Monday, 22 December 2008

Banking with style.

Christmas is here and in New Zealand it’s meant to mean something special, an occasion with serious undertones. It’s nowhere near as commercial as it is in North America, but commercial it is, though glossed over with the Christian story. I miss the Japanese attitude, for in Japan it is wholly and simply a commercial celebration for children, no pretence or hypocrisy.

A winter Christmas, especially without snow, is cold and dingy, summer Christmases are much more fun. The Japanese brighten their Christmas season with really excellent Christmas lights. Takamatsu had very pretty festoons of lights in the streets and the trees in the central park were all most tastefully lit. Hamamatsu went for a whopping metal ‘tree’ in the city central plaza which was really an electronic toy, a light show, changing lights and providing Christmas music on the hour. Shops and streets turned their parks and buildings into a blaze of Christmas lights with scenes of Santas and elves and toys and snowmen. Local brass bands played jolly Christmas songs, school orchestras and bands played in the public arena, but a commercial festival it is, for Japanese families spend a great deal of money on children’s gifts, and getting money from a bank takes twice as long.

Japan is a money economy. Remember that stuff which padded out the wallet and rustled thickly between the fingers? Well New Zealand abandoned real money when the Lange government, led by that idiot, Roger Douglas, destroyed our economy and our society. It’s been a plastic economy ever since, a wallet full of cards with wretched numbers, codes, and passwords you have to remember. Not Japan. Most people use money; they actually pay with cash. And plastic or not, the queues in New Zealand banks are extensive. Stuck for 18 minutes in the local ANZ bank I thought nostalgically of my Japanese bank and how waiting 18 minutes there was no punishment. It’s all so simple, most people don’t even have a cheque account, you just needed a pass book and a bank card to extract money from the bank ATM, and there were no heavy bank fees as we pay in New Zealand.

I quite liked going to the main bank, as opposed to the little local branch. It was made of marble, it had superb works of art on the walls. It was a vast building manned (alas the women were only allowed to be tellers) by ranks of men rattling away on their keyboards. There were so many people that no one would dare try to rob it. The system worked like this: first you spoke to the tellers over a polite little counter, and each counter had upholstered chairs in front of it, for you to sit on. The system worked in an orderly fashion. You took a ticket, waited, came when called, left your bank slip for withdrawal or deposit, and went away again to read a magazine, sip coffee, or watch educational videos like the world news or nature programmes whilst sitting on the luxurious leather sofas. Some time later you were called to receive your money, handed to you on a little tray. You picked up the polite and decorative bank envelope beside the money, popped the notes in that, bowed, took the complimentary packet of tissues offered and departed, bowed out by the door man. It took a good twenty minutes.

It was a wonderful bank though for impressing you with the seriousness of the business of banking. All work was done in a reverent hush. No one shouted and the customers leaned over the counter towards the teller to whisper to her. There was a commissionaire at the main door in a braided uniform finished off with that peaked cap and those super-white gloves. The doors were electronic, but he saluted you and greeted you, watching foreigners carefully in case they were going to rob the bank. I always smiled at him and said hello nicely so, eventually, he smiled. Then there was the dear little lady in bank uniform who stood by the desks and helped the lost and puzzled. She helped you fill in forms and press the right buttons on the machines. As I can’t read Japanese I always needed her help. My entrance was the sign for her to patter delicately across in that gentle shuffle walk which is a sign of the well trained Japanese woman. We had quite a time working out what I had to do. I tried to remember from last time which button to push or square to fill and she hovered until I was ready and then intercepted any wrong moves. The bank assistants became so used to me that they trotted over with a handful of forms whenever I appeared. This was very wicked and wasteful, but as a poor foreigner who could not write Japanese, it was obvious I would fill in the wrong squares. Actually it was because my handwriting was not neat enough, small enough or tidying enough for the bank. I had to write the form out until the assistant was happy. She was so apologetic, but the form had to be just so. I had to write a 7 with a verandah on it, and a 5 with an extra roof. If my numbers weren’t dead centre in each square I had to do them again. Ah me! No wonder calligraphy is taught in Japanese schools. But it was so polite and gently done. As my New Zealand teller slapped the notes in front of me, talking to the teller standing behind her, and dropped my bank card on the counter in front of me, I did wish one of those polite Japanese tellers could come and teach her how to serve customers with real banking style.

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