Saturday, April 30, 2022

Japan, Germs and a Cashless Society

    When I first started coming to Japan, some thirty years ago, I was warned that I would need cash. Lots of cash. Cards were practically unheard of -- you just couldn't use them except maybe sometimes at big hotels in Tokyo or Osaka, which guaranteed you huge foreign transaction fees and lousy exchange rates.

    Banking here was strange, with banks far away from me no matter where I was and they were generally useless as the ones in Japan didn't speak to any of the ones in the US. The American Express Office would be my best and only friend if anything untoward happened, as long as I could get there during their business hours -- so be sure to keep a secret stash of cash to make certain that was possible.

    Trading American Express Traveller's Cheques for yen at an airport bank branch would get me the very most bang for my buck, as long as I could get the Traveller's Cheques for free. 

    When I moved here, almost five years ago now, I still used cash for everything. That was normal.  

    But there has been a change. Some of it's due to COVID. Money is dirty. Everybody knows that. Hands are covered in germs. We started sanitizing our hands all the time, all over the place and still do. I have tiny bottles and packets of hand sanitizer in all my bags. Sanitizer stations are at the entrances to everywhere, along with new temperature-taking tech that improves every week. And people stopped using cash.

    This first became apparent when a store clerk proudly showed me that he didn't actually have touch filthy lucre any more. He'd scan my items but then I'd push a few buttons, stick money in a machine and get my change and a receipt back. In addition to being clean, which everybody here loves, this appeals enormously to the national passion for accuracy. These machines have sprouted up all over, even in my dentist's office, where the receptionist hands me the handwritten bill and I shove cash for my share into the magic machine! How convenient! How accurate! How clean! Some stores have come up with self-checkout sections, but mostly human cashiers scan your purchases and (tidily, with great precision) put them in a basket so you can transfer them to your own cart or carrier. Since bags started costing, to reduce plastic waste, nobody buys a bag anymore. We bring.

    Interestingly, the use of cards has become more widespread, too. People don't want to handle that dirty cash any more if they can help it, and they've discovered cards are dirty, too! I finally gave in and activated the Wallet function on my phone a few days ago, so I could use my Japanese credit card as a points card particularly. It's paid by magic from my bank account, and I thought it might be convenient to have it in my Wallet. Those points do add up.

    I have also had a Suica card for many years. I think of it as my train card, and that's mostly what I use it for, but it can also be used to make small purchases, even from vending machines. It holds a balance up to 20,000 yen and it's easy to charge at any station or convenience store. Following the example of a friend who managed it from London, I just transferred mine to the Wallet function on my phone two days ago.

     Then, yesterday, I got another new card: a Rakutan/Edy card for shopping, specifically. I don't shop much, but when one was offered me, I took it, just to check it out. It holds 50,000 yen, so I can top it off periodically almost anywhere or even (if I'm brave enough to try another Japanese web site) arrange for it top itself off via my JCB card. It will give me points and those do, eventually, add up. I will no doubt add this to the Wallet function of my phone when I arrange for it to top itself off. But I just did all this over the last few days! It's all new to me.

    It's Golden Week here, a week-long period of holidays when everybody who possibly can takes a few vacation days to mingle with the official holidays to finagle a week or ten days of vacation. Yesterday was the start, with the first holiday, but it poured all day long. Today, it felt like the first day of summer vacation with people pouring out from everywhere, going places and doing things. I saw more gaijin today than I have in over a year, except at Immigration. Students as well as business people are being let in in larger groups and absolutely everybody wanted to get outside and party.

    Today, I took a train to a fairly distant museum, involving a few changes here and there. I wasn't sure if it'd work, but all I had to do was wave my phone at the card reader, and it beeped! Then I had to buy a ticket from the machine at the museum, under the watchful eye of the receptionist, who wasn't sure I could be trusted to work the machine. But, wow! I pressed buttons. Things beeped! My Suica balance was appropriately diminished. I was delighted. I'd done it right -- never a given between computers and my level of Japanese -- and things worked. 

    Then I wanted to buy something and wanted to use my JCB card as a point card. My plan was to pay cash, despite the fact that I was becoming aware that nobody but me was even thinking about using actual cash, which requires fishing in pockets or purses and counting. When I looked a touch confused at where I should wave my phone, the cashier cheerfully pointed out that I should touch here, press there, and wave at something else. The entire transaction was done and finished! No actual money involved! I was out the door in seconds.

    I have to admit it was easy and convenient. On the train home, I recalled that in the US I used a Miles Card to pay for everything I could, and paid it off each month, keeping a running total in my head. I used those miles. In fact, I still have a stack of them waiting for me to use them. It's not like that part is new to me. 

    COVID has changed the world in many ways. It looks like moving Japan to a cashless society is yet another one. I'm on board with it, but I'm still not sure what I think about it.

    I'm not putting photos of my cards or my phone on the Internet, but here's some PR material that's just come in for The Oni's Shamisen.  I think they did a pretty nice job. Don't forget to pick up your review copies today!

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