The karinto lesson: a good nature makes all the difference

My partner was born and raised on Sado and is always telling me stories of growing up there. I’ll try to write some of them down.

This is a tale of two classmates from his elementary school. Both of whom were not smart. the kind of kids other kids like to prank. Like the old ‘hey do you want to eat karinto’ prank. Karinto is delicious but looks, exactly, like dried dog poo. So kids being kids, somebody gets tricked into doing a Pink Flamingos reenactment, eating dried dog poo instead of real karinto. If they’re stupid enough to fall for it they deserve it, lesson learned they’ll never fall for it again.

But there was a crucial difference between the two boys. One was arrogant and thought he was smart, which he decidedly was not. The other was humble and openly good natured about his lack of smarts, ‘”I’m not smart so I should listen to the advice of my friends and family.” Which one do you think got the karinto lesson?

As time went on the two led very different adult lives. The arrogant one refused to listen to anyone, never held a good job for long, never got married and took to drinking, blaming everybody for his problems. A life of endless karinto lessons but never learning. The humble one listened to the advice of those who cared about him, made a lot of friends, got a good steady job, got married and raised a family.

His whole life he’s never had the karinto lesson, in many ways.

Recharge your recharge, the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market

I love articles like this one. It’s fun examining how the writer, freelancer Meiko Homma, takes old news bits, worn-out arguments and weaves them into a ‘new’ narrative with a titillatingly hot title: “QR Code payments won the cashless race, Suica utterly defeated.”

Her article trots out some QR Code payment usage data from somewhere, the PASPY transit card death saga that illustrates the increasingly difficult challenge of keeping region limited transit IC cards going, the fact that Suica only covers 840 stations out of a total of 1630, all while conveniently ignoring recent important developments like the Suica 2 in 1 Regional Affiliate program, and big updates coming in early 2023: Cloud Suica extensions and the Mobile ICOCA launch.

It has the classic feel of ‘here’s a headline, now write the article’ hack piece passing as industry analysis we have too much of these days. The Yahoo Japan portal site picked it up and the comments section was soon full of wicked fun posts picking apart the weak arguments.

I’ve said it before and say it again: the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market. PayPay for example, started out as a code payment app but has added FeliCA QUICPay and EMV contactless support along with their PayPay card offering. Just like I predicted, these companies don’t care about payment technology, they just want people to use their services. My partner and I actually see less PayPay use at checkout these days and more Mobile Suica. Why?

The great thing about prepaid eMoney ‘truth in the card’ Suica, PASMO, WAON, Edy, nanaco, is they are like micro bank accounts coupled with the backend recharge flexibility of mobile wallets (Apple Pay, Google Pay, Suica App, etc.). PayPay, au Pay, Line Pay and similar Toyota Wallet knock-off payment apps with Apple Pay Wallet cards, are deployed as mobile recharge conduits that smart users leverage to put money into different eMoney micro bank accounts and get the points or instant cashback rebates they want to get at any given campaign moment. This is where the action is.

And so we have recharge acrobats like Twitter user #1: step 1 recharge PayPay account from Seven Bank account, step 2 move recharge amount from PayPay Money to PayPay Bank, step 3 move recharge from PayPay Bank to Line Pay, in Wallet app recharge Suica with Line Pay card. Or like recharge acrobat Twitter user #2: Sony Bank Wallet to Kyash to Toyota Wallet to Suica.

Phew…none of this involves transfer fees so it’s up to user creativity to come up with the recharge scenario that works best for them. Does it count as PayPay use or Line Pay use or Mobile Suica use? Does it matter?

It’s not about winners or losers, it’s about moving money around. Mobile Suica is extremely useful because of it’s recharge backend flexibility, thanks to Apple Pay and Google Pay (which does not support PASMO yet). This is the case for US citizens working in Japan who get a great return of their Suica or PASMO recharge right now using US issue credit cards because of the exchange rate. This is something visitors to Hong Kong cannot do with Apple Pay Octopus as the OCL recharge backend is far more restrictive than JR East. The biggest gripe users have with Suica is ¥20,000 balance limit.

In the weeks to come we’ll be sure to see hand wringing articles debating the future of Suica, open-loop, etc.,etc., because let’s face it, IT media journalists need something to write about in these challenging times where everything has to be sold as winner/loser, black/white, 0 or 10, and nothing in-between, to get any traction at all. As for me, I think it’s far more interesting, and real, to observe how users are using all these nifty mobile payment tools.

