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China taps Japan's gachapon toy machines for digital yuan tests

Capsule dispensers accepting QR codes appear ideal for frequent small payments

The vending machines, which dispense toys, are considered ideal for testing China's digital currency because the devices will accept many small payments using QR codes. 

TOKYO -- China is turning to a playful tool for testing its digital currency, deploying Japanese-style gachapon capsule toy vending machines that accept cashless payments in Beijing at venues linked to the 2022 Olympics.

Such vending machines apparently are a perfect instrument for the tests because small payments are made frequently, according to Delfino, the Shanghai-based company that makes, sells and operates the machines in China. Delfino is a unit of Osaka housing builder Okura.

"Initially, we were asked to join a project on the Internet of Things," Delfino Chairman Yasumitsu Kojika said.

Delfino tied up with state-owned telecom company China Unicom last year, jointly launching a business of 5G-ready dispensers that accept cashless, QR code payments and are equipped with a touch panel for operation.

These smart toy vending machines were installed at 10,000 locations in Chinese inland cities, including Chongqing. They spit out toys based on characters from Japanese manga series popular in China such as "One Piece" and "Case Closed," also known as "Detective Conan." The items are procured from Japanese toy maker Bandai and sell for 10 to 50 yuan each (around $1.50 to $7.50).

This business caught the attention of the People's Bank of China. Delfino has delivered its machines to all five areas where the central bank is conducting pilots of its digital currency, including Xiong'an New Area in Hebei Province and venues for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.

These vending machines are suited to the tests because they dispense goods that "a large number of consumers buy without thinking too much," the Kojika chief said.

The dispensers previously handled only QR codes for Alipay and other systems, but those used in the trials accommodate near-field communication payments per the central bank's request.

Work on the digital yuan, which is intended to be interchangeable with China's paper currency, started more than five years ago but accelerated after Facebook unveiled its Libra digital currency project in June 2019.

The digital currency will "coexist in some way with QR code payments, which have taken root in China as part of financial infrastructure," predicts Yosuke Tsuyuguchi, professor at Teikyo University in Japan.

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