When starting out in a new country, having a bank account is essential, but choosing a bank can be difficult without being familiar with banking systems or speaking the local language.
For that reason, some Japanese banks are beefing up services aimed at English-speaking residents.
The banks are hopeful that drawing more non-Japanese customers — a demographic they believe is growing amid a shrinking Japanese population — could be a new revenue source down the road.
The state of affairs at banks is already rough with dwindling profits thanks to low interest rates mainly caused by the Bank of Japan’s negative interest rate policy since February 2016.
Like many other banks, Tokyo-based Shinsei Bank has seen its profits fall in the past couple of years, but it has also noticed a demographic change.
“We have been seeing a trend in which more foreign customers are coming to our branches and calling our support centers” in the past few years, said Suguru Tanimoto, deputy senior manager in Shinsei’s retail sales and distribution division.
According to Shinsei, which is smaller than the so-called three mega-banks — the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, Mizuho Bank and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. — 23 percent of customers who came to its branches in the first half of fiscal 2016 were non-Japanese.
With the country expected to have a larger foreign workforce in the future, more improved banking services targeting non-Japanese will be necessary, Tanimoto said, adding that it was a good business opportunity for the bank as well.
It was around last fall when Shinsei began offering a series of new services. In one change, the bank has introduced live video chat translation at its Tokyo central branch as well as branches in Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Ikebukuro districts and in Fukuoka.
Tanimoto said Shinsei has one or two English-speaking staff who can handle simple requests at all of its 32 branches. But they can’t necessarily handle complicated requests. In that case, customers can speak to professional English translators via video chat through tablet computers.
Shinsei has also been trying to improve its English website.
“Our English website was just a rehash of the Japanese version … so we have fully renewed it with words and phrases more friendly to (English speakers),” Tanimoto said.
Shinsei offers online banking in English and posts a number of how-to videos related to its services, such as opening accounts and transferring money overseas.
The bank said page views of its English website doubled in April compared with January when it still had the old version.
Tanimoto said the bank was still trying to figure out what foreign users want, so “we have yet to see a visible increase of non-Japanese customers at this point.”
He added that Shinsei had just finished a survey of such customers and will be thinking more about what kind of services to provide.
Another bank keen on foreign customers is SMBC Trust Bank, which operates the Prestia brand.
The bank took over the retail banking business in Japan from Citigroup in 2015.
“Not many people know that we have taken over Citibank’s business, so we’ve been rather focused on spreading that to the public,” said Ryusuke Matsui, who heads the bank’s branch business promotion department.
Citibank had 740,000 customers in Japan but withdrew from the Japanese market after it struggled to turn a profit in a retail banking business that targeted wealthy customers.
It was sold to SMBC Trust Bank, which is wholly owned by Sumitomo Mitsui Banking, amid a push for wealthy customers and a variety of global financial products that had growth potential.
Citi was also an well-known bank among foreign residents.
Matsui said it would be hard to make the business profitable by just targeting non-Japanese customers but “we think that the number of foreign residents in Japan will grow and we should aim to expand the number of our customers in proportion to that.”
“It’s natural but expats tend to have foreign currency deposits more often than Japanese customers do,” he said.
“Under the current interest rates, increasing customers with foreign currency deposits can improve the profitability of our business.”
SMBC Trust Bank was reluctant to say by how much they hoped to increase their non-Japanese customer base.
The bank has yet to become profitable, saying that efforts to streamline costs were ongoing, but it was confident of attracting foreign customers.
SMBC Trust Bank said Prestia has taken over most of Citibank’s business, which makes Prestia the only bank in Japan that can provide full banking services in English. “This is what makes us different from other banks” Matsui said.
Prestia offers financial consultations and housing loans in English. Matsui said it was difficult to provide such services in English for other banks, as it took a lot of effort to prepare the necessary documents.
He also said that while all Prestia branches had some English-speaking staff, its Hiroo and Akasaka branches in Tokyo were designated “global branches” where more than 80 percent of workers were English-ready.
SMBC Trust Bank said about a half of the customers coming to those two branches were non-Japanese.
While some banks were trying to improve their English services, it’s not clear how non-Japanese residents choose banks and what services they value.
Despite the banks’ efforts, they may not actually focus much on English banking services.
Several English-speaking residents interviewed by The Japan Times in Tokyo gave various reasons for choosing banks, with only some valuing English services.
“For many years, I have had a bank account in the U.S. at Citibank,” said Rick Privman, from New York, who has been living in Japan for about 20 years off and on. “When I came to Japan at first, I went with Citibank Japan. I knew the bank because it was in the U.S. and also it was the only bank that I knew here that had a multimoney account.”
The top priority for him was a multimoney account, with English services next in line, he said.
Others said they didn’t think much about which bank to use, as employers recommended banks based on their ongoing business relationships.
Alex Padmore, from England, who has been in Japan for five years, said he didn’t care whether a bank was English friendly, since his Japanese was good enough for simple transactions.
But he did lament the low deposit interest rates, which were “almost nonexistent,” he said.