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Apple Pay Japan 5 Year Mark: All of This and Nothing

Suica was the centerpiece of the Apple Pay launch in Japan October 25, 2016

October is Apple Pay month in Japan. Today, October 21, we have the Apple Pay WAON and nanaco launch. October 2020 saw the Apple Pay PASMO launch ceremony attended by Apple VIPS. October 2016 was the biggest launch of all. This month marks the 5th anniversary of Apple Pay in Japan that launched with the FeliCa enabled iPhone 7 and the iOS 10.1 update. The initial rush to add Suica to Wallet was so great that it brought down both Apple Pay and Mobile Suica servers for several hours. Junya Suzuki, the best journalist in Japan covering digital wallet payments and technology, predicted that Apple Pay would be the ‘Black Ships‘ inflection point catalyst in Japan that would change everything. He was right. Everything has changed.

I tried to think of something smart and elegant or throw together some market data numbers that explain the transformation Apple Pay facilitated in Japan, but it comes down to this picture, a crazy kaleidoscope of contactless payment choices at the local post office. That’s as mainstream as one can get.

Payment options at the Japanese post office

The post office payments menu doesn’t have an Apple Pay logo but EMV brand cards at the top are Apple Pay, FeliCa cards in the middle are Apple Pay, shitty pain-in-the-neck-launch-an-app code payments at the bottom are not Apple Pay…and yes, you can still pay with cash if you need to. This crazy variety, by western standards, is the reason why Japanese Wallet users are excited about the new 16 card iOS 15 Wallet limit, they want to add more cards and 12 was not nearly enough. We have Apple Pay to thank for this overflow of payment options. Even though Apple Pay logo isn’t anywhere to be seen, Apple Pay is reason why so many contactless payment choices exist and why they are mainstream. This is the Apple Pay Japan transformation.


A timeline of changes and challenges

  • October 2016: Apple Pay launches in Japan with support for Suica (compatible with the Transit IC transit and payment network), iD and QUICPay payment networks (American Express, JCB, Mastercard, VISA).
  • September 2017: Global NFC on iPhone 8, iPhone X, Apple Watch 3 supports dual mode cards and seamless EMV and FeliCa NFC switching. Japanese users can make payments internationally with their Japanese issue cards on EMV payment terminals, and FeliCa payment terminals at home. Mobile PASMO trademark registered.
  • 2018: Carrier code payments services launch as cashless momentum grows
  • 2019: Japanese Government Cashless Consumption Tax Rebate Program
  • October 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020. The aim of the program is to encourage cashless purchases and increase cashless use up to 25% of all purchases by 2025. To do this the program offers up to 5% tax rebates for cashless purchases made at middle~small businesses and also offers merchant subsidies for installing cashless checkout systems. This is a prescient inflection point as COVID proves to be huge catalyst for going cashless, far more than a normal Tokyo Olympics would even have been.
  • 2021: Apple Pay WAON and Apple Pay nanaco eMoney cards launch, VISA Japan adds Apple Pay in-app purchase support and NFC dual mode switching. This completes the Apple Pay lineup. The Tokyo Olympics didn’t turn out to the big crowd contactless driver the industry expected. Nevertheless market surveys indicate that cashless payment use in Japan has already passed the 25% target.

Japan was a very unique case, the most unique but don’t make the mistake of dismissing it as an outliner. It was way ahead of the curve with important lessons beyond the tired old meaningless FeliCa vs EMV winner-loser debate. Japan already had the extensive and mature Osaifu Keitai mobile wallet platform that launched in 2004, built on the Sony and NTT docomo created Mobile FeliCa standard, long before EMV grafted NFC on their chip and issued contactless credit cards.

The Apple Pay that launched in 2014 was exclusively EMV as credit cards were the best start point, but Apple was already hard at work adding FeliCa, MIFARE and other NFC based transaction protocols as standard in the secure element hosted on Apple Silicon. The result was first seen in 2016 iPhone 7 and Apple Watch 2 in Japan, with Apple Pay Suica, Express Transit and direct Wallet transit card adding as the centerpiece launch strategy, all firsts.

