Fun and Games at Hokuyo Bank: Extra questions for the gaijin account holder


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Hi Blog. Every day, as I’ve said, is an adventure in Japan. Here’s today’s:


Last week, I got a call from Hokuyo Bank (Hokkaido’s largest, the successor to Takugin and recent swallower of Sapporo Bank) telling me that some money had arrived by wire transfer from overseas. It was sent to my corporate account, but had my name listed as individual beneficiary (not the corporation). So couldn’t I please come down to the branch and fill out a piece of paper and clarify the beneficiary?

Hokay, sure. Whatever. I had been waiting for that payment for an academic lecture in California for six months, and JPY/USD exchange rates since August were eating up dollar-denominated compensation (to the tune of about 20%!).

“Oh, and one more thing,” Hokuyo asked, “What’s this money for?”

“Sorry, but none of your business.”

“Won’t you please tell us, for our reference?” (sankou no tame)

“No. For the amount I have received [USD 500], you are under no obligation to ask me under money laundering laws. And I am under no obligation to tell. Kindly respect my privacy.”


I went down this morning and filled out the paperwork. When the question came up again about what this money is for, I directed her to something I had just downloaded and printed up from Wikipedia regarding money laundering and international money transfers in Japan:



▪ 金融機関と新規取引を開始する時(口座開設、信託取引締結、保険契約締結等)
▪ 200万円を超える金銭の送金・振込
▪ 10万円を超える現金の送金・振込(預金口座にある預金の送金・振込については前項のとおり)


(and yes, I’m fine with citing Wikipedia for noncontroversial issues)


So since 500 bucks (or now about 45000 yen, sob!) is less than a fortieth of the 2 million yen threshold for direct transfers, or less than half the 100,000 yen for cash transfers, there was no reason to ask me further questions.

The madoguchi (and her boss, Tokoro-san) maintained that it was policy at Hokuyo to check all monies coming in from overseas. “All, even if they’re only one yen?” Well, not that low. “So where’s the threshold for checking? I aver it’s these figures above.” They just wanted me to cooperate, but I wanted a reason why I had tripped some sort of tripwire.

“It’s not because the accountholder has a foreign-looking name, now, is it?”

Now, before you think I’m just flying off the handle as usual, consider that I have had other accounts (one particularly for contributions to the Otaru Onsens Lawsuit way back when) in places like Hokkaido Bank. And I have gotten calls like this for tiny amounts (even 5000 yen) asking what it’s for. Even when no money has come in, I’ve gotten at least one letter asking (since the beneficiary is “otarusoshouenjokai arudou debito daihyou”) what the very account is for. I’ve ignored all queries. So what seems to keep tripping the wire is a foreign-sounding name. And even for simple small-amount cash conversions of USD into JPY, people like Permanent Resident Olaf Karthaus have had their passport demanded by Hokkaido Bank for photocopying in the name of anti-money-laundering. He got a formal apology from them for acting outside the law.

Back to Hokuyo. The standard denial shower came.  “We’re not discriminating.”

“Okay, so what else is it? What standards are you using to decide to check my transfer if it’s not for money laundering? Your discretion?”

I wasn’t getting any clarification, so I dropped by Hokuyo HQ later on today and talked to a Ms Kobayashi, Kachou in the Houjinbu Gaikoku Kawase-ka, who brought out the letter of the law thusly:


第十七条  銀行等は、その顧客の支払等が、次の各号に掲げる支払等のいずれにも該当しないこと、又は次の各号に掲げる支払等に該当すると認められる場合には当該各号に定める要件を備えていることを確認した後でなければ、当該顧客と当該支払等に係る為替取引を行つてはならない。
一  第十六条第一項から第三項までの規定により許可を受ける義務が課された支払等 当該許可を受けていること。
二  第二十一条第一項又は第二項の規定により許可を受ける義務が課された第二十条に規定する資本取引に係る支払等 当該許可を受けていること。
三  その他この法律又はこの法律に基づく命令の規定により許可若しくは承認を受け、又は届出をする義務が課された取引又は行為のうち政令で定めるものに係る支払等 当該許可若しくは承認を受け、又は当該届出後の所要の手続を完了していること。


Later joining us was a Mr Ishiguro, Fukubuchou of the Houjinbu, Mr Takahashi, Kachou of the Kokusaika, and Mr Nakanishi, Chousayaku of the Kokusaika. After a lot of Q&A, their case was essentially this:

1) Zaimushou does not have a minimum transfer amount to be checked when it comes to foreign monies coming in, or Japanese monies going out. As you can see in the above law, there are no threshold amounts written either in the clauses as stated, or in the clauses being referred to within.

