Perception and Reality

I like writing but am no writer, so I prescribe to the ‘if you’re not a sharpshooter shoot lots of bullets’ school of wannabes. When the Financial Times, “The painful path of curing Japan of its cash addiction” (paywalled) piece came out, I had 2 hours to kill before going on a business trip and decided to post something while my reaction was fresh, figuring nobody would read it. The piece has not gotten many hits, but a few western journalists based in Tokyo tweeted about it recently, defending the FT piece and the overall ‘Japan failed’ game over narrative.

Here’s the thing. The cashless payments market landscape in Japan is the most messy and exciting one in the world right now. Nowhere else can you find such a concentrated investment in contactless payment infrastructure and different technologies (EMV, FeliCa, QR Codes, smartphones, etc.) competing and playing out in the market.

Japan is also the world’s great guinea pig test market. What works here first is adapted and deployed in other markets, like mobile payments. My take, covered in countless messy posts over the span of 2 years, is actually quite simple. The market revolution of mobile payments and smartphones is just getting started. The hot messy exciting payments situation you see happening in Japan right now will play out, in some other form, in other markets later.

That’s the story I think western journalists are missing. The ‘game over’ Japan narrative has been a stock western journalist in Japan ploy since the end of the Japan bubble, almost 30 years ago. A lot of journalists stick with it because it still sells. It’s entertaining for some people, but it doesn’t convey reality or educate.

JR East getting NFC-F added to the NFC Forum certification process and getting Apple to add global FeliCa to every iPhone and Apple Watch, to me, is an interesting story. Google following Apple’s lead and adding that same capability to every Pixel 3 device (but only turning it on for the JP market), to me, is an interesting story. It tells us where Apple and Google are going.

Our smart devices are quickly evolving into ‘do everything’ devices that, unlike plastic, don’t care about any particular payment technology. They just work. That’s where the puck is going. If you sit around declaring that the game is over, you’re gonna miss the game. And the opportunity to tell people about it.

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SmartPlate CEO Takes the Softcream Cashless Index Challenge

AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara responded to my post and took up the Softcream Cashless Index (SCI) challenge, promising to deliver a SCI score of “over 5” with his SmartPlate NFC tag payment service that works with Apple Pay and Google Pay:

The Apple Pay side of SmartPlate depends on the background NFC tag reading capability of iPhone XS and iPhone XR models, and the enhanced Core NFC functionality in iOS 13. The new iPhone models this year with A13 Bionic will undoubtedly build on the A12 Bionic NFC functions introduced in 2018. The big questions are: will Apple Watch Series 5 have NFC background tag reading as part of the Apple Pay experience on a wearable, and what about NFC Tag Apple Pay on non-Bionic chip devices?

watchOS 6 does not support Core NFC, but developers with a PassKit NFC Certificate from Apple can do lots of interesting things with Apple Pay NFC functions. Not that I’m asking Hagiwara san to divulge anything because PassKit NFC Certificates come with all kinds of non-disclosure conditions. But I do look forward to all the Apple Pay goodies coming with iOS 13. So far we have Apple Pay Octopus, Apple Pay Ventra, and Apple Pay myki on the transit side, there will be lots of new stuff on the NFC tag side. It would be great if SmartPlate can join the iOS 13 Apple Pay service rollout with backup from Apple Pay lead Jennifer Bailey at the Apple Event.

I look forward to reporting about the NFC Tag Apple Pay experience, and tasting great softcream along the way.

Sydney Opal expands EMV coverage, next stop: Apple Pay Express Transit

Transport for NSW is expanding open loop EMV bank card support on the Opal transit fare system to include buses next month in addition to implementing Opal fare caps and discounts on bank cards. The agency is encouraging transit users to move away from faster Opal cards (the woman zipping through the transit gate in the video clip 7 second mark is using an Opal card btw) to slower EMV on bank cards and smartphones that reduce in-house card operation expenses.

It’s exactly what Transport for London (TfL) has been doing for years to ween users away from Oyster. Both card fare systems are operated by Cubic, currently none of the Cubic operated transit card systems are natively hosted on Apple Pay, Chicago Ventra will be the first.

