Perception and Reality

I like writing but am no writer, so I prescribe to the ‘if you’re not a sharpshooter shoot lots of bullets’ school of wannabes. When the Financial Times, “The painful path of curing Japan of its cash addiction” (paywalled) piece came out, I had 2 hours to kill before going on a business trip and decided to post something while my reaction was fresh, figuring nobody would read it. The piece has not gotten many hits, but a few western journalists based in Tokyo tweeted about it recently, defending the FT piece and the overall ‘Japan failed’ game over narrative.

Here’s the thing. The cashless payments market landscape in Japan is the most messy and exciting one in the world right now. Nowhere else can you find such a concentrated investment in contactless payment infrastructure and different technologies (EMV, FeliCa, QR Codes, smartphones, etc.) competing and playing out in the market.

Japan is also the world’s great guinea pig test market. What works here first is adapted and deployed in other markets, like mobile payments. My take, covered in countless messy posts over the span of 2 years, is actually quite simple. The market revolution of mobile payments and smartphones is just getting started. The hot messy exciting payments situation you see happening in Japan right now will play out, in some other form, in other markets later.

That’s the story I think western journalists are missing. The ‘game over’ Japan narrative has been a stock western journalist in Japan ploy since the end of the Japan bubble, almost 30 years ago. A lot of journalists stick with it because it still sells. It’s entertaining for some people, but it doesn’t convey reality or educate.

JR East getting NFC-F added to the NFC Forum certification process and getting Apple to add global FeliCa to every iPhone and Apple Watch, to me, is an interesting story. Google following Apple’s lead and adding that same capability to every Pixel 3 device (but only turning it on for the JP market), to me, is an interesting story. It tells us where Apple and Google are going.

Our smart devices are quickly evolving into ‘do everything’ devices that, unlike plastic, don’t care about any particular payment technology. They just work. That’s where the puck is going. If you sit around declaring that the game is over, you’re gonna miss the game. And the opportunity to tell people about it.

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NFC Tag Apple Pay and Japanese Softcream

Summer is here and the increasing number of Apple Pay Suica inbound tweets are fun to read as always. I saw inbound in action recently at a local station NewDays, 2 Chinese women walked up to the checkout and asked in English “Can we pay here with this?” One was waving a Suica card, the other waving her iPhone. People really appreciate the ease and speed of Suica Express Transit.

However, there are still lots of times on the road when you come face to face with the so called ‘curse of Japanese cash addiction’, and the fact that, even though things have changed a great deal since Apple Pay arrived in Japan, there’s still a long way to go.

I had the that kind of experience recently coming back from Minobu on the Keio Highway Bus. That particular bus has a 10 minute rest break at Shakado Parking Area just outside of Kofu on the Chuo Expressway. There’s barely enough time to dash to the restroom and grab a drink for a long congested crawl to Shinjuku Bus Terminal.

Like many Japanese highway rest areas, Shakado offers delicious looking local specialties. Kofu is a well known for it’s delicious fruits, the Shakado cafeteria softcream fruit parfait looked too good to pass up. With 6 minutes to spare I hunted for the softcream button on the meal ticket machine, which was Suica compatible, but couldn’t find it. I asked one of the staff and they pointed to a separate smaller ticket machine that was just for softcream, a separate stall vendor, and not only was it cash only, it was coin only.

Where’s the softcream button?

Fortunately I had lots of coins that day, a rarity, but pitied another poor westerner wandering around obviously interested in that delicious looking softcream without a clue how to buy one, but I was out of time and dashed for the bus. With a softcream fruit parfait. It was delicious.

After 2 years of writing about cashless/contactless trends, I think I have finally hit on the perfect index for Japan: The Softcream Cashless Index (SCI). Nothing is more regional, seasonal, ubiquitous, cash only and delicious as the endlessly glorious variety of Japanese softcream. Sure, MiniStop has pretty good softcream and all the cashless options like Apple Pay Suica, but those parking area seasonal regionals like Yamagata Cherry softcream (to die for) are always cash cash.

On a scale of 1~10, I put the Japanese national SCI average at 2. Softcream stalls are the worst candidates for the usual cashless options: credit cards/FeliCa/QR etc., because they are mostly one person operations, or side stalls of larger retail operations. Nobody wants to invest in cashless terminals, or even cashless ticket machines, for such mundane, low priced, low margin softcream side business. If softcream can be made cashless, Japan will truly be a cashless nation.

