Anybody who has lived in Japan any length of time knows the economic reality here is rarely reported accurately in the western media. The worn out narratives of the ‘lost decade’ (or is it two?), the ‘aging society’, the ‘Japan is so over’ are just too easy for the challenged journalists of our era not to use. Otherwise they might have to actually do research and fact checking.
When some American friends visited Japan in 2010 I took them on a hot spring tour. For the entire trip they marveled at how prosperous things seemed, “the media always says that Japan is in such bad shape. I can’t believe the difference.” I imagine that lots of inbound visitors are surprised by the reality they find in Japan, especially visitors from the West where the worn out narratives are endlessly recycled.
Japan’s economic revival began with the Nikkei stock market revival when the Abe Government took power on December 26, 2014. A nice little Christmas present that keeps on giving. And now Morgan Stanley is taking notice, it even mentions the role of contactless payments in Japan’s continuing economic growth:
Another contributor to growth will come from Japan’s shift away from cash. Just 21% of transactions in Japan are currently cashless, versus an average of 45% outside Japan. “Reducing the cost of cash processing is a key element of productivity reforms,” says Japan Banks analyst Mia Nagasaka, who forecasts that cashless transactions will expand to 30% of the total by 2025.
Although a reduction in cash transactions is good news for the economy as a whole, it is particularly important for banks. As in the U.S. and other markets, Japanese banks stand to save a great deal as consumers switch to mobile banking and paying with credit cards or digital wallets rather than cash. All told, Nagasaka believes that Japan’s megabanks could raise their average return on equity from 6% currently to 8% by 2025 through cost-cutting and technology adoption. Under this scenario, valuations for Japanese banks would improve from 0.6 times book value to nearly 1x—a big leap in an industry that many investors had written off.
With just one year to go until the Japanese sales tax is raised to 10% there are some very interesting implementation proposals the Abe Government is putting on the table. The most interesting one is the ‘cash tax’: when you pay for things in cash you pay a 10% sales tax, when you pay for things with contactless payment you pay 8% sales tax, exactly what everybody pays now.
If the proposals are passed by the Japanese National Diet, it will certainly drive the growing contactless payments wave to tsunami size. Everybody who does not use contactless payments now will certainly start doing so to save 2% at at checkout. The changes will be fascinating to watch. Apple’s global FeliCa move is looking more genius all the time.
7-Eleven ATM Apple Pay Suica Recharge is not Express Card savvy. You have to use Touch ID/Face ID and put Suica in the manual ready state like an Apple Pay credit card.
The reader stand on the right of the touchscreen is designed for plastic cards with the NFC hit area at the bottom of the stand. This means you have to put iPhone on the stand upside down for Apple Pay Suica to work. It’s very awkward.
The process is not that fast.
The service is OK but nothing more. Suica cash recharge at the JR station or the convenience store cash register is a faster deal, and the convenience of Apple Pay Suica Recharge always beats cash recharge. The main benefit is that 7-Eleven ATMs are plentiful, open 24 hours and offer Suica cash recharge during the Mobile Suica late night maintenance offline hours 1am~4am.
This is a place marker for Pixel 3 FeliCa details that will be coming in over the next few weeks after the new devices ship in America and Japan. I’ll update here instead of separate posts. Those details will give us a good idea of Google’s NFC roadmap and answer some lingering questions:
Do Pixel 3 JP models have a Google custom FeliCa embedded Secure Element (eSE) implementation or use Sony FeliCa chips, and is the hardware the same across all SKUs?
This sounds trivial but we’ll find out how Google leverages the Open Mobile API in Android 9 Pie and how it relates to the eSE. If it is the former then Google Pay might finally be freed of its current dependence on the Sony/Docomo Osaifu-Keitai software stack. If the latter then Google Pay will be same silly candy wrapper UI that currently runs on Japanese Android carrier locked smartphones and we can forget all about a global FeliCa Pixel 4.
