Have a Good Cashless: 2019 Contactless Payment Trends in Japan and Beyond

Happy New Year! May 2019 be a great year for everybody. It will certainly be a very interesting one for contactless payments and Apple Pay: now that Apple has officially acknowledged that smartphone sales have peaked out, expanding services like Apple Pay and growing service revenue, is more important than ever. Contactless payments in Japan will be fascinating to watch as various payment networks and technologies vie for market share in an already crowded market that is heating up before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

If you don’t know anything about Japanese contactless payments, here is a handy intro presentation video Going Cashless in Japan made by Michael Sunderland during his internship at Tokyo FinTech Association. It’s not fancy or deep but covers the basics well such as why cash is so important in Japan. One important observation is that every country has its own money culture, so there will never be a ‘one size fits all’ solution. As I have always said, people don’t go cashless and use contactless payments like Apple Pay for buying a couch or a TV, they start using Apple Pay for coffee, sandwiches and train tickets, then migrate up from there. Here are some trends to keep an eye on in 2019, a year that may see some real progress in going cashless.

The 10% Consumption Tax
The #1 issue this year for Japan is the October 1 consumption tax hike from 8% to 10%. The Japanese government is still working on the details but the shape of it looks messy and stimulating. It has the potential to kickstart a cash to cashless transformation leading up the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and beyond. There are 2 main components of the package:

  • Point rebates for purchases made with cashless payment effectively reducing the tax down to 5% depending on the type of store. For example a customer who purchases items with Apple Pay Suica would pay the 10% consumption tax at the cash register but receive 5% back as JRE POINT.
  • Subsidies to smaller businesses and merchants to subsidize contactless payment equipment (readers, POS systems, etc) leading up to the 2020 Olympics.

JiJi News reported a preliminary list of 14 companies supposedly under consideration by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) to carry out the point rebate program with more to come. Here is the initial list with comments for each section.

Credit Cards
Mitsubishi UFJ NICOS
Sumitomo Mitsui Card Co
UC CARD Co
JCB

Trend: The Kyash Visa prepaid card was easily the most innovative product from the credit card side in 2018 in a market already full of prepaid cards, the biggest advantage being person to person transfers that other mainstream prepaid cards do not, as yet, offer. Meanwhile Visa JP is busy sending mixed signals: they offer dual function EMV contactless/FeliCa plastic cards but still refuse to provide NFC switching services on Apple Pay and Google Pay for outbound Visa card users, a service that Mastercard, AMEX and JCB are providing. 2019 will probably be a holding pattern but could see some big gains with NFC Pay (EMV contactless) with major retail chains. Apple Pay can gain some traction by adding JCB branded Line Pay prepaid cards that are available in convenience stores and popular with younger customers. 

E-money/Prepaid Cards
WAON
nanaco
Suica
Rakuten Edy

Trend: Unless Apple Pay finally offers the remaining top-tier prepaid cards that are already on Google Pay (WAON, nanaco, Edy) there won’t be much action. JR East will roll out a Shinkansen e-ticket service for all Transit IC cards in April, the JR East version of SmartEX. Outside of that I don’t see anything new this year or even 2020. At least not until the Super Suica format arrives in early 2021 which will unify all the Japan Transit IC cards and get them on mobile.

QR Codes
Origami Pay
Line Pay
PayPay

Trend: Everybody and their uncle setup a QR Code payment system in 2018, creating smartphone apps and frantically building payment platforms like prospectors in a gold rush, all based on capturing merchants supposedly attracted by the allure of low transaction fees and minimal hardware investment. This will continue in 2019 and Japan will have “a QR Code payment app for that” for just about everything from convenience stores (FamiPay) to vending machines. Like prospectors of old the majority will end up bust. The real question is will Japanese customers actually use QR Codes again. The PayPay security meltdown poisoned the well already and merchants aren’t happy either: PayPay has mistakenly (?) listed business as accepting PayPay when they don’t, leaving customers irate with merchants when they really should be angry with PayPay. It’s a new form of blackmail. Last but not least don’t expect METI to add Chinese QR Code AliPay or WeChat Pay to the point rebate list.

Transaction Processing
Rakuten
Coiney
Square

Trend: Subsidized payment terminal hardware for smaller businesses is a good start but real change will require the right balance of lower processing rates and ease of integration/operation. Right now there are far too many POS systems that require double entry, once for the cash register, once for the cashless payment terminal. This must be eliminated and the entire transaction process ruthlessly streamlined for smaller businesses. Rakuten, Coiney, Flight Holdings, J-Mups and many others are marketing low-cost, easy to use payment terminals but they need to do a better job of making everything work together as a seamless whole.

