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.

BIC CAMERA VIEW Suica reward point math

If you use JR East regularly a BIC CAMERA VIEW card is the best investment you can make. So I was pleasantly surprised when the Crecolle (credit-kore) site posted a very useful piece about using Bic Camera VIEW card and Apple Pay. I love it when Japanese credit card sites analyze every reward point possibility in detail. The deep dives are always surprisingly useful.

BIC CAMERA VIEW is a dual function card that grafts a VIEW credit card with a Suica. The Suica part works just like any plastic Suica. The only difference is that users can setup the VIEW card part to auto-charge the Suica part at a VIEW kiosk, they can also setup the VIEW to auto-charge a completely separate plastic Suica, very handy. BIC CAMERA VIEW is also a BIC CAMERA store point card. When you add it to Apple Pay only the credit card function is added as QUICPay. The card comes in VISA and JCB credit flavors, mine is JCB so I can recharge my Wallet Suica with Apple Pay.

To test BIC CAMERA POINT reward rates, the Crecolle staff ran 4 purchase patterns with the same battery item:

  1. Apple Pay BIC CAMERA VIEW QUICPay
  2. Apple Pay BIC CAMERA VIEW QUICPay + showing the plastic card for BIC CAMERA reward points
  3. BIC CAMERA VIEW (plastic credit)
  4. BIC CAMERA VIEW (plastic Suica)

The return rates printed on the receipts showed the following:

  1. 1% BIC CAMERA POINTS
  2. 8% BIC CAMERA POINTS
  3. 10.5% BIC CAMERA POINTS
  4. 11.5% BIC CAMERA POINTS

So the lesson here is that if you want maximum points when buying at BIC CAMERA, use the plastic VIEW Suica. Why the big differences? The 8% vs 10% difference is the Apple Pay margin. The #1 and #2 difference between Apple Pay VIEW QUICPay by itself and showing the plastic card is simply that the BIC CAMERA point card is not hosted on Apple Pay as a NFC VAS rewards card. If it was you could do what you do at LAWSON: say ‘Apple Pay’ so that the purchase amount is rewarded via NFC VAS to a dPOINT card or PONTA card in Wallet. The #3 and #4 difference is the benefit of using Suica SF and the JR East Suica float in action bypassing the credit card companies. This last difference is the same force driving endless QR Code payment app campaigns, QR players bypass credit card network margins and pass the benefits to customers.

There is one pattern the Crecolle staff did not test: Apple Pay BIC CAMERA QUICPay and showing the BIC CAMERA App barcode point card, this gives the same 8% but without showing any plastic.

SMBC pulls a Toyota Wallet move with V POINT app and Apple Pay prepaid card

With more and more payment players and their dogs doing the wallet app + instant issue prepaid card thing, it was only a matter of time before banks got into the act. SMBC announced and released the V POINT app today. Think of it as a re-branded Toyota Wallet app without the QR Code bit and multi payment network strategy: you download the app, create an account and a prepaid Apple Pay (iD) or Google Pay (VISA) card that can be recharged from a bank account or a credit card or with points. And because VISA Japan has yet to sign a deal with Apple, Apple Pay users get a FeliCa iD prepaid card while Google Pay users get a EMV contactless VISA prepaid card, no dual protocol for anyone.

The big sales point is…yes another reward point system, V POINT, and it comes with a dumb looking mascot too, a SMBC corporate green ‘beaver’ which rhymes with ‘VISA’ in Japanese…sorta. Every ¥200 card purchase earns one V POINT. Points can be used for a card recharge, just like Suica, or for purchases at participating V POINT stores and online shopping. How well this goes down with card issuers under the SMBC umbrella like Docomo d Card and their expanding D Point empire, is anybody’s guess. I suspect this move will rock that relationship (to the breaking point?) and some others as well.

During the V POINT online press event SMBC also announced that new SMBC issue plastic cards will no longer display a card number for VISA and Mastercard.

Apple Pay Japan 2020 Wrap Up Wish List

A two word summary for people in a hurry: COVID and PASMO. As everybody in Japan knows at this point, COVID drove cashless payment use more than any government program could, or anything else for that matter. Cashless went from being the perennial ‘next big thing’ to first choice at checkout in a surprisingly short time with a growing number of ‘cashless only’ places. Here’s a short recap of the best and worst all things Apple Pay Japan in 2020.

The Worst: Face ID Apple Pay
COVID meant mandatory face mask wear outside the home. iPhone Face ID users outside of Asia quickly learned that Face ID and especially Face ID Apple Pay really sucks with face masks. Apple tweaked Face ID slightly to alleviate the issue but this is a long term problem with no short term workaround. Apple had the foresight to resurrect Touch ID in iPhone SE 2, the right device coming at the right time. For the time being it will hold up the middle and lower range iPhone user base in Japan. Face ID is such a marketing embarrassment right now that Apple only features Touch ID recharge on the Apple Pay PASMO page. The real short term future proof Face ID Apple Pay fix is Apple Watch.

The Biggest: Apple Pay PASMO
Mobile PASMO finally joined Mobile Suica, first on Osaifu Keitai Android then Apple Pay, the biggest and most important launch for Apple Pay Japan in 2020. Suica and PASMO combined represent 80% of the entire transit IC card market. In terms of pure usability, a large and diverse installed base, with Express Transit powered transit and purchases on iPhone and Apple Watch, PASMO easily beat all other Apple Pay service rollouts this year. Apple had VIP execs and foreign media on hand at the press event, something they haven’t done since the Apple Pay Japan launch in 2016.

