As if a premonition or an uncanny coincidence, a few days before this “Cashless in Japan” challenge my wallet fell apart at the seams from the sheer weight of the coins crammed in it. I’m by no means rich — these were 10 yen and 100 yen coins, change from countless cash payments. As the metal coin waterfall streamed into my purse, I looked at the cashier apologetically, and said: “Do you take cards?” Luckily they did.
I wasn’t always a skeptical grandma with her pouch of silver coins. I had been swiping my credit card left and right since the mid-2000s, but moving to Japan I had to revert to cash as banks are notoriously not cooperative with foreigners. A cash card to be used at the ATM was all I had, and occasionally my Suica IC card for the trains and to pay in the convenience store. It took years and getting a job to get a debit card from a Japanese bank, but I’m still not living a fully cashless life. And all my fellow Japan residents are predominantly dependent on cash, according to public data.
In 2020, two forces intertwined — the movement to make Japan more tech-savvy and cashless before the planned Olympics, and when those were postponed, there was the push to not touch cash amidst a pandemic and do cashless payments instead. The third force is Tokyo Survival Channel, calling me with a challenge to go cashless just a day or two after my wallet broke. It was high time I went cashless and the 21st century, the pandemic, and my torn wallet seemed to agree in unison.
Most of 2020 I spent ordering things online with my card and linking utility bills to an automatic transfer, so I was already going more cashless than ever. Challenge…done?! Not so fast. The challenge was to use only e-money, aka mobile payment apps, aka barcode/QR code payment. A whole different beast I had not encountered before. Very willing, but basically clueless, I dove into the challenge to download at least five different payment apps and try them in different types of stores over the course of a week. And then some.
- Delete a bunch of apps from my phone in order to free up space to install the cashless payment apps for the challenge
- Download all the necessary apps
- Sign up for each one (could be easy, could be more difficult than flying a plane!)
- Link my bank account or top up the balance at an ATM
- Learn how to operate said ATM
- Go spend that e-money!
Mobile Payment App 1: LINE Pay
I started with the payment app developed by Japan’s number one messaging app, LINE. It reminds me of how my friends in China use WeChat for both chatting and payment, paying with a QR code even for street food served from a food cart at 3 a.m. Also, both of the apps are green. All jokes aside, let’s drill down to the details of it.
I have never even seen a Japanese payment app, so I tapped the LINE icon with trepidation. If this was anything like the banks, I was strapping in for a hell of a ride — and I hate rides. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy the LINE Pay setup was. Already having a LINE account probably helps massively here, so all I had to do was tap on the LINE Wallet tab and approve the LINE Pay feature.
It was all in English (or any language you can choose in LINE), with some special functions available only in Japanese I’ve been told, but a beginner like me never even got to that level. It supposedly is trickier to link to your bank account, but as I was still testing these apps, I opted for a deposit into the app via 7-Eleven ATMs.
SevenBank ATM Deposit
Naturally, every 7-Eleven has one, but the ATM I chanced upon on day one of the challenge was inside a train station. These ATMs seem to be widely available and versatile. Regardless if it’s for LINE Pay or other mobile payment apps, the ATM deposit process is the same.
- Tap the QR code payment screen on the ATM
- Go to your app and choose to top up via ATM, which opens the QR code scanner
- Scan the code shown on the ATM with the phone
- Get a short number code and input it in the ATM
- Deposit the cash in the open ATM cash drawer
- Receive a notification on the app within seconds that the money has been deposited
The ATM even gives you change, if for example you put in a 5,000 yen note and ask for only 3,000 yen to be deposited to the payment app.
There are other ways to top up your balance, all more complicated and less available to find than the SevenBank ATM. So, I stuck to this ATM throughout my challenge.
The cons of the ATM method, as reported by other users, are that once your money is in the app it’s hard to get it out. And once you run out of money, you need to top up again. Linking your bank account would require more effort, but it’s only once, and then you’re free to spend.
I was right to believe that LINE Pay would be as ubiquitous as the LINE app. If a store offers several QR payments, LINE Pay is usually one of them. The map function showing stores around you that accept LINE Pay was helpful too, even though at times overwhelming. The same goes for LINE Points, coupons, special benefits, and things like that — too much information for someone who just started using the app, and probably more beneficial once you’re a loyal user.
I went to the trendy, techie Odaiba to start this cashless challenge, and it didn’t disappoint. New stores and malls accept all kinds of cashless payments, LINE Pay included. I darted from burger shops to food courts, and all of them accepted LINE Pay. I just pulled up a code on my phone, and they scanned it. Done in seconds! The staff seemed unfazed, which confirmed that LINE Pay has been used a lot and for some time now.
I loved the easy sign-up, easy top-up, English interface, availability, and overall experience.
Although I didn’t try it, with LINE Pay you can scan the barcode on some utility bills and pay them instantly. It’s an exciting prospect that makes me want to learn more about all the other options in this app, so I will keep using it.
