Credit Cards in Japan

I could probably do a post about how Japan is in some ways not as technologically advanced as many people think. In some ways it is, but if the lack of credit card usage has to do with being technologically advanced or not, then Japan is lacking. If you’re coming to Japan as a tourist, there’s something you should know about credit card usage. While you can expect your hotel and probably your taxi to accept credit cards in Japan, don’t have high hopes for too many other places.

It seems that all is not lost, however. But before I say too much about the hopeful side, I should say that as of last year, only 12% of purchases in Japan are made with a credit card. That is actually a higher percentage than I thought. I have only once seen a non-foreigner use a credit card for payment-not that that should be a measurement to make a huge point, but it’s just my experience.

Now, try using a credit card in Japan. I haven’t tried recently, but even Japan’s largest clothes retailer, Uniqlo, would not take any credit card as payment a few years back. It seems surprising, but I can see a few reasons for this. If the company takes even a 3% hit from the sale because of credit card fees, that is something that Uniqlo, which generally has low prices, doesn’t want to have to deal with. It either involves taking that 3% every time 12/100 people use a credit card there or adjusting prices ever so slightly to accommodate those people. It’s interesting that practically every business does it in America, but when you think about it, it makes sense-if a business has gone for decades without accepting credit cards, to now accept it and take a 3, 5 or maybe 10% hit is something of a bad business proposition.

As is the nature with the Internet, credit cards tend to be accepted on most websites. However, consumers can also usually choose to pay at a convenience store. Japan is not a check-based society, either, so any transaction seems to be with money. I wouldn’t carry more than a hundred bucks with me in the US, but I’ll gladly carry several credit/debit cards with me. In Japan, it’s not unusual for me to have $300 or even $500 with me at one time. It’s not that I think I’ll spend that much in one day, but then again, it’s easy enough to spend $100 in one day in Japan, so you never know.

As someone who lives in Japan now, I never swipe credit cards. Actually, I have never used a credit card in Japan. In America, however, this is completely different. I cannot remember the last time I paid in cash for something in America. Every single purchase I make is with a credit card in the US. This is in large part to all of the points or rewards that I accumulate on nearly all of my cards.

But let’s be honest-if I couldn’t use my credit cards, I wouldn’t. That is perhaps the problem in Japan, as I have outlined before with Uniqlo not taking cards. It seems that acceptance is getting better, though. It is said that 95% of convenience stores in Japan accept credit cards now, in 2013. However, two years ago, it was hardly any convenience store that did. It seems amazing to me that at the beginning of my time of living permanently in Japan that I couldn’t have used a credit card at a convenience store for payment.

It should be said that Japan has some alternate methods of payment. For example, while many places do not take credit cards, they do take cell phone payments. My understanding is that they put money on the account that it is tied to, or the credit card company just puts that charge on their bill. Additionally, the electronic passes that can be used to pay for train fares can also be used at many convenience stores and some restaurants. This feature is less accepted in less urban areas, however.

It’s not all bad. If you’re a foreigner, nowadays, you can almost always count on an ATM at a convenience store. And these ATMs tend to accept credit or debit card transactions. I will say of one credit card that I see so rarely accepted in Japan, and that is Discover. You can expect to be able to use your Visa card at a number of places in Japan. American Express and Mastercard are accepted at some places. I would say good luck with Discover; though, they do say that if a store accepts JCB (Japan’s main credit card company) that Discover should work, too.

All in all, we’re seeing a brighter day for Japan and credit cards. Just know that using a credit card in Japan for everyday life is not the norm just yet.

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