The NFC Tag Apple Pay Option
The ideal cashless payment infrastructure investment for softcream operations is no investment at all. This is why meal ticket machines are so popular in Japan for food serving businesses: they eliminate the cash register all together, the staff can focus on serving customers instead of wasting valuable time babysitting customer payments.

A good cashless payment option in this case is NFC Tag Apple Pay that Jennifer Bailey previewed at her Transact Conference Keynote. A PaymentsSource article covering that keynote makes clear that NFC Tag Apple Pay is built on two iOS 13 technologies: enhanced NFC tag read/write support in Core NFC, and Sign in with Apple ID.

The process leverages “Core NFC,” enabling an iPhone to scan an NFC tag that launches an app or a website, so users can skip the step of downloading an app when accessing a new service, Bailey explained.

“There’s no app requirement and no requirement to pre-sign up,” Bailey said, describing how Bird is using the technology in a pilot, with Apple Pay’s “pay load” automatically working to establish the account information to set up a one-time purchase. “It’s so much easier for new users to get into these services very quickly,”

For NFC Tag Apple Pay to succeed in Japan, it has be offered through major payment providers like J-Mups or Recruit AirPay (who already provide regular terminal based Apple Pay), who can package it together with their cloud backend and an app. From the softcream vendor side, all they need to do is sign up for NFC tag payment service via the setup app and receive a free NFC tag and logo. And that’s it, they are in business.

The concept is similar to the SmartPlate demo only more streamlined. It has to remove all payment involvement from the softcream side, just like a meal ticket machine. The only thing they need to do is look at a screen to confirm payment.

In lieu of Google Pay offering a similar NFC tag payment scheme, the payment provider could conceivably offer an Android app to include that platform but this breaks the Jennifer Bailey rule: no app, no sign-up. This rule is what sets NFC Tag Apple Pay apart from QR Code pay services who want you to sign up in an app to get your personal data. This rule will be the reason for the success of NFC Tag Apple Pay.

Can it change the Softcream Cashless Index? If Apple and their Japanese payment partners can replicate the hands off, no cash register, no brainer experience of Japanese meal ticket machines with NFC Tag Apple Pay, definitely yes. There’s only a year to go until the hot summer Tokyo Olympics but if the SCI average can make it to a 5, or more, that would be a huge tasty success and invitation to eat your way across Japan without a wallet.

Financial Times Dissin’ Japan again: The painful path of curing Japan of its cash addiction

The UK media has a thing about Japan. Japan must always be portrayed as ‘pathetic’. Pathetic losers, pathetically isolated, pathetically out of step, arrogant, etc. Does this make UK readers feel better about themselves? I don’t know, but I have learned to take any UK media coverage of Japan with a large dose of skepticism, laugh at it, or do what the Japanese do: ignore it all together. After all, who cares what UK journalists think about Japan when they cannot be bothered to spend the time and effort to find out what’s really going on, and actually report it.

Case in point, today’s Financial Times piece: The painful path of curing Japan of its cash addiction (paywalled). It has all the nasty lazy hallmarks of UK style Japan reportage: the ‘Galapagos trap’ (Japanese isolated from the rest of the world), the ‘FeliCa failure’ (FeliCa has stunted the spread of cashless systems that have taken hold elsewhere in the world, i.e. EMV is king of the world and Japan is isolated), and now the ‘QR code failure’ (Japan was slower than China applying OR codes for mobile payments, isolated and out of step again).

This last failure, of course, leads into the recent 7-Eleven QR Code 7pay launch and security meltdown, and the narrative that FT really wants to sell here: the grand parable of modern Japan, a nation of has-beens:

the (7pay) incident has become part of a grand parable of modern Japan: a country in a permanent tension between its high-tech image and the realities of aging consumers and squandered opportunities.

WTF? I thought we were talking about contactless payment trends in Japan here, not the UK take of the world order. Why is the management failure of one company the only narrative that matters despite the many successes and changes happening right now? FT’s pathetic Japan narrative, is pathetic.

FT offers little hard evidence for the failure of FeliCa and QR, and of course completely ignores the success of things like Apple Pay Japan, the expansion of global NFC smartphones, the continuing growth of Suica use, and neglects to explain the reason behind the Japanese QR Code push: obtaining personal information for Big Data.

As any Japanese IT journalist will tell you, analyzing real Japanese contactless payments market trends is very difficult because the beast is highly regional. What you find in Tokyo is completely different from Fukuoka, or rural areas. You have to look at many different pieces to understand the trends and where they are going.