2) Since we cannot check every transfer, it is up to the bank’s discretion whether or not to check in certain circumstances.

3) If you were receiving money from or sending money to terroristic places in the world, we would of course check about its purpose.

4) However, receiving money from the University of California, Berkeley doesn’t apply here. By the transfer details it’s obvious you were receiving remuneration for a lecture, so it was unnecessary for your branch of Hokuyo to have asked you further questions about purpose.

5) We apologize for the inconvenience.

Er, thanks. My questions, which went basically unrequited, were these:

1) Why are foreign transfers in or out treated as potentially criminally suspicious? There are plenty of Yakuza transferring domestically too, no? Is this not discriminatory?

2) Individually, why did you ask me? Because I’m a gaijin account holder? I still haven’t gotten any other plausible reason for the tripwire. It’s not amount. It’s not origin. So why?

3) You admit that the questions about purpose were unnecessary. Thanks. Now please ask Zaimushou if there is a threshold transfer amount to activate these questions. If so, tell me in writing later what that amount is. If not, tell me in writing later what Hokuyo’s discretionary thresholds are.

4) Are these questions optional?  What happens if I decide not to answer?

5) Thanks for the apology. Now put it in writing with what sort of keihatsu you will carry out at Hokuyo zentai to make sure you don’t put your NJ account holders through any more rigmarole, and make them feel their accounts and transfers are suspicious. Putting things in writing tends to make people take requests and apologies more seriously. It’s more likely to result in policy change if there’s a paper trail.

To that, Mr Takahashi said he would offer a verbal apology, but nothing in writing.  Never mind what Hokkaido Bank did for Olaf.  And there was no particular promise from them either to make Zaimushou’s threshold information (which should be public info) or Hokuyo’s discretionary guidelines, if any, clear to me in future.

I said I was disappointed. “I’m a valued customer. I’ve had a long relationship with you. My house mortgage is with you. I opened a corporate account with you because I was fed up with Hokkaido Bank treating me and my accounts as suspicious. Now you are doing the same thing.”

They offered the same apologies, and that was where we let the discussion drop. They said that they would coach my branch to leave me alone next time I get an international transfer. Sure, that fixes the problem.

Seems like a small issue, but to me it’s a tip of the iceberg thing. What’s transpired here is that all foreign money transfers, at least in Hokkaido’s biggest banks, are officially to be treated with suspicion. Regardless of domestic, or even international, standards of money laundering (thresholds of 15,000 dollars in the US, 15,000 GBP or Euros in the UK, for example).  It’s a damned nuisance.

Why? Because Zaimushou leaves it vague enough for Hokuyo to abuse, and because Hokuyo is under no obligation to disclose their rules to their customers even upon request. Thanks a heap.  But that’s how power flows when you don’t have enough information or a workable FOIA to keep even your accountants accountable.

Arudou Debito in Sapporo

16 comments on “Fun and Games at Hokuyo Bank: Extra questions for the gaijin account holder

  • I have received fairly large sums from the UK, and my bank (Shinsei) didn’t ask any questions. For the largest amount (over 200万) I actually called them to check if there were any special procedures:

    “No problem,” I was told “We don’t need you to do anything.”

    That’s why I recommend the new, internet based banks. Shinsei, Tokyo Star, and the others. Better service, better conditions, less idiots on staff, and more switched on.

  • The company I work for does a lot of work for Japanese branch offices of foreign companies. Usually our monthly service charges are paid directly by the Japanese office, but we have a few clients who pay us by money transfer from head office. Every single time we get one of these, every damn month, they call up “Hello, we have received X yen from company Y in country Z. What is the purpose of this transfer?”

    It never matters about the amount (it’s been as low as a few thousand yen in the case of companies buying some small extra service outside of their contracted services), and it doesn’t matter if it’s the same company that’s been sending us the same amount of money every single month for the past 10 years, they always call. It’s a nuisance, and should have no bearing on the bank.

    Most of the bankers are happy to speak to whoever answers the phone, but what I do find annoying is that once in a while someone will ask for “someone in charge”, where “someone in charge” seems to be defined as “someone who does not speak Japanese with an accent”. It certainly does not mean “the president of the company”, as they don’t want to speak to the Canadian boss, but are happy to speak to a Japanese engineer…

  • Thanks for the heads up. If I ever settle in in Japan/Hokkaido (a distinct possibility) I’ll be sure to scratch them off the list of banks. Hell if I want to be questioned every time a deposit of my hard earned money hits my account because I don’t look like the people who run the bank. -_-

  • Debito, do you know this obligation?

    Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Act
    Article 55(Report of Payment, etc.)
    (1) When a resident or a non-resident has received a payment made from Japan to a foreign state or a payment made from a foreign state to Japan, or when a resident has made a payment, etc. to a non-resident in Japan or in a foreign state, the resident or non-resident, or the resident shall report to the competent minister, pursuant to the provisions of Cabinet Order, the content of the payment, etc., time of making the payment, etc. and other matters specified by Cabinet Order, except cases specified by Cabinet Order.

    “A resident” means you. So, you have the obligation to report to Finance Minister or Trade Minister of Japan about the US 500 dollars you received “except cases specified by Cabinet Order”. If you fail to do so, there is a criminal penalty of 6-month imprisonment. Now, can you tell if your receipt falls in the exceptions specified by the Cabinet Order on your own? Actually, that Cabinet Order is extremely complicated and long, and has exceptions after exceptions. There is no simple threshold amount. It depends on the nature of the transaction, who is paying, relationship between payer and payee, method of payment, currency involved and so on and on. Or, would it be wise to ask the banker for expert advice?

    “Why are foreign transfers in or out treated as potentially criminally suspicious?”
    The reporting requirement is not there to prevent crime or money laundering. It is there to keep the balance of payment. Money received from foreign country may be debt or profit. They cannot tell unless the receiver reports them. It seems you have contributed to Japan’s trade surplus of goods and services.

    Debito, you think you do not have to report your 500 dollars? If so, please cite the pertinent clause in the Cabinet Order.

    — As usual, you’re twisting words, HO. Define “report”. It’s not as though I’m hiding the money. The bank has received it. They know from whence. They know to whom. It’s tracked and traced and recorded.

    However, why I got this money (especially for an amount this insubstantial) and for what purpose I will use it is none of the GOJ’s goddamn business.

    As always, and especially if we’re talking about balances of payments, everything counts in large amounts. What’s being counted here, I think, is not the small amount, but the funny name on the bank account.

  • `while someone will ask for “someone in charge”, where “someone in charge” seems to be defined as “someone who does not speak Japanese with an accent…`

    It doesn`t get any better even if you speak without an accent at all. I almost always dread giving my name on the phone or meeting in person because all of a sudden the 扱い changes.
    I was the same person speaking when they thought it was a 関西人 on the phone and all of a sudden they know my name or appearance and everything changes…

    The convience store I applied to work for one time called me about 3 times and hung up because they wouldn`t believe I was the non-japanese person who applied. Then I go to the store and all of a sudden they find it hard to beleive I knew what おでん was or that I could read the badge on my clothes that said 研修中.

    At my job at 中華街 some people just stare at me with a blank face even though I am asking them something. Some people even pretend to not understand me or something of the like.

    Of course it depends on the situation though…the worse part is in kanto people don`t つっこみ…

    at least 関西人に日本語お上手ですねって言われたらネタにできんのに…関東の人はぼけてもしゃーないってな存在や。

    I wish I could just change my face.

    Sure Koreans and Chinese have it tough here, but at least they are allowed to speak perfect japanese and not be treated like a zoo animal at the same time.

    — We’re straying from the subject of this blog entry. Let’s get back on track.

  • I’d like to bring the debate back to ‘looking at the money’. If GOJ is really concerned about money laundering and possible terroist funding then why oh why does it not look more closely at accounts within Japan’s shores and ask the same questions for money transfers over, say 100,000 yen on EVERY account. As Debito said, how much money is going under the radar? How much is going to North Korea via the pachinko parlours and … how much are those politicians sending to themselves from their paper companies. If your going to do it – do it across the board (The truth – you can’t handle the truth!!).

  • It happens in Kansai too.

    Last year I had to seek new accommodations due to a time limit at my student dormitory. The frustrations and embarrassment of seeking rental units as a foreigner are probably well discussed here, but when I did find a place I had to pay that extortionist fee called reikin. I did not have the 500 000 yen on hand, in cash, to pay off the thieving landlord. So I needed some remittances from back home in Canada. No sweat. Its only about 5500$ CDN. Well under any ‘substantial’ amount.

    Not quite.

    Even though the money came from my Canadian bank with my name on the damned account they asked questions. Loads of them. Mitsui-Sumitomo (SMBC) grilled me for an hour. They asked me what kind of apartment needed 500 000 yen for reikin/shikikin. I told them to pick up any real estate paper and have a look. They laughed and did the whole soudesune thing. Their replies to my queries were similar to Debito’s and dodged around the issue. I asked about how I can avoid this the next time. SMBC said that there are arrangements that could be made and would get back to me. 10 months later, they still havent.

