Japan Cashless X-Day

Anybody care to chart the Japanese cashless transformation?

Now that the CASHLESS Rebate program is over with transaction rates said to be going back to ‘normal’ (an estimated 1% rise over program rates), JP media outlets report that some smaller merchants might go back to cash to keep profit margins intact. Real transaction rates are always hush-hush but we can get an idea from the QR payment rates recently revealed in connection with the Japan QR (JPQR) unified code scheme:

NTT Data already lowered basic CAFIS transaction rates in response to the stera payment co-venture from SMBC-Visa Japan-GMO. As the JPQR transaction rate chart makes clear, banks and payment players have plenty of transaction rate wiggle room. The Japanese government is pushing cashless. If necessary the push will become shove for lower rates and yet another cashless program but where do things stand right now?

July 2020 is the proverbial “X-Day” crossover point: Japan is cashless now, even though it’s an uneven, ongoing and very messy transformation. On the customer side cashless is the mindset and survival behavior for many Japanese, even for older folks who under normal circumstances would prefer cash until they day they die.

Faced with the reality of handing money that carries the risk of infection, people are going cashless instead, especially with contactless smartphone payments. Junya Suzuki was right all along, Apple Pay turned out to be “the black ship of payments” catalyst that finally nudged Japan from cash to cashless. That and COVID.

Market analysts who want a neat set of chart data that clearly explains and quantifies the transformation before declaring ‘the winner’ have a long wait. The said transformation is sloppy, all over the place and happening right before us, but also an afterthought. Priorities are different, getting accurate market survey information in the current environment will be extremely difficult.

The Tokyo Olympics was supposed to be the event heralding the new era but the COVID crisis has forced much more rapid change. Evidence is best found in the countless little rituals of daily life that have evolved and are not going back. Merchants who do go back to cash face the risk of fewer customers: when offered a choice people choose cashless.

This realization hit me yesterday when my partner complained about his Docomo dPAY points taking a hit because the Summit supermarket staffer tapped a wrong payment button on the new POS cashless menu options added on July 1. He wanted to pay with iD. A year ago he never used iD, dPAY or Apple Pay and never wanted to, but life changed.

These days I hear contactless reader sounds everywhere, FeliCa chirps and EMV beeps are common as clear plastic sheeting and foot position floor stickers at checkout. If there’s anything that defines this sea change it is this: it’s not a ‘victory’ over cash that the media sometimes depicts, nor does it feel like progress. In the COVID era it merely feels like survival.

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Another Japanese government cashless promotion gimmick: My Number Point (Updated)

Now that the CASHLESS Rebate program is over, we have a new Japanese government program promoting cashless use for points: My Number Point. And yes it comes with an app. There’s just one tiny gotcha: you have to have a plastic My Number card because as the campaign name makes clear, the whole enterprise is about motivating people to register for a one. The program runs July 1~March 30. Users can get the equivalent of up to ¥5,000 in points in exchange for ¥20,000 worth of cashless shopping.

The basic idea is that starting from July 1, you use the My Number Point app to read the NFC tag in your My Number card and register your cashless payment service of choice: Suica, PayPay, credit card, etc. The full list is here.

After you buy ¥20,000 worth of stuff by August with your registered cashless payment, you get points. We won’t know how bad the sign up process is until it goes live. At best it looks convoluted, and a lot of hoops for only ¥5,000 in points. COVID is already more than enough motivation for going cashless but payment players are dutifully offering extra points for registration.

As your dutiful field reporter, I volunteer to dive into the NFC tag registration process on July 1 and tell you all about it. Here’s the official list of compatible iPhone devices.


Suica/JRE POINT Registration
The registration process, like the app, looks and acts like a government bureaucracy product. It’s not pretty but gets the job done. But it’s a fun exercise using the My Number Card NFC tag for secure login. Here is a quick summary.

Before you start: you’ll need a My Number Card, and a JRE POINT account with your Mobile Suica registered.

(1) Have your My Number Card and 4 PIN login code ready and launch the app. When reading the My Number Card NFC tag with iPhone be sure to be far away from any metal. The card read process seems very susceptible to it
(2) Follow steps 1~6 shown here to login and get to payment system registration
(3) You need 3 pieces of info from your JRE POINT account: the JRE POINT exchange number, the registered katakana account name, the registered birth date. Tap the link to the JRE POINT page and login, copy the JRE POINT exchange number and paste it in the Payment Service ID, past the katakana name (no spaces) in Security Code 1, enter the registered birth date into Security Code 2. Enter the last 4 digits of your current iPhone number in the last field.

JRE POINT Info for My Number Card Point registration

(4) After entering and confirming your JRE POINT information you have to enter your My Number Card PIN and read NFC tag again. This completes the process, you should see a green confirmation checkmark.

From here all you need to do is purchase ¥20,000 worth of goods or recharges with Mobile Suica by August 31. The timing and details of the My Number Point bonus into your JRE POINT account should be coming soon. Check the My Number Point page for details.

Sayonara Cashless Rebate Program, we hardly knew you

The CASHLESS Rebate program ends June 30. After that date we have 8% consumption tax for takeout, 10% for eat in, and 10% for everything else. In the long ago world of October 2019 the CASHLESS Rebate program looked like the perfect run up to an economic boost courtesy of the Tokyo Olympics with lots of inbound cashless using visitors.

Now the program is ending. Inbound business has collapsed. And a Japanese economy in retreat needs relief, especially the 5% family business rebate sector. There has been talk of extending some tax relief for family owned ryokans, hotels and the like, but no action has been taken.

It’s impossible now to analyze how much cashless transaction growth the program drove because COVID pushed cashless use into hyperdrive. Nobody wants to handle anybody else’s anything, especially cash.

