Monday, December 03, 2007

Japanese banks: Reinventing the wheel


What do these images above have in common?? Everything. The banks in Japan, in spite of having a reputation of being technologically advanced, still run as if they were operating in Bedrock City, with Barney chipping out new accounts in a block of stone. I was reminded of this not long ago when I needed to unlock a frozen bank account. The Economist says that Japanese service industries were 80% less efficient than their foreign counterparts in 2002. It seems that not much as changed since then, as this simple banking task demonstrated.

Talk to any foreigner living in Japan, and you'll soon be told of a "banking experience from hell." The staggering inconvenience and out-of-date services are enough to drive anybody mad. And not just foreigners; the Japanese people hate the banking system here, too.

The main complaints are about the inconvenience and inefficiency of the system. I always considered it inefficient because you have to fill out your name, address, contact details, plus a full family tree and the flavour of your favourite ice cream every time you do a transaction. You learn to live with it, but there are limits. And I discovered my personal limit a few months ago dealing with MUFG: Mitsubishi Tokyo UFJ Bank.

I joined MUFG (which should, if truth be told, be labelled OMFG!) when I moved to my new place here in May. It was the usual banking system: It took forever to open an account, I was hassled to buy their multi-card, and it took over a week to get my bank card. But once the account was opened, it was business as usual. And their online banking worked well, so I was quite happy.

Then I went to Canada for the summer. When I finally returned to Japan I tried to take out money from the ATM. I must have made a mistake inputting my security PIN, because I got the "3 incorrect password attempts...3 strikes you're OUT" message. WTF? Well, no big deal. I was thinking ... I'll just stroll in tomorrow, show my identification and they'll reopen the account. I should have given myself an uppercut for being so naive. But it helped clarify the IDIOTIC rules that govern the system we use here.

and here they are. The...

Top 4 IDIOTIC Pre-historic Japanese Banking Rules

Starting with...

IDIOTIC Banking Rule No. 4:
Three Strikes per GAME, not per up-to-bat

As it turns out, there are some things that I did not know about the new improved security at Mitsubishi Tokyo UFJ. First, according to my bank teller that day, they will lock out your bank account if you make a mistake 3 times inputting your PIN...EVER! That is, even if you make a mistake and then correctly access your account, the counter does not reset. So, if in the course of a year, your finger slips 3 times, your card becomes invalid. OMFG!

IDIOTIC Banking Rule No. 3:
A $1.50 plastic stamp is considered more secure than your photo ID

Inkan Please!
My $1.50 plastic stamp is all that stands between a thief and my money.

The second thing you need to know about Japanese banks is that it's not enough to show your driver's license, passport and ID card. In fact, none of that is necessary, as I was told when I went in to unfreeze my account. What you do need is your personal stamp or "inkan." Mine is made of plastic. I paid about $1.50 for it at a convenience store 16 years ago. The character on the stamp reads "Maki" (牧) which was the closest sound they could find to "Mike." It means something like "pasture" or "ranch" -- which is kind of cool -- but it's not my name. So it is this $1.50 plastic stamp that is the pinnacle of security precautions in Japan. Unfortunately, I hadn't brought my stamp that day, so I had to come back after the weekend. All this time still trying to live off the $50 I had left in my apartment before I left. OMFG...

IDIOTIC Banking Rule No. 2:
To unlock your account, you must make a NEW bank card

As I trotted into the bank that day, confident I would have my card unfrozen, I was told that I had to ...wait for it...reapply for an entirely new card. So out came the application forms. Yes, it's always good practice for my Japanese to fill out my address details in triplicate -- but I was getting writer's cramp by the end of it. And I got stomach cramps when they told me it was going to take 3 weeks for my card to arrive by registered mail. At least they were accurate with that -- 3 weeks almost to the day. 3 weeks with no direct access to my money unless I went in there with my $1.50 Fred Flintstone stamp. Thank god for CITIBANK, where I also have an account and was able to time travel to the 21st century and access my money without the aforementioned plastic stamp.

and finally...

