Tokyo Money Trail - Part I of III

Whenever I get the chance to visit another country, I will as a numismatist try to visit some of the interesting sites related to this subject area. The last time I was in Japan was exactly 2 years ago, visiting Osaka and the Osaka Mint. So my visit to the biggest city in Japan is no exception. There are three places you can visit to whet your appetite for numismatic knowledge, and the BEST part if that entry is FREE OF CHARGE. They are :

1. National Printing Bureau's (NBP) Printing Facility
2. NBP's Banknote and Stamps Museum
3. Currency Museum of the Bank of Japan

I will cover these visits in 3 separate parts in my blog, starting with the National Printing Bureau's (NBP) banknote printing factory in Nishihagara district of Tokyo.

The National Printing Bureau is the security printing arm of the Bank of Japan and it is responsible for the design and printing of  Japan's banknotes, stamps and passports. It currently operates 4 separate printing facilities in Tokyo, Odawara, Shizuoka and Hikone. Each of them do offer their own guided tours and information on the tours can be found at their website here :

Keep in mind that this is a HIGH SECURITY FACILITY. You cannot just walk in as and when you like. You will need to PRE-REGISTER for the tour up to 2 or 3 MONTHS BEFORE YOU ARRIVE. These tours are quite popular and there is a limit to the number of persons allowed in, so I recommend that you register as soon as the dates open up. And if you are a foreigner (i.e. if you are NOT a Japanese citizen), you will be asked for some ID - which in this case, you need to show them your PASSPORT. Do please bring it along with you, else you may not be allowed to enter. You can find the online registration form here.

The NBP offers a guided tour of the banknote printing facilities and there are 4 tours in a week, 2 on Tuesdays and 2 on Thursdays, 10:00am and 1:40pm respectively.  The tour lasts for about 1.5 hours.

The bad news is that the tours are conducted entirely in Japanese. BUT if you are lucky enough like me, you may get a tour guide who speaks some English.

The Tokyo plant is located near the Nishihagara Metro train station (Namboku line). It is about 25 to 30 minute ride from Tokyo Station. The main entrance to the facility is right next to Nishigahara Station exit. If you are coming from Kami-Nazakato Station, you expect a 20 minute walk around the huge facility to get to the entrance, which I found out the hard way!

Map 1 : Location of the NBP Printing Facility in relation to downtown Tokyo - less than 10km away, 30 mins by train.

Map 2 : Take the train to Nishigahara Station, it is next to the factory

On the day of the tour you will be required to present you form and show your ID at the front gate. They will then lead you to a briefing room and you will given a locker key and deposit all your bag and mobile phone/camera or any recording device before the plant tour. You are NOT ALLOWED to take photos or video on the plant tour. We walk onto a balcony with glass windows on one side that was opaque when we walked in and the tour leader gave the order to "open" the window, the window magically became transparent and we could see all the action on the factory floor at the time. There were guys moving around preparing large sheets of paper ready to be fed into the printing machines that are about 100 feet in length. The tour will be followed by a visit to their exhibition center, which you can take photos there.

For collectors and numismatist one of the important "mysteries" is that why we cannot find any replacement notes in Japan. In Malaysia, replacement notes are typically those banknotes with a first letter "Z" in their prefix. These are notes that replace the damaged or erroneous ones during the printing process. But for Japan, there are no such thing as Z notes!

So I took the opportunity to ask the question on how does NBP handle error notes in the printing process? It seems that their policy is to reprint the note with the same serial number and slot them into the stack! If there are more than certain number of notes in the stack that are erroneous, the whole stack is reprinted.

Which come to think of it, is not surprising. This is Japan we're talking about, these guys are the pioneer of high quality manufacturing concepts like TQM or Total Quality Management! Their culture taking great pride in their work and their attention to details are legendary. These guys are the ones who gave the world Toyota cars back in the days when car breakdowns are a everyday occurrence.

Another way of looking at the issue is that the process may very well have been designed to PREVENT ERRORS in the first place, because the cost of reprint is high and should be avoided as much as possible. If the rate of error is low, the total cost of production can be kept low, it all depends on the rate of errors.

Technically speaking there are "replacement notes" it is just that you can't tell if it has been replaced or not because it has the same serial number of the damaged or erroneous ones. But that it not to say there are no damaged or erroneous notes in Japan - there is no 100% perfect manufacturing process in this world and I did see some at the coin show when I was there but my impression is that they are quite rare given the stringent quality controls at the NBP.

One thing you will notice is that the watermark on the Japanese Yen is that they are exceptionally fine in detail. The lines are very intricate and the resolution of the image is superb. Below is the comparison between the 1,000 Yen with Malaysia's 100 Ringgit :

Comparison of Watermarks

This is my first time touring a banknote printing facility and it was a real eye opener. Save for 3 major areas, the Japanese banknote printing in principle is quite similar to the rest of the world, at least at the high level. Whilst they did go thru the printing process, a lot of the finer, technical details are intentionally left out for obvious reasons.  The best part of this whole visit - is that it is FREE OF CHARGE and their staff exceptionally friendly and helpful. 

While the tour management team do not speak English at all, they were extremely polite, considerate and completely helpful. Three of us (including my wife and daughter) were the only foreigners in the tour of about 40 persons. And I could tell that they struggle to make us feel comfortable and ensuring we are well taken care of despite the language differences. They even had a colleague from another department who speaks English to help us understand what was going on! For that we are extremely grateful and will always remember NBP for their hospitality.

The rest of this blog contain the photos of my visit. Enjoy!

Below is the photo of some of the souvenirs I picked up at NBP :

1. Folder with NBP logo
2. Guide to the NBP Printing Facility
3. Rubber stamped high quality paper
4. Pamphlet about the current circulating banknotes of Japan
5. Intaglio printed cards (purchased)

Next we visit the NBP's Banknote & Stamps Museum which is located one train stop away from this facility.


Fig 1. Main gate of NBP facility with the Nishigahara Station exit right next to it.

Fig 5. The paper for the banknotes are made from local plants and not from cotton paper like that of other countries. 

Fig 6. The Japanese banknotes paper are made from Mitsumata and Abaca plants that are said to be more resistant to wear and tear
Fig 7. Paper making process

Fig 8. Ink making process, a closely guarded secret. Note the texture of the ink is very thick / viscous.

Fig 9. Types of ink and color used for the printing
Fig 10. Next is the plate making process. This is the master plate and the engraver's tools

Fig 11. The master plate is used to create the printing plate with multiple copies of the note.
For Japan's case it is 4x5 configuration

Fig 12. The printing plate in 4x5 configuration

Fig 13. The printing process, these are huge machines of up to 100 feet in length and able to exert 3 tons
of pressure for the intaglio printing.

Fig 13. Partially printed banknotes

Fig 14. These are the holographic "stickers" for the banknotes

Fig 15. Finally the serial number is printed and this is the completed sheet

Fig 16. A close up of the completed sheet

Fig 17. Sorting an cutting the sheets into bricks and stacks
Fig 18. Wrapping and labeling

Fig 19. Wrapping in blocks after cutting

Fig 20. First of a series of charts on the history of NBP. That guy on the top right is Edoardo Chiossone,
an Italian design for the first series of banknotes in Japan back in 1868, at the height of the Meiji Restoration

Fig. 21. Pens with shredded banknotes at the souvenir shop

Fig 22. Banknote towels?

Fig 23. They even have sweets and cookies for sale! 

>>> NEXT : Tokyo Money Trail : Part II or III