New money, but same old same old?


Last week the Japanese government and the Bank of Japan announced that it would introduce three new currency bills into circulation in fiscal year 2004. The new 1,000-, 5,000-, and 10,000-yen bills are the first new currency designs in roughly 20 years.

Ostensibly the bills are being introduced in an effort to thwart counterfeiting, and will, according to Dow Jones, make use of state of the art printing techniques such as “holograms, advanced bar-coding and pearl ink – used to print semitransparent patterns that shift when viewed from different angles” to foil would-be counterfeiters.

There can be no denying as well that the government hopes the new issuance might give Japan’s moribund economy a shot in the arm. From a Daily Yomiuri article,

The government and central bank announcement raised expectations it would have a positive impact on the economy, since vending machines, bank ATMs, ticket machines and other machines that accept banknotes must be modified to handle the new bills, thus leading to more business.

Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute Inc. estimates that about 960 billion yen will be spent in the coming two years on such upgrades, pushing up the gross domestic product by about 0.1 percent.

Indeed, Finance Minister Masajuro Shiokawa was quoted as saying the new bills would “brighten the mood” among Japanese consumers. Whatever boost does result, it will not come cheaply. From a sampling in the Daily Yomiuri article of various costs involved, printing the actual yen notes will cost 317 billion yen; modifying ATM machines will cost 330 billion yen; and upgrading vending machines will run about 312 billion yen.

An intriguing angle to the story regards the personages chosen to grace the new 1,000- and 5,000-yen notes, which will feature Hideo Noguchi and Ichiyo Higuchi respectively. Noguchi was a microbiologist who isolated the cause of syphilis. Higuchi, shown in the image accompanying this post in a prototype of the 5,000 bill, was a Meiji-era novelist and poet who died of tuberculosis at only 24 years of age. She will be the first woman to grace the front of a Japanese banknote.

The Asahi Shimbun recently delved into the irony of choosing these two figures to grace the new money, given that both came from poverty-stricken backgrounds where by necessity they piled up many debts. Regarding Higuchi, “[i]n her desperate quest for money, she made requests for loans even to people she was not acquainted with.” According to Asahi’s article, Noguchi does’t come off much better: “[He] was loose with money. He would ask his friends and relatives for loans, spend the money quickly and go back to them for more, apparently with no intention of paying them back.”

Naturally the goverment spun the choice of these two a different way. According to Finance Minister Shiokawa, Higuchi and Noguchi were chosen out of consideration for gender equality, “as pioneers of modernization” and because they had “difficult-to-counterfeit faces.”

The 10,000-yen note, though part of the anti-forgery printing plans, will not be getting a new personage gracing its front. Speculates the Asahi Shimbun,

What is a bit worrisome is that the portrait of Yukichi Fukuzawa, a prominent author and educator of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), will be retained on the 10,000-yen bill, although the bill will be redesigned like the notes of lower denominations. The retention of Fukuzawa, who founded Keio University, could feed speculation that it may have resulted from close ties between two Keio alumni – Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Finance Minister Masajuro Shiokawa.