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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

The EMV Express Transit Security Trade-off

The Practical EMV Relay Protection paper authored by Andreea-Ina Radu, Tom Chothia, Christopher J.P. Newton, Ioana Boureanu and Liqun Chen, outlines a potential weakness with VISA cards when used with Apple Pay Express Transit. The BBC reported the issue which was then widely reported on Apple news sites. The authors and the BBC both frame the security issue as known by Apple, who say it’s a VISA system problem, and VISA who say the hack is only a lab project, not a real world problem. Ionut Ilascu on BleepingComputer had a concise summary:

The tests were successful only with iPhone and Visa cards. With Mastercard, a check is performed to make sure that a locked iPhone accepts transactions only from card readers with a transit merchant code.

Trying the method with Samsung Pay, the researchers found that transactions are always possible with locked Samsung devices. However, the value is always zero and transport providers charge for tickets based on data associated with these transactions.

The findings of this research have been sent to both Apple and Visa in October 2020 and May 2021, respectively, but neither fixed the problem.

Apple Pay with VISA lets hackers force payments on locked iPhones, BleepingComputer

Apple Pay uses a GlobalPlatform licensed secure element while Samsung Pay Knox technology uses a Trusted Execution Environment (TEE), it’s a flimsy apple vs orange comparison. A meaningful comparison should have compared iPhone with another secure element device, like Pixel using VISA. Because of the limited scope, it feels like an attention grabbing ploy as it involves iPhone, rather than meaningful security research.

The security paper authors concluded: “While either Visa or Apple implement a fix for the problem, we recommend users to not use Visa as a transport card in Apple Pay. If your iPhone is lost or stolen, activate the Lost Mode on your iPhone, and call your bank to block your card.” In other words, turn off the Express Transit Card option for VISA cards.

It is not Apple’s problem to fix but Apple set themselves up for this.

Steve Jobs said it best: designing anything is about choices and trade-offs. The Apple Pay that launched in 2014 was designed for credit cards with bio-authentication to authorize payment transactions. This changed in 2016 with the arrival of Suica, the first transit card on Apple Pay, and Express Transit. Express Transit and Express Mode emulate the way that transit cards and student ID are designed to work. The FeliCa and MIFARE protocols used for these cards are very secure and have a long history of safe prepaid smartcard use.

For a time, the Apple Pay security protocol design was clearly defined: EMV bank payment cards required bio-authorization for transactions while transit cards, ID cards and digital keys worked in Express mode without it.

All was good until iOS 12.3 and the arrival of EMV Express Transit that changed the rules so that credit cards could act like express mode transit cards too. No more Touch ID or Face ID authentication for using Apple Pay bank cards on Transport for London (TfL) and New York OMNY transit gates. It sounded like a good idea but Apple decided to promote these services by making EMV Express Transit ‘on by default’ when adding a credit/debit card to Wallet.

As any careful watcher of the OMNY rollout will tell you, there have been plenty of Express Transit problems, especially for MetroCard users. Most of whom have no idea Express Transit was a default on option. Express Transit issues continue to crop up as they did for Apple Card users recently with problems on the Mastercard network and Goldman Sachs side. Open loop transit comes with more downsides than promoters like to admit.

It boils down to this. When Apple activated EMV Express Transit and make it a default on, presumably to promote all kinds of Apple Pay cards for transit…cards that were never designed for it, it made Apple Pay susceptible to any and all bank card network security issues and glitches. Instead of Apple service quality or secure dedicated transit cards, the user ends up with bank and card company service level quality at the transit gate. In other words, EMV Express Transit quality is up to banks, not Apple nor the transit agency. It’s their card, they call the shots. That’s the trade-off that won’t go away.

