The Japanese Way: ATMs with 9-5 jobs

A captive Japanese ATM taunts would-be customers with its service hours. (Photo by Courtney Coppernoll)

The Japanese Way is a monthly column written by Kure JET Courtney Coppernoll in which she attempts to shed light on how and why certain aspects of Japanese culture differ from our own.

By Courtney Coppernoll

In a groundbreaking effort to promote equal rights amongst all its working class employees, Japan has decided to extend vacation benefits to its ATMs. Yes, folks, you heard right. The ATMs of Japan will not be forced to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week like so many of their foreign brethren, no sir! They’ll have public holidays and normal 9 to 5 working hours just like the rest of us! Well done, Japan, well done.

All right, all teasing aside, it’s true that not all Japanese ATMs have service hours. Particularly in bigger cities and at convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, 24-hour ATMs are being used. While these “always open” machines are becoming more common, however, they’re still far from the norm and will most likely charge customers a fee for “after hours” use. Plus, those of us with post office bank accounts are unable to use our cards at these ATMs, which leaves us at the mercy of standard banking hours.

For foreigners used to having “anytime” access to their funds in their home countries, this limitation can be a little frustrating. After all, if you find yourself in an emergency situation where you need a little extra cash – like when you go shopping and aren’t planning to buy anything, but you see this really cute purse and you just have to have it because omg it will match the new shoes, new top, and new skirt you just bought so perfectly – you might just be out of luck.

So, why is it that many of Japan’s ATMs have service hours? What possible benefit is there to closing them down during hours when people might have a need for them? Well, I harassed a number of Japanese postal/bank employees to find out, and here’s what they said:

  • The Profit Margin – Essentially, the number of people using the ATMs after normal business hours (particularly in more rural areas) is not enough to offset the cost of running the ATMs. Banks are businesses, too, after all, so they’re looking to make a profit. If the ATMs aren’t bringing in any money – or, are in fact losing money through the expense of keeping them open for longer hours – the banks would, naturally, shut them down to avoid that extra expense.
  • Security – At 24-hour convenience stores there’s always someone on duty who can keep an eye on the ATM(s). Once a bank is closed for the day, however, and everyone’s gone home, there’s no one to check that the machine(s) are secure. This is also why many banks keep their ATMs inside (making them impossible to get to when the building’s locked after business hours) or shield them with glass or bars after hours. In this case, the banks are actually closing down their ATMs to protect their customers’ money by making sure no one can mess with the machine(s) when no one’s around.This reason is also related to the profit margin. If banks leave their ATMs open all night, they’ll also have to spend more money on security for those machines, whether that means hiring an actual person to guard the machines or investing in expensive electronics like security cameras and alarms.
  • Safety – The banks are not only concerned with the security of the machines, but with the safety of the people using them. Basically, the banks don’t want to encourage people to be out walking around at night (at least more than they may already be) to use an ATM. There’s also a safety risk of rather “unsavory characters” waiting for someone to use the ATM and then making all sorts of mischief for that person.
  • Customer Service – Like the security reason, if an ATM at a convenience store breaks or malfunctions while someone is using it at 2 a.m., there will always be an employee there to help them. At a bank or post office, on the other hand, employees are long gone by 2 a.m. and, therefore, a beloved okyaku-sama (customer) would be left without assistance. With Japan’s impeccable level of customer service, leaving a customer in a problematic situation without aid would be unimaginable.

As the Japanese people I talked to see it, ATMs with service hours aren’t much of an inconvenience. In fact, when I mentioned the above shopping scenario to one post office employee, he simply replied, with a smile, that “it’s good to plan ahead.” So, though I can’t offer any hope that 24-hour ATMs will spread much further than convenience stores (at least in the foreseeable future), hopefully I’ve made the “method behind the madness” a little more clear.

Besides, everyone – maybe even a machine – needs a little vacation every now and then, right?

7 comments

  • ” In fact, when I mentioned the above shopping scenario to one post office employee, he simply replied, with a smile, that “it’s good to plan ahead.” ”

    Lol. Why not abolish the emergency services while we’re at it? The future is always forseeable.

  • I had read that the reason ATMs don’t go late, is to protect the jobs of bank employees. I ATMs were open 24/7 then people wouldn’t need to go into banks as much, and thus random bank employees would be laid off.

    The argument that it’s a “security” risk is rather lame. Japan has such low levels of crime as it is, and ATMs tend to be rather well secured. You don’t see ATMs in other countries being watched by security guards all day long.

    Get with the times Japan! Let people have access to their OWN MONEY when they WANT IT!

  • Courtney Coppernoll

    Hmmm, service hours wouldn’t actually protect jobs, though, unless the hours were the opposite of what they are now (i.e. closed during the day and open at night). After all, the point of service hours is that ATMs are only open when employees are present, right? So, if people were worried about ATMs replacing them, it’d make sense to have the ATMs open after business hours so that customers would have to go into the bank and talk to an actual employee during business hours. The current service hours allow customers to bypass bank employees perfectly easily.

    I definitely hear what you’re saying about security, though. Even in my little town where everyone knows everyone else and no one bothers to lock anything up, my neighbors and teachers are always worried about me walking by myself at night. Maybe that paranoia is what makes Japan so safe in the first place, though?

    Amen, brother!

  • The argument that I heard was that IF ATMs were open 24/7 less people would have to stop into banks to do things, that they would end up using an ATM as opposed to dealing with a person at a bank. Thus you wouldn’t need the many many employees running around local branch offices helping people. Thus people would be laid off.

    If you could go to the ATM and do all your banking at 9 pm, the average person in Japan would probably never need to go into a bank. I know I wouldn’t.

    The service argument is kind of bad. Even in my dinky town there are random ATMs at grocery stories and local shopping areas that have no service personnel around. Yet they still close early.

    Japan, like most places, is very protectionist of it’s jobs. There is no reason that a cash based society would need to shut off it’s ATMs and inconvenience it’s entire population.

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  • This drove me bonkers! I agree with planning ahead and was never inconvenienced in daily life by not having cash. But at the end of a week into our trip and needing just a bit more cash, myself and a friend were almost stranded without food, a place to stay, or a way home during Golden Week because, as first-year JETs we just assumed banks WOULDN’T close their ATMs during the busiest travel period of the year!! After trying for hours at every ATM we could find, a hotel concierge I begged in despair finally took pity on us and gave us a cash advance.

    And what’s up with banks themselves only being open 10-3?! Japanese explained to me bankers are very busy with paperwork and counting money. Really? And no other bank is the world is? (I suppose compared to the rest of the world that could be feasible considering the need for every employee to quintuple stamp everything in Japan…)

  • I find it annoying that I went to the ATM at the biggest grocery store in town, on a Sunday afternoon, only to be told that I couldn’t take money out. Just a regular Sunday at an ATM that takes my card any other day of the week, and for 305¥ a withdrawal.

    Luckily, this is why I always have my emergency 10,000¥ note tucked away. So that I can eat on Sundays.