09 August 2009 ~ 16 Comments

The Japanese-American Express card

So, I was at Narita Airport with a couple of hours to kill before my flight to China. After looking around for a smoking area and finding it- some not-so well-ventilated closet with several people who could effectively be used as poster people on anti-tobacco ads targeting teens that state plainly: You don’t want to end up like this person, do you? I indulged myself and then got the hell out of there as quickly as possible. That closet gave me the creeps.

While I walked around in search of a comfortable place to hole-up for an hour or so I remembered the commercial slogans of the two American Express cards (Green and Blue) that have resided in my wallet 10 years running: Don’t leave home without it and Membership has its rewards! On the former, I certainly keep them on my person at all times. As for the latter, I rarely do take advantage of these so-called rewards.  I’ve received hundreds of invitations to upgrade my card to Platinum. Apparently my credit is in good standing, but damn if I need the temptation to impulse buy a yacht, a Porsche, or a small Pacific island sitting in my wallet. Especially one with a $250 annual fee. But Platinum has even more perks. One of those perks being whenever you travel, you can enjoy complete and unrestricted access to over 500 airport lounges worldwide, regardless of your class of travel. Dragging my carry-on behind me around Narita I almost wished I had upgraded.

One of the drawbacks of non-platinum membership is watching those people enjoying the rewards of the upgraded membership. You can always find them cooling their heels in the airport lounge. As I strolled pass such a lounge at Narita on my way to stretch out on the chairs, I peeped the writing on the door. It had pictures of the cards that would gain one access…several Japanese bank-issued cards and a lonely American Express symbol. It didn’t specify Platinum card holders so I wondered, could I slide up in here and cool my heels among those with disposable income, disciplined spending habits or corporate accounts?

What the hell, I gave it a shot…

“Irrashaimase!” the staff person sang as I entered, smiling approvingly. I felt very welcomed.

I peeped inside the lounge while I dug for my wallet. Well-dressed Japanese people abounded. Mostly business-types, a few vacationers looking very, i don’t know, an understated Louis Vitton look I suppose.

I slid my Blue Amex across the counter . It’s a novelty in Japan. Whenever I use it in a store or hotel it’s either welcomed with awe (wow, I’ve never seen an Amex like this before) , suspicion (Is this really an Amex? Or is he trying to pull a fast one on us?) or total ignorance (What am I supposed to do with this? Is this some kind of foreign currency?) turning it over and examining it like it was something dug up in an archaeological dig.

The staff person gave it the once over and slid it through the reader. The machine beeped…not a very friendly beep. A beep of rejection. Funny how beeps have personalities sometimes. She smiled, but I could see her tension rising as a result of something unexpected occurring. Sle pressed some keys and slid it through the reader again. I wondered if I had been late with a payment…again.

“I’m sorry, but this card is not acceptable here.”

“I see.” Yappari! I was prepared to receive the Platinum ‘upgraded membership has even more rewards’  snub. “May I ask why?”

“Um, well, it seems that you must have a Japanese-American Express card to enter.”

“I’m sorry…” I said. My Japanese is still pretty dicey when it comes to keigo- a type of super polite Japanese that is used by people in the service industry.  “I’m not quite sure I understood you. Did you say, ‘Japanese Express card?’”

“I’m so sorry…I mean a Japanese American Express card.

“Oh, I see..” I said, and laughed. I don’t know why. Though she was smiling ear to ear, clearly she wasn’t joking. Maybe it was the irony, the incongruity of a Japanese-American Express card. . She almost laughed with me. I mean, I was prepared for a snubbing, not for a…what the hell was this? “I’m sorry but…exactly, what is a Japanese American Express card?”

“It’s an American Express card issued in Japan,” she replied with the friendliest smile anyone ever mustered.

“Oh, I see…” I said. I looked in the lounge, at all the Japanese faces. Some were looking my way with typically anxious stares, and I felt my insides roiling a bit.

She handed my card back to me with two hands like it was a precious article to be handled with care. I don’t know why but I felt like she’d spat on it.

I was at a loss for words…the implication was too blatant. I mean, I had to be mistaken, right?  I mean, here I was in an international airport being told that this lounge was for the exclusive use of travelers issued a card locally? There had to be some mistake, some kind of oversight.

But, her smile was so friendly, so naively oblivious of the humiliation that was starting to creep up on me out of nowhere, that I turned away from her, and peeped once more within the lounge at people- Japanese people- having friendly chats or reading newspapers and sipping coffee or tea from tiny cups or watching CNN on the giant flat screen TV, and, I don’t know why but it reminded me of that perfect early autumn day under a powder blue sunny sky in NY, which just happened to be 9/11/01.

Slowly, dejectedly, I walked out of the lounge.

By the time I got on the plane I had convinced myself that I had somehow misunderstood the situation. It wasn’t some sloppy form of discrimination. It was simply an oversight. The developers of the computer system in that lounge had not anticipated a foreign cardholder and upon encountering one the software was not able to process the request. That explanation made perfect sense to me. Incidents of that magnitude happen often in Japan. Quite possibly I was the first foreigner to ever try to gain entry to that lounge. Positively thinking, now that the flaw in their programming has been identified, the next foreign traveller that decides they want to cool their heels in the lounge at Narita will have a different reception.

