When I came to Japan as a student, I was blissfully unaware of how simple everything had been made for me. My school set me up with a bank account, Softbank offered easy access to prepaid phones that weren’t useless and didn’t take forty minutes to recharge, and the most grueling thing I ever had to do was wait in the ward office for half an hour to register my address.
Five years later, I’ve returned as a company employee. Having nowhere to live, I spent my first two weeks in a guesthouse while hunting for apartments. I didn’t mind that — I was on an emotional high from returning to Kansai, a place I had always felt more at home in than Florida or Korea. Having lived here before, I thought I knew what I was in for.
Then I tried to get a bank account. As a foreigner with loan repayments to honor, Citibank looked like the best option for frequent overseas transfers. I went in, excited for the chance to finally practice my long-neglected Japanese skills, listened for half an hour as a polite lady explained the contract and helped me start to fill it out, and was then told that I would need to provide a permanent address that was not a guesthouse.
Okay, I thought. It’s annoying, but it makes sense. I’ll wait til I’ve got an apartment. In the meantime, I’ll get my phone working.
I went to Docomo. I showed them my Korean-bought iPhone, and told the assistant in Japanese that I wanted to put it on their network. He stared at the phone a moment, and then said, simply, “Try Softbank.” (To drive this home: without even asking a single question or offering a reason, he immediately sent me to his company’s biggest competitor.)
I went to Softbank and repeated the request. When the assistant there found out I’d bought the phone in Korea, she launched into a fifteen-minute tirade (or, the closest thing to a tirade that Japanese corporate employees can pull on a customer) about how, if the phone had been from any other country, putting it on their network would have been no problem. But this was a Korean phone. Some inner component would not allow a Japanese SIM card to work. “We can put in the SIM and try it, but it probably won’t work, and you have to sign the contract first, so I think maybe it’s better if you give up…”
I had no reply. It was all I could do to follow her rapid speaking, so instead of asking any thoughtful questions, I used up all my brain power just reconfirming the dribble I thought I had heard. She assured me that I’d understood it well.
Somehow I was able to obtain an apartment within just a couple of days — largely because doing so required neither a phone nor a bank account.
New address in hand, I went back to Citibank. This time it took only ten minutes for them to tell me I needed a working phone number.
I went back to Softbank, where they told me that to buy even a prepaid phone, I needed a bank account number.
I started to wonder if I had unwittingly pissed off the CEOs of every phone and banking company in Japan.
To this day I’m not sure how I finally broke this cycle. James was with me when Softbank finally gave me a prepaid phone, so maybe he won them over with his fluent Japanese. In any case, with an actual phone number, waltzing into Shinsei (because, forget Citibank at this point) to set up a bank account was the easiest thing ever. I had obtained the trifecta: dwelling, bank account, and phone. It seemed like the ordeal of getting myself situated was finally over… until it came time to compensate for my dinky prepay phone by getting a mobile wifi connection.
Long story short: Contracts in Japan are always based on credit cards. Always. Debit cards are virtually non-existent, except for Shinsei’s extremely limited variation on one (which is another story altogether). But credit cards are difficult for foreigners to get, and if your application gets rejected, good luck ever being told why. Or in some cases, being told at all. After several attempts at different companies, I finally had to pull out my U.S. card and hook the account up to that. Though I went back a couple months later to switch it directly to my Japanese account, even with all the necessary info on hand, it was impossible without a physical card to swipe and grant them access.
So, for a few months I had what I needed. And this is where the story gets really confused…
(Part 2 coming soon.)