Unanticipated Security Risk of Keeping Your Money in a Home Safe

In Japan, lots of people—especially older people—keep their life savings in cash in their homes. (The country’s banks pay very low interest rates, so the incentive to deposit that money into bank accounts is lower than in other countries.) This is all well and good, until a tsunami destroys your home and washes your money out to sea. Then, when it washes up onto the beach, the police collect it:

One month after the March 11 tsunami devastated Ofunato and other nearby cities, police departments already stretched thin now face the growing task of managing lost wealth.

“At first we put all the safes in the station,” said Noriyoshi Goto, head of the Ofunato Police Department’s financial affairs department, which is in charge of lost-and-found items. “But then there were too many, so we had to move them.”

Goto couldn’t specify how many safes his department has collected so far, saying only that there were “several hundreds” with more coming in every day.

Identifying the owners of lost safes is hard enough. But it’s nearly impossible when it comes to wads of cash being found in envelopes, unmarked bags, boxes and furniture.

After three months, the money goes to the government.

Posted on April 15, 2011 at 6:49 AM47 Comments


Jay from BKK April 15, 2011 7:18 AM

“Identifying the owners of lost safes is hard enough.”

Hint: it probably belongs to the person who knows the combination. Either they’ll show up or they don’t need whatever’s in the safe anymore.

Paeniteo April 15, 2011 7:36 AM

@Jay: “they’ll show up”

Question is, how often are you attempting to visit the several police stations located along the coast near your home to try combinations on a number of safes indistinguishable from yours?

Who would have thought of engraving one’s contact information onto one’s safe box before this disaster?

brazzy April 15, 2011 7:37 AM

I’d see this rather as a rarely appreciated advantage of electronic money over cash: the possibility of having backups.

Dark Helmet April 15, 2011 7:47 AM

@Marsh Ray

That’s the stupidest combination I’ve ever heard in my life! The kind of thing an idiot would have on his luggage!

moo April 15, 2011 7:49 AM

Wow. Its bad enough to lose your home and all of your possessions, and have your entire neighborhood (and large chunks of your nation) completely devastated by a natural disaster. But to lose your life savings on top of that sucks even more.

Just one more difficulty for their police to deal with in this challenging time. I wonder how many of these safes are the same model. How can they even figure out who owns them, other than by letting the owners try their own combination on dozens of different safes until one of them opens.

Jared April 15, 2011 7:53 AM

See, this is why it’s so much better to keep your money in your mattress. Then when the tsunami comes, you can use it as a flotation device and stay with your cash.

President Skroob April 15, 2011 8:03 AM

@Dark Helment

That is the combination to my luggage.

(and it is 1 2 3 4 5..)

Randy April 15, 2011 8:27 AM

@Dark Helmet,

Wow, I’ve got “two factor” authentication on my briefcase. There are two separate locks (one on each side) each with its own 3-digit code.

Craig Morris April 15, 2011 8:28 AM

Bruce, you focus on security, but there is a bigger story here: the Japanese are not pouring over people’s property to find such safes and collect the booty. Americans have debt, not savings, but can you imagine Americans handing in other people’s safes?

I am from New Orleans originally, and I can tell you that people put up warning signs on their (temporarily) abandoned property against trespassing after Katrina. When I was in Japan, we lost a suitcase in a subway, and the thing was found and returned to us days later in a different part of the country.

The Japanese are very impressive people.

Robert Thille April 15, 2011 8:41 AM

Huh, I’ve got some travelers checks in the safe, but no cash. But even if it was (nearly) full of cash, it’d still have my passport and my pistol (trackable) in it, so I imagine if hey opened the safes they could return the contents…

As to whether they feel it’s worth it to open the safes (without the combo) to be able to return the contents, I can’t say.

Biswajit Basu April 15, 2011 8:54 AM

Its really sad, many of them might have lost Home, Relatives, House and now their hard earned Savings. But this gives us a lesson, to manage all our valuables, cash and Important Documents wisely and Securely. I do agree with BRAZZY about the electronic money, then also keeping bare minimum Golds and Ornaments in posession. And most important to keep the soft copies of every Imp. documents attached on emeil ID’s, so that after any natural or man made devastation like this, we may retrieve few or most of the things.

lazlo April 15, 2011 9:05 AM

Interesting in that it’s entirely possible for economic disasters to have a similar effect on your bank account. Seems the safest thing to do would be to put half your money in the bank and the other half in a safe. Or whatever ratio you feel properly describes the ratio of risk between the two. And yeah, engraving the safe with your contact info is a good idea that wasn’t entirely obvious a few months ago.

