TOKYO – For many foreigners in Japan, retail banking can be a real pain, an experience that many would choose to forego entirely — if they could, but they can’t.
Merely opening an account can be a drag, online banking is often cumbersome, and the whole banking experience can be like climbing a Mount Fuji-esque elevation of paperwork.
And that’s not even to mention language: Very few banks in Japan offer multilingual services: meaning you need a friendly local to hold your hand when banking.
But that is changing. Neobanks — or internet- and smart device-based banking providers — have entered the industry, revolutionizing the user experience (UX). Using a smartphone-based app with a simple UX, customers can now open an account in minutes, transfer money easily and manage finances seamlessly.
Bank in Japanese
GIG-A Co., Ltd. is a non-bank financial technology (fintech) company that has created an app to make banking as pain free as possible for foreigners in Japan.
One of the first pain points that the company tackled was language. Many foreigners can attest to walking into a bank, then suddenly being gripped by a sense of doom. Having made their introductions, they then scramble around for the right Japanese word for banking, current account — and various combinations thereof.
That’s why GIG-A has created a multilingual app which is currently available in English, Japanese, Vietnamese and Indonesian — with more languages in the pipeline.
Even better, the app allows you to open an account remotely, at your own pace, without the need to make that terror-inducing, in-person visit to a bank branch. That means that all the personal details and documents (a residence card in case of foreign nationals) can be submitted via the app.
But there’s more. Another issue that foreigners face when banking here is trying to unwind the web of obscure bank charges, most of which are shrouded in Japanese.
Such charges include interbank transfers and withdrawals, and what’s more, the pricing thereof can vary from bank to bank, depending on the service or product.
Here, too, GIG-A is bringing simplicity and openness. That’s why they offer a transparent, monthly fee — for multiple transactions. Users not only can track transactions remotely in a language they understand natively, but also avoid surprising costs while saving money.
Tapping its deep knowledge of the feedback of foreigners in Japan, GIG-A constantly tweaks its app, ensuring an updated UX banking experience for their customers.
For example, the company’s upcoming offers include a payment card and integrating international remittance services—the latter being a must-have for most foreigners.
Efforts to help eliminate current visa-related restrictions are also ongoing, allowing GIG-A to provide services to those who have been in Japan for less than 6 months (and don’t have a valid work visa of at least a year).
Providing services to students and U.S. citizens are also in the company’s plans; such services are currently not available due to the constraints of GIG-A’s partner bank.
Trying to navigate the retail banking experience in Japan has been a challenge for foreigners for some time. GIG-A, for one, understands that intimately.
But to learn more, earlier this year the company partnered with Japan Today and conducted a survey of foreigners using the banking industry here.
The study, “GIG-A Banking Satisfactory Report,” included topics such as which banks are favored by foreigners and service and product satisfaction levels in the industry.
User sentiment on price, customer support and bank processes were also surveyed, and the challenges underpinning them were outlined.
What the Survey Said
Japan Post is the main bank used by foreigners (30 percent) here, followed by the three mega banks: MUFG, SMBC and Mizuho, respectively.
Regional banks are next, with small banks and neobanks (or online banks, including SBI Shinsei, Resona and Seven Bank) trailing, another eyebrow-raising insight.
Compared to countries with high satisfaction rates, including Indonesia, India and the U.S., the level of customer satisfaction with banking was low among foreigners here, a not-too-surprising finding.
And, participants agreed that their greatest dissatisfaction with banking in Japan was the lack of diverse language availability, something we touched on earlier, and arguably the leading gripe among foreigners.
Indeed, language (25 percent) led the way in a rogue’s gallery of challenges that included mobile banking, product variety and digital payments (or lacks thereof).
The survey showed the level of satisfaction with prices in banking was not high, with most respondents of the opinion that fees, another touchy subject, were expensive.
While they said that customer support professionals here were kind in general, participants noted that they were not responsive enough to the concerns of users.
The main takeaway here was that, while being nice is a great trait to have, it doesn’t entirely make up for an otherwise frustrating banking experience.
Hence, for the very dissatisfied and the merely unsatisfied, a significant minority pointed to concerns over responsiveness (11 percent), compared to kindness (7 percent), as a priority issue.
When asked about processes, an even larger number said they were very unsatisfied or unsatisfied.
Opening an account (33 percent) and transferring money domestically (39 percent) in Japan, in particular, stood out as challenges, as we also noted earlier.
Factors to Improve Upon
The GIG-A survey identified a number of factors that, when improved upon, can go a long way to increase overall customer satisfaction.
The top three were: ease to open a bank account; competitive and transparent pricing; greater variety of products and services. GIG-A aims to take care of each of these issues.
Other factors that can increase overall customer satisfaction include digital payments, money transfer services and convenient availability of ATMs —indeed, the latter often leaves foreigners baffled.
It has been the experience of many here, for instance, to walk up to a bank’s ATM only to find that, rather remarkably, it is closed — for several days —due to ongoing maintenance.
Lastly, mobile banking and access to bank cards were also part of the mix of issues investigated by the report, and are areas that the GIG-A is solving.
While GIG-A is not a bank, the account you will open with GIG-A is an actual Japanese bank account. It is a licensed FinTech giving access to banking in Japan in collaboration with UI Bank, a digital bank.
All accounts opened at GIG-A are held at UI Bank, part of Tokyo Kiraboshi Financial Group, and are protected by all relevant regulations.
From September this year, the GIG-A will introduce a monthly membership fee of 990 (including tax). In the same period, they will add a payment card feature to the app.
Until then, the app is free to download and try.
Image by: Japan Today