Does Google Pay in Pixel 3 Japanese SKUs implement NFC switching?
iOS 10 didn’t have NFC switching support and was a big reason that Apple only activated FeliCa Apple Pay in the Japanese iPhone 7 and Apple Watch 2 models. NFC switching was necessary to support Global FeliCa iPhone 8 and later/Apple Watch 3 and later so that users could mix different card types (EMV, FeliCa, China Transit) in Wallet and have it all ‘just work’. If Google Pay does not support NFC switching then we know why Pixel 3 is not global FeliCa.
Does Pixel 3 have express cards with power reserve?
Global FeliCa iPhone,FeliCa Pixel, Super Suica and all that
Apple Pay Japan arrived just 2 years ago and has clearly disrupted the Japanese contactless payments market in many important and interesting ways. Things can change quickly and the disruption isn’t one way. Here is a timeline:
September 2016 Apple announces FeliCa support for iPhone 7 and Apple Watch 2 Japanese models, Japan Transit IC card e-money use is approximately 5.5 million transactions a month with a 10% YOY growth rate.
October 2016 Apple Pay Japan starts with Apple Pay Suica as the centerpiece.
September 2017 Apple announces iPhone X, iPhone 8 and Apple Watch 3 that have global FeliCa support: anybody coming to Japan can add and use Apple Pay Suica.
October 2018 Google announces Pixel 3 with FeliCa support, a first for Google hardware. Google Pay matches Apple Pay but only on a Pixel 3 JP models further splintering the Android platform between haves and have-nots.
And now because of the success of Apple Pay Suica, JR East and Sony are taking it to the next level developing the next generation Suica container format, which doesn’t have a real name yet (local coop transit smartcard?). I call it Super Suica and it’s due to launch April 2021. Super Suica will change Japanese contactless payments and transplant the Apple Pay Suica transformation from the Suica Tokyo home area to all transit regions nationwide. Everything transit will be on Apple Pay, everybody everywhere can use it for transit and e-money. Google Pay and Osaifu-Keitai will be there too.
With a single seamless NFC standard and certification process in place, JR East roadmap goals are very clear:
Japanese customers with Mobile Suica devices can use their devices for public transportation and transit payments abroad.
Global specification certified NFC devices from abroad can use Mobile Suica.
NFC certification and global FeliCa smartphones are taking care of the hardware side, but NFC transit payments interoperability isn’t there because there hasn’t been a roadmap. Super Suica is the first step to create one. Japanese transit cards have been compatible with each other for transit and e-money since 2013 but important pieces are missing: commuter passes and point systems are still chained to local transit cards and have to be managed locally. You can travel with Apple Pay Suica anywhere, but you can’t add a commuter plan for an area outside of the Suica transit network.
Because of the costs associated with maintaining local data and account management it’s very difficult and expensive for large transit companies to host systems on mobile digital wallets. Nobody outside of JR East has managed to do it. It’s expensive for smaller local transit companies to issue smartcards and impossible to host them on mobile. Super Suica containers will solve these problems and greatly reduce costs not only for plastic card issuance and operation but also for hosting them on mobile digital wallet platforms.
Development is divided between Sony, JR East and JR East Mechatronics (JREM), the JR East subsidiary company that manages Mobile Suica.
Sony: updating FeliCa OS for the new format
JR East: coordinating the deployment effort with the other transit companies
JREM: physical card development, providing background services for issuance and mobile
The press release is terse and light on details but 3 points are very clear:
Support for local commute plans, points, branding and more in addition to the regular stored fare transit and e-money features of current issue cards
Everybody on board
The aim is clear: instead of complicated expensive account management systems that babysit all the extra functions the cloud magically attaches to current transit cards, with every transit company doing it differently, Super Suica will be a universal container that takes care of the extras on the card itself. There will be established protocols and one common format with a new FeliCa OS version to handle everything.
This approach will streamline and simplify the entire Japan Transit IC system process for plastic cards and mobile, significantly lowering costs without sacrificing the great things about Suica: blazing speed and local processing without a network.
Functions that are geeky and complex like setting up auto-charge or purchasing Shinkansen e-tickets will become much easier and accessible. Missing functions like discount tickets, special fares, and regular line express train ticketing will be possible on mobile. JR East has talked about raising the current 20,000 JPY Suica balance limit, Super Suica is the perfect opportunity to finally do it.