I wondered if I’d made it clear to that staff person that what she was revealing to me was indeed a flaw that could easily be misconstrued. She did look pretty naive, after all. I wondered if she got it.  Perhaps I should have done everything within my power to make sure she did. I mean, that would have been the constructive thing to do, wouldn’ it? Maybe the next traveller won’t be as shouganai-ish as I’ve become living in Japan. (Shouganai is Japanese for “Oh well, whatchagonnado.”) Maybe he or she will raise hell and cause that sweet naive staff person with the disarming smile undue embarrassment.

…and that would be a shame.

Loco kanaa…

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16 Responses to “The Japanese-American Express card”

  1. Taro 3Yen 10 August 2009 at 10:08 pm Permalink

    Hey don't feel "rejected" for having a blue American American Express Card at the Narita lounge.

    Last summer, I was rejected from entry to the Narita lounge (Terminal 2) even through I have a Japanese-issued American Express GOLD Card.

    At the time, I was on sweating almost fainting crutches (typical 30+C Japanese summer day) and tried to argue the point that letting me into the lounge was better than calling the airport's emergency services. Nope–It's being gaijin, not your credit card that is the problem.

    Thanks to your rejection, I just went the Narita Airport website printed out the lounge rules (which I will sideways shove up the butt the first lounge lizard who tries to kick me out).
    http://www.narita-airport.jp/en/guide/service/lis

    • rob 9 November 2011 at 12:05 pm Permalink

      Seriously “gaijin”? If you’re going to write in English, write in all English. the only people I have ever heard use the word “Gaijin” in my life are foreigners who somehow think it sounds cool or something.

      Anyway, if she slid the card and it gave the bad disapproving beep, I doubt it scanned the color of his skin first. There are Japanese American Express cards (I have one), and it is reasonable that having one might be a condition for using the lounge (complex international contracts are a pain, etc.) I wouldn’t expect that because one disgruntled guy tried to use a card that didn’t work that they will be “clued-in” to the situation now, or even see any issue with it. If Loco wants to make a complaint, he should just contact American Express directly.

      • Locohama 9 November 2011 at 4:00 pm Permalink

        Thanks Rob! love comments from enlightened people

  2. Aka Gaijin 11 August 2009 at 12:06 am Permalink

    Hmm… my company issued me a Diner's Club card. I *must* play around with this when I visit America for that wedding in December.

  3. areason2write 12 August 2009 at 9:27 am Permalink

    are you softening a bit – or were you just tired? 8-)

  4. Locohama 12 August 2009 at 9:40 am Permalink

    Good question reason2. good question, indeed. Maybe a little of both
    thanks for stopping by (-:

  5. santa 4 April 2010 at 11:32 pm Permalink

    that's funny, but "whats the heck!" ^^
    a japanese AMERICAIN express card haha..

    I never try to enter a lounge with my card, always with my flying ticket (when I travel in business class).

    I guess ignorance in Japan is a common thing

    maybe that give a certain "charm" to Japan?

  6. THB101 6 September 2012 at 9:08 am Permalink

    I have an American Express Centurion Card and am curious about this situation as well… I will attempt to go to the lounge and post back… Love the website btw stumbled upon it while watching some youtube videos by QuickRhino who was explaining withdrawing money in Japan. But I will definitely try my Centurion Card to see if it works. And to the previous comment about the lounge having racist tenancies I doubt that immensely. Anyhow I’ll post it once I have gone to the Lounge. Just out of curiosity which lounge was it in.

    • Locohama 6 September 2012 at 6:13 pm Permalink

      I really don’t remember which lounge it was…this was a while back. Old luck. Looking forward to your report.

  7. Taro 3Yen 10 August 2009 at 10:18 pm Permalink

    Upon closer reading, your AMEX card's "Blue" status may have caused your rejection since the Narita Airport website says:
    "Credit card companies provide the following lounges for the convenience of the **gold** card members."
    http://www.narita-airport.jp/en/guide/service/lis

  8. Locohama 10 August 2009 at 10:24 pm Permalink

    Hey Taro! Thanks a lot for following up on that for me. WOW. and Thanks for that link!
    Sorry you had a similar experience…
    If it is being a foreigner that caused the rejection that's a shame…

  9. Locohama 10 August 2009 at 10:27 pm Permalink

    If it is because of gold or blue, that's one thing. My issue is with the "issued in Japan" part…that means only Japanese (or foreigners fortunate enough to have cards issued in Japan) can use the lounge.

  10. Ichi 8 February 2014 at 12:35 am Permalink

    It’s not racism. The American Express card has limitations; depending on the place of issue, benefits differ. For example, a Hong Kong issued Centurion American Express card previously could not get complimentary lounge access in London.

    My two cents worth on ‘racism’ in Japan…the Japanese love foreigners. Foreigners can get away with murder! When I’m with my ‘foreign’ friends in Japan, I find the service is way better.

  11. Locohama 8 February 2014 at 3:20 am Permalink

    Who said it was racism? Read it again, and refrain from trying to read every post as a description of Japanese racist behavior. Because that’s not this blog. I respect readers. I don’t respect people who come here looking to disprove accusations of racism when it doesn’t exists.
    And race-based favorable treatment doesn’t sit well with me either. “I wanna hangout / be his friend / have sex with him because he’s black/white/not-Japanese and I hear they are/have/ do __________.” That kind of thinking gives me the creeps. Just judge me on my character, I say, and you can’t go wrong. Keep that other nonsense as far away from me as possible. Thanks for the shout.


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