Apple Pay in Japan: One month after launching

By Artis Birzins

Apple Pay was launched in Japan this past October, enabling completely new experiences for millions of customers. It was exciting to use the new service with Apple Watch from day one. In this post, I will share my experience for UX designers and readers who are interested in the latest trends in the mobile and wearables industry.

Apple Pay and Suica

Suica is a Japanese contactless prepaid card offered by railway company JR East. The card uses Sony’s FeliCa technology. Suica, Pasmo, Icoca and seven more of Japan’s most popular IC cards were made compatible with each other in 2013, according to With this card, passengers can travel on nearly all the trains, subways, buses and taxis in Japan’s largest cities. After gaining great popularity, Suica has expanded beyond railway stations; many convenience stores, cafes, shops and vending machines all over Japan accept Suica.

Apple’s iOS 10.1, iPhone 7 and Apple Watch Series 2 are now sold in Japan, and they all support Apple Pay integration, with Suica providing contactless payment processing. On Apple Watch Series 2, the service also works with iPhone 6 pairing. Users can create a virtual Suica card in Apple Wallet, preload it from iPhone or Apple Watch and pay. Adding money to the virtual Suica card is easy: just turn the digital crown instead of touching banknotes to charge the Suica card at charging machines in train and subway stations.

Paying at ticket gates

Using a watch to pay at ticket gates feels like a magical experience. A passenger doesn’t need to reach for a wallet, find the right pocket and search for a card or ticket. The payment can be done with a flick of the wrist above the card reader.

Now, a little caveat: The card reader is built in on the right side of every gate. Unless you wear a watch on your right hand, you’ll need to slow down or even stop in the ticket gate, while slightly bending your hand or your whole body to the right side in order to reach the sensor. It may look slightly funny to some and a bit confusing for impatient people who are in a rush. Nevertheless, the experience of wearable payment may outweigh this small inconvenience.

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Using Apple Pay instead of Suica

Paying from a wearable at convenience stores, cafes, shops and vending machines is another benefit. All you have to do is move your hand and wait for a beep without looking for your wallet, counting coins or processing card transactions.

It’s interesting to see how Apple Pay is landing on the Suica infrastructure and human mind share. The existing Suica card readers are marked with Suica or related logos instead of Apple Pay. Some sales personnel and taxi drivers were surprised that I could “magically” make a transaction with a wearable on their Suica card readers, unaware of the Apple Pay brand and compatibility.

If you don’t have cash or a credit card, then you may be expected to use a contactless card or even a mobile phone instead. The preparation of a physical Suica card at the counter is often a part of communicating the payment method to sales staff. Therefore, many shoppers would simply indicate Suica as their payment method without mentioning Apple Pay. In fact, a customer may process payment via Apple Pay and the salesperson might never know about it, assuming that it was simply Suica.

Wearables and card readers

Apple Pay uses Suica infrastructure in Japan. Various models of contactless card readers have been designed for scanning of prepaid cards rather than wearables. In many cases, wearable users would need to reach slightly more toward the reader compared to a card user. Experiences would be different if the readers were designed and placed more conveniently with wearable users in mind.

In-store card readers work slower than the specialized readers at ticket gates in train stations, where every second counts during rush hour. This may require more time to scan for a payment — reaching toward the card reader, keeping your hand above it and waiting for a beep. It may also not be 100 percent clear where the scanning takes place.

To impatient beginners, it may result in additional hand movements and even physical contact between the device and the card reader; in extreme cases, it may even damage the surface of the watch. Although that’s rare, there are cases where a store has to put up a sign saying that Apple Pay cannot be served by a Suica reader.

In the short term, it would be helpful if card readers were placed in more reachable locations for wearable customers. In the long term, future card readers would need to be designed with wearable users in mind for more efficient payment processing.


Taking advantage of the popularity of both brands in Japan, Apple Pay and Suica contactless payment services clearly demonstrate an enhanced experience and convenience to consumers. It’s amazing to see how the existing prepaid card infrastructure has been integrated with Apple Pay-enabled devices. It remains to be seen how exactly wearable UX will influence the development of the retail payment infrastructure.

Written By

Artis Birzins

Senior Architect, IBM Japan

From start-up while at school to corporate ventures, from coding of a mobile app to software innovation, Artis Birzins spent many years in global business, entrepreneurship and technology. Artis is keen in connecting the dots among people, organizations and latest technology to enable…

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