This was an extremely shrewd move. The Japanese public was well versed using Suica for transit and quick purchases. The impact of choosing the Tokyo area based Suica as the start point, coupled with the convenience of anywhere, anytime Apple Pay recharge, supercharged Suica and Apple Pay. They both grew quickly.

JR East factsheet: Apple Pay supercharged Suica growth

The full Apple Pay vision came into focus with the 2017 release of iPhone 8, iPhone X and Apple Watch 3, these were the first global NFC devices that worked everywhere. This was a complete break with the Android model of only selling FeliCa capable devices in Japan or Hong Kong. This is why any iPhone from anywhere can add and use a Suica transit card and Android devices cannot.

The most useful marketing survey covering Apple Pay use in Japan was a November 2018 survey and article from Japanese IT journalist Sachiko Watatani. At the time she found the following:

  • 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

The middle 50 is the most interesting aspect, there has certainly been migration to the Apple Pay use bracket since COVID hit. Other interesting 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. This last one is the classic Apple Pay Suica (and now also PASMO) sweet spot: quick small on the go purchases without Face • Touch ID, courtesy of Express Mode. With COVID and Face ID with face masks, that sweet spot is sweeter than ever.

The secret of success and important lesson
That is all well and good, but how did Apple Pay spearhead this market change? Apple Pay proved to be a great neutral platform for payment players to both play on and play off from. But that’s not all, there is a vital point that most people miss. The secret of Apple Pay Japan’s success was that it shifted the user focus and experience away from the Osaifu Keitai app model where different NFC services are scattered across many different apps, to a simple ‘just add the card’ in Wallet where everything ‘just works’ without apps. Complexity vs simplicity; it was this simplicity that ultimately won out because most users don’t want to deal with setting different services in a bunch of apps. It was this simplicity of the Apple Pay user experience that drove the Japanese payments transformation that the complexity of Osaifu Keitai could not.

This is the lesson of Apple Pay in Japan that other markets would do well to study. Lots of different apps offering NFC services doesn’t drive user uptake, centralized simplicity with an easy to use UI drives user interest and use. It is this centralized simplicity that is driving user interest in iOS 15.1 Vaccination Certificate Wallet support and driver’s license ID. The EU and Australia are determined to force Apple to make iPhone NFC ‘open‘ and move everything to the app centric model. If their intention is to drive user uptake, the Japanese market experience proves otherwise. Good luck with that. To most westerners the value of the Japanese mobile payments experience will remain utterly lost, like that old Psychedelic Furs song whine line, “You didn’t leave me anything that I could understand.”

The Crowd Cast cashless map illustrates the rich variety of Japanese payment platforms, some code payments players like ORIGAMI no longer exist

Looking ahead
Where does Apple Pay Japan go from here? Rakuten Edy, the very last holdout, will certainly join the lineup soon enough. iOS 15 Wallet has shifted the focus from payments to keys and ID. Expect to see to some digital key action later this year. On the ID side the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) has said they are in discussions with Apple to bring the digital My Number (Japanese Individual Number) Card to Wallet, hopefully soon after it launches on Osaifu Keitai in March~April 2022.

The value of having a digital My Number ID in Wallet is that regions want to promote special services and discounts tied to a resident address. That way local governments can promote differently tailored discounts and campaigns for locals and visitors. JR East for example, is planning to use My Number Card for MaaS transit discounts that promote regional economies. When a payment is made with Suica, the appropriate discount kicks in with the My Number Card verification. The My Number Card + digital payments concept is similar to the 2019~2020 Japanese Government Cashless Consumption Tax Rebate Program. The promise of getting local area based discounts for using transit or buying stuff with Apple Pay is one of the most practical use case scenarios for digital My Number Card that I can think of.

