I had been meaning to post this information for a while, but have been lagging since I relocated. Of course, I have my particular choice when choosing wire transfer services, but I welcome other people's suggestions and opinions. So the fact remains...
How does one send money back home?
Well, there are many methods, not all of them painful.
1. If you have someone you can trust at home, you can just mail them an international money order (obtained from your post office) and have them deposit it into your account. If you're close to an exchange office, you have the option of sending Japanese Yen or your home country's currency.
2. Wire transfer services. There are a few companies servicing Japan and the US. My personal choice (and the fastest method I know of) is GoLloyds. GoLloyds sets up a dummy account for you in Tokyo, which acts as an intermediary between your Japanese and foreign bank accounts. You then transfer your money from your account using a furikomi (振込み, see below), which will deposit it into your GoLloyds account. GoLloyds can then send this money abroad. Very fast.
Unfortunately, the prices do add up. GoLloyds charges a ￥2,000 fee, your Japanese bank might charge a small fee, and your foreign bank will no doubt add a little extra.
You also need to be able to interpret the kanji to send a furikomi transfer. GoLloyds really helps in this regard, by giving you a letter in both Japanese and English stating what needs to be done. If in doubt, you can just hand this letter to a bank teller and ask for help. Although the procedure varies slightly by bank, you might expect this on your ATM:
1. 振込み (furikomi)
2. 確認 (confirmation)
3. Insert cash card and/or bank book
4. Enter pin
5. Enter amount of money to be transferred
7. If this is your first transfer, don't bother; however, if you've done a furikomi transfer before, the bank can provide a card detailing the receiving account information, and eliminating the need for extra steps. Be sure to ask for this card if you're going to make many transfers. If you don't have a transfer card, select 振込みカードを使わない (furikomi kaado o tsukawanai)
8. Enter your home phone number
10. Choose the payee's bank from the list on the screen. To do this you have to know the bank's name in kanji. Select the bank's name and then choose the branch. From the chart, you have to select the first hiragana letter of the branch name.
11. Now choose the type of the account
12. 普通預金 (futsu yokin) ordinary account
13. 当座預金 (toza yokin) checking account
14. 貯蓄預金 (chochiku yokin) thrift account
16. Payer's name
17. 座名義人の名前で振り込む (koza meiginin no namae de furikomu). This is for sending money to the payee using the account name of the cash card you are using. This usually means that you will send the money in your name.
18. Confirmation screen
20. What type of transfer, denshin or bunsho?
21. 電信扱い (denshin atsukai) means remitting money by wire. This is faster than a mail transfer, usually arriving the same day, but more expensive.
22. 文書扱い (bunsho atsukai) means mail transfer. It takes longer, perhaps a working day or two, but is less expensive than a wire transfer.
23. 振り込みカードを作る, make a transfer card (furikomi kaado o tsukuru)
24. 振り込みカード不要, don't make transfer card (furikomi kaado fuyo)
25. Final step: would you like to make another transaction now?
(ア)継続する (keizoku suru) Yes I'd like to continue.
(イ)終了する (shuuryou suru) No, I'm finished.
(Thanks to this source)
If you'd like to sign up for GoLloyds, here's the link.
Update August 9th
I completely forgot to mention the most convenient method of banking in Japan - having a Citibank account. Citibank allows you to keep different portions of your account in different currencies (meaning you can essentially play the currency market within one bank); as a result, you can set aside some money to be withdrawn in the local currency if you're traveling somewhere with Citibank ATMs, and it functions as well as any American bank in transferring funds to pay off your credit cards. Unfortunately, the ATMs aren't so convenient in Japan, but I have seen them in Osaka, Fukuoka, and Tokyo.
Citibank Japan website