Money talks: How to talk about money in Japanese?

Even though Japan is a very modern country, the Japanese still prefer to charge 現金 (genkin, cash). Sometimes it becomes annoying to search among all the currencies for the right one to buy tickets in the 券 売 機 (kenbaiki, ticket machine).


Many Japanese like to imagine that we live in a キ ャ ッ シ ュ レ ス 社会 (kyasshuresu shakai, cashless society), but the reality is that the genkin is supreme, even though the government supports the 電子 マ ネ ー (denshi manee, electronic money or prepaid cards), and the rest of the world is moving towards the elimination of お 札 (osatsu, ticket[s]) low denomination and the 小 銭 (kozeni, change). The idea of ​​taking the 一 円 玉 (ichi-en lady, one yen coins) and the 五 円 玉 (go-in lady, five yen coins) has been discussed for the past decade, but in most レ ジ (reji, cash registers) you will still see people looking for coins in their pockets.

Historians and consultants such as Takao Ogasawara have pointed out that Japan is still not used to 資本主義 (shihon shugi, capitalism) Western, and still the concept of フ ィ ン テ ッ ク (fintekku, financial technologies) is new. Ogasawara argues that this is the explanation behind the reluctance to abandon physical money. Surely techies have gradually adopted the ス マ ホ 決 済 (sumaho kessai, mobile payment) and オ ン ラ ラ ン バ ン キ ン グ (onrain bankingu, online banking) that allow you to make payments, track your finances and earn points. However, the rest of the Japanese still feel uncomfortable with the idea of ​​ending the genkin. In addition, the sumaho kessai is not an option in certain places, such as 祭 り (matsuri, festivals), small 飲 み 屋 (nomiya, places to drink) and the neighborhood bakery.

With one hand on your wallet and the other on your smartphone, there is also the issue of 仮 想 通貨 (kasou tsuuka, cryptocurrencies). Technology is advancing at dizzying steps, including in name: The government announced that kasou tsuuka is not a suitable name for the term in English, so they have suggested replacing it with 暗号 資産 (angou shisan, encrypted goods), which has a meaning closer to the real one. The new wave is here, only it has been slow to spread.

Interestingly, the economy of ancient Japan used to use a kind of virtual currency: rice.

money in japanese
Maneki-neko, symbol of fortune

History of money in Japan

In the Edo period (1603-1868), rice was the currency. The ruling samurai class received payment in rice grown by farmers, who paid it as 年 貢 (nengu, annual tribute).

We then skipped a few years to move to the late 1940s, when the Japanese were grappling with the effects of postwar inflation and the 新 円 切 替 (shin’en kirikae, change to the new currency system) that occurred the year of the capitulation. Back then, the お 金 (okane, money) or lack of it was a daily topic. Some popular phrases of the era have survived the passage of time to this day, such as 金 欠 病 (kinketsubyou, literally “disease of lack of money”, or “poverty);懐 が 寂 し い (futokoro ga sabishii), where futokoro it refers to the flap of the kimono in which people kept their bags (the phrase means “the flap is alone”); or 無 い 袖 は 振 れ な い (nai sode wa furenai, you can’t wave a kimono sleeve if it doesn’t exist). The latter is no longer used to this day, it has its origins in the Edo period, when in difficult times people sold the sleeves of kimonos to exchange them for money.

Expressions related to money

The Japanese relationship with money is seasoned with humor, although expressions have changed. Debt used to be called 借 金 (shakkiin) even when I was studying Japanese, but now it’s more common for people to call him ロ ー ン (roon, from English “loan”).ク レ ジ ッ ト (kurejitto) is a credit card, but try to use it sparingly or you will find yourself in the カ ー ド 地獄 (kaado jigoku, credit card hell). On the other hand, the Japanese are good when it comes to saving. According to the government, the 預 金 残 高 (yokin zandaka, total savings) of the average Japanese household in 2017 was ¥ 18 million.

Not all the money is in the bank. There are many people who still prefer タ ン ス 預 金 (tansu yokin, put money in the drawer) or the most popular 五百 円 玉 貯 金 (gohyaku-en lady chokin, save with ¥ 500 coins). It’s incredible, but there are people who can pay for a vacation by saving little by little. There is a proverb that is very true: 塵 も 積 も れ ば 山 と な る (chiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru, when the dust accumulates, it can turn into a mountain).

The Japanese have a preference for 財 布 (saifu, wallets). A couple of years ago many preferred the 長 財 布 (nagazaifu, long, rectangular wallet), in which they could put all their cash, cards and ポ イ ン ト カ ー ド (pointo kaado, dot cards), but the trend now is to use ミ ニ 財 布 (minizaifu). Apparently, the smaller your wallet, the less you’ll spend and the more you’ll save.