Japan is a country where racial discrimination is so commonplace that it makes news headlines when people are not racially discriminated against, such as when a Japanese company hires foreigners or a local government body allows foreigners to take the tests for working there. For us white westerners, it works both ways though. But one place where it really hits you (besides trying to find a landlord that will let you live in his apartment) is when it comes to getting a credit card.
I’ve been living in Japan for more than 4½ years now and tried many times to get one, always to be turned down. This especially includes applying for ones from my bank, Shinsei Bank, that I’ve used exclusively for all my time in Japan, and where I now have “platinum” status, meaning that I have many million yen entrusted at their bank, a significant part of which is in risky assests where they make a lot of profit. So they clearly rank me as one of their best customers, and I’m clearly bound to keep significant assets in their bank for the immediate future (so I cannot just “escape”), but still turn me down every time I apply for a credit card. Why is that?
When I visited one of Shinsei’s branch offices recently for a completely different, but somewhat time-consuming and complicated issue, I got to talk quite a lot with one of the staff there. As I have “platinum” status, they treat me quite well too, not hurriedly at all. This was one of the branches where a lot of foreigners visit, and she seemed quite used to working with foreigners, although we spoke only in Japanese. So at the end she asked if there was something else I’d like to inquire about, and I asked something along the lines of why do you turn my credit card applications down all the time, despite me being a “platinum” level customer and having millions of yen in your bank?. And surprisingly, she did have a good answer for that, not just the usual appologies.
The reason, it seems, why Shinsei Bank (which is, by the way, founded by a foreigner based on foreign capital) systematically turns down foreigners’ credit card applications is that the company that is contracted to handle credit cards for the bank doesn’t have any support line in English. Since we’d just been having a conversation about quite complicated banking matters in Japanese for half an hour, that reason obviously seemed very silly at that point. Still, that’s why. And since Japan doesn’t have any laws against racial discrimination, systematically turning down anyone with a foreign-sounding name (they don’t actually check your nationality) is just fine here.
Anyhow, at long last I went to Citibank to beg for a credit card there, since I’ve heard they’re more open to foreigners’ business. Considering the bank would have gone bankrupt if it hadn’t been bailed out by the US government, it’s not exactly my primary choice for doing banking, but anyway. And they gave me a credit card within less than a week, with a 1 million yen limit, which I think is very high. And unlike Shinsei Bank where I have the highest available “platinum” status, that was the first time I walked in to a Citibank office. I have no prior history with them at all. And they still gave me a pretty sweet credit card.
So what is the conclusion from all this? Go to Citibank. It seems Shinsei Bank and Citibank are the two somewhat modern banks in Japan, with Shinsei being about 10 years behind the average Swedish bank instead of the Japanese average of 50 years behind. Citibanks seems just as (comparatively) moderen. Shinsei seemed very foreigner-friendly when I opened an account there, but in the end they certainly do practice discrimination against foreigners, so I must say that I regret my decision – I should have gone with Citibank instead. That is the best advice I can give to anyone non-Japanese who’s getting a bank account and/or credit card in Japan.