The Sad, Sad Tale of a Major Japanese Bank

Once upon a time, there was a young American boy who grew up to become a handsome prince. Oh wait, this isn’t a fairy tale. That young boy actually turned into a middle-aged computer programmer with a face for radio. And then he moved to Japan where, as related in one of my earlier articles, he took a Japanese last name via Japan’s legal alias system. Little by little, he updated his name on business cards, at online shops, and on utility bills. He even got approval from the National Tax Agency to use the new name on next year’s tax forms.

And then he hit a snag, where “snag” is defined as, “an obstinate corporation that goes out of its way to inconvenience customers as much as possible.” This particular barrier came in the form of a Japanese bank that was completely comfortable making false statements about the nation’s legal code to prevent this kind, diligent, and humble, humble man from updating his name on his bank account. This tale of woe and misery is so heart-wrenching, I have decided to withhold the institution’s name, except to say that it is one of Japan’s major national banks.

The update began like any other: filling out forms, providing evidence of the name change, and so on. As this was a bank, its verification requirements were much more stringent than with, say, Amazon’s web site, but as I had experienced a colonoscopy in the past, I was ready for the intensity of this background check.

The rejection letter arrived on a Tuesday. The bank was extremely sorry, the form letter began, but they would not be able to accommodate my name change. Their reason for doing so was stated clearly and came with the imprimatur of government authority.


We are so sorry, but for those who do not hold Japanese citizenship, the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Act requires that we record names using the [Western] alphabet; recording both a kanji-based name and an alphabetic name cannot be done, so an alphabetic name will be used.

Well, that seems legal. Yet I thought, “That’s a curious law that would make such a requirement.” So, I looked up the regulation, known bureaucratically as Act Number 228 of 1949. Here’s the thing: There is not a single word about foreigner names or alphabets or restrictions on recording names using kanji. I read the entire text of the law, and the only thing that was even remotely related to the statement on the rejection letter was the portion found in Chapter III, Articles 18-3 and 18-4, which, as there may be non-lawyers present, I am loathe to duplicate here. In short, this part of the law requires that banks confirm each customer’s identity (such as by checking a driver’s license), and that such confirmation details be kept on file for seven years. This standard applies to both citizens and foreign residents. There are no other name-related requirements listed in the law’s text.

There is no other way to say it: The bank lied to me. I expect this wasn’t the first time they prevaricated to a customer seeking this kind of update, so the letter had a smooth, practiced style honed over years of refinement. But it was a fib, nonetheless. I decided to perform my own verification. I crafted a response to the bank, documenting the portions of the law I reviewed, and asking the powers that be if they could direct me to that section of the law that required the use of alphabetic names for foreign customers. I avoided all condescension and snark; the letter was a straightforward business-level request for clarification.

Two weeks later, my phone rang, and a professional, dutiful representative of the mendacious bank informed me that, due to my already having met the requirements for name verification, they would proceed with the name change in principle. When asked if this was based on an updated reading of the aforementioned law, the agent said, “No, we are following the law, as always.” They simply wanted to confirm that I had already met the legal verification and name requirements, and therefore they could move forward with the update—with the proviso that I submit just one more document.

What the fallacious financial institution needed now was an official statement on how my Japanese name was pronounced. As many readers may already know, a kanji-based name can sometimes be pronounced in different ways depending on regional or family usage, and so there is a standard way of notating both the main name and its pronunciation on most application forms in Japan. I had provided both in my update, along with government evidence of my new kanji-based name. But the bank now wanted similar evidence for the pronunciation. That, it turns out, would be difficult. Currently, not all jurisdictions in Japan officially record the pronunciation, an issue that was in the news a few years ago related to non-standard baby names. In my case, my local city hall does not record the pronunciation for legal aliases, which means that I had no way to provide the requested evidence.

Perhaps I am being cynical, but I expect the bank knew this. They had been caught in the act of spouting falsehoods—by a pesky foreigner, no less—but that doesn’t mean they were ready to capitulate. And so, they added a requirement that would dissuade or stymie my effort to complete this process. I reviewed the handy Identity Verification Requirements flier that they had mailed to me previously, the same one used by Japanese citizens. I scoured every word, and there was no requirement that the pronunciation be validated. I have never heard such a thing from any organization, public or private. Such pronunciations are an aid for those reading the name, not a legal moniker. You would never, for example, sign a contract using the sounded-out version of your name.

You win, nameless, senseless bank! I will be withdrawing my untold trillions from your coffers and closing my account, effective immediately. I had already opened a new account with the very friendly staff at SMBC (三井住友銀行), and they let me use my new name with nothing more than a photocopy of my driver’s license—a form of ID that doesn’t even show the pronunciation. Shed a tear with me for my old bank, if you must. But please also throw up a small cheer that there are institutions in Japan who are willing to follow the law and make customer service a priority, regardless of nationality.

[Image Credits: babel’s artworks/]

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


  • Thanks for Posting this.

    I realized that “Customer Friendliness” of Japanese business is more for “low stake” services and products. All that bowing and respect disappears as you move up the value chain (for example as you cited for bank account). Quiet contrary to the common sense! isn’t it.

    • I can’t say for sure if it is accurate, but a Japanese friend told me that among Japanese real estate agents, there is a tendency to plow through all of the easy cases before taking on the harder ones (rather than using a first-in, first-out system). As a foreign resident with less-than-perfect Japanese and financial details that are not as typical as those of a Japanese salaryman, we would fall to the bottom of the pile even if in all other respects our situation matched the native population. Perhaps it is just human nature to do things that way, but I can see how it would become frustrating if it kept happening over and over again.

  • Guessing it starts with an “M” and ends with a “o”?

    Also, what’s a good way to go about changing your name? Any links you followed in either languages would be super.

    I have 2 middle names and would love to legally change my name here. Filling out my full name multiple times on a single form is NOT fun (only god knows why I need to re-write my name multiple times, but so be it.)

    I’m a foreign national on a student visa which might be an issue…

    • Legal Aliases, known as tsushomei (通称名) in Japanese, are managed by your local city hall or ward office. The application form was very short: provide some personal information (name, address, phone, the usual stuff) and your new alias. That was it! The hard part is proving that you deserve it. You have to show that you already regularly use the alias in your daily life. My city told me that changing my name on a utility bill was the quickest way, as utilities are not so strict. When your new bill shows up in the mail with your new name, use it as one form of evidence. You will need two or three kinds of evidence, the more official the better.

      I don’t think that being a student would be a barrier. Anyone with residency should be able to apply for an alias, at least that is how it seemed when I visited city hall. But you should verify with them directly.

      Here is an article where I described my own experience:

  • Many years ago I could not withdraw money from an account in a certain Japanese bank with my ATM card. I did not live near the branch in which I had originally opened the account, so eventually had to make the trek to it to find out what was wrong with my card. After waiting nearly an hour, I was informed that my account number had been changed. There was no explanation of why that had happened without informing me nor an apology.

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