Apple Pay
Apple can grow Apple Pay use in Japan by filling the gaps in the top-tier prepaid card lineup: WAON, nanaco, EDY, and work to get 2nd tier prepaid cards like Dotour onboard which don’t exist on digital wallets yet. Cards like Dotour would play very well as one year exclusive deals. There are big opportunities with Value Added Service (VAS) reward cards beyond Ponta as well such as T-Point and JRE POINT. Google Pay is well ahead of Apple in the reward cards area and they need to catch up.


Apple Pay VP Jennifer Bailey recently said that Apple Pay is doing well in Japan and has identified customer loyalty programs, access (contactless passes, hotel key cards, etc.) and transit as key growth areas worldwide. Smart Octopus will be arriving on Apple Pay soon thanks to Apple’s global FeliCa strategy and the expired Samsung Pay one year exclusive. The soon to open Hanoi Metro will also use FeliCa IC cards. Taiwan’s EasyCard and South Korea’s T-money are MIFARE based cards that could be added Apple Pay now that the technology is supported in iOS 12.

The opportunities are there, it’s simply a matter of how aggressively Apple goes after the business.

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Apple Pay Drove FeliCa Contactless Growth in 2018

The CreditCard no Yomimono site (CCY) has collected and listed all the FeliCa contactless card issued to date numbers released by Japanese companies in 2018 into one convenient table. WAON is missing because AEON didn’t release any numbers this year, CCY estimates WAON card numbers at 70 million . The numbers are fairly recent and roughly inline with the Japanese fiscal year through early 2018. They are very interesting but as CCY points out the number of issued cards does not always translate into actual use: previous surveys indicate that Rakuten Edy is used much less frequently than Suica at the cash register.

Prepaid Transit IC cards (Suica, PASMO, etc.) are by far the largest at 143,700,000 which means that every person in Japan has at least one. CCY also notes the explosive 51% growth rate of QUICPay which they attribute to Apple Pay. This is one half of the story. JCB has certainly done an excellent job of working with Apple Pay but I suspect another reason is that Japanese Apple Pay Suica users switched from using Japanese issue VISA cards that don’t support Apple Pay Suica recharge in favor of QUICPay cards like JCB VIEW that do.

Any way you look at the numbers one thing is clear: prepaid cards are far more popular than credit cards for contactless payments in Japan. The huge installed base of Transit IC cards also bodes well for the Super Suica card that will integrate them into a single format for plastic issue and mobile hosting in early 2021.

Apple Pay Japan Market Info Update December 2018

The Bank of Japan posted presentation material from the 7th FinTech Forum held November 30. The Rakuten presentation has some contactless payment market data for Japan that is worth a look.

Year over year contactless payments use in the first slide basically covers the same period of the MMD Labo report but with different questions. The Rakuten data shows Rakuten Pay in the lead, naturally, at 15.2% and Apple Pay in 2nd place at 12.9%. The MMD numbers showed Rakuten Pay at 13% and Apple Pay at 20%. Google Pay only added Japanese payment support in May 2018 so the full impact will take time to play out, the 30% Osaifu Keitai use figure from the MMD report suggests a possible outcome. 

As I explained in the earlier post, Apple Pay use is highly regional and tied to Suica compatible transit routes. In major metropolitan areas Apple Pay use is higher than Rakuten but Rakuten has done a good job building an ecosystem of e-commerce, travel reservations and other services that offer members large discounts and points. That’s the reason behind the robust growth from 3.4% and the larger nationwide average use figure.

Apple Pay Suica is the entry point for Apple Pay use, the more incentives that customers have to use Suica the faster Apple Pay use in Japan will grow. Sachiko Watatani pointed out that only 27% of Apple Pay Japan capable device users actually use Apple Pay, that represents a lot of potential users sitting on the fence. The Rakuten Pay growth rate shows that points and discounts are great incentives but Apple Pay Suica, convenient as it is, doesn’t offer that. At least not without going to the trouble of getting the right Apple Pay credit cards for the right points. And even then, as setting up and using the JRE POINT app makes clear, it’s not user friendly.