The best thing FT can offer is a 6,000 person web survey from MyVoice which does not include any crucial context, which in Japan is everything. What regions are we talking about here, what’s the age spread, the amount of use, average purchase amounts, etc. There are tons of little web surveys but they don’t convey the big picture. Sure, lots of people might use PayPay to buy this weeks discount gum or get the startup campaign goodies, but that has nothing to do real day to day contactless payments use.

The rest of the piece is padded out with phoned in quotes from the usual suspects: ‘financial analyst experts’ from Credit Suisse and Mizuho Financial Group, the latter of which have skin in the game with their own QR Code payment system.

All in all it’s the low easy road that big established media takes too often these days. The Financial Times had a great opportunity to explain the exciting changes happening in the Japan payments market right now, and open a lot of eyes and minds. Unfortunately they blew it. That’s a loss for everybody, especially FT.

Update: fellow blogger in Japan Michael Camilleri has posted his take of the infamous Financial Times piece, a highly recommended read.

Visa Japan Finally Ready to Sign on to Apple Pay Japan?

IT journalist Junya Suzuki was answering a question of mine regarding dual mode (EMV/FeliCa) credit/debit cards which are somewhat mainstream, even on Docomo dCard, but the plastic issue Sumi Trust Visa contactless cards are EMV only.

I guess Visa Japan still wants to promote payWave (banded as Visa Touch in Japan) over better customer service. Because if Visa was promoting better customer service, they would offer dual mode for plastic cards and Apple Pay like Mastercard and American Express do.

Visa Japan has yet to sign directly with Apple Pay, the reason why Japanese issue Visa cards don’t work for Apple Pay Suica Recharge, but there may be hope. Suzuki san’s tweet suggests Visa Japan might finally sign with Apple Pay, “in the very near future.”

I certainly hope so, but given that Visa Japan has ‘been in discussions with Apple’ to officially join Apple Pay Japan since the service launched in October 2016, and have done nothing the whole time, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Suica Tops Contactless Use in Tokyo Area

Another market survey, another few data points. MoneyZine writers Hideyuki Kato and Isamu Saito report some interesting results of 2 different cashless use surveys. As I reported a year ago, Apple Pay has brought a lot of changes to the Japanese payments market but it’s hard to make sense of it due to highly regional preferences: Suica is king in the Kanto area, ICOCA in the Kansai, and so on.

The 1st data point is a survey from Yumenomachi that ranks the different cashless payment methods:

  • Credit cards: 88.4%
  • Transit cards: 49.7%
  • Apple Pay/Google Pay/Osaifu Keitai: 35.4%
  • Prepaid Reward Cards (nanaco, WAON, Edy): 31.7%
  • QR Codes (Line Pay, PayPay, etc): 25.6%

The 2nd data point is a survey from One Compath. This survey reports 56% of the respondents as using cashless more than a year ago, with slightly different ranking:

  • Credit cards: 71.4%
  • Transit cards: 31.7%
  • Prepaid Reward Cards (nanaco, WAON, Edy): 53.0%

The 3rd data point from the same One Compath survey is very interesting but not surprising. It ranks prepaid card use separately for transit and reward cards by prefecture. Transit card use for payments in the Kanto Area (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama) is 85%, while prepaid reward cards are the overall winner on a national basis. This is because of the reach of AEON supermarkets and convenience stores in rural areas where people don’t use transit cards or the local transit cards do not support purchases. The next generation Super Suica format is aimed specifically at incorporating these small rural area transit cards so they can be used anywhere as Suica.

One take away is that in the Kanto area Suica is easily the most used contactless card at checkout (Suica issuance is twice that of PASMO). Credit cards lead in cashless, but are still mostly swipe or Chip and PIN at checkout. When prepaid cards are totaled together, credit card and prepaid card use is almost equal. The surveys do not look at average purchase amounts for the different cashless methods. I suspect that Suica and other prepaid card use leads for smaller purchases while credit cards are used for larger purchase items.

We also know from a previous survey by IT journalist Sachiko Watanabe that most iPhone users do not use Apple Pay:

  • Only 27% of iPhone users who can use Apple Pay use it
  • 50% don’t use Apple Pay but are interested in using it
  • 22% don’t use Apple Pay and don’t care about using it

These numbers jive with the 35.4% digital wallet use figure in data point 1. The short summary here is that there is still plenty of opportunity for Apple Pay to grow in the Japanese market, and the Super Suica format in 2021 has the potential to break down the regionality and shake up the market.