Since I came to Japan, I’ve had people back home ask me “How are you finding it?” and I reply “Amazing! I’m earning the most money I have in my life.” This is meant to be a slight bit of tongue-in-cheek bathos but there is some truth to it– part of the reason I like Japan is I have disposable income. After all, money makes the world go round.
So what do you do when the world stops turning?
Due to reasons I won’t go into– they’d be tedious and honestly I’m not security savvy enough to be entirely certain that someone couldn’t use them to break into my account– I found myself without money for a few weeks.
Well, no, that’s an exaggeration– I couldn’t take any money out of my account. I had the cash that was already in my wallet (not nearly as much as I’d like) and what I could borrow from my friends (much, much more than I’d like– I play by Polonius rules when it comes to loans). This was enough to go to work and live until I got my mojo back, as it were, but it did make me feel very vulnerable.
There were certain obstacles to me reclaiming my economic pride:for one thing, banks and government offices are only open during school hours. This, I humbly submit, is bullshit. We hear about Japanese workers being bent, Cratchett-like, over their desks long into the night and the resulting effect on the national psyche and family dynamics and yet we can’t get the services we require at any time other than when we ourselves are working? Whatever. A judicious application of nenkyuu resolved this– and who wouldn’t want to spend their precious free time sitting in the lime green paradise of sunny SMBC?
Another hurdle to overcome was the maddening, herculean swarm of bureaucracy constantly attempting to separate me from my money like Dorothy from her misbegotten shoes. Whenever I thought I’d filled in the last form or submitted the final report or cleared the last hoop, a new one sprung up like a challenger in Smash Bros. At one point, it turned out that my hanko had been upside down, at another it seemed that my hanko had failed to be upside down, because apparently that’s what was necessary for that form. I kid you not. It was exhausting and exasperating and degrading and more than once I thought that they were just adding in extra jigs to dance because I was a foreigner. Certainly, I heard “gaijin” being murmured more than once.But, of course, the bigger problem was that I simply don’t speak Japanese. I couldn’t describe my problem. I couldn’t communicate what I already knew and how they could remedy my situation. More than once after I had tried to explain that my card wasn’t working a teller pointed me to the ATM (which were often in the very same room), thinking my problem was that I had some kind of machinological myopia and I was, in fact, unable to see any machine more complex than a pencil sharpener.
I would finally manage, mainly through pantomime, to communicate that I had already tried this and they would furrow their brow and take my card and do various bankimonious things and then return, hand back my card, and splurge some Japanese at me. This, you will be shocked to learn, was not really progress.
I should say that of course I don’t blame them here– I am the one who moved to a country of which I emphatically do not speak the language. I should not and do not expect its denizens to kowtow to my ignorance. But I still felt very alone, holding my impotent card and being kindly ushered out of the bank, because, as far as they were concerned, they’d done all they could.
As you might have guessed from the past tense, I’ve now resolved this issue and am gladly spendthrifting all over the shop, but it’s left a sour taste in my mouth. The language barrier was always going to be a problem, but the casually obstructive opening hours and deliberately obstructive paper-pushing made me question how established my life in Japan is. I had thought myself king of an admittedly small castle, but now I realised that that castle was made of cards and the table its built on has a wobbly leg and that I can’t ask anyone to prop it up because I don’t speak the same language as them.
For a few days, I got very, very angry at the whole situation and it made me just want to up and leave (don’t know how I planned to do this with no money– pedalo, maybe?), because I felt like The Man was against me. Now, The Man is back on my side, he’s signing my payslips even, and everything’s dandy, but I’ve learnt to not take things for granted. Especially not money. Let it know how much it means to you. Stroke it. Sing to it. Let it sleep in your bed every once in a while, while you take the floor. After all, you never know when it might up and leave you.

Rory Kelly