Japan’s new economic zone: Rakuten

The April 30 addition of iPhone 12 lineup to Rakuten Mobile marked the transformation of Rakuten Mobile into a first tier carrier on the same level of Docomo, KDDI au and SoftBank. Now that SoftBank is taking Rakuten to court over allegedly stolen SoftBank corporate secrets, I think we know who is feeling the pressure. It is the end of an era. SoftBank was the first carrier to launch iPhone in Japan back in 2007 when NTT Docomo refused and KDDI au could not (the Verizon iPhone problem). They cleverly used iPhone to leverage their position from an industry also-ran into a serious first tier carrier grabbing marketshare for the other majors.

Rakuten Mobile is now playing the hungry upstart with fresh ideas and aggressive plans: pay for what you actually use instead of paying for a monthly allotment just like the good old land line days…how original. Nevertheless SoftBank feels threatened not only by Rakuten Mobile but the total weight of the Rakuten Empire: Rakuten Pay which encompasses Rakuten Edy and Rakuten Suica, and most of all, Rakuten Point.

SoftBank has similar parts, PayPay and TPoint/TMoney, but they are not well integrated across the SoftBank empire and more importantly, they don’t have the synergy of Rakuten. That’s why people in their 20~40’s are sometimes referred to as living in the Rakuten economic zone, leveraging Rakuten Point as currency ‘plus’ to make their real money go much farther for all of their needs.

But there’s one more thing. Now that Rakuten Mobile has the full iPhone lineup, it’s only a matter of time before Rakuten Edy and Rakuten Suica join Apple Pay. That is SoftBank’s true nightmare.

Great Awakenings

Japan has a saying: history is a nice hobby but don’t make a career out of it. Like religion and philosophy, history is a creation of the human mind, a narrative, a story, an expedient to make a point. It isn’t about the past, it’s about the human beings telling stories in the present. And when it’s a big story it’s about what people want in the here and now: attention, power, prestige, money, or all of the above. The Korean Comfort Women issue is a complex, instructive lesson that illustrates these points.

The military abduction story grew from early unsubstantiated claims from Seiji Yoshida in the 1980’s, later proven by South Korean researchers to be lies. However it launched endless claims of military abductions, again later proven by South Korean researchers to be false. Regardless that credible, verifiable evidence supporting military abduction claims has yet to appear, the very lack is taken to be proof that it did happen by activists and scholars invested in a story that keeps them well employed.

And so it goes. But here’s the interesting thing so well said by evil old Henry Kissinger: ‘unresolved’ history issues are convenient tools that serve all sides. They are unresolved for a reason. In other words it’s never about ‘righting’ the past or resolving it, it’s negotiating and counter negotiating what you want at any given time, the needs of the moment.

One little known aspect of the Korean comfort women and wartime labor dispute is that only after both issues were raised by activist groups in Japan did they become issues in South Korea. Over time we have seen the various ways it plays out in local politics and media, both in South Korea and Japan, and how the story adapts to political needs of the moment. In the needs of the moment, the very people activists claim to be helping end up being used for somebody else’s political and monetary gain.

We see similar things playing out now in America’s umpteenth ‘Great Awakening’, aka the 1619 project portrayed in traditional and social media. Unfortunately, American culture accepts any historical narrative at face value without seeing or questioning the manipulations behind it…manipulations that older cultures in Europe and especially Asia, are adept at seeing and circumventing. That’s another way of saying they don’t make history into religion which Americans sometimes do, unless it’s for profit.

Anytime you hear or read about ‘righting’ history, think carefully and ask yourself: who’s invested in this and why, what do they want in the here and now? Nothing in the present can fix what is dead and gone. All we can do is try to learn from it with the knowledge that history narratives are imperfect human creations like any other, any ultimate truth from it is ultimately unobtainable. If you really want to honor the past there is only one course of action: leave history in the past and build a better future. Because if history isn’t resting peacefully in books, it’s out there making mischief.

Sitting out the super upgrade cycle

We are in a 5G super upgrade cycle but I’m sitting this one out. 3 year carrier contracts without subsidies are the norm in Japan now, technically I have until September 2022 to pay off my iPhone 11 Pro but 5G by itself isn’t enough reason to pay it off faster. If foldable smartphones are the super upgrade in 2023, I’m probably going to sit out that super upgrade too.