Farther out we might see development of ‘Touchless’ transit gates that incorporate Ultra Wideband technology which is already being used in iOS 15 Wallet for Touchless car keys. It would be cool to simply walk through the gate iPhone in pocket, with Suica taking care of business. I was recently reminded that UWB enhanced gates would greatly benefit those with disabilities. I saw young man in an electric wheelchair going through a JR East station manned gate, the station attendant was holding the reader out for him to tap but his movement was limited. It was difficult for him to hold his iPhone to the Suica reader. A UWB gate would let him zip through unattended at any touchless gate, that’s what barrier free should be about. When you think about it, QR Code apps for transit are just cruel for handicapped users.

Next generation JR East transit gates are wheelchair friendly but UWB touchless gates are the best ‘barrier free’ solution for users with limited mobility.

On that note…despite all the hand wringing over the rise of code payment apps, even as Apple is flirting about adding code payments to Apple Pay, Japan will continue to be a fascinating place to observe contactless payment trends before they appear in other markets. And even though Apple Pay Japan has lost the cool factor that peaked in 2018 and become mundane, that’s okay. Apple Pay in Japan will continue to be the payment service where you can do things that you cannot do with Apple Pay in any other market. That sounds like fun to me and I look forward to the next 5 years of Apple Pay Japan and hope to write about digital wallet developments…occasionally. Since COVID hit blog traffic has collapsed to the point where I think it might be time to change gears. We shall see.

Until next time stay safe and have a good cashless…er you know what I mean.


Apple Pay Japan Comments
Some reader and net comments about using Apple Pay Japan through the years. Tweet or email if you have any experiences you’d like to share and I’ll add them here.

Am lefty but even if I was not, would do the same for Apple Pay Suica on my watch😁

The last 2 times I was in Japan, I used Apple Pay with Suica. It is miles ahead of what we have in Singapore, in terms of speed, feel, and experience. And best of all, no app download required!

I changed from Android back to iOS in 2017 mostly due to being able to use Mobile Suica…And this is the real reason I still have to educate people coming to Japan about mobile Suica and putting a debit card into ApplePay and never need an ATM for most things here…Also stop with “Japan is a cash driven society” tropes. I go for weeks not using bills and coins here.

Comment regarding code payment apps vs NFC: Imo Apple and Google Pay are all a payment system needs: it’s quick, easy, and doesn’t require looking like a clown trying to scan a code…Imagine having to scan a code to pay for Suica, it would be a nightmare.

I have no idea why Apple Pay isn’t more widely supported over here. I usually just try and use Suica on my Apple Watch for most things.

The true value (of Apple Watch) is in Apple Pay and Express Transit card. If your city support it especially the latter, it’s a tremendous value.

Truth to be told, I’ve been a user of Japan’s Apple Pay almost since it came out, even thought I don’t live there haha. As a Software Engineer I always was amazed how Japan had a contactless system that you can use seamlessly on transport or store purchases.

It might sound trite, but I am still happy and amazed every time I use Suica on my iPhone. It has been a long road from Edy and Mobile Suica to this point. The next thing for me would be export of my spending for tracking. Not through Suica, but from iOS. And I really wish more Japanese businesses used the Apple Wallet for (reward) cards. When it first debuted I imagined finally getting rid of all my store cards, but it never happened.

When I was in Japan in November, when I looked up my destination via Apple Maps, I got seamless linked to buy a SUICA for my Apple Wallet direct from my credit card. It was pretty slick – 10 second transaction and I had a SUICA in my Apple Wallet.

The best way to use Suica Card on Android devices is to simply buy a new iPhone…

Suica on Watch is just superb. Even better when worn on right hand.

Two great things about my iPhone XS when traveling in #japan: first, SUICA public transport card in Apple wallet and you are able to charge them via Apple Pay wherever you are and second the dual SIM feature to get a traveller SIM like #Ubigi into your phone easily.

Twitter question: Japan peeps, what are your fave “cashless” payment apps? What do you consider the most convenient/useful?

Twitter answer: Suica wallet. Everything else is fucking shit

I want more reward point card support in Wallet that’s easier to use than it is now and supports movie tickets too.

