Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

Why do people in Japan save more compared to people in other countries? Emma Ford discusses how a saving ethic became built into the culture. (Picture: hanack / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

A Tansu Full of Dollars: Why Japan Has Such a Hardcore Savings Culture

Essay   Posted on September 25, 2018 in essay, culture, money • By Emma Ford • Read Related Articles

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Otoshidama (お年玉) is a traditional envelope containing cash. Kids in Japan receive them from their relatives and family friends in the New Year - almost an equivalent to Christmas presents in the West. Bandai’s survey on Otoshidama revealed that the average amount received by a child this year was ¥24,424 (around USD $240).

Guess what the most popular "spending" option of children polled was? Computer games? A trip to Disney Land? The world's largest Happy Meal?

Nope...most children opted to save.

(JP) Link: Bandai’s survey on Otoshidama spending

2018年のお年玉事情は? もらった額は小中学生平均で約2万4000円、使い道は「貯金」が37.7%でトップに

A savings ethic is built into Japanese culture. As a result, families in Japan have, on average, greater savings than people in other countries. Parents, grandparents, the TV, and peers all encourage and incentivize saving. Japanese people positively enjoy the process of saving, and dislike spending even more than they like to save!

There are so many national traits and cultural background to this but these are some of the main factors:

The War

As in other places in the world, the extreme poverty and famine during and after WWII meant people became very conscientious about making sure they have enough money and food for survival.

Cash, Not Credit

This relates to the war too, I suppose, but the Japanese are ingrained with the moral (which, in the West, is sometimes thought of as slightly old fashioned) of "don’t spend what you don’t have". As a result, credit card or even debit card spending was slow to take off in Japan, and even now cash is king.

I went skiing in Shiga Kogen earlier this year and with a western mindset we assumed that obviously a hotel in a ski resort and the lift ticket office would take payments by card. But alas, no. Not only did they not take card payment, there was no ATM in the town, and the only way we could start skiing or pay for anything in the hotel was to drive down the mountain to the nearest 7-11 and get cash out.

Coupon Culture

There is no negative public perception at all about using coupons or vouchers to get things for free in shops or restaurants. In fact, there seems to be a "well done, you!"-type attitude to people who manage to shop without using any actual money. I know that in the UK, although I love a bargain myself too, there is a bit of a cultural perception about going to the thrift store or using coupons to get things for free. Call it snobbery, but there is an underlying judgement here.

In 1999, the Japanese government distributed shopping coupons worth 20,000 yen (about 200 dollars) (PDF link) to families with children under the age of 15 and to more than half the elderly population. The coupon had to be spent in the local community within six months. The idea was that the use-it-or-lose-it nature of the coupons would stimulate more spending than a conventional tax cut. It turned out there was little impact at all - people just saved even more cash! There are also many "eat all you want" type offers and even "drink all you want" (unthinkable in the U.K!) in Japan, and so although people eat out a lot, they can do so at a very low cost. (Previously on JM, we highlighted the trend in "subscription programs" for food and booze, which allow people to economize while also indulging.)

An All-You-Can-Eat Sign
Photo from holiday in Japan earlier this year. "Free refills on rice, miso soup, cabbage and raw eggs! You’ll never go home hungry!"

The Family Ledger

Kakeibo (家計簿, literally meaning home finance ledger), was a concept first introduced in Japan by Japan’s first female journalist Motoko Hani in 1904, and is a notebook where all the ins and outs of the money is tracked along with inspirational messages to encourage people to reach their goals. In fact, the Kakeibo is now sweeping through Europe as a new saving method that could help you save 30% or more in your family budget.

As with many other countries, until very recently, men worked and women were at home. A women’s role, other than all the house and child care, included financial control. The characteristic of the Kakeibo is that it splits spending into categories of survival, optional, culture and extra. At the end of the month, one can compare actual money with spent money, and reflect on what can be done to save.

Japanese housewives combined the concept of Kakeibo with the amazingly beautiful and addictive array of Japanese stationery, turning it into a kind of crafting. The Japanese blogging site Ameba is full of Kakeibo examples and tips. Like the bento or the Kondo method of tidying up, it’s another example of a necessary household task that’s been turned into a national art and pastime.


...for the money itself. Brand new and clean bills are considered great gifts. You can buy wallets in Japan that sterilize bills. Money is thought of something to be respected and valued - quite rightly. There is very little counterfeiting and a great enthusiasm for accumulating hard currency. This, combined with a mistrust of banks, encourages people to save their cash in their tansu (箪笥; cupboard) instead of banks. A lot of Japanese saving is in the form of cash in their own house – either as tansu chokin (cash in cupboard) or hesokuri (cash put aside secretly from the monthly budget traditionally by women for a ‘rainy day’). Many Japanese people prefer this form of cash to putting it into the bank and earning interest. Very low interest rates, though necessary, don’t discourage this.

National Health

Japan’s health system is a part payment scheme where, for approved treatment and drugs, the system pays for two-thirds and the patients pay for a third. There is of course insurance to cover medical costs, but as with saving in banks, a lot of people mistrust these types of medical cover, and it’s common for people in Japan to have cash put aside specifically for emergency medical care.

Perhaps saving is just too deeply imbedded in Japanese culture for it to come down whatever economic stimuli are applied. There is, however, a lot of card payment technology being installed and internationalized with the imminent Rugby World Cup 2019 and Tokyo Olympics in 2020, so perhaps some change is afoot.

Emma holds an MA in Advanced Japanese Studies from Sheffield University. The child of a Japanese mother, Emma grew up in Japan as well as England, and is fully fluent in both Japanese and English. Emma contributes essays based on her experiences growing up as a child of two cultures.


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