The Most Influential: Toyota Wallet
The Toyota Wallet App rollout I wrote about a year ago turned out to be the model everybody is doing now: ‘XX Pay’ or ‘XX Wallet’ app consisting of a user account linked to a bank or credit card with a flexible payment dual mode front end offering QR Code payment via the app and a ‘instant issue’ prepaid card in Apple Pay Wallet. The Apple Pay Line Pay card launched on December 22 is the exact same model. Instant app issue debit and prepaid Wallet cards do away with plastic issue costs and lower the user entry bar, amount other things. Expect more of this in 2021, actually expect everybody to do this in 2021.

The WildCard: App Clips
iOS 14.3 App Clip Code support completed the picture for App Clip developers, but it will take time to see how they play out in a market overcrowded with mobile payment options. I think there is always a chance for a low cost high quality service which intelligently designed App Clips can deliver. The key will be solving the Japanese Softcream Cashless Index (SCI) Challenge: can App Clip cashless do a faster more reliable job than good old food ticket vending machines, without an app and without an account? How streamlined can it be and still be an App Clip? I hope we can find the answers to those questions in 2021… but there’s one more thing.

The Missing: Apple Pay Code Payments
The iOS 14 Apple Pay AliPay/Apple Pay Code Payment has been in open secret test mode for nearly a year with no firm release in sight. If screenshots are anything to go by, Apple Pay Code Payments are done with a virtual Wallet ‘card’ like any other and Apple Pay Wallet cards have certain properties:

  • Direct side button Wallet activation with automatic Face/Touch ID authentication and payment at the reader.
  • Device transactions handled by the eSE without a network connection.
  • Ability to set a default main card for Apple Pay use.

Supporting QR Code payments with an Apple Pay Wallet ‘card’ moves QR payments out of the app and removes some, but not all, of the QR payment friction points. It makes App Clips a better user experience too when all payments can be accomplished with Apple Pay.

Ultimately I hope the Apple Pay Wallet card model moves away from single mode technology and evolves to multimode awareness that encompasses NFC, Ultra Wideband, QR, etc. It has too. Our smartphones must be smart and take care of any payment technology for us. They have to because things are only going to get more complicated. People ridicule the Japanese payments landscape but that will be everywhere. Card companies and banks push EMV as a ‘global standard’ but EMV already comes in different flavors like PBOC, so does NFC (NFC A-B-F-V), and Ultra Wideband is joining the mix.

That’s what digital payments are all about: combining complex things into ‘it just works’ simplicity. Anybody can create or load a Suica, Octopus or PASMO into Apple Pay, without signing up or creating a new account, and start using it for lots of different instant payments. That’s how simple it should always be. That’s my 2021 Apple Pay wish.

Best wishes for a happy and safe 2021.

UPDATE: Reader Apple Pay Wishes for 2021

>Mine would be for VISA Japan to support Apple Pay.

>Mine are resurrecting #FeliCa-based @VisaJP TOUCH (can be rebranded), @id_credit re-attempts @ #FeliCa network expansion overseas starting w/ equipping end-users w/ the technology in new card distribution (via digital & physical), & @JCB_CARD expands @QUICPay_PR network overseas.

Japan Cashless 2020 Retrospect

As we look back on 2020 there are 2 big divides: COVID and cashless. We suddenly found ourselves in a world where all human contact is conducted behind face masks and sheets of clear plastic. Not touching anything not ours is the rule of daily life.

The year started with the Japanese Cashless tax rebate in full swing but the real value of the program, helping smaller merchants to add cashless payments, became clear when the Diamond Princess brought the COVID crisis to Japan big time and real cash suddenly become suspect fomite material. More than anything, COVID fears attached to handling cash drove cashless use in 2020 but are we there yet? Back in July, I said we are. It will be months before official 2020 cashless trend numbers are in, but you don’t need anything more than to ask yourself one simple question:

How much has changed since the October 25, 2016 Apple Pay Japan launch?

Junya Suzuki correctly predicted Apple Pay would be the ‘Black Ships‘ inflection point catalyst for cashless payments in Japan that would change everything. And everything has changed. Cashless is now the first choice that most people want, that most stores want you to use. Cash is the fallback. If grandma want to use it at the supermarket checkout she can take all the time she wants feeding bills and coins into a checkout payment machine. Just one more choice in the every growing payment option menu.

There were other cashless developments in 2020, such as the Yucho Bank security scandal that hit the Docomo Account first, then other online payment services. The end result was that QR Code players (PayPay, Line Pay, etc.) took a hit and for the time being cannot recharge from a bank account. It knocked the wind out of QR Code payment mania that I don’t see returning.

On the transit front the biggest news was the Mobile PASMO Android and Apple Pay PASMO launch. Geographically these only cover the Kanto region but Suica and PASMO combined represent 80% of the Japanese transit IC card market. As Mobile PASMO turned out to be recycled Mobile Suica under the hood, I see it as part of the overall JR East next generation Super Suica that is formally launching in March 2021.

2021 should be an interesting year for contactless payments with Super Suica and VISA Japan finally signing on with Apple Pay. We will see more transit IC card service announcements similar to the Mobile ICOCA one, and if Apple Pay QR Code Payments launch we could see developments in that segment, but 2020 will always be known as the year that Japan finally went cashless.