Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What May Surprise You in Japan

Whether you plan to spend an extended period of time in Japan just traveling, or think about moving here for a while, there are quite a few things in this country that are sure to surprise you. And guess what? Not all of those surprises will be good.

  • 1.    Primitive banking system.

This is something that really bugs me. It was primitive twelve and ten years ago, and while the rest of the world moved forward, Japan stuck to its old outdated ways. Five years ago it was merely amusing, now it’s downright annoying.

Let’s face it, Japan is light years behind the rest of the developed world (and most of the developing world, too) when it comes to modern banking.

Chances are your foreign debit/ATM cards won’t work in Japanese cash machine. Sure, those machines have all the appropriate logos, Visa, Mastercard and what not, but those apply only to Japanese-issued bank cards.

If you want to get cash in Japan using your foreign bank card, try either JP Bank (post office), Citibank, or Seven-Eleven convenience store ATMs. And be careful, those ATMs may not work around the clock! The situation has been improving, but at a snail’s pace, so personally, I don’t expect any changes before 2020.

Japanese post office 

Japanese post office is one of the very few places where you can withdraw cash using a foreign debit card. And the JP Bank ATMs have menus in English.

And don’t even get me started on opening a bank account in Japan and trying to get a debit card with a logo. You know, the kind that comes standard when you open a bank account in the US. You know, the kind that lets you shop on the internet and debits your bank account automatically when you purchase something. The kind that looks like a credit card but requires no credit – only a truckload of cash in your bank account. C’mon, if a piss-poor country like Cabo Verde managed to sort it out, you’d think that Japan should be able to do it, too. Right?

  • 2.    Lack of public trash cans in parks or on sidewalks.

You will very quickly learn to carry your trash with you, or dash to the nearest konbini (convenience store) to throw it out. And I must say, this point irks me to no end. I've seen trash cans in public spaces in some of the oddest places in the world, like on the island of Brava in Cape Verde and on the hiking path to Tiger's Nest in Bhutan (now, how the heck do they empty them over THERE, huh?) but in Japan you can expect them only in the most touristy areas.

  • 3.    Bureaucracy.

Man, what is the deal with this country? Haven’t they heard of computers? Most of the stuff here is still done by hand and on paper. Tons of paper. Haven’t they heard of being ecologically friendly?

The amounts of paper and time wasted at my local Japanese DMV makes even New York look efficient and eco-friendly by comparison. Now you know why Japanese work so hard – they have to. They are so inefficient that it takes five workers five days to complete the same task that in other countries is done by one lady with a computer in one afternoon - and that includes her coffee break and time to file her nails.

  • 4.    Cell phones.

Yeah, cell phones, you heard me right. This country has the most advanced hardware when it comes to cell phones. All the bells and whistles you can dream of here come pretty much standard on any lousy phone. But… to get that phone, hmmm… let’s just say, it’s not all that simple, especially when you are just a tourist.

In other countries, especially in Europe, you can just waltz into almost any cell phone store and in about 5 minutes purchase a pre-paid set. No questions asked. You pay, you get a phone, you get a number, you are good to go. You can call and send SMSs.

But now you are in Japan, and you are going to spend here about 90 days. Getting a rental phone for that long makes no sense, right? So you waltz down to the nearest cell phone shop, which just happens to be AU and they tell you that they only have one pre-paid model available. And sorry, it’s not in stock right now.

So you go over to Softbank (another cell phone provider’s store) and ask for the same. Yes, they do have some prepaid models. Three (though it might be four these days) to be exact (that is out of the more than a hundred models available on subscription plans!). OK, you want to get one, you say. The lady behind the counter asks for your alien registration card and your Japanese address. What? You don’t have an alien registration card? Then sorry, but you can’t buy a prepaid phone in this country. They need your ID (and no, passport won’t do). And they need a Japanese address.

Why do they need this for a phone that is pre-paid for only 3 months (or is it 60 days? I’m not sure now) – after that the pre-paid amount expires – is beyond me. The Softbank lady wasn’t able to answer that question either.

But let’s say you have an alien registration card and bought yourself a pre-paid phone. Guess what? Most likely you’ll only be able to send SMSs to others using the same network.

And please don’t give me any lame excuses here that it’s because Japan uses a different system than Europe. After all, the US uses a different system, too, but if you have a tri-band phone from your home country, you can just buy an American SIM card and you’re set. I think that Japan, the country that managed to develop the most advanced toilets in the world, should be able to figure out something like that too.

Other than that, Japan is a great country. Yeah!

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