IDIOTIC Banking Rule No. 1:
The ultimate irony in banking security:
Everybody in the bank can see your new PIN number

And here comes the best part. First, to summarize...In the name of banking security, my card was locked out, I had to reapply for a new card, and I had to wait 3 weeks for it to arrive by registered mail. So after all this hassle in the name of security, I was told to WRITE my PIN number on paper in front of some 20-year-old bank teller girl. She openly stared at my new number. She then passed the form back to some other guy behind her, who eventually sent it to a chain of other people for input. They probably let the cleaning lady who was working behind the desks have a peek at my number as well. Perhaps I should just post it here in this blog, as who knows how many other people have already seen it anyway.

I wrote to the bank the rather long letter below trying to explain just how retarded this situation is. I suggested that they adopt less prehistoric security measures, and step boldly from the dark ages to join the rest of the international banking community with the use of key-in pads for customer security codes. After all, if my bank account gets accessed illegally, do they have any way of knowing that the 60-year-old cleaning lady was not in cahoots with organized crime? OK, I didn't say that to them...but the point remains that the less people who know your code, the better. And after all the hoops I was made to jump through in the name of security, actually having to show a dozen people my PIN number made me quite sure that the genius who actually designed their security system should either be fired, or given a lesson in basic logic.

Thank you, but we'll be the judge of that!

To their credit,Mitsubishi Tokyo UFJ Bank did reply when I wrote them. They said, "Yes, this was certainly an inconvenience for you...we'll pass along your concern to somebody right away." That's Japanese for "Screw you -- we'll be the judge of how we run our bank, thank you very much." Thanks, and once more for the record WFT and OMFG.

My advice to those thinking of living in Japan and opening a bank account:

Bring extra Valium!

NOTE May 18, 2011: I just found a blog post from a fellow Canadian who also has high blood pressure due to the UFJ Bank.


And now, for my Japanese friends, here is the letter I sent, and the response I got from them.




1. 暗証番号を3回間違えた場合のロック解除システムについて。




2. セキュリティについて





三菱東京UFJダイレクトをご利用いただき誠にありがとうございます。 お問い合わせいただきました件について回答を申し上げます。 このたびは、キャッシュカード再発行に関しまして大変ご不便を おかけしております。

キャッシュカード再発行手続きならびに、暗証番号設定時の セキュリティについて、貴重なご意見をありがとうございました。 お客さまのご要望として担当部門にお伝えさせていただきます。 また、何かお気づきの点がございましたらお気軽に下記まで お問い合わせください。 今後とも、三菱東京UFJダイレクトをご愛顧くださいますよう お願い申し上げます。 三菱東京UFJダイレクト(旧東京三菱)


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lost in Transit

After two and a half years away from Canada, I decided to make the trip home from Japan. Usually, I fly direct. I go straight from check in to the airplane, and I don’t rely much on airport facilities. This trip, however, I made a few pit stops along the way, including a surface from Bangkok, and a three hour transit in Taiwan. Three hours in a transit area gives you time to think. I thought that while the newer airports certainly do look great, they seem designed more to appeal to shoppers than travelers.

After two and a half years away from Canada, I decided to make the trip home from Japan. Usually, I fly direct. I go straight from check in to the airplane, and I don’t rely much on airport facilities. This trip, however, I made a few pit stops along the way, including a surface from Bangkok, and a three hour transit in Taiwan. Three hours in a transit area gives you time to think. I thought that while the newer airports certainly do look great, they seem designed more to appeal to shoppers than travelers.

Take Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Thailand. Although the check-in is pretty much S.O.P., once you get past customs – the point of no return – you are a bit of a captive audience, and the powers that created this airport clearly decided to capitalize on this fact. From the passport check to any gate in the airport or to any lounge, you are forced to walk past an endless and mind-numbing collection of high-end shops. This comes as no surprise given that the uber-corrupt ex PM of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, was the guy running the show.

It was much the same during the 3 hours I spent in the transit area of Taipei Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan. As I walked in from the X-ray check, the first sign I saw was Burberry. I saw high-end electronics stores. I saw cosmetics shops. No, let me rephrase that. I saw dozens of cosmetics shops. There was alcohol and tobacco on sale everywhere. And this pattern was repeated in every wing of the airport. I kept thinking, "Who needs all this stuff?"

