My new credit card is here! I’m finally a somebody!

I finally received my very own credit card. This isn’t one of those fake pre-loaded cards that you have to top off every few weeks, oh no no no. It’s a real credit card, like the grown-ups have. It took several years, but I guess the fourth time is time charm when it comes to obtaining credit in Japan. I can’t say for sure what enabled me to receive approval this time around. My financial situation has not changed that much since I first moved to Japan, and the information I put on the application this time around was nearly identical to my initial attempt years ago. The only things that did change were:

  • The number of years I have been living in Japan has gone up, not down;
  • I obtained permanent residency since the last time I tried to get a credit card; and
  • I pay my bills consistently and on time. The electric company says thank you.

I expect that permanent residency was the key, as so many things that make a foreigner acceptable in Japan are tied to that status. But according to the genial Docomo Shop staff member who had me fill out the Docomo credit card application, the years I spent paying my Docomo cell phone bills would be a big plus in getting approved for this Docomo-branded card. Did I mention this was from Docomo?

Now that I have this card, it’s time to make all those big purchases I have been postponing! But not so fast. It turns out that credit cards work differently in Japan than they do in my American homeland. Here is the typical credit scenario in the US of A.

  • Take a break from your tenth-grade math test to fill out the credit card application.
  • When the plastic arrives, buy a big-screen TV and two La-Z-Boy recliners. Better make that two TVs.
  • When the $10,000 credit bill arrives, DO NOT PAY IT OFF YET! Take care of other priorities first, like celebrating your fortieth wedding anniversary.

In Japan, it will be difficult to spend your hard-earned salary on credit card interest because you must pay off your card balance every month! Before Docomo sent my new card, I first had to fill out an authorization to have my monthly balance deducted automatically in full from my bank account. A Japanese credit card is therefore not that different from a debit card, except that feelings of buyer’s remorse for big-ticket purchases can be postponed for a few weeks.

Outside of this standard pattern, Japanese credit cards do include two systems that let you delay prompt payment. The first is the “revolving payment” (リボ払い) system. It is a close match to the American method, allowing you to pay off your balance slowly over months—or years. You must go through a separate application process with the card issuer, but once approved you can designate the fixed amount that you want to pay every month. This brings consistency to payments at the risk of piling up debt. Naturally, this process comes with interest.

The second way that you can amass huge credit card debt is through the “split payment” (分割払い) system. Unlike the revolving system, which you negotiate with the credit card company, the split process is arranged with each merchant on a purchase-by-purchase basis. When you present your plastic card at the sales counter, the shop staff will ask you, “How many payments?” You can ask for the total to be applied to your credit card balance across up to thirty-six monthly portions. If you ask for three or fewer parts, there won’t be any additional cost (at least that’s how Docomo cards do it), but fees and interest will accrue if you select a larger split.

Of course, you shouldn’t drink-and-drive, and you shouldn’t pile up lots of credit card debt. When the pandemic hit, many Americans who had their work hours cut or eliminated suddenly felt the hot breath of credit card collectors on their necks. The structure of prompt credit payment in Japan and lower credit limits—my Docomo card’s upper charge limit is about one third of my American credit card’s boundary—make it less likely that Japanese residents will be trapped by credit debt, but the revolving and split systems are still tempting. I was always surprised when even grocery stores would ask if I wanted to split my payment. I once asked the grocer how common it was for customers to split their grocery bills, and she responded that the majority did.

Given how credit cards work in Japan, I won’t be using my new card that much. And yet, the sense of relief and belonging that this little piece of plastic provided surprised me. I should go out and celebrate a bit. I hear there is a La-Z-Boy dealer a few train stops from here.

[Image Credits: 77c/]

Tim Odagiri

Tim Odagiri is an author, software developer, and the host of Japan Everyday. He has published more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles covering technology, current events, and now life in Japan. Find his latest books at

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