The National Printing Bureau issued the first domestically produced Japanese banknotes in 1877 and has been responsible for printing the nation’s paper money ever since. There are currently four denominations of banknotes in circulation: ¥10,000, ¥5,000, ¥2,000, and ¥1,000 bills. Each year, the NPB delivers 3 billion bills to the Bank of Japan. If stacked on top of each other they would tower some 300 kilometers in the sky or approximately 80 times the height of Mount Fuji.
The average lifespan of a ¥10,000 bill is four to five years, while ¥5,000 and ¥1,000 bills tend to last for just one or two years. Badly soiled bills are cut up by the BOJ and recycled into toilet paper and other products.
Thinker and educator Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901), who played a leading role in the modernization of Japan, appears on the obverse of the ¥10,000 bill. A student of Western learning and English, at the age of 25 he took part in the historic shogunate delegation to the United States. His American observations were influential on his future writing and thinking. He is the founder of Keiō University and author of the important work Gakumon no susume (trans. An Encouragement of Learning), which opens, “Heaven does not create one person above or below another.” The bill’s reverse depicts a statue of the mythological hōō bird, which portends good fortune, found in the Hōōdō hall at the ancient Byōdōin temple in Uji, Kyoto.
The obverse of the ¥5,000 bill features the novelist Higuchi Ichiyō (1872–96), who is remembered for such works as Takekurabe (trans. Growing Up) and Nigorie (trans. Troubled Waters). She died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. Higuchi is the first woman whose portrait appears on a BOJ banknote. The bill’s reverse shows a detail from the folding screens Kakitsubatazu (Irises) by the artist Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716).
The obverse of the ¥1,000 bill has a portrait of doctor and bacteriologist Noguchi Hideyo (1876–1928). Born in Fukushima Prefecture, he traveled to the United States to conduct bacteriological research. He is known for his study of diseases including yellow fever and syphilis. While researching yellow fever in Africa, he contracted the disease and died in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) at the age of 51. The reverse is a rendering of Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms at Lake Motosu in Yamanashi Prefecture.
The ¥2,000 bill is relatively rare compared with other denominations, as it is no longer printed. It was issued in 2000 to commemorate the millennium and the Group of Eight summit held in Okinawa and Kyūshū. The obverse shows the Shureimon gate at Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa. The bottom right corner of the reverse depicts the author Murasaki Shikibu, who lived around 1,000 years before. To the left is a scene from her masterpiece, the Tale of Genji.
Preventing counterfeiting is a major issue. The Currency Museum in the Bank of Japan at Nihonbashi, Tokyo, introduces the history of Japanese money from the seventh century, displaying many old coins and banknotes. This includes exhibits on advances in anti-forgery techniques. Feudal domains in the Edo period (1603–1868) already used watermarks on their hansatsu scrip bills issued to cover debts
1. Intaglio Printing
One of the most effective anti-counterfeiting technologies for banknotes is intaglio printing, particularly against copying using printers or scanners. It creates an area of slightly raised print, which can also be used by visually impaired people to recognize denominations by touch alone. There are L-shapes on the ¥10,000 bill, octagons on the ¥5,000 bill, horizontal lines on the ¥1,000 bill, and Japanese braille characters for に (ni)—three circles aligned vertically—on the ¥2,000 bill.
The ¥10,000 and ¥5,000 bills have holograms with images that change depending on the angle they are viewed at.
The main obverse design appears as a watermark in the center of each bill. The ¥1,000, ¥5,000, and ¥10,000 bills also have one, two, and three bars, respectively, on the right-hand side.
4. Latent images
Tilt, for example, a ¥10,000 bill, and the number “10,000” can be seen in the bottom left of the obverse. The reverse side reveals the word “NIPPON” (Japan) on the right when tilted.
5. Pearl ink
Tilting the bills also reveals a pink pattern in the center of the left and right edges.
Tiny letters spelling out “NIPPON GINKO” (Bank of Japan) are printed on each bill as part of the woven design.
7. Luminescent inkIf ultraviolet light is shone on the bill, the bank seal on the obverse and part of the pattern becomes luminous. (Banner photo: The main three denominations of Japanese banknotes currently in circulation. All images and videos courtesy National Printing Bureau.)