Financial Cocoon

Just like I imagine many children raised in a salary-man family, at some early age, we used to get paid a small allowance in exchange for some household chores. We kept an accounting book, which we were required to balance and show our mother along with what was left in our wallets at the end of the month. That was some version of “home economics”.

Of course this home accounting is not exactly reflecting what goes on in the real world. We didn’t learn how banking worked, nor did I ever learn about currency exchange nor taxes by keeping tabs on my allowance.

But it was a cozy way to play “house”.

This is almost how I feel about the cocoon the Japanese financial system seems to weave, as if to keep the citizens tethered to their company, in their “home” country.


It was warm, we didn’t have many hours left til our departure, and I was not sure if we had, between us, sufficient cash for the reserved taxi ride back to the airport. This was the last day of our business trip in a non- USD or EUR zone.

We trudged through the afternoon sun, one ATM after another, sticking my Japanese IC-chipped cash cum credit card that had corresponding cirrus and other “international” transaction icons. Not as a cash card, not as a credit card could we withdraw cash.

After the 10th one, I was in a horrible mood, but I was not ready to express my frustration like my usual self in front of my new Japanese colleague.

It had been a week, with me doing most of the talking and organising as the more experienced international traveler, I felt responsible to make it to our flight, and I was tired and hungry.

Finally, I gave up after trying every single bank on a major rue d’ATM.


We paid every single last tiny denomination for our pre-arranged taxi ride to the international airport. I guess I could have cancelled this taxi and just booked an Uber. I had just gotten single-minded about this ATM thing and forgotten to use my brain.

With some other funny moments, including one of almost missing the last and longest leg, and running through a huge airport, we made it back.


At home, I found out that it is true that no Japanese bank card works to withdraw cash abroad.

In utter disbelief, I asked my sister, who informed me she has the former citibank account (now a Japanese bank), which is not too restrictive – some currencies like USD can be withdrawn abroad.

Before that trip, I had laughed when my colleague recommended that I make travelers’ checks.

Who uses those?  

What century are we in? 

I always had traveled cashless, through Asia and Latin America with my ATM and credit card. I would arrive at my travel destination, and withdraw cash in a non-major currency from any ATM.

Fortunately, I had carried some USD as per his recommendation.

If it weren’t for that, I would have not survived my trip. No coffee at the corner cafe.

Just some Uber rides, or fancy restaurants that accept payments by credit card.


Friends, don’t read this post and then go rob Japanese tourists because they all carry cash, as they cannot withdraw cash abroad. Just look for their fanny packs.



Some months passed, my irritation easing over time.

I started online banking. Finally, I didn’t have to pay these fees to use my own bank card in my own bank’s ATMs during off-hours (i.e. before 8:45am, and after 18:00pm).

It seems like Japanese banks want us to remain in the past when each household had someone available  mid-day to go see the bank teller to make some transaction.


Then, I tried sending money abroad.

To my surprise, there was no way to do it online.

I thought I just didn’t understand some Japanese banking terms.

Then I called the bank, on the next day, a Monday.


Apparently, there is no way to make an international transfer abroad online as an individual. I have to go to a bank with my registered stamp, to fill in a form and stamp the form to say I’m agreeing to transfer the money.

My eyes were flipping somersaults.


Then I asked my internationally-minded friends, and again my sister.

Apparently, this is normal.

Everyone suffers through this to a certain degree.


But why?


My poor father had to listen to me rant and rave about this system that seems to look only at its belly button. As if the system is making sure that not even small amounts of cash flow abroad, and people feel free to roam.

Japan is one of 21 countries where one cannot get a borderless account.

This, was a culture shock, if there was ever one.


Some other fun facts:
  • If you work for a company (and make less than 100K JPY/year), the company will file tax forms for you.
  • If you win a lottery in Japan, you are not taxed on that money.

Does this all sounds good, and you want to come work in Japan?

Make sure to keep an account at an internationally-minded bank account abroad.

*image of Greta Garbo’s traveler’s check from UniBul’s Money blog

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