Of shogunates and ATMs

By Amelia Newcomb | October 09, 2008 | Japan

Kamakura is a bit of a touchstone for me in Japan, as I love to visit and take in its rich history – think the seat of Japan’s first shogunate, the place where “divine winds” or kamikaze repelled Mongol invaders in the late 13th century, the home of many Zen Buddhist temples of the Rinzai sect. I realized today, though, that it has also become one small gauge for how modern Japan has really become – or not.

The scene: I am walking down a narrow street filled with all sorts of gift shops and see the one that my kids and I loved when we visited years ago. I walk in. I see a couple of must have Christmas gifts and set them aside. The very nice women start wrapping. I make my final selection and ask in the kind of voice that doesn’t expect a negative answer if I can use my “cahdo” – credit card.

The world stops. I can’t.

Japan is still very much a cash society. But people do use credit cards. And in a major tourist attraction like Kamakura, you would think this would be thoroughly understood.

That brings me to ATMs. I was a bit short on funds as I headed out today but unwilling to go out of my way to get to a Citibank ATM that I knew would honor my card. So I was hoping that the machines in tourist-riddled Kamakura would be international-user friendly. That would set them apart from the many in Tokyo that simply will not accept American cards. This seems to defeat the purpose of credit cards and ATMs, let alone globalization.

But as I discovered when I first got off the train, they’re not. Nonetheless, I gamely told the woman I would be back, and I knew I would – if only to apologize for making them restock my items.

Thinking I was on a fool’s errand, I went to the local bank again, including the desk where they claim they’ll exchange money for you. No go. (Interestingly, I had done exactly the same thing when I was here with my children, finally sending them out to explore for awhile as it took me so long to change money.) I went again to Mizuho, not exactly a small bank. No. I then went to Mitsubishi UFJ, another heavy hitter. They didn’t like my card either. Finally, I went into Daiwa Securities, knowing full well it wasn’t a consumer bank but thinking someone might be able to help me.

No luck on the ATM. But then I asked the very nice woman if there was anywhere that might possibly accept an American card.

She told me to go the post office.

The post office savings system in Japan may be the original ATM. When I lived here years ago, I had an account from which I could withdraw at any post office in the country. It was unbelievably convenient, though the postal savings system eventually came under the withering glare of reformist former prime minister Koizumi.

I was highly skeptical, but I figured I couldn’t lose more than 10 minutes of my time. I went to the post office and popped my card into the machine, waiting for the quick rejection. Instead, gears started to turn. It set a low limit, so after completing the first transaction, I took out my debit card from my (at best) regional Massachusetts bank and tried that. It worked too.

I went back to the store and triumphantly pulled out my cash. As we chatted, I told the woman the date I had first visited Japan and she told me the store started about the same time. We paused and took in the deep coincidence that we had discovered but didn’t know the meaning of. I told her I had visited her store with my kids a decade ago and they had bought me a traditional wooden doll there. Did I still have it in my house? she asked. I nodded. We bonded.

I was happy. But still puzzled at the oddity of a high-tech, export-oriented, first-world society whose ATMs often don’t like an international credit card.

View All Posts By Amelia Newcomb

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