It has been a year since the VISA payment network in Japan stopped accepting foreign issue VISA cards for Apple Pay In-App use with Suica and PASMO Wallet cards (and the recently launched Apple Pay ICOCA card too).
With no explanation or reason, one little VISA payment system configuration change by the merchant acquirer eliminated the default go-to transit and payment card any visitor to Japan with iPhone and a VISA Wallet card Apple could add and use nationwide. Plastic Suica cards were the only option for inbound visitors with iPhone who only have VISA cards, and now the plastic card option is severely limited.
That very same month, VISA’s Nick Mackie, Vice President, Visa Acceptance Solutions, Head of Urban Mobility & Government gave an exclusive interview to Nikkei Business magazine in an article that announced VISA Touch sponsored open loop transit initiatives in Japan were going mainstream. Mackie explained that VISA Touch would ‘co-exist’ with Suica on Japanese transit gates, of course he didn’t mention that VISA in Japan has had a very rocky relationship with Apple Pay.
Wait a minute, what about Suica on store readers? Suica is a payment network, not a transit card. People forget that. Inbound visitors and Japanese open loop media advocates make the mistake of comparing Suica to London’s OYSTER, or Sydney’s OPAL but neither of those systems are payment networks that work outside of transit gate. The only relevant comparison is Hong Kong Octopus which, like Suica, is also a payment network, one that is central to the MRT business model, as Suica is to JR East.
Are we talking open here or global payment cartel economic neocolonialism?
People have this strange idea that EMV card companies are an open standard because everybody uses them. They are not. They are incumbent payment ecosystems with static global marketshare, in other words payment cartels, whose main revenue stream are interchange processing fees from processing different kinds of payments while selling value added services, i.e. your analyzed transaction data to customers. They are lucrative businesses because of their tremendous scale. EMV open loop transit is simply another effort to increase the volume of processing fees by capturing fare gate transactions, and selling the transit use transaction data analysis as a value added service to their business customers.
And because they are ecosystems there are many moving parts: EMV licensing fees, EMV compliance device certification fees, transaction processing networks. This means it is very difficult for new services to emerge and compete with a giant multi-arm consortium or recreate its vertical integration. They have to play with the EMV payment cartel if they are going to play at all.
In Japan mobile apps have provided an opening to link bank accounts with QR Code payment systems. QR Code App are popular for many reasons, the main one being that they offer ways to circumnavigate the EMV payment cartel. a mobile debit card scheme without the card or the EMV payment network as QR Codes circumnavigate the hammer lock of pre-installed EMV on smartphone secure embedded elements (eSE).
As I have written about many times, global NFC and Suica support on Android has been stymied by the lack of pre-installed Mobile FeliCa that works everywhere. Mobile FeliCa is the only real payment NFC protocol that can compete with EMV on payments. Calypso could but is transit only. The pre-install problem is why Navigo on Android had no choice but to develop the lower performance Calypso HCE, it was the only way for Île-de-France Mobilités (IDFM) to work around the lack of getting Android smartphone manufacturers to post-install Calypso eSE applets even thought the hardware fully supports Calypso NFC-B.
This is why the EU pressure to ‘open’ the iPhone NFC chip is so false to me. The current plan would only serve to increase the EMV payment cartel grip on mobile payments. If the EU really wanted to foster payment competition they would force manufacturers to pre-install Mobile FeliCa, and Calypso along with EMV and MIFARE. Nobody gets this except for a select few. I’d argue that Apple Pay actually levels the playing field by pre-installing and integrating all the necessary pieces, giving non-bank payment providers equal opportunity to bring non-EMV solutions to the mobile platform. Established players don’t like that. Western countries will continue to abide with the EMV payment cartel instead of enhancing payment competition, witness the proposed Credit Card Competition Act of 2022~2023 going nowhere in the American Congress.
The ramen shop arcade business model
Japan is lucky to already have alternative home grown payment networks even as the EMV cartel tightens its grip here. Unlike the western monopolistic ‘winner take all’, ‘one size fits all’ business culture, the nature of traditional Japanese business culture is akin to a ramen shop arcade. One successful ramen shop is okay but many together in the same area are better because more choice brings in more customers. More customers is more business that raises all boats. That’s why Japanese customers like having payment options, and are adept at juggling them for the points they want. Westerns say they like having options, but when they visit Japan complain they complain about having too many options.
VISA and their main Japanese partner SMBC group are investing heavily to market contactless payments under the banner of ‘Visa Touch’ along with the SMBC stera payment system to shift payments to EMV contactless and away from FeliCa based payment players such as iD (NTT Docomo) and QUICPay (JCB). Open loop stera transit is part of this investment.
What IT media in Japan and abroad never write about is the FeliCa ecosystem and how much of the technology licensing, payment processing, and other fees stay in Japan versus how much leaves Japan for Europe and America if that basic ecosystem is completely replaced with EMV. In other words what the long term price of removing the native payment system and replacing it with payment system neocolonialism? If you carefully examine what China has done, they have carefully cloned the basic EMV spec for transit, China T-Union PBOC 2.0/3.0, which neatly circumvents EMV licensing while maintaining compatibility, similar to what GhostScript did back in the PostScript era: PostScript compatibility without expensive Adobe licensing.
Stay in your lane: open loop reality in Japan
I see the VISA block of Mobile Suica, PASMO, and ICOCA as part of that VISA/SMBC effort. What better way to put pressure on domestic transit operators to add open loop by denying inbound visitors the ability to add and use Suica, PASMO, and ICOCA in Apple Pay Wallet? In any other age this kind of market abuse would come under anti-monopolistic regulatory scrutiny but here we are living in an age where regulators focus on Apple for the wrong reasons.
JR East and JR West will likely never add open loop as doing so dilutes their core business, Suica and ICOCA are central to their business strategy of extending those payments platforms into service platforms. The reality is that despite all the VISA and SMBC efforts, VISA Touch open loop transit will be just another ramen shop in the arcade, a thin client bolted on to the existing transit IC system, an EMV and QR Code reader bolted onto the current transit IC gate.
It will be at some stations and some transit operators, but it will not be everywhere. It can’t do reserve seating Shinkansen, Express Train fares, Green Seat Tickets, etc., those can only be accomplished with closed loop. The reality of open loop will be an extension of what we have now, separate gates and lanes for slower more error prone open loop, while the rest use transit IC gates because when you ride JR East, JR West and JR Central, the only choice will be closed loop Transit IC, and (eventually) QR.
And there will be no Express Mode for open loop. If there is one lesson we have learned from all open loop installations in the world to date it is this: smartphones do not support multiple Express Transit modes on the same system. As Suica, PASMO and ICOCA already have Express Mode, open loop with smartphones will always be just like the store reader payment authentication process.
The EMV payment cartel may want to be the only ramen shop in the arcade but I hope the lively variety of payment choices that flourish in Japan continue to flourish and provide new opportunities. I don’t have anything against EMV open loop, just as long as the EMV consortium partners play
fare fair with all domestic transit payment players. May all boats rise together.