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Friday, March 17, 2017

Nosy or Conscientious? A Japanese Bank Gets My Hackles Up


I went to the bank today - one of the banks I have an account with - to withdraw a sizeable sum of money. This account was with the Mitsui-Sumitomo Banking Corporation (SMBC), and is an account that was basically forced on me by the company I work for, as SMBC is its bank, and it wants to keep bank transfer fees to a minimum when paying its staff - a common practice of companies in Japan.

Marunouchi branch of Sumitomo-Mitsui Banking Corporation.
Marunouchi Branch, SMBC
I have accounts with about five banks in Japan. They've accrued over the years mostly for the same reason as I got my SMBC one. But if I had to choose my least favorite Japanese bank, SMBC would be it for the simple reason that most of the old security guys who stand around the entrance of the bank pretty much ignore you if you don't look Japanese. While Japanese-looking customers at SMBC get the hearty Irrashaimase ("Welcome!") on entering and the Arigato gozaimashita ("Thank you very much!") on leaving, I (not being a Japanese-looking customer) usually get silence and looking the other way. It's just one of those things you notice, especially when all the other banks deliver the same rote greeting whether you're Japanese-looking or not.

Anyway, I went to the Marunouchi branch of SMBC today to make a withdrawal of just under a million yen as I had to top up an account we have in another bank for our mortgage repayments. I tried withdrawing it at the branch's ATM, but the amount was too high so I had to do it through a teller.

I was given a simple form to fill in: my name and the amount, and a number which would be called when my turn came. I was called up after a couple of minutes and I told the teller what I wanted to do. I handed her the form, my passbook and my bank card. She asked me if I had my inkan (personal seal). I said no, so she told me that my PIN would do instead. She also asked me for some form of ID, so I handed over my recently minted My Number card - which is the new form of universal ID in Japan.

She stared at my documents for at least a minute. And, sure, my documents must seem odd for a lot of people, as I am am a foreign-born, Causasian Japanese citizen with a Japanese (kanji) surname and a katakana first name. Anyway, she got me to enter my PIN and set about getting my money ready.

At the same time I noticed a guy at the next teller also making a withdrawal. If you think one million yen is a lot of money, then the amount he was withdrawing was whopping - great bricks of notes that were stuffed into a huge envelope that he took away with him.

Back to my teller... she updated my passbook and gave it back to me along with my bank card and My Number card. Then, as she handed me the envelope full of my cash, she passed over at the same time a pamphlet that warned against fraud, in particular the "Ore, ore!" telephone fraud that is often perpetrated against very elderly people by young men pretending to be sons, grandsons, or nephews - "Ore, ore!" being a very intimate way of saying "It's me, it's me!".

All the same, this was a first for me, and I didn't really make the connection between the transaction I was engaged in and "Ore, ore!" telephone fraud. I gave it a cursory look and replied "No" when she asked me if anyone had called me recently trying to get money out of me. This had nothing to do with me, and I wanted to get moving because it was my lunchtime and time was tight. But she wouldn't give up with the questions, and she then asked me what I was going to use the money for. Kaimono ka nanika desu ka? ("Is it for shopping or something?"). I said back, voice somewhat raised Nande kiite irun desu ka? ("Why am I being asked this?") to which she replied something about fraud having been on the increase recently.

Fraud? I being the one with the money in my hand - and not having been defrauded at all - it felt like a clear, but profoundly puzzling, expression of suspicion directed at me. The Japanese guy next along who had withdrawn the huge sum of cash hadn't been handed a pamphlet about fraud or been asked what he was intending to use his cash for. All my foreigner hang-ups surfaced. They surfaced like a desperate man gasping for air, or like flatulence in dirty bathwater: disturbed, unhappy and unsavory. I strode out impatiently.

I walked the next few blocks to the other bank to deposit the cash wearing a forced smile to prevent me looking like the disgruntled, offended, hurting "gaijin" that I was feeling like.

On the way back to work, the feeling of victimization kept coming back, so the only thing for it was to let off some steam. I called the free-dial number on my SMBC bankbook and, after two minutes of navigating through the automated responses, I got a human on whom I unloaded my frustrations, relating the story with more irateness than politeness.

SMBC in Marunouchi, Tokyo, Japan.

She said she'd put me through to the branch where the incident happened. The muzak while I waited went on and on and on. "Are they hoping I'll hang up?" - my gaijin paranoia was in full swing. Eventually another woman came to the phone, and it was just as well the muzak had lasted as long as it had, because it had lulled me somewhat into placidity.

I told her my story fairly dispassionately, emphasizing the fact that the guy beside me had escaped all nosy questioning. The bank employee was professional and personable, and explained that asking questions about the intended use of money withdrawn is for the purpose of trying to ensure that customers have not being victims of fraud. If, for example, I had said "Because my nephew apparently suddenly needs a double tonsillectomy at the Hilton Hotel," warning bells would ring. She also explained why the guy beside me wasn't asked any questions, saying that regular customers, especially with business accounts, are well known at the branch.

I was as honest with her as I could be, explaining that as a foreign-looking Japanese I was particularly finely tuned to what I perceived as unfair treatment, which she seemed to appreciate, and said she would be bringing up the matter at the next seminar they have on the topic.

The only thing that still sticks in my craw is the nosiness of the question "What will the money be used for?" It's my hard-earned, and the bank's job is to keep it safe until I want it, and not quiz me on why I want it back. If I'm helpless enough to have been convinced to withdraw it for purposes that are not in my interests, is it really the bank's job to try and rescue me? And even if it is, do I really come across as so helpless that I need checking up on? I'm 54, not 14 or 104.

However, even then I may not be being all that reasonable. Talking to my workmates about it today and my partner about it this evening, they all say they are nearly always asked by the teller about what the funds they're withdrawing will be used for. The charitable interpretation is that they often sound out customers so as to be more aware of customers' needs, and to be able to offer appropriate services where they can. My partner he says he always tells them and is never the worse for it.

Morals of the story? 1. Don't be a paranoid foreigner. Chill! 2. If you really want privacy when it comes to how you use your hard-earned, the ATM and the underside of your mattress are your friends.

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