Why? After buying into the iPhone X hype and getting badly burned by the iPhone X NFC problem, I was badly burned again by Face ID in the COVID face mask era. And no, iOS 14.5 Unlock with Apple Watch is no magic solution. I’m not done with new cutting edge technology but sharp edges hurt. Less is more in the long run. Let’s just say I’m going to choose my next iPhone upgrade very carefully.

Octopus 2.0

The Apple Pay Octopus launch in June 2020 marked the end of an era of Octopus as the exclusive Hong Kong MTR home grown transit platform, and the start of MTR integrating into China mainland transit fare standards. In August 2020 Octopus Cards Limited announced they would join China T-Union. My take about it and the eventual migration of Octopus from FeliCa to PBOC 2.0, struck a raw nerve and did not go down well with some Hong Kong folk:

Can someone tell the ill-informed, self-centred, attention-seeking blogger to stop spreading fake rumours about octopus ditching FeliCa? Not in this lifetime…The self-proclaimed expert blogger’s been wrong on so many levels I’m amazed people still follow him like religion and never question his fantasy stories. Utterly annoyed by him dropping quotes from people out of context and use them to his benefits.

In April 2021 new OCL CEO Angus Lee Chun-ming said in a South China Morning Post interview that OCL had applied for China T-Union membership as planned, and will launch a dual mode Octopus card for mainland transit use:

“We have applied to join the China T-Union, the nationwide one-card payment system led by the Ministry of Transport. That will enable Octopus physical-card holders to pay for public transport fares in mainland China,”…

The service can be upgraded to digital Octopus cards in the phase two development. “The card will be denominated in Hong Kong dollars. Octopus will arrange the currency settlement with the mainland partner,” said Lee.

A one-card nationwide payment system eh? Sounds like an plug for China T-Union instead of an Octopus presser. Phase 1 is a physical dual mode Octopus card that appears to be 2 separate chips (PBOC and FeliCa) in one card with a common HKD ePurse. This is novel as Greater Bay Area dual mode cards up to now used separate ePurses for each currency. It’s also complicated because mainland transit operators have to do the currency conversion. A digital wallet version is phase 2. The elimination of FeliCa on the Hong Kong side will be the final phase, though that depends on the Ministry of Transport removing the current PBOC restriction that limits it to transit use and T-Union branding issue, or Octopus coming up with something else. We shall see.

On the mobile side Hong Kong iPhone users already have a dual mode Wallet option to add China T-Union cards if they have a China UnionPay credit or debit card. It’s not dual mode on one card and there is an Express Transit issue when turning on a China T-Union card turns off Express Transit for Octopus, but it works.

Dual mode transit cards on Apple Pay don’t exist yet but they are technically possible. Apple Pay already uses dual mode NFC switching for Japanese issue payment cards, FeliCa for contactless use in Japan, EMV for contactless use abroad. Another option might be the multiple secure element domain/multiple NFC protocol support of Mobile FeliCa 4.1 outlined by FeliCa Dude for dual mode transactions using just Mobile FeliCa with NFC-A/NFC-F.

On the transit gate side it will be interesting to see what design MTR uses for multiple protocol open-loop. NFC requires the reader side to specify the NFC protocol used for the transaction. This is a not a problem at store checkout, but how does the user specify the transaction protocol on transit gates? Answer: by tapping different readers. Perhaps the new MTR gates will host a NFC-A reader (EMV and PBOC), a NFC-F reader (FeliCa) in addition to the already separate QR reader? One thing for sure, transitions are messy, and expensive.

iOS 14.5 Apple Maps Japan in-house place ratings

In advance of a rumored iOS 14.5 rollout of Apple Maps in-house point of interest (POI) ratings for the USA, the feature went live today in Japan for iOS 14.5 RC users (and iPadOS•macOS devices logged in with the same Apple ID). Once past the introductory slash screen prompt in Maps app, various POI such as parks, restaurants, cafes, stores show the ability to rate and add photos. Based on limited checks it appears possible to rate and add photos to most 3rd party supplied Japanese POI data: Foursquare, Tabelog, Tripadvisor, but not Recruit’s Jalan, and not Yelp which is being phased out (good riddance). Hotels, Shinto Shrines, Buddhist temples, etc. are off limits, another good thing.

Poor quality 3rd party POI data has long been the bane of Apple Maps in Japan, and most other countries. I have doubts about Apple’s ability to filter and verify Apple ID user uploaded photos and ratings…but it’s probably better than the junky POI data Japan has now.

The POI rating and photo upload intro screen, tap continue to add the Maps service.

UPDATE: the feature has gone live for all users with the official iOS 14.5 release.