Sorry PRESTO but your open loop video is fake Express Transit (Updated)

UPDATE
March 16: The PRESTO UP Tickets and Fares page now lists EMV Express Transit support, but no mention of any similar benefits using Google Pay. The Apple Pay Transit support page does not list Express Transit for Canada yet, but the last update was February 3. The PRESTO page also mentions an interesting iPhone issue: “Some iPhone models (8 and earlier), may experience an error message when tapped on a PRESTO device. If you tap with an older Apple device and see a message saying that multiple cards were detected, simply tap your device again and the PRESTO device should accept your tap.” PRESTO Contactless is a pilot program for teething open loop use issues. No mention of a digital PRESTO transit card of course. I suspect that when it comes (much later), it will be a closed loop debit card like Apple Pay Ventra.

Apple did a similar Express Transit deal for NYC OMNY, which was basically a very long pilot program and gradual rollout. PRESTO UP is also a pilot program but has an advantage over OMNY in that the PRESTO contactless transit card has been in service since 2009. People are used to it, only the smartphone wallet aspect is new. Meanwhile OMNY is still nursing off the ancient mag-strip swiping MTA Metrocard without a replacement. It will be interesting to hear customer feedback regarding the PRESTO EMV Express Transit experience…for real.


The Metrolinx PRESTO UP service started an open loop contactless payment pilot program this past week. It’s the first step for open loop support across the entire PRESTO fare system. The coverage on MacRumors and elsewhere, and the PRESTOcard youtube video (now locked) itself makes it look like PRESTO already supports Apple Pay Express Transit when it apparently does not. Apple is very picky when it comes to certifying which open loop transit systems support EMV Apple Pay Express Transit. There aren’t any in Canada. The U.S. has three: NYC OMNY, Chicago Ventra and Portland HOP.

Unfortunately the PRESTO video uses post-production tricks to fake Apple Pay Express Transit. There are three instances: the 1:14 PRESTO reader, the 1:30 onboard verification check, and the 2:16 PRESTO reader. Each of these require a Face ID without mask or passcode Apple Pay authorization. As a reader pointed out the post-production folks neglected to fix the Apple Pay passcode request screen to match the reader ‘Accepted’ screen. Metrolinx promoting PRESTO open loop rollout so people will use it is one thing, but deception isn’t doing users, or PRESTO, any favor.

Apple Pay Japan 2020 Wrap Up Wish List

A two word summary for people in a hurry: COVID and PASMO. As everybody in Japan knows at this point, COVID drove cashless payment use more than any government program could, or anything else for that matter. Cashless went from being the perennial ‘next big thing’ to first choice at checkout in a surprisingly short time with a growing number of ‘cashless only’ places. Here’s a short recap of the best and worst all things Apple Pay Japan in 2020.

The Worst: Face ID Apple Pay
COVID meant mandatory face mask wear outside the home. iPhone Face ID users outside of Asia quickly learned that Face ID and especially Face ID Apple Pay really sucks with face masks. Apple tweaked Face ID slightly to alleviate the issue but this is a long term problem with no short term workaround. Apple had the foresight to resurrect Touch ID in iPhone SE 2, the right device coming at the right time. For the time being it will hold up the middle and lower range iPhone user base in Japan. Face ID is such a marketing embarrassment right now that Apple only features Touch ID recharge on the Apple Pay PASMO page. The real short term future proof Face ID Apple Pay fix is Apple Watch.

The Biggest: Apple Pay PASMO
Mobile PASMO finally joined Mobile Suica, first on Osaifu Keitai Android then Apple Pay, the biggest and most important launch for Apple Pay Japan in 2020. Suica and PASMO combined represent 80% of the entire transit IC card market. In terms of pure usability, a large and diverse installed base, with Express Transit powered transit and purchases on iPhone and Apple Watch, PASMO easily beat all other Apple Pay service rollouts this year. Apple had VIP execs and foreign media on hand at the press event, something they haven’t done since the Apple Pay Japan launch in 2016.

The Most Influential: Toyota Wallet
The Toyota Wallet App rollout I wrote about a year ago turned out to be the model everybody is doing now: ‘XX Pay’ or ‘XX Wallet’ app consisting of a user account linked to a bank or credit card with a flexible payment dual mode front end offering QR Code payment via the app and a ‘instant issue’ prepaid card in Apple Pay Wallet. The Apple Pay Line Pay card launched on December 22 is the exact same model. Instant app issue debit and prepaid Wallet cards do away with plastic issue costs and lower the user entry bar, amount other things. Expect more of this in 2021, actually expect everybody to do this in 2021.

