The Community

Mission Impossible Part LXVII:
Getting better customer service from a Japanese bank

By Arudou Debito
March 11, 2003

It was a beautiful sunny day in early February....

Well, okay, the day wasn't all that perfect, but a phone call I got from a bank manager at Hokkaido Ginkou Ekimae Shiten certainly did not improve it.

Manager: "You've received an amount of money from Germany." I asked from whom. A name I did not know. It was another overseas contribution to the Otaru Onsen Lawsuit Supporters Account ( Thanks! But was that worth the trouble of telephoning me at home specially to report?

The manager got to the point. "What is this money for?"

I paused. "Just a minute. Why are you asking that?"

"It's money from overseas. As a matter of course, we ask everyone the purpose of a deposit when it comes from overseas. Bank rules."

"You didn't ask me last time I received money from overseas."

"Oh? Well, I'm asking you now."

"Why. To prevent money laundering or drug sales? I'm sure I can buy a lot of drugs with 5000 yen."

"Will you answer the question?"

"No I will not. I do not believe you ask every single person who gets money from overseas what they will be using it for. That would take too much manpower, and international law states that for deposits of less than 5,000,000 yen [nowadays 2,000,000 yen] there need not be any alarm bells."

I knew this figure because of an April 2001 case we handled at The Community, where Member Olaf Karthaus was told by Hokkaido Bank Chitose Branch to show his ID (and have it photocopied) merely to exchange USD 400 into Japanese yen. The bank manager insisted it was the law, but he was eventually caught in a lie when Olaf demanded to see that law in writing. Olaf demanded an apology in writing for this treatment, and (after a letter writing campaign) eventually got one. (see

I thought, will Hokkaido Bank never learn? "Look, if this money transaction were apparently between two Japanese, would you be phoning me?"

Manager: "We might. Depends on the situation."

Me: "Which means you don't call 'everyone'. And I bet the reason why this 'situation' warrants it is because you think this transaction is between two foreigners. Are you suggesting that foreigners are less trustworthy, even to the tune of 5000 yen?"

Manager: "It's not because you are a foreigner. It's just the rules."

Me: "I am not a foreigner and I don't believe it is because of the rules. I want an apology for this harassment. In writing."

Manager: "I don't think it is within my power to do that."

Me: "Alright then, give me your manager."

And three managers later (I got the Jichou of Ekimae Shiten, and in a separate call the Buchou of Customer Service at Hokkaido Bank HQ), I was starting to feel like I was getting somewhere.

Jichou: "We apologize for the discomfort we caused you. We would like to come by your house and express our apologies personally."

Me: "What. All the way out to Nanporo? That 45 kms out of town on icy roads. No, please just send me a written apology and that will suffice."

But to them that would not suffice. And out came two managers schlepping a box of cookies and a record of the transaction. We sat down for a nice cup of tea and a chat about why I was so tenacious about this issue:

"Look, to me it's an issue of gaijin harassment. You had no real reason to ask me what that money is for. Not legally, not professionally, not even monetarily. If you looked at the account name (Otaru Soshou Enjokai), you could even suss out for yourself what it's for. All I could see was a knee-jerk reaction to something foreign by a bank manager with time on his hands."

We had an extended interchange about the need for less fear of the outside world on the part of Hokkaido's financial institutions, especially since we are now Japan's poorest prefecture and need to attract more FDI. I told them that Japanese banks in particular were closed-door when it came to bank loans, credit cards, domestic property as collateral, and other liquidities that were easily obtainable for citizens but practically impossible for foreigners without Permanent Residency. (

In sum, this mere question about a 5000 yen deposit was a small but important flashpoint, indicative of a whole system that overconflates nationality with credit risk. I said that if there was any way I could help Hokkaido Bank in future become more attuned to international exchange practices, be in touch. I was putting my mouth where my money is. It was indeed a very productive exchange, and we were all glad it happened.


In the end, like Olaf, I got my written apology. See it at

Thanks, Hokkaido Bank, for being so receptive.

Arudou Debito

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