Money in Japan
The Japanese currency is the Japanese yen, abbreviated ¥ (or JPY in foreign exchange contexts). In April 2015, the yen was trading at around 120 to the US dollar. In the Japanese language itself, the symbol 円 (pronounced: en) is used.
- Coins: ¥1 (silver), ¥5 (gold with centre hole), ¥10 (copper), ¥50 (silver with centre hole), 100 (silver), and ¥500. There are two ¥500 coins, distinguished by their colour. (The new ones are made of gold, the old ones of silver).
- Notes: ¥1,000 (blue), ¥2,000 (green), ¥5,000 (purple) and ¥10,000 (brown). ¥2,000 notes are rare. New designs for all notes except ¥2,000 were introduced in November 2004, so there are now two versions in circulation. Most traders will not mind receiving a ¥10,000 note even for a small purchase.
Japan is essentially a cash society. Although most shops and hotels serving foreign customers accept credit cards, many businesses such as cafés, bars, grocery shops and even smaller hotels and inns do not. Even shops that do accept cards often charge a minimum fee and surcharge, although this practice is decreasing. The most popular credit card in Japan is JCB, and because of an alliance between Discover, JCB and American Express, Discover and AmEx cards can be used anywhere JCB is accepted. This means that these cards have a wider acceptance than Visa/MasterCard/UnionPay. Most merchants are only familiar with the JCB/AmEx agreement, but Discover works too if you can convince them to try it!
The Japanese usually carry around large amounts of cash – it is quite safe and almost a necessity, especially in smaller towns and more remote areas. In many cities, the Japanese can also pay for their purchases with their mobile phones, where the phone works like a credit card and the cost is charged to the mobile phone bill, or the phone can work as a prepaid card independent of the operator account. However, a Japanese phone and SIM card is required to use this service, so it is not usually available to foreigners on short visits.
If you already have a Japanese phone, be aware that initialising the prepaid card with a loaner SIM will incur data charges, which can be avoided by using Wi-Fi. Only feature phones require a Japanese SIM card to start the service. Smartphones in the Japanese market, once unlocked, can be initialised via any data service, be it Wi-Fi, your own SIM card or a rental SIM card. This means that it is possible to set it up before you arrive. Mobile Suica and Edy, the two main prepaid card apps included on Japanese smartphones, can be paid for with a credit card instead of a phone bill (and although Mobile Suica requires an annual fee of ¥1000, it is the only way to top up a Suica with a credit card not issued by JR). However, the only foreign-issued cards that accept these apps are JCB and American Express. Note that for larger purchases paid for with a Suica or Edy linked in this way, AmEx benefits (purchase protection, extended warranty, etc.) do not apply.
Almost every major bank in Japan offers foreign currency exchange into US dollars (cash and travellers cheques). The rates are basically the same no matter which bank you choose (rates may be better or worse at private exchange offices). Waiting times of 15-30 minutes, depending on how busy the branch is, are not uncommon. Other accepted currencies include euros, Swiss francs, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand dollars, and British pounds. Of the other Asian currencies, Singapore dollars seem to be the most widely accepted, followed by the Korean won and the Chinese yuan.
Exchange rates for US dollars and euros are usually very good (about 2 % below the official rate). Exchange rates for other currencies are very poor (up to 15 % below the official rate). Other Asian currencies are often not accepted (exceptions are currencies from neighbouring countries such as Korean won, Chinese yuan and Hong Kong dollars). Japanese post offices can also cash travellers’ cheques or exchange cash for yen at a slightly better rate than at banks. Travellers’ cheques also have a better exchange rate than cash. When exchanging amounts over US$1,000 (whether cash or travellers’ cheques), you must present identification that includes your name, address and date of birth (to prevent money laundering and the financing of terrorism). Since passports do not typically show an address, you should bring another form of ID, such as a driver’s licence, that shows your address.
