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Saturday, March 22, 2003

JAPAN LITE

Funny money clothed in cute cartoons


Before I came to Japan, I hadn't used money in years. It's not that I didn't have money -- I just never dreamed of taking it out of the bank and using it. That's because on my planet, the United States, money is a thin piece of plastic called a debit card, inside of which are mathematical molecules swirling around constantly rearranging themselves and adjusting your bank balance. I have never understood how a mere 10 digits can represent so little or so much by just changing their positions. Furthermore, how can my bank account balance be negative? Zero is zero, isn't it? When you have no money, how can you have more no money? Even the grammar is wrong.

But that plastic card knows. And plastic has become very intelligent these days, mainly because it has that magnetic strip on the back. If magnetic strips are so smart, why don't we adhere them directly to our own backs?

In the U.S., carrying a lot of cash makes us nervous. After all, it might explode in your pocket. At the very least, you will surely lose it if it's a large amount of money. Yet no one worries about losing their debit card. In the U.S., it's not uncommon for kids to start carrying their parents' credit cards in high school so they don't have to carry cash to go shopping or traveling.

But in Japan, even elementary school kids carry the equivalent of hundreds of dollars in cash to pay for their cram school lessons, music lessons, etc. Of course, it doesn't look like cash, since the bills are put into "geshabukuro" envelopes expressly for monthly payments, in which the receiver signs and dates the outside of the envelope. This must be very convenient at tax time for pickpockets.

In Japan, cash is always passed from person to person in envelopes. You should never give someone naked money. When giving a monetary gift, there are fashionable envelopes to dress your bills in: one for weddings, one for funerals, one for special occasions and a very tiny one with cartoons on it for New Year's cash given to children. Such money should always be ironed (don't torch it -- use the steam setting!).

For cash transactions that don't call for a dressy envelope, you can just put the money in the envelopes given out at the banks next to the ATM machines. If you are Japanese, you will have thought about this beforehand and chosen the bank with the cutest mascot. That way you will have that "kawaii" mascot on your cash envelopes.

My ATM card has eight cartoon cats on it! It's hard to believe I would choose a bank that uses cats on its ATM cards, especially when I could have chosen the bank with the "Barba Papa" characters on their cards and envelopes. Kawaii! Or the bank with the penguin mascot. (Although they might freeze your assets).

Or how about having a big red tomato on your cash card? If you want to trust your money to vegetables, why not start an account at the Tomato Bank? Makes you wonder if they will juice your savings. The Tomato Bank was named, reportedly, because it was the first thing the owner thought of in the morning when he woke up. If you ask me, that's just not a good way to decide on a business name. What if he had woken up with a hangover? We would have the Mizuwari Bank.

If you just don't want to deal with the banks, you can always keep your money in postal savings. What's the post office's mascot? A flying pig. Kawaii!

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.


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