Of course, finding these safes only means that people put some money in them. Maybe they did split it half and half. And if the economic impact of the tsunami causes banks to fail, then even that level of care fails. I suppose the only remaining alternative would be diversified foreign investments, or possibly just wearing very expensive jewelry.

v1ks April 15, 2011 9:44 AM

I’d imagine one of the biggest difficulty in this situation is finding and contacting the person.
Even if the safe has an inscription, contains a passport or documents with the owners name, chances to find the said owner are rather slim. Vast majority of the survivors live in shelters and tent camps…

Christopher April 15, 2011 9:48 AM

If you keep your money in banks, then it can be “attached” by any government agency, or any entity that can induce the gov’t to attach, i.e. garnishment, civil suits, etc. So, for redundancy and backups you give up total control over your assets. Maybe, just maybe, an educated culture like the Japanese weighed that and decided a tsunami was a statistical anomaly.

They were right, of course, but the consequences are here for us to view. They should still keep their money in safes, but perhaps find a cheap mitigation for recovery if possible. Solving yesterday’s problem…


M April 15, 2011 9:52 AM

I give it less than a month before we start seeing a new phishing attack targeted at the Japanese:

“We here at the local police station have found money we believe to be yours. Please send us your bank account number so we can more efficiently return this to you.”

Petréa Mitchell April 15, 2011 9:53 AM

The cash economy is also encouraged by the heavy restrictions on issuing credit cards, which in turn mean a lot of places don’t take credit cards at all. (Foreign visitors are advised to keep substantial amounts of cash on their persons at all times, another case where the security calculation is different than usual because mugging is extremely rare in Japan compared to most countries.)

Wanderer April 15, 2011 9:55 AM

@Craig Morris – “…can you imagine Americans handing in other people’s safes?”

In my town (Pop. 25,000, middle America), I’m willing to bet that if I left my wallet on a park bench, it would be returned to me intact 8 out of 10 times, so yes, I can imagine Americans turning in other people’s safes. People in New Orleans after Katrina may have behaved dishonorably, unethically, and immorally, but don’t paint all Americans with that brush.

Steven Hoober April 15, 2011 10:32 AM

Even here, at the highest part of town, 1000 miles from the sea, I put some thought into what happens to my fire safe after a disaster.

Though there’s no chance of it washing out to sea, it will presumably tumble out of position in a catastrophic fire. It is not capable of protecting the contents for more than about 4 hours in a fire, so I asked the firemen and yup, the cinders in your basement stay hot all night.

So, it’s on an outside wall, so it has a chance to fall into the yard. And yes, firemen know about safes so make a point of hosing them down for a long time to remove the heat, when they see one, so your stuff doesn’t burn up.

This is like any security item. It has to be thought of in the FULL context.

nycman April 15, 2011 10:43 AM

3 months seem to be an awfully short time considering what the survivors have to deal with. Safes have always been vulnerable to floods, fires, and physical removal. If the government believes you have substantial assets in your safe, they will come after it. A few ex-hedge fund managers have found that out (the madoff types). Perhaps a good option would be to have safe deposit boxes at reputable institutions. If you have enough assets, have boxes around the world in countries you think will be friendly to you. It’s probably easier to have anonymous boxes rather than anonymous accounts now a days.

JimFive April 15, 2011 10:56 AM


I presume that 3 months is the standard abandoned property rule. It’s entirely reasonable to think that the policy will not be diligently enforced in this situation.


Biswajit Basu April 15, 2011 11:14 AM

What i feel, its also not safe to keep valuables @ Bank Safe. Specially after watching the movie “The Bank Job”.
Now the first thing Japan’s Coastal Police need to do is to maintain the proper inventory, and to settle the claims we should find out some ways and means, which is definitely help those illfated people to get their valuables.It should not go to the other people.Lost & Found Dept. has to shell out a hefty amount to have a proper custody and Security of these safes.