Mobile Payment App 2: PayPay
I thought I had found the best mobile payment app on day one with LINE Pay, but PayPay turned out to be a worthy rival. The Yahoo Japan-owned app is equal to LINE Pay in every way, and when it comes to design, it’s much better. Show me the colors of Japan and prints of Mount Fuji, and I am charmed. So charmed, that I already forgave the app’s childish name — a name that sounds like a generic placeholder and that autocorrect keeps changing to PayPal as I write this.
PayPay was easy to set up, and it didn’t have any inconvenient verification process (of course, linking it to your bank will require verification). The basic interface is in English, but coupons and other offers that change regularly are in Japanese. Some are easy to understand, like coupons, but paying utility bills and earning bonuses is trickier. The map showing stores that accept PayPay is in Japanese too, but it’s very straightforward. PayPay is even better than LINE Pay in user-friendliness, since it’s mainly a payment app — no other distractions. It’s much more user-friendly, intuitive, and easy to use.
If not connected to your bank account, it’s topped up at the SevenBank ATM, like other apps. Payment is made either by pulling up a QR code and the cashier scanning it, or you scanning the shop’s QR code displayed at the register.
Here is where PayPay surpassed LINE Pay. Stores that accept several cashless payment apps list them both as main players, but I found many shops that exclusively use PayPay, and none that use LINE Pay only. Small local businesses like cafés and flower shops are among those that accept PayPay only. And just a day before the challenge, I saw the man next to me pay for his hotel stay with PayPay as I was still fumbling with my debit card. I got the impression that PayPay is even more available and versatile than LINE Pay.
I honestly have nothing bad to say about PayPay, despite thinking long and hard. I will not be deleting it from my phone and I intend to keep using it.
Mobile Payment App 3: MerPay
I downloaded MerPay on day three of my challenge. The app is owned by Mercari, one of Japan’s most successful IT start-ups and best described as the Japanese eBay. I already have an account on Mercari and was by now so pleased with LINE Pay and PayPay that I was expecting another easy day. I happily headed to Harajuku to try this app in fashion and beauty stores, a nod to the Mercari app itself. But by the time I arrived, I knew I had a problem on my hands.
The first point of shock was that MerPay is a Japanese-language only app. I do speak and read Japanese to a satisfying level, but it’s a slow and tiring process, and what I want from these apps is the exact opposite. I want easy, fast, and convenient. What I don’t want is using a dictionary and a looking glass. Frustratingly, apps don’t let you use automated translation on them as websites do. Even more frustratingly, MerPay doesn’t let you screenshot things and ask your Japanese friends. By comparison, both LINE Pay and PayPay let me take a screenshot. So, everyone who is not super fluent in Japanese and prefers English, stop reading here. MerPay is not for you.
If you’re still interested in MerPay, prepare for an identity confirmation process that is more complicated than passing immigration. It required a series of mugshots, some with your ID in your hand, some requiring you to move around for a short video to prove that you aren’t a picture. After feeling a tad shaken, you also need to manually fill in a form with too much information about yourself. Confirmation may take from hours to days. And even then, you’re merely halfway in setting up this app.
Naturally, I couldn’t do it in time, so I came back home from Harajuku defeated. I got approved that night, so the next day I could top up my balance at my trusted 7-Eleven ATM. At least that part was nice and easy by now. I dread to think what hoops I might need to jump through to connect MerPay to my bank account. Best to leave that unknown.
Using the app itself was also pretty standard. I used it in cosmetic shops, as well as at GU’s self-checkout counter. You tap the screen, get a QR code, and the cashier scans it (or you scan it at the self-checkout). And that’s it. If you can get someone to help you with setting up MerPay, and you learn where to press for QR code to pay, you can technically use this app even without knowing Japanese. But why would you when there’s LINE Pay and PayPay?
MerPay is one of the major players in Japan with a loyal fan base, so wherever QR code payment is available, MerPay is usually included — convenience stores, supermarkets, malls, big chain stores, restaurants, etc. However, I haven’t seen it offered exclusively like PayPay.
Same as all the other apps, the map function helps a bit, and all the points and benefits were too much to grasp in a day. MerPay’s biggest benefit seems to be for loyal Mercari users, especially sellers who can use the money made from the sales in the app and also get postpaid credit to shop.
The app works as promised, and there is nothing wrong with it. But it has an absence of design and beauty, it’s difficult and inconvenient, and definitely not international-friendly. Giving it two points is me being nice.
Mobile Payment App 4: Rakuten Pay
With MerPay out of the way, I was excited to try another major Japanese IT company’s attempt at cashless payment. I already use Rakuten e-shopping as well as their chat app Viber. I even have a Rakuten account. And yet, this challenge seemed to be going downhill, with Rakuten Pay being even worse than MerPay.