UPDATE 2022-07-04: Thoughts on the KDDI network outage
That was fast. No sooner had the “QR Codes won the mobile payments race” article appeared when major Japanese carrier KDDI experienced a nationwide mobile network meltdown on July 2 JST, lasted a full day with a very slow, still in progress, recovery affecting more than 40 million customers. Suddenly social media channels were full of people complaining that QR Code payments didn’t work, assuming that Mobile Suica and other NFC mobile payments stopped too. Which was not the case though a few fake posts claimed, or just ‘assumed’ people were stranded inside stations. Fortunately there were numerous online articles setting the record straight.

It’s a lesson that people soon forget in our attention span challenged social media era. We saw plenty of QR Code payment downsides in the 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi earthquake that knocked out power and mobile service across Hokkaido. At the time some fake Chinese social media posts claimed AliPay and WeChat pay ‘still worked’ in Hokkaido at the time, of course they did not.

Mobile payment disruptions happen with every natural disaster and war. Good and safe practices don’t come easy when smartphone apps lure us down the easy path without spelling out the risks. It’s a lesson we have to learn again and again, that while network dependent code payment apps have some benefits, they also have limits and security risks. One size does not fit all, NFC and code payments each have their place and role to play in the expanding mobile payments universe. The key is understanding their strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t tell papa

Back when we still watched TV, I channel surfed to some kind of Japanese program with the usual mix of ‘talent’ panelists talking with an invited guest, a youngish looking president of a family construction company. He was relaxed and friendly and handsome-ish, the kind of handsome that comes from character more than looks. “I bet he’s gay,” I said jokingly. “Actually he is, I know him. He’s a really nice guy,” said my partner and told me the whole story.

There is a Japanese word 跡継 (ato-tsugi) that doesn’t translate well in English. Heir is the most common interpretation but it has a lot more cultural connotations for family run businesses and the family name attached to it. There are interesting legal institutions attached to it as well, such as a groom marrying into his wife’s family business and adopting her family name and adult adoption. These practical institutions have allowed family businesses to thrive for generations and survive all kinds of challenges.

The young man in question was due to take over the family business at some point but there was one little snag, he was gay. Like other gay men in similar ‘ato-tsugi’ situations, he didn’t really hide it, but out of respect to the family business, he wasn’t open either. He went to gay bars, hung out with gay friends, brushed off ‘when are you getting married’ questions with his friendly easy going good nature. But his mom knew, as all mothers in the world know, and knew what to do. She made a bargain.

“Look, I know you’re gay but if you find a lesbian friend who’ll agree to get married (into a family with money) and have a kid, I’ll raise the kid and you guys can live your private lives however you want.” My partner said, “His mother must have come from a samurai family,” because women from samurai families are famous for being ruthlessly practical keeping the family intact. There was one condition: don’t tell papa.

And so the young man’s gay friends all pitched in helping him find a suitable marry-able partner and planning the wedding. The couple to be went on a trip to ‘practice’ and make sure they could hold up the procreation side of the bargain. The wedding banquet ceremony was a great success with a well known tv announcer gay friend doing MC duty. Mom eventually got her wish fulfilled, twice over. Papa retired, the son took over running the business. Word on the grapevine is that everybody is happy. Papa none the wiser though I suspect he probably knows but plays it dumb.

I’ve always liked the story. To me it illustrates a surprisingly flexible and practical side of traditional Japanese culture. On the surface what seems monolithic and rigid is surprisingly loose on close inspection with lots of safety values. But that’s not really surprising, given the Shinto-Buddhist cultural foundation where nothing is absolute or black and white especially when dealing with human nature. It’s a sentiment by partner expresses from time to time in these pronoun gaga times. “I don’t want to be defined by somebody else’s idea of sexuality whatever, I just want to be me, a human being.” That’s enough for me.

Cashless is fast and convenient? Point app mania reality check

My partner wanted to pick up some cheap t-shirts on bargain sale at Uniqlo yesterday. The Asagaya station building Beans shopping mall has all the latest cashless options but very bad network service so Uniqlo checkout was a comedy routine. First he brought up the Uniqulo app to get Uniqlo points, then I brought up my JRE POINT app to earn JRE POINT, then he finally paid with QR Code dBarai (docomo). But for each app launch and load we had to run to the store entrance to capture enough network connection for the apps codes to load. The staff is very used to this and suggest customers do so when apps didn’t load, patiently folding clothes while they run back and forth. I asked the cashier if this happens all the time. She smiled and nodded. “Cash is probably faster isn’t it?” She smiled and nodded.