The next big opportunity for Apple Pay Suica growth is ‘Super Suica’ that will unite transit cards, commuter passes and various transit point systems in a single format for plastic and mobile. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen until April 2021. Until then Apple Pay Japan needs to add the other e-money prepaid cards (WAON, nanaco, Rakuten Edy) and as many point system reward cards to Wallet as possible to keep growing. Not only that but also make them work better together than they do on their own. Think PONTA card with the kinks ironed out.

The 30% Apple Pay Japan Solution

Japanese IT journalist Sachiko Watatani who writes for MyNavi posted a fascinating 2 part (1 and 2) iPhone user survey regarding Apple Pay. There are many interesting details but the big summary points are:

  • 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

Other important data points: 34.4% use Apple Pay daily, 24.9% use Apple Pay every 2~3 days, 37% use it for public transportation, 69% use it for convenience store purchases. Unfortunately the survey questions did not make any distinctions between different card types like Apple Pay Suica which is stored value with Express Card functionality, and regular Apple Pay credit cards. The survey only addressed “Apple Pay” use.

Comparing results with the earlier MMD Labo report is frustrating because the surveys addressed different user sets with different questions. The only thing worth comparing is the “don’t use mobile payments but am interested” category. The MMD figure was 29.9%. The much higher interest in Apple Pay is probably due to Suica and the ubiquity of transit IC payment store options. Other noteworthy comparison tidbits from MMD are mobile payments for transit use @ 63.5% and convenience store purchases @ 59.1%.

Watatani san was confused about the low transit use result and thought it might be due to PASMO commuters answering the survey. I think she is partly right. One of the biggest findings from earlier this year was that Apple Pay Suica use is highly regional because the initial uptake is closely linked to commuter passes. Getting all the transit IC cards and commuter passes on mobile is something that JR East and Sony are already working on.

The good news for Apple is that 50% of Japanese iPhone users who don’t use Apple Pay are interested in using it. The bad news is that Apple has to give them better reasons to use it. A good starting point would be the items I outlined earlier: extend Apple Pay Japan prepaid card support while working to lower merchant side transaction fees, and for goodness sake issue a iPhone X Suica problem repair program.


The Contactless Payment Turf Wars: why Oyster is missing from mobile

  1. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Transit Platforms
  2. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: PiTaPa Pitfalls
  3. >Contactless Payment Turf Wars: why Oyster is missing from mobile
  4. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: tapping the potential of TAP

Open Loop EMV
It is very strange that the TfL Oyster card, which completely transformed London area transit still isn’t hosted natively on Apple Pay or Google Pay. Other MIFARE based cards are hosted on both digital wallet platforms and TfL has an Oyster app for account management and online recharge (top-ups). From a technical standpoint there doesn’t seem to be any particular problem preventing them. Perhaps it is a political thing.

TfL decided in 2011 to put their resources into the emerging EMV contactless standard. The reason was simple:

The current Oyster system, though very popular, is expensive and complex to administer. Contactless bank cards use existing technology, responsibility for issuing cards would lie with the banks rather than TfL, and the operating costs should be lower.

That is politician think, not business think: everything is a budget problem, not a business opportunity that needs investment, reduce costs by letting someone else pick up the tab but let them take their cut first. I wonder if TfL publishes how much they pay out in transaction processing fees to banks and Cubic? Perhaps not. Meanwhile budget pressures are not letting up as Londonist notes:

In 2017 there was a push to nudge people away from their Oyster cards and towards contactless. One announcement rang out all over London’s tube stations: Why not use your contactless bank card today? Never top up again, and it’s the same fare as Oyster.

The die was cast in 2014 and probably won’t change. Instead of putting resources into hosting Oyster on Apple Pay or Google Pay, TfL and Cubic already have a mobile solution which is ‘open loop’ ticketing with EMV contactless bank cards. Open loop does not address the finer issues of different fare schedules (children, seniors, etc.), commuter passes, season tickets, nationwide transit interoperability, regional promotion, nor does it offer the business advantages of a transit payment platform, Express Cards with power reserve or any kind of future vision. That’s the end of the open loop story because EMV contactless is a very dumb smart card.

It’s a shame really because TfL loves to say they generate the most transactions in all of Europe. To me that’s a gold mine to build an empire, budget problems solved. Unfortunately TfL gives that gold mine away to banks and Cubic.

You can see the same thinking with Oyster’s Australian cousin, the Opal card system, built and managed by Cubic, just like Oyster. Opal is also going the ‘open loop’ route instead of transit cards on mobile.

