What the Hell is VISA Up To in Japan?

VISA is the least consumer friendly card company in Japan. Period. Mastercard, American Express and JCB are making it easy for Japanese customers to use their cards in mobile wallets (Apple Pay, Osaifu Keitai) both domestically and abroad with NFC Switching. NFC certification requires both NFC-A and NFC-F. Smartphones can do it all, how nice.

Except VISA does not want to play nice, they want to play market politics. Witness VISA’s latest boneheaded move reported by Masakazu Tatara on his excellent EPayments JP site: Visa is pulling the plug on Mobile Visa payWave (NFC-A EMV contactless). The last holdout is Sumitomo Mitsui who will terminate service at the end of December 2018. VISA on the iD and QUICPay (NFC-F FeliCa) contactless payment networks remains in place as does plastic card payWave.

As Tatara san asks, what is VISA up to? His quick review of the Mobile VISA payWave spec is helpful and remarkably similar to the Mobile FeliCa spec.

The secure methods for storing Mobile VISA payWave transaction information are:

  1. A mobile device with an Embedded Secure Element (eSE)
  2. HCE (Host Card Emulation in the cloud)
  3. A “Mobile eSE” SWP SIM
  4. A NFC Contactless Payment Sticker

As Tatara san explains, it is the #3 SIM card option that is really being phased out.  #1 includes Apple Pay and Osaifu Keitai devices. The recently released Google Pay Japan is simply an alternative Osaifu Keitai front end that entirely dispenses with the dead HCE-F. As if this was confusing enough, VISA Japan has not signed on with Apple Pay Japan or Google Pay Japan, nor is VISA payWave compatible with the Osaifu Keitai standard. This leaves #2 and #4 as the only real Mobile VISA payWave Japan options going forward. Good luck with that.

Japanese media has speculated that the Sumitomo Mitsu and Mizuho financial groups want to promote QR Code contactless payments over NFC and the death of Mobile VISA payWave proves that QR is winning the contactless payment turf war. Don’t believe it.

In Japan, aka the contactless payment turf war epicenter, the battle line is stored value vs. credit card with stored value cards the clear winner. This week’s Mizuho Suica announcement is proof of that. There isn’t any money for Japanese merchant support of EMV contactless because most inbound tourist business is mainland Chinese who only want to use QR code contactless AliPay and WePay which Japanese will never use.

So where is VISA going in the Japan market? One guess: the success of Apple Pay Suica and the release of the Global FeliCa iPhone/Apple Watch has VISA at a momentary standstill. Because if Google follows Apple’s lead and releases a Global FeliCa Pixel 3 with NFC switching, things will get very interesting. The more Global FeliCa becomes a ho-hum checkbox feature with every smart device, the more VISA Japan will have to play nice with Apple Pay and Google Pay or risk being shoved aside.

Which brings us back to FeliCa again. To outsiders it looks like the Japanese contactless payments market goes round and round, but it doesn’t. VISA Japan goes round and round playing market politics never moving forward, and that does damage. Last month I wrote:

It would be much better for customers if smart device manufacturers bundled all the major middleware stacks (EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE, China Transit, CEPAS) and simply called it Global NFC. Real Global NFC.

Until the industry does a better job of integrating NFC hardware and the various middleware pieces into a virtual whole, NFC confusion will continue to be a problem.

It would be much better for customers if the credit card industry stopped the contactless payment turf wars and started delivering solutions that help customers instead of sowing confusion.

UPDATE: a reader reports says that payWave on SIM cards is pretty much dead everywhere because the “secure element wars are over.” That’s interesting in light of Huawei offering FeliCa Osaifu Keitai service via Docomo with a SIM card. But that is a Docomo thing more than a Huawei thing.

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