Banking in Japan is a notoriously tedious process, especially for foreigners. You need an Alien Resident Card (ARC) and proof of a Japanese address. This means that while foreigners who are in Japan for an extended period of time (e.g. on a student, family or work visa) can open an account, this option is not available for those on a short trip for tourism or business. Many banks also require a Japanese seal (印鑑 inkan) to stamp your documents, and signatures are often not accepted as a substitute. Bank staff often do not speak English or other foreign languages. Unlike most other countries in the world, Japanese bank branches often only have ATMs available during business hours, although this is changing (for example, some Mitsubishi UFJ branches now keep their ATMs available until 23:00).
In case you need a locally issued “credit” card (e.g. for an online merchant doing regional checks), there are a variety of virtual Visa cards available online only, and some shops’ loyalty cards also offer a prepaid Visa or JCB card feature.
A growing number of Japanese ATMs, known locally as cash corners (キャッシュコーナー kyasshu kōnā), are beginning to accept foreign debit cards, but the availability of credit card advances known as cashing (キャッシング kyasshingu) remains patchy. The main banks and ATM operators that accept foreign cards are listed below.
|Maestro EMV chip cards|
|If you have a Maestro-issued EMV card with chip (also called IC or chip-and-pin) issued outside the Asia/Pacific region, you can only withdraw cash from 7-Eleven/Seven Bank, AEON and E-Net ATMs and Mizuho ATMs in Tokyo.|
Other ATMs, such as those at Japan Post, do not currently accept these EMV cards.
Note that since June 2016, some ATMs have reduced withdrawal limits for foreign cards, partly due to recent security breaches by banks. The limit at Seven Bankmachines is ¥50,000 per transaction and the limit at E-Net is ¥40,000 per transaction.
|– 7-Bank and Yucho both charge an additional ATM fee of ¥110 on top of the issuer’s fee. E-Net charges ¥108, while SMBC and Aeon only charge ¥75. Lawson, Mizuho and MUFG do not charge any fees at all, so it is best to withdraw from one of their ATMs during opening hours.|
– UnionPay card number must start with 6. If the first digit is something else and it does not have the logo of another network, it will not work at all in Japan. Replace it with another one. If the first digit is 3/4/5 and it has the logo of another network (Visa/MasterCard/AmEx), it will not work at SMBC/MUFG/Mizuho/Lawson/UnionPay-only AEON ATMs, but only at the ATMs of the other network (Yucho/7-Bank/Prestia/Shinsei/E-Net/international-enabled AEON).
The illustration on SMBC/MUFG ATMs shows that the card is inserted with the magnetic strip facing up. This only applies to Japanese cards; UnionPay cards (and Discover/JCB for MUFG) are to be inserted in the usual way.
Note the trend of “local” Japanese banks paying with UnionPay (and MUFG also accepting Discover). Although there are 7-Elevens everywhere, it is always advisable to have more options. So try to get either a UnionPay or Discover debit card before arrival for convenience (Narita Airport, for example, has the “usual” ATMs for foreigners on the first floor of Terminal 2, which are crowded when international arrivals start, while the Mitsubishi UFJ ATMs on the second floor are wide open during most hours).
One thing to note: many Japanese ATMs are closed at night and on weekends, so it’s best to do your banking during office hours! Exceptions are convenience stores like 7-Eleven, which are open 24/7, FamilyMart (some have Yucho ATMs with free withdrawals, most have E-Net ATMs that charge a fee), Lawson (for UnionPay users) and ministop branches in major cities where international card acceptance has been enabled at in-store ATMs.
A note to those who use SMBC/MUFG/Mizuho/Aeon ATMs: Local staff at most branches still do not know that their ATMs now accept foreign cards at all. If you have problems, pick up the phone next to the machine to speak to central ATM support. Also note that the fancier features are only for domestic ATM card users; don’t expect to be able to buy lottery tickets or make transfers from home with your debit card.