Open Loop QR

Hong Kong’s Octopus (FeliCa) and Singapore’s EZ-Link (Ex-FeliCa now CEPAS) are going open loop but in different ways. EZ-Link has been testing EMV contactless for over 2 years now, users report a less than smooth experience. Kaohsiung Rapid Transit in Taiwan which uses MIFARE based iPASS and EasyCard is also considering EMV contactless open loop while the recently opened Taoyuan Airport MRT offers QR Codes and a cute YouTube video.

Hong Kong going the QR Code route shows how badly AliPay wants in on Hong Kong transit, and MTR Corporation in on China transit, bad enough that Hong Kong will sacrifice a great transit payment platform for AliPay, another gold mine giveaway. Judging by the AliPay branding and retrofitted QR Code readers on Hangzhou Metro gates in the pictures above, what AliPay wants, AliPay gets, but the fast FeliCa based Octopus smart card stands in the way. Instead of improving Octopus or extending mobile Smart Octopus, it looks like Hong Kong will invest in very slow and very dumb QR. The Hong Kong Economic Journal had this to say about the development:

MTR has set its sights on a major revamp of its fare collection system, accepting new electronic payments methods rather than just single journey tickets and Octopus Cards. From the passengers’ perspective, it means there will be no need to have an Octopus card on hand for a journey on local trains, if MTR’s new fare collection system supports all the mainstream contactless payment methods such as Visa payWave and MasterCard PayPass, or mobile payment means like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay.

Japan in the middle
TfL/Oyster and Transport for NSW/Opal, Octopus, EZ-Link are government held transit authorities, not private independent companies. Publicly run transit authorities are subject to politics and special interests like any government agency, this sometimes leads to poor decisions and short-term thinking.

Japan was fortunate that major transit players like JR East, are private companies with strong technology partners, like Sony and NTT Docomo. Out of this fortunate set of circumstances Suica was created and finally reached  the market in 2001 (a fascinating engineering story). Suica became the Japan IC Transit card template which evolved into the ubiquitous Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association project for transit and e-money use. Mobile Suica was introduced in 2006 by NTT Docomo and now resides on the Apple Pay and Google Pay platforms.

The ubiquity and scale of interoperable transit IC cards sets Japan apart from all other countries. China copied the Japanese model for China T-Union but the cards cannot be used as e-money and have been upstaged by AliPay and WeChat Pay which, surprise, can be used for e-money and transit.

Japan occupies a very unusual middle ground between EMV contactless from the West and QR Codes from China, neither of which play well together. The scale of Suica provides the breathing space for Japan to pick and chose what works best for, and enhances their transit payment platform. The result is an incredibly rich and varied contactless payments market anchored around Suica and similar FeliCa prepaid cards.

Future trends
For every marketing report that predicts QR Code payments growing into a 70 billion USD sized market by 2023, someone else calls it nonsense because Suica is becoming the card for everything. In many ways Suica already is. MITI said it is investigating using QR Codes for small rural transit systems that cannot afford IC card systems. This loops back to TfL complaint that IC cards are expensive to issue and manage.

Low-cost QR Codes certainly make sense for lightly used rural transit operations but they have a fatal weakness: they don’t have plastic card versions that work anywhere and seniors prefer the simplicity of plastic, QR Codes require a high cost network connected smart device, an app and are strictly one way read with no offline processing.

JR East and Sony have announced that they will solve cost problems for rural transit and much more in early 2021 with Super Suica.


Update: Open Loop QR Code Security Risks
One issue that was in the back of my mind while writing this post was the privacy and security implications of letting AliPay inside with direct transactions on transit gates. Japanese customers are very sensitive about where and how transaction records are held and used but I have yet to see any security discussion in connection with Hong Kong MTR opening up transit gates to AliPay and WeChat Pay. QR Code transactions are very different from offline FeliCa Octopus transactions. Where and how does the QR Code transaction data from Hong Kong MTR transit gates get stored, does the Chinese government has access to it to gather intelligence from transaction and location records?

If there is one thing we do know about Chinese companies is that they do what they want when nobody is looking. Witness China Telecom spoofing the BGP protocol to poison internet routes and suck up massive amounts of American and Canadian internet traffic for intelligence analysis. If I was living in Hong Kong I would be concerned about the privacy implications of MTR going open loop with QR codes.