Photo/IllutrationThe Banknote and Postage Stamp Museum exhibits stamps and money from all over the world. Visitors can learn the history of printing technologies used for making currency in Japan. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

My father, who is a die-hard believer that cash is king, tells me, “You need to stop using ‘plastic money,’ or else you’ll end up in a poorhouse!”

Well, Papa, I hate to break it to you, but that hard-earned cold cash in your pocket might not be made from what you think it is.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know,” is another one of his favorite sayings. Well, this too, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but ... well, keep reading.

You’ll never look at paper money, passports and postage or revenue stamps in the same way after a visit to the Banknote and Postage Stamp Museum, a free museum established in 1971 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Printing Bureau.

The Oji area in Kita Ward also houses the Paper Museum, perhaps because it’s the birthplace of Japan’s first Western-style paper factory, which was started by Shibusawa Eiichi (1840-1931), whose estate and memorial museum is a short stroll away.

The name of the game here is anti-counterfeiting methods. At the museum, you can learn all about the history of printing and papermaking technologies used to battle counterfeiters in Japan and around the world.

In the Edo Period (1603-1867), “hansatsu” (currency issued by a feudal clan) banknotes were printed using woodblocks with complex patterns. In the early 19th century, a series of fine lines, dashes and dots that combined to form images were chiseled into metal plates and reproduced on paper.

With the advent of motorized printing machines, multiple sophisticated printing techniques were combined to combat counterfeiting.

Examples abound: the use of raised ink that gives a textured feel to the note; latent images and pearl ink that make different images appear when a note is tilted; super-tiny text not reproducible by copiers (microprinting); and luminescent ink that makes a pattern appear when put under an ultraviolet light.

The paper used for banknotes must be durable. Which brings me to my father’s canned sentences. Banknotes in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, to name a few places, are made of polymer (plastic) because it lasts longer than paper.

The greenback is composed of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen, so it’s essentially fabric.

For more than 100 years, Japanese bills have been made from the bark of “mitsumata” trees, sometimes called paperbush in English, which is an ornamental tree with white and yellow blossoms.

So, that wad of money in your pocket just might be plastic. And, as it turns out, money does grow on trees.

Now I wonder what Papa will say when he sees me paying for things by simply holding up my smartphone to a reader!

* * *

This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the May 20 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.