Alipay, a third-party mobile and online payment platform by Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd., is chasing Chinese tourists to Japan, where it’s signing up a growing number of retailers and eyeing the long-term potential of the nation’s $45 billion digital payments market.
The volume of domestic payments processed on Alipay expanded eightfold in the 12 months to September, said Genki Oka, CEO of the Japan unit of Ant Financial Services Group, which operates the platform. Its network of vendors has climbed to about 38,000 as of November from 20,000 in February, closing in on a target of doubling within a year, Oka said in an interview.
An affiliate of billionaire Jack Ma’s Alibaba, Ant Financial entered Japan in 2015 to cater to Chinese visitors who are increasingly shopping with their mobile phones instead of cash. That has stirred worries among the nation’s banks that Alipay may eventually offer its services to local consumers as well, challenging their own efforts to develop domestic payment platforms.
“There’s no way we wouldn’t consider the Japanese market” at some point, said Oka, while stressing that he’s not yet ready to do that. He said the company would need to find the right partner and examine how to serve consumers in a country that has its own digital settlement services — as well as a lingering preference for cash.
For now, Alipay is working with retailers in popular tourist spots such as the Ameya-Yokocho shopping street in Tokyo’s Ueno district.
“Chinese aren’t carrying cash anymore,” said Yue Yuan Ma, sales planning manager for Takeya Co., a retailer in the area that has been using the platform since 2015. “Smartphone-based settlement is going to be essential.”
Chinese made up the largest group among an unprecedented 24 million foreign visitors to Japan in the first 10 months of 2017.
Alipay’s Japan network ranges from high-end department stores to mom-and-pop shops and restaurants. Digital payments are processed by scanning a QR code at the point of sale, which links to the customer’s bank account in China. The platform is available in some Asian countries including South Korea and Thailand.
Japan had ¥5.1 trillion ($45 billion) in digital transactions in 2016, according to the central bank. That’s dwarfed by China, where mobile payments totaled $5.5 trillion, iResearch Consulting Group data shows.
“Alipay’s capacity to attract customers is an excellent way of capturing inbound tourist demand, and it’s possible they could expand from there,” said Ryosuke Izumida, a Tokyo-based analyst at NavigatorPlatform Inc. Still, Japan’s already well-established electronic payments infrastructure and Alipay’s low brand recognition could pose hurdles, he said.
In Japan, rail commuter passes including Suica and Pasmo double as electronic money using contactless FeliCa technology at 2.2 million terminals, Bank of Japan data shows. Mizuho Financial Group Inc. is cooperating with regional lenders to develop a QR code settlement system before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. is internally testing its blockchain-based MUFG Coin.
One Mizuho executive has compared the potential disruption from Alipay to the U.S. naval expedition that forced Japan to end centuries of isolation in the 1800s.
“Any attempt by Alibaba to dominate in the Japanese market is a major threat,” Daisuke Yamada, Mizuho’s chief digital technology officer, said in a speech in September. “It’s like a ‘black ship’ invasion for us in the banking industry.”