The outcome for Japan
The change for Japan is obvious: the success of the Suica transit payment platform in the Tokyo region is made available everywhere. Actually it already is available everywhere but Super Suica will supercharge it. JR East will offer to host everything on mobile so that everybody in Japan can use Apple Pay, Google Pay or Osaifu-Keitai for local transit, purchases, while offering all the local goodies and incentives.
Other big players like JR Central and JR West may not opt-in for hosting on Mobile Suica for political reasons but the incentives are certainly there and the cost of getting somebody else’s cloud service to do it will be much easier and cheaper than it is now. JR East looks eager to go the extra distance to get everybody on Mobile Suica cloud and should make clear that Mobile Suica is only managing containers, not account data.
The outcome outside of Japan
The possibilities outside of Japan are going to be interesting. Could the Hong Kong Octopus system opt for the new format and could it be made cross compatible? It’s nice to think that sister systems like Octopus and Suica could do that some day. Even if that doesn’t happen, the Super Suica container format will offer Octopus the same benefits of lower costs and make it easier to deploy on other digital wallet platforms outside of the currently exclusive Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay.
More than cross compatibility however I think Super Suica will shine a much brighter light on the shortcomings of using ‘Open Loop’ EMV contactless credit card payment networks for transit: non-existent account management, simple fares only, no commute plans, no points that tie in with other transit company services, etc. These are problems that are prohibitively expensive for any transit company to fix on their own and the banking industry payment networks will not.
A handy tip for anyone wanting to get around with Apple Pay without causing a fuss is to authenticate Apple Pay as you approach the gate. Doing it in advance helps remove the awkwardness of holding up other people if your fingerprint or face isn’t recognized first time, for instance.
This is a perfect example of dead-end last century credit card vs. smartcard, open loop vs. closed loop thinking and where it has brought us. Digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay collapse the differences of open loop vs. closed loop and destroy the old arguments while combining different NFC technologies and middleware software into one compelling new whole the creates an entirely new game: Build a transit payment platform instead.
A stored value native transit card on the front end with a credit/debit card on the backend for Apple Pay or Google Pay recharge is the best arrangement that leverages the strengths of both approaches working together instead of the old antagonistic and wasteful A or B arguments. In the long run it’s a win-win for transit companies and the banking industry.
For Asian countries that already have FeliCa transit systems (India, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Vietnam) Super Suica will let them do more. For transit companies in America and Europe, Super Suica will be a great chance to re-examine long-term goals and choose the best mix of technologies in light of the new business opportunities and models that digital wallets and Super Suica roadmap will offer.
One thing is clear: transit companies that stick with the old ways of thinking will miss unique new business opportunities offered by native transit payment platforms hosted on digital wallet platforms, opportunities that build on transit but also extend it into new places.
1) Pixel 3 does not support FeliCa: this is unlikely given how much Google has advertised in Japan and would kill the Pixel brand in Japan forever.
2) Pixel 3 does the iPhone 7 thing and only supports FeliCa on Japanese specific SKUs: this is more likely but will piss off Android fans outside of Japan.
3) Pixel 3 does the iPhone 8 thing with a global FeliCa Pixel 3: most people will be happy and inbound Android users can finally join the Mobile Suica party.
4) Pixel 3 does the iPhone 8 JP global FeliCa but TD‑LTE Band 42 support is JP carrier exclusive: MVNO fans will be frothing at the mouth and cursing at the wind.
5) Pixel 3 does the iPhone 8 global FeliCa thing with TD‑LTE Band 42 JP SKUs both in SIM-free and select carrier locked arrangements: this would be the best outcome for MVNO users and for actually selling some product.
#5 is best but #3 and #4 will do.
Update: too bad global FeliCa fans, Google did the #2 iPhone 7 Japan SKU only FeliCa thing. The only questions left are what’s the embedded SE arrangement which can give us a clue about Google’s NFC roadmap, and whether Pixel 3 JP FeliCa has Express cards with power reserve like iPhone XS/XR. Probably not.