You are probably wondering, “How can currency be so cool?”  After all, cash is cash.  It is great to get paid and great to spend it, but it is only cool because of what you get in return for your cash, right?

Well, I’m not so sure.  I like spending money, too, to get what I need and want.  But in Japan, I think that the currency itself is pretty darn cool.

What is Currency?

Currency, of course, is defined as money in any form used as a medium of exchange, but the term is often taken to mean the paper bills of a country.  The paper bills of Japan are, to me, among the most beautiful and cool of any found in the world.

Japanese banknotes were overhauled in 2004, with a range of security measures added to the new designs.  The printing includes a wide range of technologies, including special inks, printing techniques, and special marks.


Inks included in Japanese banknotes since 2000 (including the 2000 yen note issued to commemorate the millenium and the 26th G8 Summit) include fluorescent, luminescent, and pearl inks. These special inks are all somewhat similar, in that they all give a sheen or shine under a variety of circumstances, unlike standard inks. Fluorescent ink is also known as invisible ink and is the kind of ink that glows when black lights (UV emitting) are shined on it. Luminescent ink is similar to fluorescent ink, but appears to shine without the use of black lights. Pearl ink, as the name implies, has tiny reflective particles in it that give it a sheen that is pearl-like. The video below gives a good demonstation of how fluorescent inks work:

Printing Techniques

In particular, Japanese banknotes employ for security measures printing technologies such as Intaglio printing, microprinting, and latent imaging. Intaglio printing is basically a type of printmaking that uses etching, engraving, and other incisions on the surface of copper or zinc plates.  Microprinting is, basically, exactly what it sounds like.  Usually, it is the printing of really small text, which makes a bill extremely difficult to counterfeit, because it is usually too small to read without magnification.  Latent imaging is really simply a photographic process that creates “invisible” images.  The images can be seen when it is exposed to light.

Special Marks

Japanese bills employ a range of special marks, including tactile marks, watermark, watermark-bar pattern, and display of the EURion Constellation.  Tactile marks are a technology that is in both the paper and imprinting, that enable the blind and visually impaired people to identify it.  In addition, the tactility makes the paper more durable and resistant to deterioration.  Watermarking of the bill includes both images and a bar pattern, both of which are extremely difficult to reproduce. Finally, the EURion Constellation is a pattern of symbols found on many banknotes used globally since around 1996. The pattern resembles the constellation Orion.

The central watermark printed in a 10000 yen note can be seen in the image below:

Invisible image in 10000 yen note

watermark image unveiled in 10000 yen note

A Barrier to Counterfeiting

The combination of features serve to prevent counterfeiting for one primary reason – it is just too expensive! In order to reproduce a bill that can deceive most people, especially a big store or a bank, the total cost of the paper and printing is likely to cost more than the bill itself is worth.

Who’s on First. What’s on Second.

Another of the features that makes Japanese currency special is who and what is printed on the bills. The currency of the United States features, for the most part, past presidents and major political figures. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Jackson, and Grant, as well as Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, adorn common US currency. The Queen Elizabeth is on the currencies of Great Britain and many Commonwealth nations. But Japan’s currency celebrates many different figures.

The 1000 yen note features Noguchi Hideyo, a bacteriologist that discovered the agent of syphilis.  The 5000 yen note is adorned by Higuchi Ichiyō, a female author who lived only to the age of 24, but is considered the first female professional writer in modern Japanese literature.  The 10000 yen note features Fukuzawa Yukichi, an author, writer, teacher, translator, entrepreneur and political theorist who founded Keio University.  The previous currency, issued in 1984, featured on the 1000 yen note the famed author Sōseki Natsume, best known for his novels, Kokoro, Botchan, and I am a Cat.  On the 5000 yen note was Nitobe Inazō, a agricultural economist, author, educator, diplomat, politician, and, notably, a Christian.

The persecution of Christians in Japan is the subject of much historical attention in the west.  Because of the spread of Christianity in most of the world, the prohibition of open practice of the faith for roughly 300 years from late 1500 to late 1800 was an anomaly.  Furthermore, the person who first ousted Christian missionaries was none other than Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s most revered rulers, or daimyo.  In fact, however, the most brutal treatment of Christians was practiced under Hideyoshi’s successors, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tokugawa Hidetada, and Tokugawa Iemitsu.  To this day, Christians tend to be a silent minority in Japan, fearful of having to defend their faith against the majority of Buddhist/Shintoist/Agnostic peers.

What I find distinguishing about the faces that adorn modern Japanese currency is that they celebrate famous writers, scientists, educators, and, particularly, people who are not the statesmen an noblemen featured on notes issued until the late 1960s.  I cannot think of any other currency that features a bacteriologist!

Counting Money

Finally, one of the most interesting things about Japanese currency is how people count it. No, I don’t mean as in, “1, 2, 3…”. The number system is interesting, too, but that is a separate matter. The way that Japanese people count wads of bills is special. Watch, and enjoy:

Now, wouldn’t you agree that Japanese currency is pretty cool too?