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I am an idiot. On a disturbingly regular basis I do stupid things out of ignorance, sheer bone headedness, laziness, or some combination of the three. My offenses usually range from the very mild (completely forgetting to buy an item I need at the supermarket) to the moderately concerning (walking into a convenience store to buy a drink only to leave it at the register and have staff yell after me). Last year, however, I did something so stupid and so unbelievably dumb that I started worrying about my mental health.

I made a cash withdrawal at an ATM and left my money there.

I know what you’re thinking: how is that possible? Aren’t there written and audible warnings for customers to prevent that precise thing from happening? How do you not realize you didn’t take your cash?

These are all valid questions. In the past, I mocked the beeping warning of the Japanese ATM thinking: “HA! Who on earth would forget to take their cash?” Me, apparently. Here’s what went down:

I was on my way home from work on a Wednesday night. I decided to stop at the ATM to get some cash for the rest of the week. I was planning to use 75% of it to pay my city taxes, part to pay for dry cleaning I needed done, and the rest to get some food for the remainder of the week. I stopped at my bank’s ATM in Shinjuku station and completed the transaction. When I saw my account balance appear on the ATM display, however, I was very surprised to see it was less than I expected it to be. I took my card back from the machine and printed a copy of my receipt. I held the receipt in my hand, trying to remember recent transactions that would explain such an account balance. I was so focused on the receipt and my own thoughts that I walked away from the ATM. I even remember having my empty wallet out – I put it back in my bag while I was walking.

It took me 30 minutes to realize what I had done. I went to the supermarket as planned and picked up some groceries. When I got to the register, I opened my wallet to pay, only to find nothing inside. I dug through my bag, thinking I had misplaced it. But alas, nothing. I apologized to the cashiers and may have exclaimed “Oh my God, I have no money!” One of them smirked at my apparent stupidity. Reality hit me like a truck: I had forgotten my cash. I scurried to a different ATM a couple blocks away to check my account balance – still the same as it was after the withdrawal I’d made 30 minutes earlier. I grabbed a little cash, went back and purchased my groceries, then called my bank.

My bank has full English services, which I am grateful for on a regular basis. I was surprised to find there was a human answering the phone at 10:20 PM on a weeknight, too. I explained the situation, where it had happened, and for how much cash. The woman from the bank contacted the ATM center to see if any money had been refunded to my account from that particular machine. It hadn’t. She apologized profusely (though it was my own stupid fault) and suggested I inquire at the police box near Shinjuku station. I was tired and upset, so I resolved to visit the police the next evening on my way home.

Japanese Police force, via flickr Photo via semisara on Flickr

The next day, I checked my account just to verify that there was no change. Nothing. So, when I arrived at Shinjuku station after work, I headed to the police box, where I had my first ever encounter with the Japanese police. I interacted with literally four of them, who I will call Greeter, Helpy Helperton, Captain Curious, and Uncle Shouty. You’ll see why in this re-creation of our conversation (which, I can confirm, is accurate. I wrote this the day after it happened):

Me: Excuse me.
Greeter: Yes?
Me: I’ve got a problem. It’s embarrassing, but last night I used an ATM here, and forgot my money.
Greeter: Ah, OK, please come in here and have a seat. Can you write in Japanese?
Me: Yes, that’s fine.

(He takes me into the police box, where I am seated in front of Helpy Helperton, who presents me with a form)

Helpy: OK, can you please fill in your name, address, and phone number here?

(I do)

Helpy: And here, please write the date and time at which the event occurred.

(I pull out the receipt from the ATM with the exact time from my wallet)

Helpy: Here, please write the amount and what kind of bills they were (1,000 yen, 5,000 yen, etc.).
Me: Uhh, I don’t know what they were. I didn’t see them.
Helpy: …Okay…well, just the amount, then.
Me: Okay, done.

(Captain Curious, a third officer, is quietly listening and creeping closer to Helpy and I)

Helpy: So, what happened, exactly?
Me: I forgot my money at the ATM.
Helpy (dumbfounded): You left it there?
Me: …yeah.
Uncle Shouty (who has suddenly appeared from a back room and is speaking loudly, above us all): You mean you took it out and left it on top of the ATM?
Me: No, I didn’t take it out. I left it in the ATM.
Shouty: Inside? Well, it should have closed, and the money should have been returned to you.
Me: Yeah, that’s what I thought, but I contacted the bank and the ATM center, and they didn’t find the refund.
Helpy (still dumbfounded): So you didn’t even take it out of the ATM?
Me: Right.
Shouty: Have you confirmed your balance again with the bank?
Me: Yes, it’s the same.
Shouty (baffled, shuffling away): Huh. OK.