Gosh, just when we thought cashless was going to free us from the so called inconvenient drudgery of cash along came smartphone reward point apps that bog down the whole cashless checkout experience, neatly killing off the supposed time saving advantage. You stand in line while the checkout customer fiddles with smartphone, digging around in an app to find the right coupon code thing. You feel smug until it’s your turn and the networks sucks, the discount coupon doesn’t load and bam, you’re holding up the line too. It has gotten to the point where Nikkei XTECH has provided an Apple Pay help article for faster checkout that explains the benefits of using Apple Value Added Services. Will Apple Pay VAS dPoint and Apple Pay VAS PONTA really help us? Probably not as they only work at LAWSON.

There is another checkout trend I see recently. With price increases everywhere people are using cash a lot more, even at places like in-station Beck’s Coffee Shop. Every customer has a Suica but more young people are keeping it in their pocket and plucking down ¥10,000 yen notes for ¥300 ice coffee. Why? I think it’s Kakebo culture at play, it’s easier to budget with cash payments and the small slightly inconvenient physical routines that accompany it. It’s not about doing everything with cash, but good old tsukae-wake compartmentalization helps keep focus and tamps down the impulsiveness when doing everything cashless. Another way of spreading the risk in these uncertain times.

iOS 16 Apple Maps Quick Look

In 2018 Eddie Cue said, “We have been working on trying to create what we hope is going to be the best map app in the world, taking it to the next step. That is building all of our own map data from the ground up.” After 10 years of Apple Maps, 7 years of rebuilding it and 3 years after the all-new map launch…are we there yet?

As I said last year, reviewing Apple Maps is impossible because it’s a very different service in different regions, with Japan an outliner in many ways. All that follows is from a Japanese market perspective that does not apply to using Apple Maps in other places.

In the run up to WWDC22, the Apple Maps team rolled out new features:

If there is one Apple Maps take away from WWDC22 it was the focus on Apple Maps services and leveraging Apple created, Apple proprietary Look Around and detailed 3D city experience in developer apps. For developers using MapKit there is a lot of new stuff to access all new map details. They have access to the entire Apple Maps stack and can incorporate Look Around and the detailed 3D city experience in their apps.

Apple also has a new web service called Apple Maps Server that allows 3rd party app backends to do georelated searches directly with the Apple Maps Server which promises to increase performance instead of wasting mobile bandwidth and battery. It seems like a small step but I’m intrigued if Apple has bigger Apple Maps Server plans later on. Also this:

Old is New
What’s on the slate for the iOS 16 Maps app? With the focus on services i.e. features Apple can add without a new app, not much. We have a refreshed Maps UI that adds multi-stop routing with much better start point~destination point selectors, and condenses various route and guidance options into a single slide-able menu selection row.

For some bewildering reason Apple touts transit cards and fares in Maps as new. They are not. The features have been there since the October 2016 iOS 10.1 Apple Pay Suica launch update, they also come with the same old limitations in iOS 16, like ignoring your transit cards installed on Apple Watch. And it won’t work with transit cards that don’t support Wallet recharge, like Ventra and HOP. Apple is either hard up for showcasing new Maps features or it counts as new because it is new for America.

In field tests there are some nice new little touches. Walking directions now include elevation information, Point of Interest (POI) cards are better arranged, Siri suggestions seems a little more with it (the new high quality Japanese voices are nice too).

I was hoping for some tweaks to transit directions with better transfer and final destination notifications but there is no apparent change from iOS 15, and transit directions remain hopelessly lost on subway routes. No changes either for Japanese cartography and Japan focused Guides remain English language only.

In sum it will be a quiet Apple Maps year for Japanese users. The iOS 16 UI tweaks are nice to have, Look Around will get the new extensions currently being mapped (minus private roads), maybe Real-Time Transit will get real. Definitely no new maps for Japan and the big indoor station mapping effort remains a mystery. Perhaps we’ll find out what Apple is up on that front at WWDC23, but that’s another story for another time.


iOS 16 Apple Maps Gallery (b1)

The Point of Interest card UI is tweaked and more compact.
June 2022 feature availability for Japan