Point Break: Loyalty Cards in Japan Thicken Wallets but Lack in Payoffs

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On May 10, 2018
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I’m standing at the checkout counter of my local Family Mart when the young woman working the cash register asks if I have a T-Point card.

“I do, indeed,” I tell her.

I pull out an inch-thick stack of loyalty cards from my wallet and start rifling through them.

Nope, nope, nope . . . Not this one . . . Ah, here it is. Oopswrong konbini (convenience store). Got it.

I hand her a T-Point card I got from the Asics shop a few years back. When she scans it, the cash register chimes: “Be sure to check your receipt to confirm how many points you have accumulated.”

“Yeah, right,” I grumble under my breath. Whenever I do check, I’m usually disappointed. The T-Point card doesn’t quite invoke the sense of loyalty as does, say, the flimsy paper card from Mother Nature’s Osteopathy. Each visit to the seikotsuin (osteopathic clinic) earns you one stamp. If it’s raining, they’ll give you an extra stamp. Collect 10 stamps and they’ll knead your aching back for free! Mother Nature’s often does a lousy job, but that point keeps me coming back again and again for more shiatsu agony.

Why so many point cards?

The truth be told, I sometimes wonder if the cause of my back pain isn’t that wad of loyalty cards I schlep around. It’s gotten so bad, that I had to purchase an extra folder to take care of the overflow.

According to a survey conducted by the infographic site Zunny (Japanese), Japanese people possess on average 20.9 cards, 10.7 of which they keep in their wallets. At 92 percent, the most commonly carried one is, not surprisingly, a credit card. (Interesting, when you consider that only two decades ago very few people in Japan used plastic.) That dubious T-Point card of mine is a close second with almost 90 percent claiming they had one in their wallet. Just over 82 percent surveyed said they had their Ponta Card on them, while 79 percent took their supermarket card with them wherever they went. The Nanaco card was fifth at 77.7 percent. Among the remaining top 10 cards were drugstore cards (76.5 percent), WAON (73.2 percent), Rakuten Point Card (71.1 percent), WAON Point Card (70.5 percent) and Rakuten Edy (67.2 percent).

Japanese people possess on average 20.9 cards, 10.7 of which they keep in their wallets.

Looking over the list, I noticed that if I didn’t have it myself, then surely my wife did. The Nanaco and Rakuten cards, for instance. It was my wife who nagged me into applying for many of the cards in the first place, intoning the Japanese mantra of “motainai (what a waste).”

In my own fat wallet today, I have 25 loyalty cards, two credit cards, two IC cards for public transportation, four doctor’s clinic cards, two bank cards, a library card and zoo pass, a Tsutaya card — which reminds me that I haven’t rented a DVD in ages. There’s also a health insurance card and, of course, my foreign residence card — never leave home without it!

It’s not surprising that many Japanese have a love-hate relationship with their loyalty cards. In fact, 65.6 percent, according to Zunny’s survey, complained that they have so many, their wallets, like mine, look nine-months pregnant. It was a hassle to carry around, said 46 percent. Another 38 percent grumbled that the points never seemed to add up. I can sympathize with them there. Despite my daily Family Mart addiction I still have only racked up a few hundred yen worth of points.

The payoff

Some cards, though, really do pay off in a big way. My JAL credit card and a cooperating BIC Camera point card, for example, amass so many miles (I pay nearly all my bills and utilities with the card) that I can usually treat the whole family to a domestic trip at least once a year. Points earned through my Mitsukoshi/Iwataya department store card usually enable Santa to lavish gifts upon my sons at Christmas.

Still, I can’t help wondering if there weren’t a better way to reduce the bulk these cards cause. Cards like 7-Eleven’s Nanaco, Ponta (a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Shoji and partially owned by Lawson’s, Recruit, and JAL) and Tsutaya’s T-point (SoftBank and Family Mart) are advertised as an easy way to earn points, but in truth, they are little more than corporate Japan’s attempt to further consolidate and dominate the market.

I have long believed that the best solution would be an app that could hold virtual point cards. A great idea, I’ve been told, but unfortunately, I don’t have the requisite nerd skill set to produce it myself. Apparently, some go-getter has beaten me to it with the Stocard app. The app, however, only works on major loyalty cards. The dozen or so point cards I keep from local interior stores, independent select shops and restaurants still rely heavily on first millennium technology: printed paper, a stamp and ink.

Of the two dozen cards I have in my wallet right now, I would say that only one is truly superfluous — a point card from the Shimokitazawa Shisha Café. I hang on to it as a memento of sorts, a way of keeping track of how many times I have been to Tokyo in recent years. It also serves to motivate myself to get back to the city, sooner before later. Whenever I do travel to Tokyo, I never fail to drop by the café — one of my many home-away-from-homes in the megalopolis — and have a nice long smoke. Now that I’m only one stamp away from completing the card, I’m more eager than ever to hop on a mileage-accruing flight.

I once asked the manager of the shisha café what I’d get when the card was full. “A kiss from me,” was the answer. Not quite what I was hoping for, but more than my T-Point card has given me.

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Hakata-based American writer, translator and student of Japanese dialects and literature.

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