With the expansion of EMV support, Sydney should soon be joining the “Where you can use Apple Pay for transit without Express Transit mode” Apple Pay support list, with EMV Express Transit support coming sometime later.

Tweets of the Week: Dear TfL please hurry up with that Apple Pay EMV Express Transit support

Some people are impatient. Especially at rush hour waiting behind iPhone users fumbling with Apple Pay Face/Touch ID authentication before going through crowded Transport for London (TfL) transit gates that are not that fast to begin with. Unlike native transit cards on Apple Pay like Suica and HOP, Apple Pay EMV Express Transit support is more complicated to enable because it involves not only fare system support on the transit agency end, it also involves banks and bank card hotlist management at the transit gate reader level, which is tricky because reader memory is limited.

I’m sure that TfL and fare system operator Cubic will get there eventually, but even so EMV Express Transit will never be as fast as native MIFARE Oyster cards. Unfortunately it looks like TfL will never bring those to Apple Pay.

Financial Times Dissin’ Japan again: The painful path of curing Japan of its cash addiction

The UK media has a thing about Japan. Japan must always be portrayed as ‘pathetic’. Pathetic losers, pathetically isolated, pathetically out of step, arrogant, etc. Does this make UK readers feel better about themselves? I don’t know, but I have learned to take any UK media coverage of Japan with a large dose of skepticism, laugh at it, or do what the Japanese do: ignore it all together. After all, who cares what UK journalists think about Japan when they cannot be bothered to spend the time and effort to find out what’s really going on, and actually report it.

Case in point, today’s Financial Times piece: The painful path of curing Japan of its cash addiction (paywalled). It has all the nasty lazy hallmarks of UK style Japan reportage: the ‘Galapagos trap’ (Japanese isolated from the rest of the world), the ‘FeliCa failure’ (FeliCa has stunted the spread of cashless systems that have taken hold elsewhere in the world, i.e. EMV is king of the world and Japan is isolated), and now the ‘QR code failure’ (Japan was slower than China applying OR codes for mobile payments, isolated and out of step again).

This last failure, of course, leads into the recent 7-Eleven QR Code 7pay launch and security meltdown, and the narrative that FT really wants to sell here: the grand parable of modern Japan, a nation of has-beens:

the (7pay) incident has become part of a grand parable of modern Japan: a country in a permanent tension between its high-tech image and the realities of aging consumers and squandered opportunities.

WTF? I thought we were talking about contactless payment trends in Japan here, not the UK take of the world order. Why is the management failure of one company the only narrative that matters despite the many successes and changes happening right now? FT’s pathetic Japan narrative, is pathetic.

FT offers little hard evidence for the failure of FeliCa and QR, and of course completely ignores the success of things like Apple Pay Japan, the expansion of global NFC smartphones, the continuing growth of Suica use, and neglects to explain the reason behind the Japanese QR Code push: obtaining personal information for Big Data.

As any Japanese IT journalist will tell you, analyzing real Japanese contactless payments market trends is very difficult because the beast is highly regional. What you find in Tokyo is completely different from Fukuoka, or rural areas. You have to look at many different pieces to understand the trends and where they are going.

The best thing FT can offer is a 6,000 person web survey from MyVoice which does not include any crucial context, which in Japan is everything. What regions are we talking about here, what’s the age spread, the amount of use, average purchase amounts, etc. There are tons of little web surveys but they don’t convey the big picture. Sure, lots of people might use PayPay to buy this weeks discount gum or get the startup campaign goodies, but that has nothing to do real day to day contactless payments use.

The rest of the piece is padded out with phoned in quotes from the usual suspects: ‘financial analyst experts’ from Credit Suisse and Mizuho Financial Group, the latter of which have skin in the game with their own QR Code payment system.

All in all it’s the low easy road that big established media takes too often these days. The Financial Times had a great opportunity to explain the exciting changes happening in the Japan payments market right now, and open a lot of eyes and minds. Unfortunately they blew it. That’s a loss for everybody, especially FT.

Update: fellow blogger in Japan Michael Camilleri has posted his take of the infamous Financial Times piece, a highly recommended read.