Depending on exchange rates, the Japanese 500 yen coin stands out as the world’s highest-valued coin in regular use, currently worth roughly double the UK’s two-pound coin.
The 500 yen coins began replacing 500 yen banknotes from 1982, but soon met with problems because of their close similarity in size and weight with South Korea’s 500-won coin (worth about one-tenth its value). The 500-won coins began flooding vending machines in Japan, forcing the mint to redesign its 500 yen coins from 2000. This changeover required large expenditures by existing vending machine operators to recalibrate their machines.
But now another problem has surfaced. Friday (Aug 17) reports that from around late May, the Bank of Japan became aware of large numbers of counterfeit 500-yen coins circulating in the Nagoya area.
“They appear to have surfaced during pickups of the deposits from bank ATMs installed at supermarkets,” says a staff member of a security firm. “After we first noticed them, we notified the police, who took them away as material evidence.”
The phony coins first began appearing around 2010 in the Tokai area. They are described as being extremely well crafted, with the same weight and appearance of authentic coins.
There are nonetheless several points of differentiation, not all of which are visible to the naked eye. The iridescent latent images reflecting “500 en” inside the two large zeros are not visible; the slanted indentations on the circumference of the coins are shallow; and the microscopic letters N and I (part of “NIPPON”) etched inside the large number 5 are not present. (The latter aspect of the coin’s design has not officially been made public by the Japan Mint.)
These phony coins are realistic enough to trick the meters in coin-operated parking lots and bank ATMs.
“The counterfeits this time are dated Heisei 18 (2006),” says Tomohiko Endo, head of the unit entrusted with identifying and dealing with counterfeiters. “Their metal composition is virtually the same as the real coins, and ordinary recognition machines, which can only test their circumference, thickness, weight and magnetic resistance, aren’t able to make a distinction.”
When asked where the coins originated, Endo was uncertain.
“We might get a hint from fake admission tickets to Tokyo Disneyland that were being circulated in 2011,” he says. “The tickets clearly state on their reverse side that they are non-transferable. However, the fake tickets bear some of the Chinese characters used in mainland China that are mixed together with the Japanese writing, which leads us to suspect they were produced in either South Korea or China.
“The counterfeit Disney tickets and counterfeit 500-yen coins also began appearing around the same time, with both centered in the Tokai region,” Endo adds. “A gang centered in Shizuoka Prefecture was previously engaged in counterfeiting of revenue stamps, and while it may be speculation here, it’s possible that some of the people who were involved in that outfit took their technical knowhow and moved abroad.”
No estimates appear to have been issued on the number of counterfeits in circulation or the scale of losses. When Friday’s reporter contacted the Ministry of Finance, which is responsible for the minting of banknotes and coins, for more information, he was informed the ministry could not comment.
A person found guilty of knowingly using counterfeit currency is subject to imprisonment ranging from three years to an indefinite period.