One for the road: Ken Bolido’s video

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October 23~24 Yamanote Line Inner Circle service suspension detour transfer guidance

Apple Pay Suica or PASMO commuter pass users who need to detour during October 23~24 must not use automatic gates, use the station agent window reader instead

The JR Shibuya station platform and track realignment of the Yamanote Inner Circle line takes place October 23~24 (unless bad weather postpones it to November 20~21). All Yamanote Inner Circle train service between Ikebukuro and Osaki stations is suspended all day, both days.

JR East has posted multilingual information (English, Chinese, Korean) that includes detour transfer guidance to non-JR lines during the line closure. The English wording is fuzzy because the exact distinctions between mag-strip commuter passes, Suica commuter passes and Suica IC transit fare are not always clear to the reader. It’s also important to understand detour transfer rules.

Detour Transfers
Tokyo area transit operators have special detour transfer rules to deal with transit situations when there is an unexpected stoppage and in-transit users suddenly need to use a different transit route from the normal one to reach their destination. Detour transfers have one rule for Suica or PASMO commuter passes, both mobile and plastic: do not use automatic transit gates during the detour portion of the route, go to a station agent window gate instead and use the reader. The station agent checks the validity of the commuter pass and waves you through, the NFC equivalent of visually inspecting printed tickets and passes. Regular non-commuter pass Suica, PASMO and other transit cards are outside of detour transfer rules and are charged normal IC transit fare.

For example, my normal commute route from JR Asagaya to Tokyu Ikegami has a line transfer point at Gotanda. A Gotanda transfer isn’t possible during the service suspension. Instead I plan to transfer at Shibuya to the Tokyu Toyoko line, ride to Jiyugaoka > transfer to Tokyu Ooimachi line > transfer at Hatanodai to Tokyu Ikegami line > exit at Ikegami.

In this case I make 2 automatic gate reads and 2 station agent window reads with my Apple Watch Suica commute pass: the JR Asagaya start point (automatic gate as always), leaving JR Shibuya (JR station agent window reader) transfer to Tokyu Toyoko line (Tokyu station agent window reader), Tokyu Ikegami (automatic gate as always).

This poster at the Tokyu Ikegami station clearly shows the ‘do not use automatic gates during detour rule,’ and which kinds of tickets can be used for detour transfers: Suica and PASMO commuter passes and all mag strip passes and tickets. For Apple Pay Suica and PASMO commuter passes, always use the station agent window reader on the detour portion and you’ll reach your final destination even with a long detour.

A very strange Apple Pay Suica outage

The October 5 Apple Pay & Wallet outage that went completely unnoticed outside of Japan and Hong Kong was a very strange one. That’s because it was a very specific outage: ‘truth on the card’ transit cards with a stored value balance. But not all transit cards, only Suica, PASMO and Octopus. Similar transit cards such as Clipper, SmarTrip and TAP were unaffected. The former are FeliCa cards, the latter are MIFARE cards.

Let’s translate the Apple speak from the iCloud System Status page. Some users = FeliCa stored value card users, specifically: Suica, PASMO and Octopus. In addition to the not being able to add, suspend or remove existing cards, users could not recharge them (reload, top up, add money, etc.) but this issue was not listed. The add, suspend or remove existing card label gives us a big clue.

It soon became clear from the cacophony of Japanese tweet complaints that FeliCa credit/debit cards on the iD and QUICPay side were not a problem, only the stored value (SV) recharge, and practically unnoticed, Toyota Wallet iD prepaid card recharge. Meanwhile, Android Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO users didn’t have any problems at all, everything worked fine. Bingo, the outage was an Apple Pay server problem, not caused by Mobile Suica or Mobile PASMO which was mistakenly reported by the Japanese media.

From the get-go Mobile Suica and PASMO support said it only an Apple Pay problem. Octopus Cards Limited, confoundedly coy as usual, didn’t say which ‘top up’ service wasn’t working but we damn well know it was Apple Pay. Overworked Suica, PASMO and Octopus support folk were left to clean up a recharge mess because the Apple Pay outage hit exactly at peak Tokyo morning commute time in the first real commuting week since the State of Emergency was lifted.

