Money matters: Everything you wanted to know Japanese yen

Money matters: Everything you wanted to know Japanese yen

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

If you are new to mainland Japan or Okinawa, local currency, and the conversion between dollars and yen, may leave you annoyed at the cash register.

“It’s 3,240 yen, sir.”

When the cashier tells you the price, you may have no idea whether it is expensive or cheap.

Well, the simple conversion is not hard if you remember the formula, $1 = 100 yen.

The current exchange rate is about $1 = 110.00 yen, which indicates a dollar is more expensive than 100 yen by about 10 percent. Considering the 8 percent consumption tax and handling charges in exchanging currency, however, one dollar is much closer to 100 yen than the rate. So, as long as you are in Japan and use yen cash for your personal shopping or service, the formula can give you a clear idea of the value in yen at shops or eateries.

So, according to the formula, that 3,240 yen tab is roughly $32.40.


Now, take out all the local bills you have in your pocket and lay them out on the table to compare. Since there are only three bills - 10,000 yen, 5,000 yen and 1,000 yen - commonly in use, it’s easy to remember them. There is also the less-common 2,000-yen note and you can read more about that to the right.

While all the three bills have same height (76 millimeter), the width is different – a 10,000-yen bill is the widest at 160 mm, and at 150-mm, the 1,000-yen bill is the shortest. The colors are different, as well. 10,000 yen is dark brown, while that of 5,000 yen is dark violet and 1,000 yen is dark blue.

Interestingly, although $100 and 10,000-yen bills are almost same in value, $100 bills are not used nearly as much in daily shopping in the States as the 10,000-yen bill is in Japan. People often use 10,000-yen bills at the bar, flower shops and even taxis.

Among the three bills, 1,000 is the most useful for daily use. Most vending machines accept it along with coins. Many eateries offer a lunch set for 1,000 yen or less, and most taxi rides within town can be managed with a 1,000-yen bill. So, I encourage you to possess as much yen cash in the form of 1,000-yen bills as possible for your convenience.

Different bills are used for different occasions in Japan. When you are invited to a wedding reception, you are supposed to wrap new and unfolded bills in red and white envelope to congratulate the new couple. On the contrary, when you attend a funeral or any memorial service, you can enclose rather old and not clean bills in a black and white envelope to the deceased family, so that they can use the bills without hesitation.


Now, let’s check out the local coins. There are six - 500 yen, 100 yen, 50 yen, 10 yen, 5 yen and 1 yen.

Among the six coins, the 100 yen coin is the most useful for various vending machines, coin laundries and parking lots. You may notice that there are many 100-yen shops near your base. But, be aware, when you buy a 100-yen item in the shop, you have to pay 10t8 yen at the cashier thanks to the 8 percent consumption tax.

When you visit Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples, be sure to bring coins for casting in front of the main halls. Japanese believe the sound of casted coins in the wooden box can remind gods of us and our wishes. A 5-yen coin is often cast, as it is pronounced “go-en” in Japanese, which is associated with good relations (goen) with gods or Buddha.

With its high value, the 500-yen coin is often considered a saving coin. Some people, including my wife, will always put the coin in a piggy bank whenever they find one in their supermarket change.

Save 200 of the coins, and you’ve got yourself a nice overnight package to a hot spring resort. So, make sure you check those couch cushions every once in a while – it’s probably worth your time.

Hunt for the 2,000-Yen Bill

Besides the commonly used three bills, there is another bill – 2,000 yen.

Since being introduced in 2000, the year of Okinawa SUMIT, the 2,000-yen bill is rarely seen in daily transactions.
In fact, I haven’t seen one in a normal transaction since the early 2000s.

Of the four bills, the 2,000 makes up only 0.7 percent of all in use, according to 2016 data from Bank of Japan.

Some didn’t see the need for the relatively new 2,000-yen bills because of the common use of 10,000 and 5,000 notes in Japan. Plus, because of its scarcity, they are likely to be kept, instead of used, thus not helping to circulate it among the market.

The bill is hard to find on Okinawa, as well, but its condition seems different from that of the mainland.

While the issuance number of 2,000-yen bills for the entire nation was shrinking from 139 million (in 2000) to 99 million (2016), that of Okinawa nearly tripled from 2.081 million to 5.674 million, according to Bank of Japan.

Some say Okinawan’s affinity for the bill and promotions by prefectural government work as driving force to spread it. The bill was introduced in the year of Okinawa SUMIT and the symbol of Okinawa, Shurei-mon Gate (Shuri Castle), is on the bill itself.

Others say Okinawans were accustomed to $20 bill during the U.S. occupation period, and that helped them adjust to the 2,000-yen note.

Although the bill is hard to find in shops and eateries, it is still one of the four official bills currently circulated in the nation, so you can acquire it at bank or post office anytime. Just ask a bank staffer to include some the next time you exchange your dollars into yen. Cash dispensers at some banks have the option to designate a 2,000-yen bill when you withdraw yen cash at the machine, as well.

The next time you’re grabbing cash from the bank, ask for a 2,000-yen bill for a cheap way to impress your friends.

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