  • You should have just told them what it was for. Everything… A loaf of bread, a bag of rice, the electricity bill, a couple of beers, a tank of petrol… and on and on.

    Seriously though, your post seems to presume that people with Japanese sounding names do not get asked. Just curious, but have you got any evidence that this is the case? I wouldn’t be surprised if most banks ask everyone, regardless of nationality, race, or name.

    By the way, I’ve also heard nothing but good reports about Shinsei Bank, except for the one that said that they might get swallowed up due to the credit crunch.

    — I strongly doubt that the zillions of accounts out there with Japanese-sounding names get letters in the post (and even an occasional message on my cell phone, I forgot to add above, for the otaru soshou enjoukai account) asking what their account is for even when no money enters it. I’m sure the bank has lots of other stuff to do (that’s why they close at 3PM, right?).

    Anyway, when I asked for the bank’s criteria for asking about transactions, remember, I wasn’t given it. The only thing certain is that they ask about foreign origin or destination money, apparently without threshold. However, given that Japan’s quite integrated into the world economy, I strongly doubt again that they check all insubstantial sums (as some posters here and offlist have mentioned) flowing in or out. Again, by inductive reasoning, what else can the criterion be in these cases but the account holder name?

  • I too have an account with the Shinsei Bank. I transferred large sums of money across from my account in the UK to pay for my plot of land.
    I asked is their a limit before i am investigated, as there is in every country. I was told the amount, 20million Yen. I was told if i transfer more than this it will go through GOJ for approval, can take up to 1 week. I wanted to transfer 35million, so they said, do it in two batches and it wont be registered. Just do it about 10days or 2 weeks apart….simple.

    But as a functioning bank and services, Shinsei is poor elsewhere. No different to the others…but most of this is because Japan doesn’t like people using CC to buy things..they like and prefer the palpable feel of real money, dunno why??????!!!!

  • forgot to add..they didn’t even charge me for receiving my own money form overseas, as the others do…no questions, simple straight forward.

  • I’ve come across this in the 外国為替令(昭和五十五年十月十一日政令第二百六十号)Foreign Exchange Order (Cabinet Order No. 260 of October 11, 1980):

    Article 7-2 (Small Payment or Payment, etc. Exempted from the Obligation to Identify Customers, etc. of Banks, etc.)
    The small payment or payment, etc. specified by Cabinet Order as prescribed in Article 18, paragraph 1 of the Act shall be payment or payment, etc. not more than the amount equivalent to two million yen.

  • Debito,
    I would like to offer my help and ask a question of clarity.

    Offer first. My bank is Hokuyo, and twice a year I receive a payment from a U.S. federal science foundation. The amount varies, but it’s the 100,000 cash transfer and under the 2 million. I don’t know the difference between that and the 2 million yen for direct transfers. Every time it comes, my home gets a call from the bank asking what this is for. Since I’m not home, my wife (Japanese as you know) gets to tell them something like “business purposes”. That’s it. It works. Neither of us has to sign a form or go to the bank. Does this help at all in this issue, or am I also getting shafted? Frankly, I see it as a minor inconvenience to get the call, compared to what you had to do (go in person).

    Now my question of clarity.
    Sean asked a valid question which you dodged. I don’t think that was wise, because it only weakens your case. You should really find out if Japanese who receive money from overseas are asked what the money is for. Simple enough to do, when you consider people in our profession who may get money identical to yours (payment for lectures or such). Admit that saying you “strongly doubt that the zillions of accounts out there with Japanese-sounding names get letters in the post” is a copout. You wouldn’t accept such a reply. We shouldn’t here either, and if you stop to think about it, if you found a considerable number of Japanese who NEVER got asked, then you have a more valid claim against those of us NJ who DO get asked. Just a thought.

    — Hi Glenski. It’s not simple enough to find out. You want I should survey everyone who gets a money transfer in Japan? The banks know what they’re doing, and they ain’t telling. Putting it up here and getting some “me too” responses (yours included) is one survey method. Please conduct one that satisfies your criteria when you have time and let us know. Thanks.

    As for answering a simple question, well, that’s your prerogative. But I don’t like being treated as somehow suspicious just because I’m getting dribs and drabs of money from overseas. Sorry. Call me prickly.

    Thanks for offering your help. Debito

  • No, I will not call you prickly. I am behind you on this issue. Asking for you to come down and sign a paper and explain a mere 50,000 yen is obviously outside the reasons they gave you, and I’m surprised you stood for a verbal apology alone. Of course, I wasn’t there, so that’s your call. At least you got some sort of explanation. But I support you on this.

