How Coins Became the Bane of My Existence in Japan

I think I was in sixth grade when I first engaged in a debate. It was at my weekly Saturday Japanese school and for reasons unclear, the topic de jour was which is better: coins or bills. For reasons even more unclear, I took the side of vigorously defending the existence of coins while my adversary took the position that coins were an unbearably annoying existence because of their weight, all the while rest of the class sat in silence, stunned and unamused with the irrelevance of the entire debate.

Seventeen years after the introduction to my lifelong love of argument, I concede, for the first (and I hope the last) time, that I was wrong. I’ve come to my senses on this after more than five months in Japan, which makes me believe that my adversary may have known what he was talking about because life in Japan was still fresh in his memory.

Paradoxically, Japan has too many coins yet needs another.

In the Japanese currency, there are 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 yen-coins. These are familiar to Americans since at today’s exchange rate, 100 yen is about $1.30, worth slightly more than the rarely-used dollar coin.

It’s the 500 yen coin that’s absurd. It’s worth a stunning $6.50+ and, worthy of its value, it’s heavy and bulky. In the U.S., there are three bills–the Washington dollar, the Jefferson two dollar and the Lincoln five dollar–that are worth less that this coin. I barely carried a five dollar bill when I lived in New York, so a single 500 yen coin is nearly worth protecting with my life.

While the Japanese government was busy getting ahead of inflation just as the country entered deflation (the 500 yen coin was introduced in 1994), it should have given more thought to how the lesser denominations can be improved by, for example, imitating the American quarter.

Quarters are remarkably convenient, both in size and denomination. Sure, 50 cents is generally paid with two coins instead of one, but it saves a coin or two in all numbers between 25 and 49. Think 45, which is 3 coins in the U.S. (a quarter and two small dimes) while it’s 5 in Japan (four 10 yen and one 5 yen).

The combination of the unnecessary 500 yen coin and the missing quarter has rippling repercussions because the smallest bill is a 1000 yen bill. When you go to a convenience store to buy, say, Hi-Chu, for 255 yen (around $3), I get eight coins back in change because the store needs to add a 500 yen and two 100 yen coins in addition to the smaller denominations; in the U.S., the number of coins returned on a $2.55 purchase is three. That’s why “breaking” 1000 yen, unlike breaking $10, is more like shattering it, leaving behind a pocket full of coins.

Carrying around that much change is annoying beyond description. And I’ve solved the problem in the simplest manner:  by refusing to carry coins. So now when I get any change, I immediately dump them in my desk at the office.

This has had a frightening consequence. Japan is cash society so I need to constantly carry around couple 10,000 yen bills (over $100 each), yet I burn through the bills like the confederate dollar; my purchases are made at 1000 yen ($13) increments since anything less than that ends up as coins that I dump into the drawer. A couple of bottles of water here and there and I’m down 3,000 yen.

One saving grace is that I’m not necessarily burning through money when I burn through bills since my desk is probably the most valuable piggy bank in the world. What’s cool about Japan is that many ATMs have machine that tumbles coins, counts them and deposit them.  So if carrying around coins has become a new hassle, depositing them has turned into a new joy. The other day I felt an indescribably rush as the ATM counted the coins I’d accumulated over a two-week period that added up to  6,900 yen, or nearly $100.

I suppose any fun experience comes at a cost, and the price I have to (literally) pay is fees. It’s one thing for a third-party service like Coinstar to charge fees, but Japanese banks, which can no longer make money by lending money in a zero interest rate environment, proudly (they have gone on record about how proud they are about this) charge fees of up to $5 for using their own ATM after the hours of 6:00 P.M. or on a weekend.  This applies even to deposits.

There is something really offensive about having to pay a fee to my own bank for depositing money that’s mine.  So I refuse to pay this fee.  The sad reality is that I am stuck in the office most of the time that I can freely entertain myself with the ATM that tumbles the coins and counts them.  So the stack of coins continue to accumulate in the drawer of my office, a few bucks at a time.  In due course, I’ll be able to open my own small bank within the office, for which, come to think of it, I’ll be able to charge fees of my own, accepted only in coins.


5 Responses to “How Coins Became the Bane of My Existence in Japan”

  1. 1 Jay the Elitist April 3, 2012 at 1:26 am

    If you write any more posts about coins, I’m a drown myself with a pile of coins! Need to read more interesting topics please!

    • 2 joesas April 3, 2012 at 8:30 am

      Oh come on! It wasn’t that bad! I admit it wasn’t my best work, though, and I guess I knew that deep down ’cause I wrote the post late last year and kept on bumping it as I wrote other (better?) pieces. I squeezed as much as I could from coins, but it was tough to come up with 800 words…

      I think you’ll like my next one (in English).

  2. 3 John Ezzard May 15, 2012 at 10:34 am

    First point: the 500 yen coins are clearly designed for one thing and one thing only, paying for a beer at cash-bars.

    Second point: Coins are fun, if you make a game out of them! The game starts when you shatter a 1000 as you put so well. Then, using skillful arithmetic, you gradually get rid of them. The goal is to get as few coins as you can before having to break another 1000. I’ve gotten a perfect score a few times in my almost 2 years here. Try it sometime!

    • 4 joesas May 17, 2012 at 8:43 am


      Please stop defending 500 yen coins. Indeed, please stop encouraging the existence of 500 yen coins by playing games with them…

  1. 1 No, I’m Not Changing the Title of This Blog | The World According to Joe Trackback on September 23, 2013 at 11:36 am

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