I downloaded the app, but no matter what I did, it didn’t let me log in. I created multiple accounts, fed it my bank account details and address, I spent several days trying to start using it, I tried contacting Rakuten customer support (haven’t heard back) — nothing worked. The app is only in Japanese, and it doesn’t allow you to take screenshots. Rakuten Pay will stay an uncracked enigma. User-friendliness is obviously poor from my experience, and availability is on par with MerPay, but not as great as LINE Pay and PayPay.
I’m sorry Rakuten, it’s not me, it’s you. And I’ve tried and tried, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Mobile Payment Apps 5 & 6: Google Pay and PayPal
After a disastrous fail with MerPay and Rakuten Pay, I shifted my attention to some international players. There is a reason I grouped them together — they made for a pretty uneventful and anticlimactic end to the challenge.
I have already been using PayPal to pay online in Japan with ease, and I downloaded Google Pay for the challenge. The user-friendliness is not the problem, the availability is. I struggled to find a shop that accepts Google Pay or PayPal. PayPal was non-existent, whereas Google Pay did crop up at times, only for the cashier to tell me that I can only use it if linked to a loyalty point card like Waon for instance. Not to use cash, I used my Visa debit card and called it a day.
So, instead of rating these two options, I’ll just say that the Japanese cashless scene has been ignoring them and focusing on Japan-made cashless payment apps. And that’s totally understandable.
Cashless in Japan: Day 1
Armed with three payment apps that work, balances topped up, plus my trusted debit card and IC card as backups, I decided to venture out in Tokyo without a wallet or cash. Trying to live cashless is easy if you stay home and not spend a yen. However, I was attempting a cashless day while being out and about.
I had a decent start with buying a birthday card for my friend and paying with MerPay. However, the QR code took so long to load, I held up the line as I stared awkwardly at a blank screen. Then, I went to buy chocolate at a shop with a huge LINE sign in front, only to be informed that they don’t accept any payment apps. But they did want me to befriend them on LINE. My good old Suica saved the day at that shop, as well as getting me on the train and the subsequent bus ride without me using any cash. However, one transportation option had been promising smartphone app payment since 2020 — the taxi. I got in one, and only in the end did I realize that not all taxi companies accept apps. What is worse, by the time the driver figured how to use the debit card terminal, I would have walked the distance he drove me.
After meeting my friends, I had trouble finding any restaurant or café that accepted payment apps, except for chains like McDonald’s. When you’re hungry and in an unfamiliar location, the map function in the app seems daunting. In a moment of sheer panic, I fled the scene and bought a takeaway bento box with PayPay. I technically didn’t spend any cash, but I only used app payments twice, and I had a very stressful time.
Cashless in Japan: Day 2
After being completely on board with using cashless payment, my lackluster cashless day made me reevaluate everything. Topping up takes time, waiting for the apps to load can be slow and awkward, and phones run out of battery. Cash never runs out of battery.
However, I decided to do a cashless day do-over, now more experienced and more prepared for it. I removed the stress of a new place and using transportation, and had my cashless adventure in my own neighborhood. I was already aware of the payment options at shops I regularly visit like the local bakery, the nearest restaurants, the supermarkets, and so on. This time, cashless day 2.0 was a breeze. I paid with LINE Pay, PayPay, and MerPay at the following places.
- Lunch at a restaurant
- Convenience store
- 100-yen store
- Two cake shops (one part of a big chain, one a small local business)
Only in a local café did I need to pay with a debit card. Cashless day 2.0 ended when my phone battery died. All in all, it was a success.
Pros and Cons of Using Mobile Payment Apps in Japan
Using the mobile payment apps was easy when I only did it occasionally, but the limitations of this system were exposed when I tried to use only apps all day. Not all apps are accepted everywhere, especially not in small and more unique stores. Even if they were, and you had all the apps, it’s impossible to check all their offers and coupons and reap their benefits if you frequently switch between each one. It’s best to tackle one app to get the most out of it.
If you create a strict routine where you know you’re going to the same shops that accept QR code payment, you can be faster at paying and easily go cashless. If you don’t want to spend your life shopping only in convenience stores and having mediocre fast food, you need to have cards or cash on you too.
A big pro for payment apps is that the phone is in your hands all the time anyway — no need to search for the wallet in your bag. However, if at any moment your internet connection is lost or you’re out of battery, you go from tech-savvy cashless to someone without money. And carrying a power bank and chargers everywhere is worse than carrying a wallet.
So, even though cash and cards are still necessary, they now share the stage with payment apps. It’s made for a very different Japan in just the few years they’ve been around, and it certainly helped me get as close to cashless as possible. My digital wallet hasn’t magically gotten richer than my physical wallet, but at least it won’t break embarrassingly. It will only load at a snail pace, occasionally, embarrassingly for me still. But it will make me look and feel like someone from this century.