Helpy: So, which ATM did you use?
Me: I used the one near the entrance to the Marunouchi Subway line, in the basement area.
Captain Curious and Helpy together: AHHHHHHH.
Captain Curious: There are a lot of homeless people in that area.
Helpy: Yeah, there are. Okay, we’ll put the search area down as all of Shinjuku San-Chome. That’s this area.
Curious (totally off-topic with the inevitable Japanese-to-foreigner statement): Hey, your Japanese is really good.
Helpy: Yeah, and look, she can write Japanese too. Are you half (meaning: half Japanese)?
Me: Half? Me?!
Helpy: Yeah.
Me: No, I’m American.
Curious: What do you do?
Me: I’m an English teacher.
Curious: Oh, really? Where?
Me: In West Tokyo.
Curious: What level Japanese are you?
Me: Level?
Curious: You know, proficiency level. Like 2, 3, etc.
Me: Oh, I haven’t taken any proficiency tests.
Curious: You could totally do it.
Helpy: Yeah, you could.
Me: I dunno, maybe.
Curious: Where did you learn Japanese?
Me: In college.
Curious: In Japan?
Me: No, in America.
Curious: Oh. So how long have you been in Japan?
Me: About 2 years.
Curious: Ahhh…
Helpy: ANYWAY, I’m going to call in this report now…

(He picks up the phone next to his desk and relays all the information I have just given him, taking a few notes)

Helpy: All right. The chances of the money being found are pretty low, but if anything turns up, we’ll call you or contact you by mail.

(He gives me a small piece of paper with some information on it)

Helpy: This is the reference number for the report. Please use it if you need to contact us regarding this.
Me: Ok, I understand.
Helpy: Anything else we can help you with?
Me: No, thank you, that’s all.
Helpy: All right, well, thanks for coming in.
Curious: Yeah, thanks!
Me: OK, thank you very much for your help.

And with that, I exited. They were all helpful and kind in their own ways. I wasn’t asked for my alien registration card at any time during the process, though I did pull it out briefly just to make sure I didn’t mess up the kanji for my address. The whole thing took only 5-10 minutes, and I was honestly surprised at how efficient and easy it all was, despite answering Captain Curious’ questions for half the time I was there. I want to note that police boxes are pretty small. They’re maybe the size of an American walk-in-closet. At this particular box, there were two small desks at the front for taking reports and a back room (where Uncle Shouty was hanging out).

A police box in Japan Photo via gullevek on Flickr

At the time of my report, one other (Japanese) man was also filing a report with another officer at the other desk. He seemed to manage just fine with only one police officer helping him. I don’t know why I had so many people interested in my case – curiosity, I guess. It was a pretty stupid thing to do. Apologies to other foreigners everywhere for doing a “dumb gaijin” thing.

It’s been several months since this happened. I haven’t heard anything from them since the report, nor do I expect to. But the experience was a good one (aside from the part where I lose my money). As far as law enforcement officials go, these guys were certainly not scary – they were easy to talk to, and surprisingly candid.

The police in Japan have a reputation for being human versions of Google Maps rather than officers of the law. Some folk have even reported negative experiences with law enforcement officials, but I have yet to experience any such thing. At no point during this exchange did I feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or otherwise unwelcome. If anything, they seemed happy to have something to do (odd, since this is the police box just a few blocks away from Kabukicho, a notorious red light district in Tokyo).

I suppose you probably want to know much my stupidity cost me. 18,000 yen (that’s about $230). Ouch. It totally sucks, but I learned my lesson – it’s certainly a mistake I’ll never make again.

Though, given what I planned to use most of the money for, I think the real message here is clear: the universe doesn’t want me to pay my taxes.


  1. yumyumsesame yumyumsesame February 24, 2012

    You know I never knew what happened if you left money in the machine. I guess it makes sense that it would just go back in again!

    It was good to read about a pleasant experience with Japanese police. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories too but I guess the unhappy customers are more likely to talk about their experiences.

    • Alisha Alisha February 24, 2012

      Yeah, lately there has been a bit of a buzz going around the internet regarding sketchy encounters with law enforcement/authority figures here in Japan, but eh. I’ve never had an issue.

      I still don’t know exactly how the whole refund thing works with the ATM – I’d already grabbed my card and my receipt…wonder if I had just waited longer if the door to the ATM would close and the machine would take the money back? Someday I’ll have to test it out.

  2. Sin Sin February 24, 2012

    You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself; it’s easy to make mistakes when your mind is elsewhere and you’re in auto-pilot mode. Have you ever travelled somewhere routine and upon arriving at your destination, realised that you cannot remember a single point of your journey?

    Plus there’s a chance some homeless dude found your money and used it to clean himself up and buy a suit, which he then used in a job interview to score a job. On the way home he saved a box of kittens from drowning and found them all new homes with loving owners. Then, after securing a place to live, opened a “Mysterious Stranger” charity organisation that pulled more people out of poverty in your anonymous honour. These people went on to start their own “Mysterious Stranger Laboratory Institute” and worked together to solve world hunger. The end.

    And those cops had cool names.

    • Alisha Alisha February 24, 2012

      Yes, I am absolutely absent minded. It’s one of the primary reasons I obsessively make lists and am making it a priority to finally get myself a smartphone next month. I have a hard time keeping track of my own brain day to day.

      I like to think there’s a chance the person who found the money used it to turn things around – it wasn’t a small sum. But realistically speaking…I remember that night when I went to use the ATM that just behind the unit was a homeless guy. He was reading the paper with his back against a pole just next to the ATM. If he’s the one who took the money…he didn’t do much with it, because I still see him in the same area on my way home at night.

      You win for the best comment ever, by the way.

  3. Steve Franklin Steve Franklin February 25, 2012

    “I don’t know why I had so many people interested in my case . . .”

    Maybe they were like men everywhere and just wanted to talk to the pretty woman. 🙂

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