Vending machines in Japan are known for their ubiquity and the (notorious) variety of products they sell. Most take ¥1,000 notes, and some types, such as train ticket vending machines, take up to ¥10,000; none accept ¥1 or ¥5 coins, and only some accept ¥2,000 notes. And even the most modern machines do not accept credit cards, with the exception of some machines in stations (although there are restrictions – for example, JR East and West ticket machines require a PIN of four digits or less; most credit card customers are better off buying at a ticket counter). Note that cigarette machines require a Taspo (age verification) card, which are unfortunately off-limits to non-residents, but local smokers are usually happy to lend you theirs.
Electronic prepaid cards are very popular in Japan for small purchases. There are cards for train tickets, purchases in shops and other general purposes, but they are not interchangeable. If you plan to return frequently and/or need to be able to top up your prepaid cards with a credit card, it may be worth buying a cheap, second-hand Japanese smartphone (~¥5000) and using the prepaid card apps included via WiFi. Both Mobile Suica (usable nationwide since system integration in 2014) and Mobile Edy accept foreign JCB/American Express credit cards for top-up, although Mobile Suica charges an annual fee of ¥1000, while Mobile Edy requires a two-day waiting period after credit card details are submitted before top-up is possible.
An 8% excise tax is levied on all sales in Japan. The tax is usually, but not always, included in the displayed prices, so pay attention. The word zeinuki (税抜) means “without tax”, zeikomi (税込) means “with tax”. If you don’t find a word in the price card, most of it is “tax-inclusive”. This tax is expected to increase to 10% in October 2019.
Always keep a larger stack of spare money in Japan, because if you run out of money for any reason (wallet stolen, credit card blocked, etc.), it can be difficult to get anything transferred. Western Union has a very limited presence even in the larger metropolitan areas (the contract with Suruga Bank ended in 2009, and there has been a new contract with Daikokuya since April 2011), banks do not allow accounts to be opened without local ID, the few physical Visa prepaid cards open to foreigners cannot accept transfers, and even international postal money orders require proof of a residential address in Japan.
If this is not possible, you should at least carry an American Express card. AmEx can print replacement cards at their Tokyo office that can be collected the same day if lost, and they have the ability to send emergency money to certain locations in Japan for collection if needed.
In Japan, tipping is not part of the culture. Japanese people are uncomfortable with being tipped and are likely to be confused, amused or possibly even offended if tipped. The Japanese take pride in the service provided to customers and adding another financial incentive is unnecessary. If you leave a tip in a restaurant, the staff will probably run after you to return the money you “forgot”. Note that many western-style hotels and restaurants charge a 10% service charge and family restaurants may charge a 10% fee after midnight.
Occasionally, the hotel or inn will leave a small tip envelope for you to tip the maids. Never leave a tip in cash on a table or hotel bed, because the Japanese consider it rude if it is not hidden in an envelope. Even bellboys in upscale hotels do not usually accept tips. Exceptions are upscale ryokan and interpreters or tour guides.
Japan has a reputation for being extremely expensive – and it can be. However, many things have become much cheaper in the last decade. Japan doesn’t have to be outrageously expensive if you plan carefully, and in fact it’s probably cheaper than Australia and most European Union countries for basic expenses. Food in particular can be a bargain, and while still expensive by Asian standards, eating out in Japan is generally cheaper than in Western countries, with a simple meal consisting of rice or noodles starting at around ¥300 per serving. At the other end of the spectrum, fine dining can of course be very expensive, with prices in the region of ¥30,000 per person not uncommon. Especially for long-distance travel, you can save a lot of money with the Japan Rail Pass, Japan Bus Pass and Visit Japan flights.
As a rough guide, it will be very difficult to travel on less than ¥5,000 per day (but if you plan carefully, it is certainly possible) and you can only expect a certain level of comfort from ¥10,000. If you stay in fancy hotels, eat fancy meals or just go on a long-distance trip, this amount will easily double again. Typical prices for a moderate budget trip would be ¥5,000 for the hotel, ¥2,000 for meals and another ¥2,000 for entrance fees and local transport.
