Japan’s banks face a quiet crisis

Shrinking to survive: Japan’s banks face a quiet crisis

Thousands of positions at risk as online upstarts threaten bloated megabanks

MITSURU OBE, Nikkei staff writer

New college recruits gather for an orientation session at Sumitomo Mitsui Banking’s Tokyo headquarters in 2016. (Photo by Yuichiro Takagi)

TOKYO — “Welcome to our bank!” chime the three uniformed clerks as customers enter Mizuho Bank’s branch in Tokyo’s Tanashi neighborhood.

The friendly, highly experienced clerks stand ready to help customers fill in the various forms required to open an account, make a large withdrawal, transfer funds or take out a loan. Even in the digital age, such tasks can require plenty of time-consuming paperwork. To confirm their identity, customers are also required to present a hanko, or personal seal.

Once the forms are filled out, the customers take a paper ticket and wait for their number to be called by one of the handful of tellers sitting behind the counter, who handle simple requests on the spot. More complicated jobs are handed over for processing by a dozen or so other clerks sitting behind them.

These days, however, most customers walk straight past the three clerks at the entrance and toward the bank of eight ATMs or three machines for updating passbook records. Many customers never make it into the branch at all, choosing instead to do their banking online.

But despite the popularity of internet banking, the retail bank experience in Japan appears little changed from a decade or two ago. Personal attention to the customer and a thick, sturdy passbook are still regarded as hallmarks of quality in Japan’s banks, even if there is less demand for such service.

Branches of Japan’s megabanks are a ubiquitous sight in Tokyo. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

There are signs this is beginning to change, however. The country’s three biggest banks have announced plans to close branches, eliminate thousands of positions and introduce more automation — radical steps in an industry where employees expect to have jobs for life. But critics warn they are still not moving quickly enough to prepare for the next wave of digital disruption heading their way. One senior executive says Japan’s banks are experiencing a “quiet crisis.”

Raymond Spencer, senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service in Japan, says retail banks need to be run more like convenience stores. “Banking is not a complex business, particularly for retail. So there is a lot of competition and it has become a commodity,” he said.

The banks’ short business hours, typically from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, are an anachronism in the digital age, he says. “Why are branches open when nobody can visit them?”

At Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, the nation’s largest bank, the number of customers who visit its brick-and-mortar branches has dropped 40% in the past decade, while the number of internet banking users has risen 40% in the last five years.

The mismatch is becoming difficult to overlook for an industry bearing the twin burdens of low growth and low interest rates. With a shrinking population, the fall in customer numbers is only expected to accelerate. Yet the number of bank branches in Japan has changed little in the past 10 years, at around 13,500. With each branch typically staffed by about 30 clerks, shrinking or eliminating them will mean cutting a lot of positions.


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