    As for the survey, again I think you are being unreasonable here. You admit that your blog serves as a survey for those (mostly NJ) readers who want to chip in on “me, too” (and perhaps “not me” if there are any like that, but you refuse to consider, yes, even consider, doing anything to get data to further help your cause. I never said it would be easy, but that’s life. You get around. You know people who make the lecture circuits. I don’t. You probably know far more influential people (and certainly more Japanese people) who make overseas lectures. They will understand, won’t they, if you ask them the question here.

    “Pardon me, but I’m trying to compare whether foreigners and Japanese are treated equally when it comes to receiving money from overseas. When do you get asked by your bank (any bank at first will do) to explain the money transfer from lectures overseas?”

    Mine was a simple suggestion even if you don’t see it as such. If I have a chance, I will certainly ask people where I work about this situation, and then ask the next question (which bank?). Why won’t you? That lack of data leaves a hole in your argument.

    — Thanks. I do not think what we have here amounts to a complete survey. But we have some pinpoint data. And if we could never draw any conclusions (not even preliminary ones) unless we had a survey of around 100 sample points, we’d have a lot less to talk about here. Meanwhile, the fact that the bank(s) won’t even disclose their criteria is worrisome. In my opinion, the fact that they won’t is probably because it would be worrisome to them if they did.

    Last kicker: Hokuyo added a 1500 yen service charge so I could receive my money. I think the three plus hours I spent with them probably means they earned it. I’m just hoping that more people complain about being treated this way so that it’s not worth their trouble.

  • Sorry for the additional post. I asked my wife what sort of transfer we get (the cash or direct transfer). She said it was just “soukin”. If you have the Japanese names for these two, perhaps I can help you further. She didn’t seem to know and didn’t want to look into it.

    — The two forms I received the other day from the bank substantiating the transaction are 外国送金到着のご案内 and 外国為替代り金計算書.

    PS: I note that the message (from the sender) on the first form says in English quite clearly that this money is, quote, a “speaker fee”. Which means the bank knew why I was receiving it. This means they wanted to know what I was going to use it for. And that is, for that amount, again, none of their goddamn business.

  • Debito,
    Thanks for that info. We are in agreement on many things, I hope you realize, but we are also quibbling over some details which I feel are very critical points.

    The argument you pose is that only NJ get asked these questions, and that is something you have not proven. Yes, “pinpoint data” from your blog shows what a handful of foreigners have experienced. It does not support in any way your statement that Japanese people don’t get asked these questions. As I wrote earlier, I’ll look into it, and I hope you do, too.

    I agree that your experience with the bank not disclosing the info is worrisome, to say the least, and I appreciate the time you spent going down there in person to dig into this. But, I really don’t think you’ve fully supported your case, as I pointed out above.

    As for the 1500 yen “kicker”, I get that, too, whether I received money more or less than 100,000 yen. I have to say live with it, because it’s just a fact of business and wire transfers. Be glad it’s not 5000 yen like you have to pay when you make a bank wire transfer! Just don’t label this sarcastically as some sort of penalty, ok?

    As for the 2 forms you kindly mentioned, I get those, too. My wife tells the bank whether the money is a gift, a lottery prize, a sum for proofreading, etc. and they write that on the form (I think; maybe they get that info from the money source and just want to confirm). It is for their own edification, and I have no problem with that.

    I FULLY understand your point, though, about not needing to disclose such information if indeed we are not required to do so when we (Japanese or foreigners) get money less than a certain amount. I’m just more open about it than you, but I support you in this.

    I think you misunderstood me on something, though. I didn’t ask for the names of those 2 documents. Earlier in the thread you mentioned a “direct transfer” and a “cash transfer”, each with different limits (2 million and 100,000 yen, respectively). I was asking for the names of those, so we could judge what it was that you and I had actually received. Do you have those names?

    Have a great day. I’m actually going to do work that will net me some of that money which I will get from overseas!

    — Hi Glenski. I’m not 100% sure, but I think the terms are “furikomi” and “genkin soukin”. Mine was the former. Enjoy your work and the bank response! 🙂 Debito

  • Well, I recently had to do money transfers to overseas and found that there’s variety on how banks approve of the transfers. My bank, Mizuho, needed proof of why I needed to send the money. They wouldn’t do business with me otherwise. I went to a different bank, two in fact, both of which had no problem with dealing with my transfers. (I had to fill out a short purpose on the form). I’m annoyed enough with Mizuho to move my account to one of these other finer institutions.


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