The WildCard: App Clips
iOS 14.3 App Clip Code support completed the picture for App Clip developers, but it will take time to see how they play out in a market overcrowded with mobile payment options. I think there is always a chance for a low cost high quality service which intelligently designed App Clips can deliver. The key will be solving the Japanese Softcream Cashless Index (SCI) Challenge: can App Clip cashless do a faster more reliable job than good old food ticket vending machines, without an app and without an account? How streamlined can it be and still be an App Clip? I hope we can find the answers to those questions in 2021… but there’s one more thing.

The Missing: Apple Pay Code Payments
The iOS 14 Apple Pay AliPay/Apple Pay Code Payment has been in open secret test mode for nearly a year with no firm release in sight. If screenshots are anything to go by, Apple Pay Code Payments are done with a virtual Wallet ‘card’ like any other and Apple Pay Wallet cards have certain properties:

  • Direct side button Wallet activation with automatic Face/Touch ID authentication and payment at the reader.
  • Device transactions handled by the eSE without a network connection.
  • Ability to set a default main card for Apple Pay use.

Supporting QR Code payments with an Apple Pay Wallet ‘card’ moves QR payments out of the app and removes some, but not all, of the QR payment friction points. It makes App Clips a better user experience too when all payments can be accomplished with Apple Pay.

Ultimately I hope the Apple Pay Wallet card model moves away from single mode technology and evolves to multimode awareness that encompasses NFC, Ultra Wideband, QR, etc. It has too. Our smartphones must be smart and take care of any payment technology for us. They have to because things are only going to get more complicated. People ridicule the Japanese payments landscape but that will be everywhere. Card companies and banks push EMV as a ‘global standard’ but EMV already comes in different flavors like PBOC, so does NFC (NFC A-B-F-V), and Ultra Wideband is joining the mix.

That’s what digital payments are all about: combining complex things into ‘it just works’ simplicity. Anybody can create or load a Suica, Octopus or PASMO into Apple Pay, without signing up or creating a new account, and start using it for lots of different instant payments. That’s how simple it should always be. That’s my 2021 Apple Pay wish.

Best wishes for a happy and safe 2021.

UPDATE: Reader Apple Pay Wishes for 2021

>Mine would be for VISA Japan to support Apple Pay.

>Mine are resurrecting #FeliCa-based @VisaJP TOUCH (can be rebranded), @id_credit re-attempts @ #FeliCa network expansion overseas starting w/ equipping end-users w/ the technology in new card distribution (via digital & physical), & @JCB_CARD expands @QUICPay_PR network overseas.

Opal digital transit card trial for Apple Pay and Samsung Pay

NSW announced a public beta test for Opal digital card in October and rolled it out today for Apple Pay and Samsung Pay. Trial users can register, and if one of the lucky chosen ones, install and use Opal digital on their device. iPhone trial users will need to download the Opal digital app via Apple’s TestFlight developer app.

As this is a trial there are limitations and the one for Apple Pay transit users is huge: no Express Transit. Hopefully this will be fixed before the official launch as Opal digital is a very awkward service without it: users have to authenticate Apple Pay at each transit gate, a real drag for Face ID users with face masks, users also have to be careful of EMV card clash.

Other limitations will not be fixed because of system design. This means there is no ‘add money’ button in Wallet and all card house keeping tasks from recharge to checking the balance can only be done in Opal digital app. This is a pain for iPhone users but a huge pain for Apple Watch users. For some it will mean digital Opal is unusable: Apple Pay Suica • PASMO work without an iPhone app and can be recharged on the go, not so for digital Opal.

The overall service seems to be what I predicted at the Apple Pay Ventra launch: a closed open loop prepaid/debit Mastercard disguised as a digital transit card with the backend account managed by the Mastercard issuer, in this case EML Payments.

Transport for NSW says they expect to officially launch digital Opal in 2021. I will update this post as field report details trickle in from trial users.