Cash cards, point cards, stamp cards, business cards, credit cards, travel cards, birthday cards. Japan’s got so many cards that one needs a wallet the size of the buffalo it was made from just to contain them. I don’t bother with all of them but some are really handy.
My company hired me before I came to Japan so upon arrival they were there to help set me up with basics such a food, shelter and a bank account. What surprised me was that the account they set me up with was with the Post Office. At my local branch of JP (literally Japan Post) they gave me an A6-sized bank book similar to the kind my grandmother used to use.
I was visibly relieved when they offered me a special add-on service dubbed a “Cash Card”. Similar to UK debit cards, with this I can take money out of ATMs. Unlike the UK system, most Japanese ATMs are not 24 hours. Also, a lot of ATMs charge a fee for using the machine. For JP, although you can still get money from regular ATMs, most Post Office branches have their own type of ATM. These don’t charge and you can even put money into your account with them. Down side? Most of them shut down by five.
The Japanese Post Office doesn’t offer a credit card, and foreigners reportedly have a hard time of being found eligible for one at regular banks. I’ve been told that banks often turn down people who only have a short-term visa or whose working contract is short. However, different companies have different levels of flexibility. So it’s worth trying if one has the time and desire. This looks like a helpful list of possible cards to shoot for.
I currently have one point card for a petrol station chain, one for a CD/DVD/BD rental chain (that can also be used in convenience stores…?), one for an independent CD/DVD/BD/VHS (yes, really) store, and one for a Yakiniku (Korean BBQ) restaurant chain. I also have a card for a Karaoke chain, but I’m not sure if I’m actually earning points with it or if it’s just a membership card. Karaoke is big business in Japan and I know some chains definitely have point card systems.
I’ve always been pretty against point cards as I know I’ll forget to use them and they’ll just become wallet-clutter. The ones I do have are mostly because they double as mandatory membership cards. The Yakiniku one is probably my favourite because they occasionally give me vouchers and in my birthday month they automatically deduct 10% from the check. Sweet!
I’ve never actually used my accumulated points for anything, even when I had such cards in the UK. At one time the Lawson convenience store chain had a special promotion going where you could get this super awesome Dragonball Z cereal bowl if you collected a certain number of points. I really wanted it so I got a point card and started buying things from Lawson stores whenever possible, even when it was stuff I could have bought cheaper elsewhere! The last day of the promotion arrived and I dragged my girlfriend into the store to help me attain my trophy.
The cashier scanned my point card and poked a few buttons on her machine.
She scanned it again and poked some more.
She scanned it a third time, poked, frowned, and looked up at me.
Something had screwed the card; possibly the proximity to my smartphone.
All the points were lost.
Upon landing in Tokyo I was immediately advised to get a smart card for travel. There are a couple on offer. Suica is offered by JR East (Japan Rail) and has a cute penguin mascot and silver/green theme. The other is PassMo from Tokyo Metro which has a grey and pink motif. They can both be used on the regular train system, underground system and bus system in Tokyo, which is their key function. However, the Suica card can also be used to buy things at convenience stores and even vending machines. Plus, it can be used to rent luggage lockers at JR Stations – the card is used for payment and acts as the key! PassMo has similar functionality but I don’t know if it does the locker thing because, yes I’m ashamed to say it; I was suckered in by the little penguin dude.
The cards are similar to the Oyster card used in London but with the extra functionalities I mentioned above. Also the Suica isn’t just for Tokyo. Some of the large stations up here in Tohoku also accept the card. However they only work at electronic gates so if you’re planning on getting off at one of the smaller local stations then I’m afraid you’re plum out of luck.
Many years ago I remember a scheme cropping up in the UK that tried to get people to use a Citizen Card. It seemed like a good idea at the time as not everyone had a driving license but you really needed ID if you planned on buying alcohol (a popular pass-time). Then it turned out that many pubs didn’t accept Citizen Cards as a valid form of ID …
Kind of ruined their usefulness really.
In Japan all foreign residents are required to have a kind of Citizen Card named, coincidentally, a Residence Card. These are attained from the local City Hall and are needed whenever picking up registered mail from the post office, doing various things at City Hall, or going through Immigration at the airport. They act as an extension of the visa so they have to be renewed whenever one’s visa needs renewing. For me, that’s once a year.
Electronic Toll Collection cards are something I’ve only seen in Japan. The main reason for this is that in the UK the motorways are free, whereas here each entrance to the “Expressway” features a large toll gate. Prices vary by distance travelled and vehicle type. It can get pretty pricey – I know quite a few people who will deliberately opt for the longer, free-er, regular road routes rather than shell out for the Expressway. The money clearly goes to upkeep as these massive roads seem to be in a much better state than a lot of other roads in the country.
The ETC card is a payment card that slots into a magical box in one’s car. Then, when you pass through a toll gate it will automatically debit the required fee from the card. It’s convenient and shaves a couple of minutes from the transaction. I think it’s a bit cheaper too. Certainly useful for anyone who takes the Expressways regularly.
Touch-payment/e-money technology is still finding it’s footing in the UK. My latest Debit Card from my UK bank has a graphic that looks a bit like a WiFi symbol, which indicates that I can make contactless payments with it. A few years ago I bought a smartphone out here in Japan and it has a chip in it which lets me make touch-payments. Never used it though … coz, y’ know … the instructions were all in Japanese …
There are a number of e-money smart cards available in Japan. One, called Waon has a little doggie as its mascot. Its gimmick is that whenever you use the card the reader makes a sound like a dog’s yelp. It’s meant to be cute and loveable, except it’s just a bit too high pitched and loud. It sounds more like someone stepped on the poor pup’s tail! I haven’t gotten one pretty much for that reason alone.
Another e-money card system is called Edy. It’s made by the online Japanese retailer Rakuten. There are a number of cards such as credit cards and point cards that have Edy functionality. I have one from All Nippon Airways (ANA) that doubles as my mileage club card. So, every time I make a payment with the card I get air miles too. It’s prettyyyyy, prettyyyyy, pretty good.
These types of cards can be charged with cash monies at any convenience store with the Edy logo (which is most of them).
Cards in Japan
That’s a quick cross-section of some of the various cards I’ve encountered while living in Japan. Although it’s not an extensive list I hope it will help any newcomers plan for an appropriately sized wallet. I recommend one with an excess of card slots!
Oh, wait. I mentioned birthday cards earlier right? Well, you can’t get much better than this …
What cards do you have crammed into your wallet or card case? Which ones do you actually find useful?
Thank you for reading. For more on Living In Japan check these out.