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Saturday, Feb. 9, 2008

JAPAN LITE

Pocketful of yen


If you live to be 75 years old, you will live approximately 650,000 hours. Somehow, that doesn't seem like a lot, especially when you can buy a very nice house for $650,000, the same number, but a huge amount in dollars (and which would cost you one dollar per hour to live there). On the other hand, in yen, 650,000 would only be a couple months' salary. Hardly seems fair, does it?

I often see newly arrived foreigners in Japan fumbling with this new yen currency, trying to find exact change for a purchase or trying to figure out if their lunch costs ¥2,000 or ¥20,000. And you can hardly blame them for being confused; in many other countries nothing in everyday life requires you to think much beyond the number 100. You'd never pay $2,000 for lunch, for example. We are left scratching our heads: How can it cost that much?

In addition, we have preconceptions about certain numbers that may not let us move forward with the new currency. When I came to Japan to work and was told that my salary would be ¥3.5 million, I felt like I had won the lottery. Three and a half million yen! I spent days planning how I was going to spend it all: traveling the world, giving to charities, buying new socks.

But alas, Japan is a very expensive country. All those millions of yen were gone after the first year.

Here is a short guide to yen coinage to help you understand that growing bulge of change in your pocket.

The ¥1 coin (aluminum, introduced 1955) It is said that the ¥1 coin now costs more to make than it is worth. As a result, I think they should discontinue it. After all, the best way to add value to something is to discontinue it. One reason it hasn't been discontinued may be because most people don't even realize they are carrying ¥1 coins. The aluminum coin is so light, you forget you have an entire pocketful of them. Another idea to add value to the ¥1 coin is to find a use other than monetary. If it were used as, say, ammunition for toy pop-guns, you could charge a lot more for a cartridge of them than they are intrinsically worth.

The ¥5 coin (brass, 1949) The cool thing about the ¥5 coin is that is has a hole in it. A hole! For some reason, we Westerners are fascinated by holes in coins. Leave it to us to use that hole for something, such as to string a piece of leather through to wear the coin as a necklace. But there is a good reason the ¥5 coin has a hole in it: this holy money is used to toss into the donation boxes at shrines and temples when people pray.

The ¥10 coin (bronze, 1951) On a scale of one to 10, I'd give this coin a perfect 10 rating. Since the next coin up is the ¥50 piece, the ¥10 coin is very useful.

The ¥50 coin (cupro-nickel, 1967) This coin also has a hole. Now we're getting cheap, eh? It makes you wonder what they are doing with all the holes? Someone, somewhere is making a mint, so to speak, hoarding all the holes. Or perhaps they're going to sell them as ammunition. Overall, the ¥50 coin is small and convenient.

The ¥100 coin (cupro-nickel, 1967) The ¥100 coin is nice and round, and as a result, the ¥100 store is a concept easily grasped by foreigners. As long as the price is not ¥120, for example, we will happily dole out the coinage. To many Westerners, the fact that ¥100 is just a coin is enough to marginalize its value. It is so easy to spend coins thinking that it's just small change.

The ¥500 coin (cupro-nickel, 1982) Which brings us to the big, clunky ¥500 coin. Five hundred is a big number. If it were not, the Indy 500 would not be such a great car race. Yet one way the Japanese marketers try to make a ¥500 item look cheaper, is to say that you can buy it with just "one coin." They hope that you'll toss a ¥500 coin for their product with the same amount of speed as a car travels in the Indy 500.

If you still find you are spending your yen too fast, remember: A yenny saved is a yenny earned.



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