Nick P April 15, 2011 12:18 PM

There’s another side to the currency loss issue. I’ve heard reports that around a third of Japan’s $100 equivalent notes are out of circulation and in places like home safes. The Tsunami destroyed and moved tons of money. As of a week ago, Japan estimated that they only recovered 10-15% of the lost money. This could have a serious impact on the value of Japan’s currency and perhaps other things.

dpawtows April 15, 2011 1:12 PM

Another potential problem: Some safes are opened with a key, or both a key & a combination. After a disaster like this, there’s a good chance that the owner would have lost the key.

Alobar April 15, 2011 5:55 PM

After Hurricane Katrina, I had the exact opposite problem. All ATM machines were down. I needed cash to evacuate New Orleans. Luckily I kept a stash of cash in my home safe.

John Stihl April 15, 2011 7:15 PM

@ Steven Hoober
“So, it’s on an outside wall, …”

Which makes it susceptible to a chainsaw attack.

dob April 15, 2011 9:03 PM

“People in New Orleans after Katrina may have behaved dishonorably, unethically, and immorally, but don’t paint all Americans with that brush.”

All due respect, much of that is bullshit. It’s not looting when one breaks into a grocery store after a catastrophic natural disaster to liberate food and water, it’s survival.

duhwinning April 15, 2011 10:15 PM

why does the money have to go to the government? they could use that money to help the victims of said disaster. just pool it together and help them!

moo April 16, 2011 7:44 AM

Safes may be heavy, but they are also sealed tight and mostly filled with air.

In the photo posted by wiredog above, most of the safes don’t look extremely thick-walled. Maybe heavier ones are not buoyant enough and do sink.

Gabriel April 16, 2011 8:42 AM

@James: mine is the light blue one on the right. It has a lot of money. I would be willing to share half of it with you once i can open it but I need some money to travel to the police station, since it washed away very far.

Gabriel April 16, 2011 8:46 AM

Who would have ever thought a safe needs an if lost please return to xyz postage guaranteed label.

Gabriel April 17, 2011 7:07 AM

@Richard: do these safes have a bolt strong enough to make them worth cracking, or could they just cut the bolt with a carbide saw blade? Same way that no one bothers cracking/picking padlocks but just cuts them.

Dirk Praet April 18, 2011 7:44 PM

Spreading your savings over different accounts at different banks in different countries comes to mind. With the current interest rates, there’s little to gain from common savings accounts anyway.

Jonadab the Unsightly One April 19, 2011 5:59 AM

The tsunami makes an interesting movie plot, but the primary risk of keeping your savings as cash in a safe in your house is common theft. If you’ve got a safe, that’s the second thing a thief’s going to walk out with (the first thing being anything expensive and highly portable, like a PDA or smartphone or what have you). It would arguably be more secure to stuff the money in an old shoe box, scrawl “reunion photos” on it with a Sharpie, and stow it on a shelf in plain sight.

Does Japan not have an FDIC equivalent?

w April 20, 2011 8:48 PM


“It’s not looting when one breaks into a grocery store”

You have very accurately shown the difference between Japanese and many other cultures. For Japanese it most definitely would be viewed as looting. They respect other’s property in ANY circumstance.

In the case of a natural disaster, most store owners in any country would be happy to share the little bit they had with their neighbors, but if they had been cleaned out by looters there’s nothing for either the neighbors or the owners.

Davi Ottenheimer April 24, 2011 10:29 AM

“After three months, the money goes to the government.”

In America some would call that looting.

Seems to me that looting in Japan traditionally was performed in highly organized and efficient groups. Imperial Japanese soldiers for example often were accused of it during occupation (over 300 billion in assets in the 1940s). While the Japanese politicians later made some formal apologies, they at the same time were clear to say they did not accept fault.

This is very different than American culture where looting is has been characterized as an individual enterprise (e.g. settlement of the West) and an apology is typically equated to admitting fault.

So a difference may be in how the individuals relate to the idea of collective good. These safes could be safe floating around Japan because no group there has started an organized looting program…unless you count the government.

My question therefore is what happens when safes are opened after the three month wait and reveal a will or legal document that specifies individual ownership. Can the government keep the money anyway since that was the consensus plan?

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