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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

My Cousin Apple Pay

So the EU is going ahead with ‘open NFC’ antitrust charges against Apple. As posted back in August 2020, the whole open vs closed debate is not easy to define. It’s probably easier to look at it from the simplistic App Store debate of letting developers bypass Apple’s in-app payment mechanism to avoid paying the ‘Apple Tax’, because that’s the box most people will understand.

We’ve already seen banks and Apple chafing over transactions fees on multiple occasions, the latest being ‘Banks Pressuring Visa to Cut Back on Apple Pay Fees‘ because Apple dared release their own credit card under the Mastercard brand via Goldman Sachs. German banks and Australian banks in particular demand the right to use iPhone NFC in their own payment apps instead of Wallet so they can harvest the user data they can’t get via Apple Pay and drop Apple Pay support all together in favor of their own proprietary payment apps (our exclusive card comes with our exclusive app). But there’s an aspect of the ‘open’ argument that will not be discussed by EU regulators, the banks and credit card companies.

I’ve been watching ‘My Cousin Vinny’ a lot recently. I love the courtroom scenes with Joe Pesci’s Vinny character turning the prosecution arguments upside down. There’s a key scene early on when Vinny uses a pack of cards to convince Ralph Macchio’s character to give Vinny a chance to defend him: ‘the prosecutors are gonna show you bricks with solid straight sides and corners, but they’re going to show them in a very special way’ so that judge and jury see bricks instead of playing cards, which is what ‘open NFC’ arguments are: paper card illusions.

NFC is just hardware, it’s worthless without the software protocols that drive it. NFC also has different definitions. The bank industry defines NFC as NFC A-B ISO/IEC 14443. The NFC Forum defines NFC as NFC A-B-F for device certification. On the protocol side the bank industry defines NFC as EMV because this is their industry standard created and managed by EMVCo (Europay-Mastercard-VISA initially, now collectively owned by American Express, Discover, JCB, Mastercard, UnionPay and Visa).

Are EU regulators going to argue that ‘open NFC’ is defined as NFC A-B-F on the hardware side and EMV, MIFARE, FeliCa protocols on the software side? Of course not. They will narrowly define their Vinny brick as NFC A-B and EMV, and maybe Calypso as the transit protocol is used in France for transit. Why would they do that?

It’s very simple. European banking interests don’t want to pay transaction fees to Apple, the Apple Pay tax. They want to cut out the middle man with their own exclusive apps and harvest user data. They don’t want inconvenient questions such as why there are all those different NFC standards and protocols out there, how this came to be and what really constitutes ‘open’. Why did the ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee choose Phillips NFC-A and Motorola NFC-B while shutting out Sony NFC-F? Was that part of creating an ‘open’ and level NFC playing field on the global marketplace? Of course not, it was about playing favorites while shutting Sony and Japan out of the game. Now they want to do the same to Apple Pay. I still think Junya Suzuki is right: the EU will never demand the same thing of Samsung Pay or Huawei Pay that they are demanding from Apple.

Sawada Sho tweeted a thoughtful question recently regarding the App Store in-app payment controversy. He pointed out that gaming and other platforms charge developers great deal of money for hardware and software access, nobody questions that. Apple offers a lot of access for a very low price, is it fair to demand free passage on the App Store because it is Apple? Sho san thinks the Apple transaction cut is a fair tradeoff. Some tech writers have occasionally asked the same basic question: what’s fair?

EMV, MIFARE and FeliCa all have licensing and certification fees that all customers (developers) pay. Apple has gone to a lot of expense licensing those technologies in addition to licensing a GlobalPlatfrom Secure Element that they build into their own Apple Silicon. Those costs are recouped by Apple Pay transaction fees and fund future developments like digital keys with UWB, ID and other Wallet goodies we’ll get later on in the iOS 15 cycle.

I guess EU regulators want to give those away free to EU banking interests and let them have their way in the interest of ‘open standards’ that they define and end up protecting the home turf. That sounds like a good deal to me.

Suit Train Eki-Net

YouTuber Suit Train explains the ticketless Eki-Net way of transit ahead of the June 27 system renewal and great big 70% reduction of station ticket agents and service windows by 2025. There are some interesting bits: credit card only jR East ticket kiosks (1:20 mark), and Eki-Net Shinkansen eTicket purchase and gate entry (3:40~5:15). The whole point of his video is that paper tickets are going away. Nevertheless when a platform escalator stoppage prevents him from making a reserved train…paper tickets come to the rescue.

The entire video is 45 minutes long but everything after the 17:46 mark later is him explaining the details on a white board in his patented spontaneous ‘one take, no overdub’ video style. And even then he still gets 100,000 views in less than 12 hours. Not even out of college he already has a career…and a gold VIEW card.

JR East eliminating 70% of ticket offices by 2025 in ticketless push

In the run-up to the June 27 Eki-Net reboot next month JR East released a nice looking PR release with the first 2 pages promoting a ticketless future. On page 3 they dropped a bomb: JR EAST will eliminate ‘up to’ 70% of their ticket offices by 2025, just 140 stations or so on the entire JR East rail network will have the honor of having a ticket office manned by real people:

JR East has been planning this for years and report that in 2019 only 30% of JR East ticketing was purchased at a JR East Ticket Window (Midori-guchi). In 2020 that number declined to 20%. Could it be people were so tired of waiting in long slow ticket office lines they bought tickets elsewhere? Let’s be real though, the COVID pandemic has hit transit so hard all expenses that can be cut will be cut. You will going ticketless whether you like it or not.

So yes, we have Mobile Suica and Eki-Net Ticketless for regular express trains, Touch and Go Shinkansen, Mobile Suica and Shinkansen eTickets. By 2025 I suspect QR tickets will have replaced mag strip tickets. The Cloud Suica system coming in 2023 is said to power QR ticketing as well. All is good, I guess. Except for when you need help at the transit gate for some weird ticket problem, a smartphone that died before you got to the last station because you were too wrapped up playing games on it. What do you do? Press a button for an online station agent:

JR East says real station agents will be available to offer real assistance for disabled customers and such. We shall see. If JRE wants people to use Suica as much as possible they need to get Suica disability discount fares in order and working on mobile. Right now they are only working in the 2 in 1 totra Suica region. They need to work everywhere.

Real life code payments

Doutor Coffee Shops added code payment options recently. The sticker next to the reader says all that you need to know: please have your payment app ready before paying. The downfall of code payments is always the network connection. Maybe network connection is weak, or tapped out, or whatever. Last week I was grocery shopping at a basement store location and noticed customers running from checkout to the bottom of the stairs, tapping their smartphone, then running back to the checkout. Bad network area.

This is all too common and a real pain now that every store chain and their dog has a rewards app. Most checkout goes like this: the customer pulls up the store app for discounts and reward points, then pulls up PayPay, dBarai, Line or any other popular code payment, and if the network gods are benevolent, finally pays. NFC was supposed to save us from slow plastic cards and paper coupon checkout, but in the digital wallet age we’re slow if not slower because the store location is in a crappy network area, inside a building with thick earthquake proofed concrete walls. Welcome to code payments in the real world 101.