However, if you are a little short on cash, you can stock up on essentials at one of the many ¥100 shops (百円ショップ hyaku-en shoppu) in most cities. Daiso is Japan’s largest ¥100 shop chain with 2,680 shops across Japan. Other large chains include Can Do (キャンドゥ), Seria (セリア), and Silk (シルク). There are also convenience store-like ¥100 shops such as SHOP99 and Lawson Store 100, where you can buy sandwiches, drinks and vegetables as well as selected ¥100 items.
Shopping in Japan
In many department stores such as Isetan, Seibu and Matsuzakaya, you usually pay full price at the checkout and then go to a tax refund counter (税金還付 zeikin kanpu or 税金戻し zeikin modoshi), usually located on one of the higher floors, and present your receipt and passport to get a refund. In some other shops advertising “duty free” (免税 menzei), you simply present your passport when paying and the tax will be deducted on the spot.
Japan also has a growing number of designated tax-free shops. New rules that recently came into effect for foreign tourists allow for the reimbursement of the 8% excise tax on consumer goods (food and beverages), in addition to non-consumer goods (clothing, electronics, etc.). The minimum purchase is ¥5,000 from each location in a single receipt. To qualify, you must visit a shop where a “Tax Free” sign is displayed. Note that any food or drink that receives a tax refund may not be consumed in Japan – you must take it home at the end of your trip.
For tax-free purchases or tax refund claims, counter staff would staple a piece of paper in your passport that you should keep with you until you leave Japan. This piece of paper is to be handed in at the customs counter at your point of departure just before you pass through immigration and checks may be carried out to ensure that you take the items out of Japan.
Despite the adage that Japanese cities never sleep, shop opening hours are surprisingly limited. Opening hours for most shops are typically 10:00-20:00, although most shops are open on weekends and public holidays except New Year’s Day, and close one day a week. Restaurants tend to stay open late, although smoking is usually not allowed until after 20:00, so those who can’t stand cigarette smoke should have their meals beforehand.
However, you will always find something to buy at any time of the day. Japan is teeming with 24/7 convenience stores (コンビニ konbini), such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, Circle K and Sunkus. They often offer a much larger selection of products than convenience stores in the US or Europe, sometimes have a small ATM and are often open all day! Many convenience stores also offer services such as fax, takkyubin luggage delivery, a limited range of postal services, bill payment services (including international phone card top-ups such as Brastel) and some online retailers (e.g. Amazon.jp), as well as selling tickets to events, concerts and cinemas.
Of course, nightlife-related establishments such as karaoke lounges and bars stay open late: even in small towns, it is easy to find an izakaya that is open until 05:00. Pachinko parlours are obliged to close at 23:00.
Anime and Manga
For many Westerners, anime (cartoons) and manga (comics) are the most popular icons of modern Japan. Manga are popular with both children and adults and cover all genres; it is not uncommon to see businessmen reading manga on the underground or in a busy lunch restaurant. Most manga are published in magazines such as Weekly Shōnen Jump and Ribon in serial form and later reprinted in volumes. Although anime used to be considered childish, many Japanese adults, as well as children, now find it so exciting that they are proud of it as their culture. Most adults in Japan do not watch anime regularly, apart from otaku, nerds whose interest often borders on the obsessive, but some titles have mass appeal. Many of the highest-grossing films in Japan are animated, including 5 by industry giant Hayao Miyazaki.
Many visitors come to Japan in search of merchandise related to their favourite anime and manga titles. One of the best places to shop is Akihabara in Tokyo. Widely known as an otaku mecca, the shops and stalls there offer anime, manga and merchandise, of course, but also video games, household electronics, old film cameras and lenses and many other obscure goods.
For rare or vintage items, shops like Mandarake have several floors of anime/manga collectibles. There are also shops filled with display cases, each featuring a figure from an anime or manga. In addition to these shops, you will find small shops selling figures from various anime and manga all over Akihabara. Another option in Tokyo is Ikebukuro. The original Animate shop is near the east exit of Ikebukuro, and there are cosplay shops and another Mandarake shop nearby.
