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 The staggering inconvenience and out-of-date services are enough to drive anybody mad.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





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