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New 500-Yen Coin Could End Vending-Machine Headache

November 6, 2000
The new 500-yen coin (right) is harder to counterfeit than the old version (left).

On August 1, 2000, a new 500-yen coin (4.55 U.S. dollars at 110 yen to the dollar) was introduced in Japan. Because the old coin bore a striking resemblance to a foreign coin of much lower value, Japan's vending machines had been unable to distinguish between the former and a slightly altered version of the latter. Even before the new coin was launched, vendors had tried to halt the counterfeiting by disenabling their machines from accepting 500-yen coins altogether; of the approximately 5.5 million vending machines in Japan, around 70% had stopped taking the coin. The currency of another country was, in effect, driving out the use of a local coin. To rectify this unusual situation, the Ministry of Finance took the step of issuing a new coin.

An Uncanny Resemblance
The old 500-yen coin (the minting of which was halted in 1999) is imperceptibly lighter than the foreign coin, and the diameter and material composition (75% copper, 25% nickel) of the two coins are identical. Although the surface designs differ, tampering with the latter made it impossible for vending machines to distinguish between the two. As a result, beginning a few years ago, incidents of people dropping slightly altered coins into vending machines and, without making a purchase, pushing the return lever to receive 500-yen coins have become rampant. Left with no other recourse, vendors stopped accepting 500-yen coins.

The main feature of the new coin is a change in its material composition, which now consists of 72% copper (formerly 75%), 8% nickel (25%), and 20% zinc (0%). Though the diameter and thickness are unchanged and the weight is almost identical, its conductivity differs from both the old coin and the foreign coin. Therefore, setting the vending machines to accept only the new coin makes it possible to filter out the "counterfeit" variety.

In addition, a number of innovations have been introduced to thwart would-be counterfeiters. Inside the large, vertically elongated zeros of the figure "500" on one side of new coin are smaller, "latent" characters for 500 yen, which are visible when viewed from below. And the outside edge has a "helical milled" slanted-line pattern.

Will It Catch On?
It remains to be seen whether or not the new coin will be usable at vending machines. The internal data of the machines that used to accept the old coins needs to be rewritten, but because rewriting costs more than 40,000 yen (364 dollars) per machine (including labor), many vendors might be inclined to simply leave the machines as they are and continue refusing 500-yen coins.

Beginning around October, vending machines for beverages, cigarettes, train tickets, and other items should begin accepting the new coin. Counterfeits are unlikely to crop up again, since a fake coin would have to have the same shape and material composition (conductivity) as the new coin and be much lower in value.

To be on the safe side, though, vending-machine makers have developed a mechanism that causes the same coin that was put into a machine to be returned--instead of a new coin--when the change lever is pushed, making it more difficult for swindlers to walk away with a large haul.

The last time a new coin was issued in Japan to foil counterfeiting was in 1897, when a hole was added to the center of the 5-sen (1 sen = 1 hundredth of 1 yen) coin.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.