There was also another fascinating issue going on that most people didn’t pick up on. Suica and PASMO Apps offer 2 kinds of recharge: Apple Pay and their own direct credit card recharge system. Because Suica App recharge is independent of Apple Pay and deals directly with the Suica SV on the device, similar to adding cash at a station kiosk, it should have worked during the Apple Pay outage…but it did not. Why?

The FeliCa on Apple Pay story is a deep one. To date Apple Pay is the only digital wallet platform that offers all flavors of NFC (A-B-F) with the major transaction protocols that go with them, (EMV, FeliCa and MIFARE) as standard on all Apple NFC (and now also NFC + UWB) devices. The industry scuttlebutt in Japan is that to make this happen, Apple licensed a Mobile FeliCa key server from FeliCa Networks to manage their own Apple Pay devices. This indicates Apple’s commitment but I also believe was setup this way so that Apple Pay can safely backup the FeliCa card SV balance in Wallet if something goes wrong with the device or if some glitch happens during the recharge process from a credit/debit card, either Apple Pay (Wallet) or independent app (Suica, PASMO, Toyota Wallet).

Here is my take of what happened. Apple is preparing to launch 2 new FeliCa SV eMoney cards on Apple Pay very soon, WAON and nanaco. That means they need to reconfigure their FeliCa key server and Apple Pay server so that WAON and nanaco SV card balances are well protected because WAON and nanaco card balances are much bigger than Suica or PASMO, up to ¥40,000. If anything happens to the device, WAON and nanaco must always appear in the iOS 15 Wallet Previous Cards screen, otherwise users will freakout and won’t touch Apple Pay again. Hence the add, suspend, remove Apple Pay FeliCa SV card outage. It was a server configuration mistake on the Apple Pay side related to WAON and nanaco preparations to make sure those bigger card balances are ironclad protected.

In other words, WAON and nanaco are coming with iOS 15.1.

Instant digital issue apps for Apple Pay Edy, nanaco, WAON support?

A fun mockup of card options for direct iOS 14 Wallet issue for Edy, nanaco, WAON that will probably never happen. If they come at all they will be digital issue via apps.

Now that VISA JP finally signed with Apple Pay, what about the last holdouts: Edy, nanaco and WAON? These have been on Google Pay for some time but like all things Google Pay Japan, it is courtesy of Osaifu Keitai rather than native Google support. Apple was smart to go for Suica first, then PASMO (which has yet to appear on Google Pay) but it’s time to complete the Apple Pay Japan lineup.

Google Pay Japan has 2 basic categories for adding cards: EMV bank payment cards (AMEX, JCB, mastercard, VISA) and Japanese eMoney cards (Suica, Edy, nanaco, WAON, iD, QUICPay). In other words, Google Pay arranges cards by NFC flavor. This is because many Android devices sold outside of Japan don’t include FeliCa even though they have the hardware to do so. Google Pixel 5 for example has Mobile FeliCa installed on every single device it sells, but only activates it for Japanese models. Perhaps this will change with Pixel 6, we will see.

Apple Pay doesn’t make a distinction between NFC flavors, just one global NFC. No EMV or FeliCa bank payment cards, just payment cards, period. Apple also encourages Japanese bank card issuers to use the NFC switching and dual mode features of iOS and watchOS Wallet for seamless use on any payment reader in Japan or abroad. The same thing applies to Wallet transit cards. Wallet can have multiple Express Transit cards and juggle between FeliCa (Suica, Octopus, PASMO) MIFARE (SmarTrip, Clipper, TAP) and PBOC (China T-Union cards).

So what is the Wallet category for non-transit stored value prepaid payment cards? I have no idea but for this exercise I’ll use eMoney (電子マネー). Apple Pay has everything in place to flip the switch since 2016, what’s the holdup? There’s a big problem using the Suica add card Wallet process for eMoney cards. This problem is on full display with Google Pay WAON: the user has to create an WAON account in Google Pay to add it. Worse, if the user deletes the WAON card they loose the Google Pay created WAON ID and card balance.

