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Because of “Galapagos syndrome,” most of Japan’s cash machines are useless to foreigners

Reuters/Issei Kato
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By Steve Mollman
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

For decades, visitors have expressed frustration over Japan’s cash machines being foreigner-unfriendly, or just plain weird by the standards of the rest of the world. For example, many ATMs close at certain hours of the night, surprising many a gaijin accustomed to 24-hour access to cash.

That’s assuming they can even use the machines to begin with. According to Nikkei Asian Review, only 48,000 of Japan’s approximately 190,000 ATMs accept credit and bank cards issued overseas. As with its mobile phones, Japan’s cash points evolved in relative isolation from the rest of the world because of a focus on the local market—another example of “Galapagos syndrome,” a reference to the famously isolated islands off the coast of Ecuador.

The government is trying to change that as it encourages more international tourism as a way to boost the economy. Last year, Japan’s “travel balance” moved into the black for the first time since 1959 thanks to robust spending by foreign visitors. In April, 1.76 million foreigners visited Japan, setting a monthly high for the third consecutive month, according to The Japan News.

Thanks to government pressure on banks, the number of ATMs compatible with foreign cards should jump to 80,000 by 2020, when Japan hosts the Summer Olympics. Japan’s three biggest banks—Mizuho, Sumitomo Mitsui, and Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ—will set up more such ATMs in the coming years—each on its own schedule but in line with the buildup to the Olympics. Currently, Seven Bank (a sister company of 7-Eleven) and Japan Post Bank provide most of the nation’s foreigner-friendly ATMs.

Given Japan’s relatively small number of foreign visitors, banks have argued, the cost of making ATMs internationally compatible has been hard to justify. They’ve had a certain point: While Japan aims for 20 million visitors annually by 2020, Spain received three times as many in 2013.

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