The answer of course, is nobody. Nobody needs to buy a Louis Vuitton bag at 11PM at night on their way to a 14 hour trans-Pacific flight. What I needed at that moment was food and toothpaste. And a bit of deodorant probably would have been a nice touch as well. Yes, I do carry personal sundries when I travel. I cannot, however, carry them with me on the airplane, as the authorities are concerned that I might cleverly make an explosive composed of Colgate and Mennen’s Speed Stick.

There was not, however, a single store selling sundries. The closest I found in Taiwan was a deodorant body spray. But it was a liquid, which means I would have had to throw it away before boarding. I decided not to throw away the $25 they were asking, and hoped instead that the person beside me on the flight to Vancouver had a bad cold.

If these high-end stores were full of shoppers, I could understand that I was the odd man out. In a sea of rich shoppers, I would be the poor, stinky one who didn’t fit in. But the stores were all deserted, excluding, of course, the gaggle of shop ladies who occupied them, fighting to stay awake. At least the electronics store offered some reprieve for the staff, as they took turns playing PSP. I was interested in seeing how much a PSP costs, but I didn’t want to throw them off their game.

It is easy to understand that Gucci is more willing and able to afford the sky high rent to pimp their wares in major hub airports than, say, some mom and pop store selling toothpaste and deodorant. But which is more relevant to a traveler at 11AM in transit in Taiwan? Likewise with restaurants and other areas to pass the time. They were all closed. Instead, the hoards of weary travelers were lying in departure lounges trying to get some sleep. They didn’t have a choice, really, since Burberry doesn’t sell the blended coffee drinks that might have kept them awake.

I suppose that people who love shopping appreciate this thoughtful concentration of commercial prowess. But for a person who just wants to go from A to B with no fuss and no muss, plus have some semblance of traveler-oriented convenience, the newer hub airports leave a lot to be desired. Or rather, they offer everything you desire, but very little of what you really need.

Well...OK...maybe ONE thing.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Bangkok, Baby!

On my way back to Canada this summer, I decided to save a few bucks and go via Thailand instead of flying direct from Canada. I took a couple of days stop over in Bangkok to meet up with some friends there from Japan, and to have a few beers with friends I already know in Thailand.

I've never officially lived in Bangkok, but thanks to friends there, I've gotten to know quite a few good places to hang out. So in the days leading up to our summer vacation, me, my office mate, Tim, and his wife, Nobuko, had a few good nights out over beers in Japan talking about things that might be fun to do in Thailand. They would be in Bangkok for a few nights in transit to Chiang Mai, and I would be there in transit to Canada. They planned to do their own thing during the day, then they left it up to me to suggest a few night activities. Most of them involved food or beer.

Our first day there, we had a late lunch at a restaurant / bar called Bus Stop on Soi Nana. It's not the street you'd expect to find good food, but here it is. However, although it was Tim and Nobuko's first day in Thailand, notice that we all had British fish and chips. You can take the Brit out of England, but you can't take England out of the Brit.

For dinner, there are two places we hit that I'm sure Tim and Nobuko would recommend to others. One was the Suam Luam Night Bazaar. We chose an outdoor restaurant / beer garden that had a menu with both Thai and foreign food. Tim is a vegetarian, and had no problems finding stuff to eat. To get there, just take the subway to Lumpini Station. Ask somebody where the Thai theater is, and if you can get there, you'll arrive at an intersection with a load of restaurants. The one we went to has the huge Heineken beer keg and glass in front.

One other night, we went to a more upscale Thai restaurant called Lan Na. Tim and Nobuko said it was the best food they'd had on the trip, which is saying a lot coming from them, since they love food. We ordered a lot of food, beers, and some fancy desserts, and the final total came to about $70 a person. Not bad at all if you knew the quality of the food and the atmosphere of the place. Definitely worth a visit. Sorry, no pics, but here's a pdf map for those interested:

As for after-dinner nightlife, it was pretty standard fare. One night, we went to The Londoner Brew Pub on the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 33. Loads of fun there. And the highlight party, at least for me, was a gathering with Tim, Nobuko and some of my Thai and ex-pat friends at the Absolute 7 bar on Sukhumvit 7\1. They always have great live music there and I love the atmosphere, so it's a place I always seem to return to whenever I pass through Bangkok.

Overall a great stop in Thailand, but as I write this, I'm actually far away, sitting in my brother's basement – my home away from home – in Victoria, Canada. More about the Canada trip to follow.