Rather than giving a lengthy explication of the banking system, I will here simply list several points of interest:
* Japan does not have national bank chains; instead, if people need nationwide access to their money (and often even if they don't), they use a post office savings account. The Japanese post office is, or rather would be, if it were to be privatized, the largest bank in the world.
* If you are signing up for a bank account and make one mistake on the form, you can't white it out/cross it out/edit it at all. You have to start over.
* Ditto if the bank employee makes a mistake for you.
* It is difficult for foreigners to get credit cards in Japan, mainly because it's hard to prove residency.
* Further, credit cards are very different from the US versions anyway. There are two basic kinds: one that you charge to and then the full balance is debited from your account at the end of each month (glorified charge card) and another that you specify how many installments at the time of payment. In other words, I buy a PS3 (hypothetically) for $600 and when I charge it the clerk asks: "how many times do you want to pay?" I'm feeling masochistic so I say "twelve" and then for the next twelve cycles the installment plus interest is automatically deducted from my account. This is not easy to adjust.
* Debit cards are not really available, although the Japanese credit cards are similar to the US debit cards.
* Most people do not have a checking account. Nearly everything is (or can be) paid in cash.
* This absence of ways to pay for things (particularly online) is somewhat alleviated by the fact that you can take your utility bill or some online store bills and other notices to one of the many convenience stores and pay off your balance there. It's convenient, but perhaps not quite as convenient as automatically deducting it from your account.
* Thankfully, you can automatically deduct your bills from your account. But, it takes two months to set up. No joke. You write down all of your account information and then for the next two months you have to pay at the convenience store until they "set you up." Apparently there is nothing like the EFT system in the US.
* On the plus side, when you withdraw or deposit money, whether at the bank or through an ATM, if you haven't forgotten it you can insert your little bank book and automatically get all transactions since your last visit (including those processed automatically, like debits for utilities and rent and whatnot) printed on it. This is much nicer than a bank statement because it keeps your whole history right there in your pocket, and tells you exactly how much you have saved/left.
* If you screw up when you put in your pin number at the ATM (two or three strikes and you're out), it eats your card. Then you have to wait two more weeks for a new one.
* The bank is open only when we are at work. It opens at 10 and closes at 3, Monday through Friday only.
All in all, the banking system isn't terrible, but it's not nearly as convenient as the US system. On the other hand, Japan's health insurance system is much better (cheaper), which is probably more important.