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Bitcoin seen spreading to 20,000 Japanese merchants

Retailers aim to open foreign tourists' virtual wallets

A sushi restaurant in Tokyo with a bitcoin ATM installed.

TOKYO -- Japanese merchants accepting bitcoin payments could quintuple to 20,000 this year, looking to cater to foreign visitors' digital wallets as the virtual currency spreads.

According to Tokyo's ResuPress -- which operates Coincheck, a virtual currency exchange that also does transaction processing -- there were around 4,200 physical and online stores in the country accepting bitcoin at the end of 2016. That was roughly 4.5 times the previous year's count. Restaurants and bars, along with shopping websites, took the currency.

ResuPress launched last fall Japan's first electric utility service accepting bitcoin payments. It may expand into gas and water utilities, and hopes to help raise the number of merchants accepting the currency to 20,000 within the year. 

BitFlyer, a Tokyo exchange handling a roughly 60% share of the country's bitcoin trades, launched last April a shopping site that took payments in the virtual currency. Sales grew tenfold in just half a year. Osaka's Tech Bureau, which operates an exchange called Zaif, is promoting bitcoin payments for online shopping, joining the ranks of industry players getting involved in transaction processing.

Bitcoin can be traded for currencies such as the yen at special exchanges and stored in virtual wallets. Shoppers can use the currency at physical locations by scanning a bar code with their smartphones at checkout and having the purchase price automatically deducted from their bitcoin balance for a nominal transaction fee.

More than 13 million people now use bitcoin, despite occasional incidents of money laundering or fraud. Over 100,000 merchants, primarily in the West, accept it. Unlike national currencies, it transcends borders without the need for exchange. It would behoove Japan, as host of the 2020 summer Olympics, to cater to foreigners paying in bitcoin.

Hundreds of thousands of people apparently use the currency in Japan already, with more likely to come. Purchasers will soon have it easier, as the country will drop in July a sales tax on virtual currencies. Safety measures, such as a registration system for virtual currency exchanges, will also come from revisions to fund settlement law scheduled to take effect this spring.


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