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Business trends

E-money smart card payments hit record in Japan in December

Still highly popular, but growth slows down amid rise of competing services

Suica is one of Japan's most popular prepaid smart cards.

TOKYO --Electronic-money transactions using prepaid smart cards totaled a record 500.7 billion yen ($4.72 billion) in Japan in December, though the trend is slowing thanks to the widening use of other electronic payment methods and debit cards.

This is the first time the monthly figure has topped the 500 billion-yen mark. The annual total for 2017 came to a record 5.19 trillion yen, the Bank of Japan's Payment and Settlement Statics report shows.

Prepaid smart cards, like the Suica issued by East Japan Railway, are extremely popular in Japan. Nearly 360 million such cards have been issued so far -- an average of three for every person in the country.

The number of transactions made using the cards increased 4.5% to 5.42 billion in 2017. The number of payment terminals that can accept them jumped 15.6% on the year to 2.3 million in December.

The average value of each transaction, however, fell 32 yen to 959 yen in 2017. And the total value of transactions grew only 1.1% last year, significantly less than the 10.8% jump in 2016.

The slowdown is caused partly by the rise of alternative payment methods. Japanese banks have actively promoted the use of debit cards in the last several years. Debit transactions increased 90% in the two years through fiscal 2016 to 107.56 million, according to the BOJ report released Wednesday. Smartphone payment services including those using a QR code are also becoming more popular.

Fukuoka Financial Group launched a mobile payment app called YOKA!Pay on Thursday. Japan's three megabanks -- those owned by Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Mizuho Financial Group and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group -- plan to partner on smartphone QR payments.

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