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?