As is the case with many people, coming to Japan was a real change of pace for me. After finishing uni and deciding that the land of the long, white tobacco cloud was not for me, I said goodbye stable home life and hello freedom. For the first time, I was living alone, paying things called “rent” and “bills,” and enjoying the next step in my young, innocent life.
I’ve always been a cash man, so there was no adjustment necessary when I moved to Japan.
If I wanted something, I paid cash. If I didn’t have money, I waited until I did. If I was in urgent need of a loan, then it was on the phone to the folks Down Under to beg for a U.S.-style financial bailout.
The problem with this good economic sense is that the world expects you to be packing plastic. Whether hiring a Lexus, booking a room at the Peninsula, or subscribing to dubious Internet sites, it’s almost a requirement that you have a credit card.
The final straw came when I was holidaying overseas and went to check in to my hotel.
“Sir, can I please see your credit card?” asked the receptionist.
“Um, I don’t have one….”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
I don’t know what was more embarrassing — her response, or me having to leave, tail between my legs.
So despite having lived an almost trouble-free 24 years sans card, I decided it was time to take on the responsibility. Almost like a rite of passage.
In Japan, applying for a credit card is easy. A trip to my local Super Autobacs had me crossing paths with the in-store credit card man who, to my delight, spoke English. This and the gift of 1,000 Autobacs yen sealed the deal: my application was away. Three to five weeks later, I was awoken by a call from Visa. Exactly what was said, I don’t know, but after 10 painful minutes it was clear that I was being rejected.
A few months passed until I got around to applying again, this time at my local UFJ bank. Having been a loyal customer for well over a year, I thought I was a shoe-in. Again, helpful staff, again waiting period, and again rejection. The 500 yen shopping voucher the bank gave me was of little consolation.
The quest continued. First Mizuho told me to get lost. OK, that’s not quite true — they “suggested” I try the local SMBC. Which was unmanned. So I went back to Mizuho and, ultimately, got rejected, but picked up a bank account I didn’t need. Next, Citibank was happy to speak to me. This went well until I realized their fees would probably drag me below the poverty line. So it was back to UFJ, which this time around gave me a cheap clock and once again filed my application under “fat chance, gaijin.”
Now, all of this seems a bit suspect. I can’t remember the last time I entered a shopping center without passing the credit card table. Banks are always advertising them. You’d think it’s a shoppers’ market. On top of that, I am seemingly part of an in-demand demographic: I’m young, have a steady job, have lived years at the same address, and have no bad credit history because I have had… no credit. Right around now, most of you are probably thinking that the deciding factor in these repeated rejections is my fair hair and pasty-white complexion. I hope that’s not true, but I’m running out of ideas.
So what other options do I have? If it’s fast cash I’m after, I could try a credit financing firm like Aiful or Acom. But I avoid these loan sharks because of their high interest and potential for fast-mounting debt. Another idea is to organize a credit card from Australia. Assuming I’m accepted, though, I then have to worry about fluctuating exchange rates and whether the card would be accepted in Japanese stores.
If I’m really eager for a Japanese card, there’s one other thing I can do: call the local credit companies, who will advise me to visit one of their counselors, often found in big department stores. This representative would no doubt explain that having a Japanese spouse, job stability, solid local residency and a guarantor would do wonders for my application.
But what if you’re unmarried, between jobs, new to Japan and don’t like others to be accountable for your actions? Or what if you’re simply a lowly foreigner who just wants the chance to reply “credit” once in a while? Do like I do: tap your ruby slippers three times, apply for everything and, at worst, snap up all the free gift vouchers, clocks, laundry powder, happoshu, bags, calendars and aprons you can.
You might get lucky. And if not, you might as well cash in.
Jeremy Blackman is a freelance writer and photographer living in Chiba.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).