Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Recently, I was writing an article about the difficulties when comparing cities in an effort to evaluate the cost of living in each: even if they are cities of countries of a similar level of development, the unique characteristics of every society introduce in the conversation very different elements that make comparison hard even on the level of the casual visitor. For example, one of Japan’s idiosyncrasies that surprises –occasionally unpleasantly- those coming from the West an especially from the USA, is the very low penetration of credit cards in transactions: contrary to what most people would assume or expect from one of the three most developed countries in the world, the Japanese utilize in their everyday life more cash and less (much, much less) credit cards.
If we see the way the Japanese economy was formulated, especially after the Meiji restoration and the country’s modernization (and even more after the war), it’s easy to explain why: people want to have as much control as possible on their finances; the illusion of comfort credit cards offer, derails this control and there are few things that annoy the Japanese more than the lack of clear lines and programming (regardless of the extend these are being adhered to or not). Furthermore, reality seems to help them have a sense of measure: the period during which credit cards virtually replaced cash in the rest of the world, is exactly the period between the post-war reconstruction and the bubble of the 1980s. Those who lived through this period learnt the value of frugality in the most effective way.
As expected, the situation has begun to change and credit cards have started their charge, first in the sections of the market involved in tourism and very expensive goods; I imagine that with time, they will extend in other sections as well. Although the “Japanese way” (i.e. cash and debit cards which are widely used by many) is still resisting, the change will eventually hit these shores –perhaps not to the extent seen in the USA but considerably. What I find very comforting (I’ among those who see credit cards more as a problem than as a solution) is that, as far as I can observe and understand, the basic attitude of measure hasn’t changed; I don’t know if it comes from Confucius, habit or “social DNA” but the self-restraint exhibited by the Japanese in the face of capitalism’s sirens is quite remarkable.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.
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