A very well-known shopping place among the locals are the Book-Off shops. They specialise in second-hand books, manga, anime, video games and DVDs. The quality of the products can range from almost brand new (read once) to more well loved. Be sure to check out the ¥105 section, where the quality of the books may be a little better, but there are many great finds. There is a small selection of English-translated manga, but most are in Japanese.
Anime is available on DVDs and/or Blu-rays, depending on the title. Unless you find pirated copies, the DVDs are all Region 2 NTSC. This makes them unplayable in most DVD players in the US (Region 1) and Europe (PAL or SECAM). Blu-rays are Region A, which includes North and South America and East Asia except mainland China. With the exception of the major studios (such as Studio Ghibli’s Blu-rays), most releases do not have English subtitles.
Unfortunately, anime DVDs and Blu-rays are quite expensive in Japan (the story of why is interesting). Most releases cost somewhere between ¥4000-8000 per disc, and usually only have 2-4 episodes per disc. Even “discount” editions, if they exist at all, rarely cost less than ¥3000 per disc, and still rarely have more than 4 episodes per disc.
Video and PC games
Video games are huge business in Japan, but the Japanese NTSC-J video standard is not compatible with PAL and SECAM televisions used in much of the world. In countries that use other NTSC standards (North America, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia), the NTSC-J versions work with only a slight difference in brightness. Of course, the language is still Japanese (unless the game has multilingual options). For handheld consoles, the television standards do not apply.
Many consoles are also region locked, which prevents you from playing them on your home console even if the video is compatible. This can be enforced by hardware (e.g. physically incompatible cartridges) or firmware/software (e.g. DVD and Blu-ray regions). Here is a list of modern consoles and their interoperability:
- TV consoles
- Microsoft Xbox One – region-free
- Microsoft Xbox 360 and original Xbox – locked, but it’s up to each game whether it enforces region locking
- Nintendo Wii U, Wii and GameCube – locked; even Korean and Japanese systems fall under different regions and are not compatible
- Sony PlayStation 4 – region-free
- Sony PlayStation 3 – All but three games (Joysound Drive, Persona 4 Arena and on Slim PS3s Way of the Samurai 3) are region-free, although some games restrict download content or online multiplayer by region. Many games are multilingual, with language selection in the console settings.
- Sony PlayStation 2 and Original PlayStation – locked
- Handheld consoles
- Nintendo 3DS and DSi – locked for 3DS and DSi specific games and download content; region-free for DS games.
- Nintendo DS, Game Boy Advance und Game Boy – region-free
- Sony PS Vita – Region-free for physical games; tied to your PSN account region for download games (you can create a PSN account in a different region, but can only link one account to a Vita and must factory reset the account to change it); 3G connectivity may also be tied to a specific provider
- Sony PSP – region-free for games; locked for movies
PC games, on the other hand, usually work fine as long as you understand enough Japanese to install and play them. The “only-in-Japan” genres include the visual novels (ビジュアルノベル), interactive anime-style games that resemble dating simulations, and their subgroup, the erotic games (エロゲー eroge), which are exactly what the name implies.
In general, the best places to shop for video games are Akihabara in Tokyo and Den Town in Osaka (in terms of shops, you can buy video games almost anywhere in Japan).
Electronics and cameras
Battery-powered small electronics and photo cameras for sale in Japan will work anywhere in the world, but you may have to deal with an instruction manual in Japanese. (Some of the larger shops will provide you with an English manual (英語の説明書 eigo no setsumeisho) upon request). Price-wise, there are no great deals to be found, but the selection is incomparable. However, if you want to buy other home electronics, it’s best to shop at shops that specialise in “overseas” configurations, many of which can be found in Tokyo’s Akihabara. You can buy PAL/NTSC-free DVD players there, for example. Also remember that Japanese AC voltage is 100 volts, so using “domestic” Japanese electronics outside Japan without a step-down transformer can be dangerous. Even the standard US voltage of 120 volts is too much for some equipment. Conversely, some units are built as 100-120V units to accommodate this possibility. Always check before you buy. Probably the best deal is not the electronics themselves, but blank media. Blu-ray optical media for video and data in particular are much, much cheaper than elsewhere.