The real value of the program was that it helped smaller businesses get onboard with cashless payments. The little Colorado Cafe near the office added cashless with the start of the program in October. At the end of the program 50% of the transactions are cashless. That’s not bad considering that most of the clientele is retirement age. In another era we might call this success. In this age, it’s survival.

iOS 14 App Clips unlock the power of NFC background tags

We first got of taste of iOS 14 App Clips with the slick Titanium Apple Card setup that leverages the background NFC background tag read ability of iPhone XR/XS and later. Jennifer Bailey gave a sneak peek of NFC background tag Apple Pay in May 2019 but the pieces weren’t in place for a rollout.

The first problem was the iPhone lineup. iPhone 8 didn’t fit because only A12 Bionic and later support NFC background tag reading. This was solved with the release iPhone SE with A13 Bionic and the deletion of iPhone 8 from the lineup.

The second problem was the clunky ‘launch an app’ or ‘launch Safari’ problem. This has been a problem for NFC tag solution providers like SmartPlate. User interaction needs to reside on the pop-up sheet on the unlocked screen. The new iOS 14 App Clips framework that works hand in hand with iOS 14 Core NFC to load just what is needed to take care of the NFC tag transaction at hand, is the right solution.

The pieces appear to fit very nicely now: the NFC background tag sheet pops-up ‘while the screen is on’, the right code snippets load in the sheet, the user can Sign In with Apple ID if needed, and pay with Apple Pay. Simple, uncluttered action; no apps, no Safari launch. And we have background NFC tag reading on every current iPhone model.

There are a few flies in the ointment:

  • (1) Face ID in the face mask era is not a great unlock or Apple Pay user experience, App Clip powered NFC background tag reading is gonna rock on iPhone SE with Touch ID.
  • (2) a network connection is required, Apple Pay transactions at the NFC reader works without a network connection but App Clips + Apple Pay transactions need a network connection for the obvious reasons of loading app clip content, and because of this…
  • (3) a weak borderline WiFi connection can jam the above process even with WiFi Assist turned on.

The NFC advantage over QR Codes here is that background tag reading automatically pulls up the App Clip sheet ‘while the screen is on’ while QR Code users have to manually pull up the QR reader app to join the fun.

The combination of App Clips, NFC tags and Apple Pay will be extremely disruptive in markets where NFC and QR payment players are very competitive. Places like Japan. PayPay and Line Pay will lose their edge. If they are smart, they can add NFC tag support in their payment apps. And they can bypass Apple Pay if they want to, though it won’t be as slick. Ultimately they are not wedded to QR codes and have always said they would add NFC if customers want it.

App Clips finally unlocks the power of background NFC tag reading and is the other big Apple Pay development, in addition to CarKey, announced at WWDC20. App Clips puts NFC tags on equal footing with QR Codes for the first time with the added edge of the ‘when the screen is on’ background tag read sheet pop-ups. This will be huge.

Dear Starbucks, please give us a NFC Starbucks rewards card

The Starbuck app server was down this morning. Fortunately my daily Starbucks has Suica payments and the staff kindly stamped customer receipts so everybody could get the Starbucks Card refill discount. I posted a silly throwaway tweet about it but received some thoughtful reader feedback that put things in perspective.

On the surface it’s true that Apple controls Wallet NFC card access with PassKit NCF Certificates. However, the Mobile Starbucks Card for Osaifu Keitai came out in March 2014, two years before FeliCa made it into iPhone 7. The mobile card was put out by Starbucks Japan which was not majority owned by Starbucks USA. USA corporate bought out the Japanese business partner at the end of 2014 and brought it under full control. Up until then Starbucks Japan stock was a popular item for the free coffee ticket goodies that came with it. The food was better too. Mobile Starbucks is a relic that will likely be ditched at some point, like the free coffee tickets and good food.

Starbucks USA has never shown any real interest in creating a NFC rewards card. They chose the barcode app route that supports direct bank card registration and recharge. Eventually they added in-app Apple Pay and Google Pay support. Silly market analysts announced that Starbucks app was ‘bigger than Apple Pay’, until they decided that Apple Pay was bigger than apps after all.

Starbucks has put real effort into protecting staff and customers during the COVID crisis. It’s an amazing effort that doesn’t get much attention. Despite this, physical Starbucks Cards are still mag strip cards handed over to staff and swiped at checkout. If Starbucks put out a digital wallet Starbucks Card, how should they do it?

The easiest way on iOS would be an Apple VAS NFC contactless pass. In Japan this is what PONTA and d POINT cards are. Apple VAS is NFC A but it works in combination with any Apple Pay payment protocol, EMV, FeliCa, PBOC, etc. Smart Tap is a similar rewards card NFC method for Google Pay.

This is what customers get when they pay with ‘Apple Pay’ on the Lawsons JP POS system: the reader polls the Wallet default payment card and rewards card, the payment transaction occurs and points are automatically added to the rewards card.

This flexible ‘2 in 1’ contactless payment + rewards package would be very nice to have with Starbucks Card. For app users it would eliminates the ‘open app, pull up barcode, make sure card has enough balance’ nonsense that happens far too often and is easily thwarted by a weak WiFi signal. It would also reduce handling physical cards at checkout.

Unfortunately this requires a POS system that supports NFC contactless, and Starbucks in Japan only supports popular contactless payment cards like Suica and PASMO when the store location is in a station retail area. Starbucks has demonstrated a lot of forward looking business sense in the COVID era so far. I hope they rethink their Japanese POS strategy and incorporate contactless payments and reward cards as standard at all store locations.