Japan Puts Its Money on E-Cash

Toru Nashimoto, a commercial real estate manager, uses his e-money card.
Toru Nashimoto, a commercial real estate manager, uses his e-money card. "Who needs to carry real money?" Nashimoto said. (By Sachiko Sakamaki For The Washington Post)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 12, 2005

TOKYO -- Toru Nashimoto, a trim 36-year-old with nary a coin in the pockets of his slick pinstripe suit, confidently strode toward the cashier at a bustling sushi bar to settle his $45 lunch tab. He whipped out a thin electronic card and placed it above a scanner that quickly blinked neon blue before emitting a computerized ka-ching.

It was the telltale sound of Japan's new electronic money. In seconds, Nashimoto had paid for his meal of sea urchin, eel and raw fish and was hustling back to work. No change from the cash register, no waiting for confirmation, no pin code to enter. "Who needs to carry real money?" said the commercial real estate manager. "I often don't even carry a wallet with me anymore."

Nashimoto is part of the latest trend in Japan, where society is rethinking commerce by doing away with the increasingly arcane concept of cash.

Technology analysts say the use of electronic money amounts to a leap forward in commerce and shopping. Using cell phones that transmit infrared signals -- or, as in Nashimoto's case, a smart card that doubles as a set of electronic keys and lets him earn airline miles with each use -- Japanese consumers are whisking through checkout lines, buying everything from sushi to furniture without ever yanking out their wallets.

Users can add value to their cards or cell phones at thousands of automated docking stations around the country, where they insert paper money and get credit for e-cash. They can also use credit cards to replenish e-cash on the Internet.

Electronic money emerged four years ago as a convenient tool for fast-paced train commuters. The Japan Research Institute, an economic research group, estimates that at least 15 million people here are now using e-cash, a figure projected to reach 40 million -- about one in every three Japanese -- by 2008. The number of e-cash transactions reached 15.8 million per month in 2005, more than double last year's figure, according to Japan's two largest electronic money providers.

E-cash is being accepted at convenience stores, department stores, cafes, restaurants, newsstands and electronics retailers -- enabling users to go shopping carrying nothing but their cell phones. At some supermarkets, up to 40 percent of all purchases are made with electronic money.

Vending machines that dispense sodas and snacks with a flash of a cell phone are popping up on street corners and inside office buildings across Japan. Tokyo's subway system -- the world's second busiest after Moscow's -- will begin accepting electronic money next year. Experts cite the rise of e-cash as a reason for a drop last July in the circulation of yen coins, the first decline since 1971.

"Japan is moving toward the cashless society," said Makoto Yamada, an executive at bitWallet Inc., operator of Japan's largest virtual money service and a partnership jointly owned by the Sony Group, the Toyota Group, All Nippon Airways, two large Japanese banks and NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest cell phone operator. "Electronic money is taking us there."

The smart cards and phones used are embedded with antennas and integrated circuit chips that allow the devices to receive and emit electronic signals. When the devices are placed near a scanner at a checkout, for instance, a signal is emitted and e-money is deducted.

Similar electronic money concepts are being tried in North America and Europe. Analysts say the Japanese version requires some fine-tuning before it can be exported.

Many note that the idea works well here partly because concerns about safety and security are quite low -- in Japan, even lost wallets are often returned to their owners intact. So the loss of a card or a cell phone loaded with hundreds of dollars of e-cash represents a comparatively small risk.

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