: a cash card in just a piece of plastic with your bank account information printed on it and an chip embedded for ATM transactions; a debit card has a magnetic strip on the back that holds the same information.
When withdrawing from your account either a cash card or a bank book is required. I recommend the “eco-friendly” card option; not so much because I’m a “tree-hugger” but because carrying around that smaller card is much easier than a bank book the size of a small journal.
Debit and credit cards are optional, but highly recommended. Debit and credit cards are good for buying large objects like refrigerators or furniture, and ordering online. Amazon is a great way to get things and accepts all major credit cards.
As a side note, don’t be surprised if, when paying with a card at a store, you are asked if you would like to be charged the total bill once or pay in multiple payments. I always find this odd, especially when paying for something small like 5,000 yen video game. But I guess that’s just policy.
IC cards (Integrated Chip) are the primary payment for public transportation. Whether getting around on the Japan Railway or the municipal bus, they’re the easiest method of payment. Most ticket machines at major train stations dispense these cards. You can even get your name printed on the card and your contact information programmed into it in case you lose it.
For commuters, IC cards can also have pass programs from one to six months. I tend to keep my IC card in a slot in my wallet which is closest to the surface so that I can tap my entire wallet on the gate reader instead of fumbling through my wallet while walking. Some people keep theirs in their phone case for the same reason.
Recently, smartphones and smartwatches have been integrating the IC card technology to where you can tap your phone or watch on the gate reader and your IC card will be charged for transit. Something to keep in mind when that wallet starts getting too big to fit in your pocket.
Point and Membership Cards
In Japan there seems to be a point card for everything. A mall might have its own point card; all the stores inside of that mall might also have their own point cards. Every convenience store on the block has its own point card. Even my DVD rental card doubles as a point card that I can use for online shopping.
It’s “war of the stores” in Japan and point cards are the key to maintaining customer loyalty and testing new products. Points can be traded for promotional goods, special coupons, or directly into Japanese Yen. If you visit places frequently, like the local grocery or convenience store, it makes sense to sign up, but the overall yield is minimal: for every 100 yen you spend you receive 1 point which is roughly 1 yen.
If I sat down and opened my wallet, which I did for this article, the most striking difference from the US is the amount of bills, coins, and point cards that I have. In the US I carried minimal cash, relying on credit and debit exclusively. Japan is a cash country. Crime is very low. So carrying 20,000 yen is normal for paying things like groceries, Starbucks, and the occasional convenience store run.
Outside of my IC cards, Point cards for my local mall and convenience stores get the most use. Finally my DVD rental, dry cleaner, and electronics store membership cards are tucked away in the remaining card pockets. I have so much stuff in my Japanese wallet that I think my wallet needs a wallet.
Software Engineer and Blogger at TalentHub
Usually coding, writing, or exploring Japan.
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