I don’t think Apple wants this ‘create an account’ nightmare scenario in Apple Pay, that’s what apps are for. Fortunately we have a growing collection of ‘instant issue’ apps for adding cards to Wallet and digital issue only is quickly becoming standard for Apple Pay Japan debit/prepaid cards: kyash, Minna no Ginko, Toyota Wallet, etc.

The digital issue app model is perfect for Edy, nanaco and WAON who want to be collecting accounts instead of selling plastic prepaid cards. And they already have iOS apps. Leave the account creation and management drudgery in the app so users curse the app instead of Apple Pay. Once done the user taps ‘Add to Wallet’ and presto, instant WAON or nanaco all ready to go with direct Wallet recharge. Other bonuses: (1) instant issue apps eliminate ‘I wanna transfer my plastic card to Wallet’ overhead, (2) if anything goes wrong and the balance is lost, it’s the fault of the app, not Apple Pay. Keeping things simple and streamlined is key for a good Apple Pay user experience, one more Wallet reboot challenge for iOS 15.

UPDATE
WAON and nanaco for Apple Pay have been announced for later in 2021. AEON also updated their iAEON App for issuing Mobile WAON cards on Osaifu Keitai Android smartphones, almost certainly the scenario described above for Apple Pay support when it launches after the release of iOS 15.1.

Mobile Suica foreign VISA card processing changes with the Apple Pay VISA JP agreement

Foreign issue VISA card holders using Apple Pay Suica beware, you might be in for a rude surprise when you get the monthly statement. A reader sent some very interesting information:

JR East started processing these Visa transactions differently on foreign cards. Previously, these were processed as ‘SUICA MOBILE PAYMENT’ and the merchant category was passenger railways (travel). Since around May 11 or 12, these are now processed as ‘MOBILE SUICA APPLE V’ and the merchant category is catalog merchants (shopping). This is an unfortunate change as the merchant category change from travel to shopping downgrades the points earning capability on several American cards (eg. from 3x points on the Chase Sapphire Reserve to 1x).

Chase Sapphire Reserve has been a popular choice for Apple Pay Suica recharge because of the 3x rewards. The VISA JP Apple Pay agreement has changed how foreign issue VISA brand card payments made with Apple Pay in Japan are processed obviously, but the merchant category change from railways/travel to catalog/online shopping is a mystery. JR East or VISA JP? On the surface JR East as they are the merchant but why this and why now? Another backend change: JR East is starting 3-D Secure credit card checks in iOS Suica App and Mobile Suica (Android) from May 26.

I do not know if Apple Pay PASMO is in the same boat but suspect so. Foreign issue VISA holders may want to consider using a different credit card for Suica recharge for the best reward points. There are too many reward point differences to make any definitive recommendation. The best long term strategy is to examine your spending patterns and select a JP issue card that fits your needs. Reward point empires to consider: JRE POINT (BIC CAMERA View), Rakuten POINT (Rakuten Card) and V POINT (SMBC Numberless Instant issue).

I will update this post as more information comes in, reader feedback is appreciated.

Update: Good news: a reader reports Apple Pay PASMO recharge still codes as travel for Chase Sapphire VISA 3x travel points. Reader and user comments:

I setup Pasmo in Apple Pay and ran a test transaction with my Chase Sapphire Reserve.  Good news, Pasmo is being processed differently and coding as passenger railways (travel).

I also noticed JRE’s category change for GooglePay Suica a few months ago.

With US credit cards, the Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR) and the Chase Business Ink Preferred both had 3x points on Travel. If you had used them to charge your Suica via Apple Pay or Google Pay, the charge would show up as ‘travel’ or ‘jr east’. So you were effectively earning 3% cashback (technically more with the multiplier of 1.25 or 1.5 based on the card). The wonderful thing was that you could pay for almost everything in daily life with Google or Apple pay here in Japan. It does seem this has changed. I dropped my CSR a while ago – now it is time to let my Ink go too.