Japanese citizens feel the symbolism-rich coin, which lacks something, can make travel in Japan difficult for foreign guests.
On their first trip to Japan, almost all travelers are struck by how distinct the design of the five-yen coin is. With its bright gold color and prominent hole in the middle, getting a five-yen coin at the money exchange counter or as change when making a purchase makes it feel like the monetary system itself is saying “Welcome to Japan!”
But as indicative of the country as it may be, some Japanese people think the five-yen coin could use a bit of a redesign. Proponents of a change cite personal observations of foreign travelers in stores and on public transportation being confused about how much the coin is worth, and point to one reason why.
The five-yen coin is the only denomination without its value written in numerals. The only indication of its worth is in the kanji characters 五円, which mean “five yen,” and so foreign visitors who can’t read kanji, or who can’t read those two in particular, have no way of determining how much the five-yen coin is worth without prior knowledge. Because of this, some individuals are saying numerals should be added before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, when the number of foreigners visited Japan is expected to surge.
While we’re taking a close look at the five-yen coin, let’s stop to appreciate all the aspirational philosophy that went into its design, which was adopted in the late 1940s. At the time, Japan was still recovering from the devastating effects of World War II, and so the coin’s designers put two sprouting plants on one face of the coin, to symbolize their hopes that the nation would be making steady progress as it rebuilt itself.
On the other side, the designers placed references to what they felt would be the three pillars of economic recovery. The stalk of rice, symbolizing the nation’s farmers, is hard to miss, but those horizontal lines behind the “five yen” kanji represent the waves of the ocean, as fishing and marine products have always been an important contributor to Japanese life and livelihoods. Finally, on this side of the coin only, the central hole is surrounded by a series of notches like those found on a mechanical gear, as a salute to the nation’s industrial workers and institutions.
With so much meaningful iconography involved, a major overhaul of the five-yen coin’s design seems unlikely. That said, finding space to fit a 5 somewhere within the existing design doesn’t seem like an impossible task, but it may prove to be an unnecessary one. As mentioned above, the gold-colored five-yen coin has a hole, a trait it shares only with the silver-colored 50-yen coin, making the five-yen piece’s combination of shape and color unique among Japan’s coins, so as long as visitors know that Japan has a five-yen coin, it’s not too hard to determine which one it is.
There’s also the fact that vending machines in Japan, in general, don’t accept five-yen coins, and as a result any time you’re in a position to use one, you’ll probably be dealing with a human being, who hopefully can help you overcome the monetary language barrier.
Follow Casey on Twitter, where he wonders where he put the five-yen coin from his first trip to Japan that he kept as a souvenir.