The Grobit

January 26th, 2008

There are two things that make dealing with yen as an American somewhat difficult.

The first is that the yen is always kinda near 100 yen to the dollar. This means that you get in the habit of determining prices by just imagining a decimal to places from the end. 100 yen? 1.00 dollars. 1750 yen? 17.50 dollars. The 100 Yen Store? The Dollar Store.

The other problem is that the Japanese counting system jumps units at the fourth decimal place, not the third.

That is, in English, you have “One” “Ten” “Hundred”, then you add the word “Thousand” and count up from one again. “One Thousand” “Ten Thousand” “Hundred Thousand”. Switch ‘thousand’ to ‘million’, and start again.

Japanese, however, goes four places before doing the jump. “Ichi” “Ju” “Hyaku” “Sen”, then add “Man” and count up from “Ichi” again. “Ichi Man” “Ju Man” “Hyaku Man” “Sen Man”.

So for any number less than 10,000 (“Ichi Man”), thinking the numbers is easy. For any number over it, you have to do some mental digit juggling. “Hyaku Man” is “100 Man” is “100 10,000”, thus “1,000 1,000”, thus “1 million”.

The long and short of it is that, when speaking in English to other expats, even if I refer to numbers of 99,999 or less in yen, once I hit 100,000 yen, I generally switch to dollars. That’s because in my mind, when saying “man”, I’m thinking “dollars”. “Five man” means “Five hundred”. “Nine man” means “Nine hundred”. You can’t use numbes like “20 man” if you subconsciously think of “man” as “dollar”. “Twenty hundred dollars”? Yeah, I know there are some people in the US who use that terminology, but it drove me nuts, even before I got here. Even worse would be “200 man”. What, “Two hundred hundred dollars”?

So once I break the 100,000 yen mark, I stop using the word “man” (because “ten hundred” is awkward for me), but I can’t convert the number into English either (because moving the comma mentally is a pain in the butt and prone to error). Instead, I just give up on both the yen calculation AND the use of the word “man”, and switch to the word “dollar” itself. Sure, that still involves some calculation, but instead of moving the decimal place on a big number, I’m just chopping off a zero.
So “ten man” becomes “one thousand dollars”. “hundred man” becomes “ten thousand dollars”. Just whack a zero, and you’re set.

Brief review of how I talk:

1 yen = “one yen”

10 yen = “ten yen”

100 yen = “one hundred yen”

1000 yen = “one thousand yen”

10000 yen = “one man” (‘yen’ is ommitted, for some reason)

100000 yen = “one thousand dollars”

1000000 yen = “ten thousand dollars”

…and on from there.

So, this is all pretty confusing as is. Easy for me, but hard when I have to consciously talk in non-expat language, stripping out all the Japanese-isms for folks who don’t speak Japanese.

So, instead of doing all the zero moving, I just convert EVERYTHING into dollars. I don’t tell my parents that a train ticket from Tokyo station to Shibuya station costs one hundred ninety yen, I tell them it costs a buck ninety. I don’t tell them that cherry pies are criminally overpriced here, costing a whopping three thousand five hundred yen, but that they cost thirty-five bucks.

…Which would all be cool, but my dad has a pedantic/precise streak, like me. I tell him that something costs $100 here in Japan, and he says “So, that’s what in yen, like 10,800?” Unfortunately, I’m using the lazy conversion math, where I ignore the actual exchange rate, and so when I say “$100”, what I really mean is “10,000 yen”. Even worse with weird numbers.

Me: “My plane ticket cost $630”

Dad: “So that’s…uh… sixty seven thousand yen? Sixty eight thousand yen?”

Me: “No, no, Sixty three thousand yen”

I tried explaining my system (“Dad, I’m just chopping off two zeroes. I’m not talking real dollars, just a shorthand, a rounded figure”), but he could never keep straight when I was talking “real dollars” versus “just dividing the yen by 100”.

So I ended out resolving this by inventing a currency: the grobit.

The grobit is exactly 100 yen = 1 grobit. There are no price fluctuations, ever. No amount of currency volatility will cause it to stray by even 0.1 yen.

At first, he found it all quite silly, but somehow, along the way, it stuck. I talk about the price of my house, my mortgage payments, the price of tea, how much broadband costs, the cost of plane fares, etc., all in grobits. And, honestly, it works great. I made the term up in desperation one day, after a bit of heated back-and-forth, as a kind of rhetorical barb, but it’s actually come to be a pretty useful linguistic tool. At least for me.

Bugbread, creating neologisms to avoid simple arithmetic since 2007.

5 Responses to “The Grobit”

  1. Victor Vorski Says:

    Ugh. I know what you mean. I’ve gotten used to
    Japanese currency up to 100’s of thousands of
    dollars worth, past that, millions, billions,
    I’m still lost.

    If you get the government to re-evaluate the yen
    and price everything in grobit I will make you
    my personal saint and saviour!

    Who the hell needs so many zeros!!!!

  2. bugbread Says:

    I dunno, the number of zeroes itself doesn’t bother me, just moving them around.

    However, the yen is undervalued. The way I figure it is that I assume that the smallest unit of currency should match the cheapest thing you can buy. So the cheapest thing on the market should be 1 yen (or dollar, or ruble, or whathaveyou), and everything should be priced based on that.

    The cheapest product I can think of is the 10 yen chocolate sold at convenience store counters. So, since the cheapest thing there is is 10 yen, not 1, the yen is 10x undervalues. So those chocolates should be 1 yen instead of 10, meaning that a 120 yen Coke should be 12 yen, a 1,000 yen deluxe bento 100 yen, etc.

  3. bugbread Says:

    Of course, this also means that the dollar is overvalued. You can buy stuff that isn’t even worth a dollar, the smallest unit of the nominal main currency! So dollar prices would have to rise. Since, in the US, the cheapest thing is (likewise) around 10 cents, that means an overvalue of 10. So the ten cent item should be $1, a coke should be $5 (or has that risen?), etc.

  4. David Says:

    I usually do a quick roughly accurate conversion in my head. Say $1=¥120 then multiply the yen by .8. 100 yen then equals 80 cents. At $1= ¥110, then I use .9. For such things as $1=¥115, I don’t covert so precisely, but will use one of the above and round up or down. I try not to do much of it for living here as it doesn’t mean much in daily life. Plus, if I do, I always feel like I am being scammed when I shop.

    One thing that really bugs me is when a native English speaker starts speaking half in Japanese to me. “I paid ichiman en.” WTF? I understand English just fine, thanks.

  5. bugbread Says:

    Ah, then I’d really bug you. I’m bugged by certain instances of mixing of Japanese and English (worst one: when someone puts ね at the end of an English sentence. “It’s cold outside, ね?”), but I totally say “I paid ichiman en”, because I don’t want to do the conversion, and “one man en” fails to roll off the tongue.

Leave a Reply