Play money: Forgotten fate of foreign currency

June 4th, 2012 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Stuff old people bring back from abroad

The magazine Travel Journal recently reported the results of a survey carried out by the Ministry of Internal Affairs among 7,829 travelers after the recent Golden Week holiday. The ministry asked people who had changed yen into foreign currencies how much of that money was left over in cash after they returned to Japan. The average amount of foreign cash remaining among those who responded was the equivalent of ¥38,871. Somehow, the ministry extrapolated this figure to reach the conclusion that, nationwide, there is about ¥1.3 trillion worth of foreign currencies sitting around in people’s dresser drawers or stuck in the back of wardrobes, which is a lot of money.

The survey also found out that the average Japanese traveler going overseas exchanges ¥71,940 on each trip, and spends about 70 percent of that money. The average amount of cash that is stolen from a Japanese robbery victim overseas is ¥65,730 per incident. In 12 percent of the cases, more than ¥100,000 in equivalent cash is stolen from Japanese victims. In 1 percent of these cases the amount is over ¥1 million.

For better or worse, Japanese tourists are famous in foreign countries for carrying a lot of cash, presumably because in Japan merchants still prefer transactions in cash and Japan is a relatively safe country for doing so. It’s one reason why Japanese tourists spend so much in airports. They feel the need to get rid of their foreign cash, even if it’s spent on things they don’t need. Japan Travel also comments that older Japanese people, who tend to travel in tour groups, rarely think about the exchange rate, and especially now with the yen so high may end up exchanging more yen than they really need.

Since this forgotten foreign currency in homes is likely worth less that it was when the exchange was originally made, people may not be so enthusiastic about trading it in for yen, at least not right away. Still, the government must surely be wondering how it can get its hands on it. Travel Journal says the Ministry of Internal Affairs is thinking of launching a “donation” campaign for the money. We can imagine the catch copy: “You can’t spend it here, so why not give it to us?”

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One Response

  1. Very interesting topic!

    As a cash-is-king society, Japan is remarkably safe. I’ve had the experience of travelling across town on foot with several thousand dollar (equivalents) in my handbag to pay school fees. I didn’t feel very nervous about doing so, because I knew that my chances of being mugged were approximately zero to nil.

    I’ve lost my wallet on two occasions in Japan, and both times it was returned to me safe and sound, with contents intact (probably because there was barely any money inside anyway, mind you).

    Bag snatchings are reportedly a big problem in the Kansai region, where I live, and I know several people – all middle-aged housewives – who were victims. One of them even suffered an injury when she was (inadvertantly) dragged off her bicycle. However, they were all people living in swanky neighbourhoods. Nobody ever targets the humble public housing estate where I live! Why would they? We’ve nothing to lose anyway. I feel very safe here.

    I rarely use my credit card. I’m convinced that one of the reasons that Japanese people are such prolific savers is simply because they deal so much in cash, which forces them to keep a sharp eye on all financial transactions, and to feel the “ouch” when they actually spend money.

    I’ve learned a lot from observing the way that Japanese people deal with money on a day-to-day basis, especially housewives. This is one aspect of the Japanese lifestyle that I’ll be very sorry to see change.


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