Prices are lowest and shopping is easiest at the big discount shops like Bic Camera, Yodobashi Camera, Sofmap and Yamada Denki. They usually have English-speaking staff on duty and accept foreign credit cards. For common products, prices are virtually identical at all of them, so don’t waste time comparison shopping. Haggling is possible in smaller shops, and even the larger chains will usually match their competitors’ prices.
Most of the big chains have a “points card” that gives you points that you can use as a discount on your next purchase, even just a few minutes later. Purchases are usually worth between 5% and even 20% of the purchase price in points, and 1 point is worth ¥1. In some shops (the biggest is Yodobashi Camera) you have to wait overnight before you can redeem the points. Cards are given out on the spot and no local address is required. However, in some shops it is not possible to collect points and get a tax refund for the same purchase.
Also, the big shops tend to deduct 2% from the points collected when paid with a credit card (if you use a UnionPay credit card, Bic and Yodobashi will refuse to allow you to collect points altogether, although you will get an immediate 5% discount as compensation). As the excise duty has now been increased to 8%, it depends on how you pay and whether you plan to come back. If you pay with cash or e-money and plan to come back, it may still be worth collecting points. If you pay with a credit card, the benefit is the same either way at 8%, and the tax rebate may be more useful.
While you might be better off going to France or Italy for high-end fashion, Japan is hard to beat when it comes to casual fashion. Tokyo and Osaka in particular have many shopping districts and an abundance of shops selling the latest fashions, especially those aimed at young people. To name but a few: Shibuya and Harajuku in Tokyo and Shinsaibashi in Osaka are known throughout Japan as centres of youth fashion. The main problem is that Japanese shops are aimed at customers with Japanese sizes, and it can be a real challenge to find larger or curvier sizes.
Japan is also famous for its beauty products such as face cream and masks, including many for men. While these are available in almost every supermarket, many of the most expensive brands have their own shops in the Ginza district of Tokyo.
Japan’s most important contribution to jewellery making is the cultured pearl, invented by Mikimoto Kōkichi in 1893. The main pearl farming operation is still located in the small town of Toba, near Ise, but the pearls themselves are widely available – although there is little or no price difference compared to buying them outside Japan. For those who insist on buying the “real” pearls, Mikimoto’s flagship store is located in the Ginza district of Tokyo.
Then of course there is the kimono, the classic Japanese garment. While a new kimono is very expensive, you can get a second-hand kimono at a fraction of the price, or opt for a much cheaper and easier-to-wear yukata dressing gown.
Smoking cigarettes is still popular in Japan, especially among men. While cigarettes are sold at some of the many vending machines in Japan, visitors to Japan who wish to buy them must do so at a convenience store or in the duty-free area. Because the Japanese tobacco industry is cracking down on minors (the legal age is 20), you now need a special proof-of-age card called a TASPO card to buy cigarettes from a vending machine. TASPO cards are only issued to residents of Japan.
Cigarettes usually come in hard packs of 20 cigarettes and are relatively cheap at around Y300-400. Japan has few domestic brands: Seven Stars and Mild Seven are the most common local brands. American brands such as Marlboro, Camel and Lucky Strike are popular, although the Japanese-made versions have a much lighter flavour than their Western counterparts. Also look out for unusually flavoured cigarettes, light cigarettes with flavour-enhancing filter technology, although they taste very artificial and have little effect, which are particularly popular with female smokers.
Tips for budget shopping
As mentioned above, Japan can be expensive. You may feel that every item or meal in Japan has a high price tag. The main reason for this is that you have chosen a top inner-city shopping or dining district. If you want to shop more cheaply, you should carefully consider whether you are necessarily looking for upscale products or only want to buy everyday goods and groceries. The former should try the inner-city premium department stores, boutiques and restaurants in the well-known shopping districts such as Isetan in Shinjuku and Matsuya in Ginza, while the latter would be better off turning to the shopping centres or supermarkets on the outskirts of the city such as Aeon or Ito-Yokado.