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On July 17, the Government of Japan announced that it will intensify efforts to launch a central bank digital currency (CBDC). It was the first time that CBDC—a digital form of central bank-issued currency—was mentioned in the country’s annual policy plan.

Yet, well before the announcement, the Bank of Japan (BOJ) was already engaged in research into CBDCs.

The BOJ is not alone. Central banks around the world have been similarly engaged, including those of the United Kingdom, the European Union, and China. The Bank of Canada and the United States’ Federal Reserve System are doing the same.

In light of these developments—and to find out more about the state of CBDCs in Japan—The ACCJ Journal spoke with two thought-leaders in the industry: Hiromi Yamaoka and Ken Kawai.

Yamaoka and Kawai agreed that, while CBDCs present many opportunities to transform the global financial industry, there remain important challenges to solve before they become the norm.

And while both experts are optimistic that Japan will eventually launch CBDCs, they believe we are still in the early stages of development.

In Japan, research into digital currencies such as CBDCs has gained steam in recent years, with three main study groups having been launched.

Yamaoka, who until 2019 was the director-general of the payments and settlements systems department at the BOJ, is chair of one such group.

“We are thinking about what we can do—as a private sector initiative—to innovate the payments systems in Japan, including digital currencies,” he said.

The study group comprises about 10 leading corporations from several industries, including information technology, retail, and finance. Telecommunications giants NTT Group and KDDI Corporation, retail giant Seven & i Holdings Co., Ltd., transportation giant East Japan Railway Company, and Japan’s three mega banks—Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation Group, MUFG Bank, Ltd., and Mizuho Bank Ltd.—are members. Representatives from the BOJ, the Ministry of Finance, the Financial Services Agency, and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry attend as advisors.

And, beyond their immediate circle, the group is engaged in bilateral talks with various entities, including non-banks and IT companies, Yamaoka added.

The second study group on Japan’s settlement system is the Zengin System, which is also the interbank network for oper­ating domestic funds transfers. Currently, the participants are limited to banks (depository institutions), most of which are members of the Japan Bankers’ Association.

However, with the advent of new players in the global finance and payments industry, such as social media giant Facebook, Inc. and mobile app developer Line Corporation, that may change.

Facebook, for instance, planned to launch its own crypto­currency, called Libra, later this year. Line, meanwhile, launched a digital wallet called Line Pay in Japan back in 2014.

And in the United Kingdom, online money transfer service TransferWise was, in 2018, the first non-bank payment service provider to join the Bank of England’s payment system.

An important consideration for the Zengin System, therefore, is how to manage the entrance of non-banks, which are potential competitors or partners, into Japan’s banking system.

Facebook planned launch its digital currency this year.

The third group­—the Digital Currency Group—was established in July and sits in the same department at the BOJ that Yamaoka used to lead.

This is in addition to an initiative that Yamaoka started in 2016—called Project Stella, a joint research project on blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) by the BOJ and the European Central Bank (ECB).

To date, Project Stella has published four reports on:

  • Processing large-value payments
  • Securities delivery versus payment of securities and funds
  • Security improvements for cross-border payments
  • Balancing confidentiality and auditability

Each item was considered within a DLT (or blockchain) environment.

For Yamaoka, the BOJ’s proactive steps “show that the central bank is increasing its efforts to study the potential impact of CBDCs.”

The BOJ is in good company. Back in 2018, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) published an initial analysis of CBDCs.

Established in 1930, the BIS is an international financial institution that fosters collaboration between central banks around the world. It looked at how central bank-issued digital currencies may impact “payment systems, monetary policy implementation, and transmission, as well as for the structure and stability of the financial system.”

While noting challenges to the implementation of CBDCs, the BIS concluded that “central banks and other authorities should continue their broad monitoring of digital innovations, keep reviewing how their own operations could be affected, and continue to engage with each other closely.”

The BOJ, whether through its in-house research group or collaborations with the ECB and the BIS, is doing the same.

What are digital currencies? At first the answer may seem straightforward, but the experts said that is far from the case.

“There is no official definition, in terms of digital currencies. Broadly speaking, we can think of digital currencies as some sort of digitized payment instruments,” Yamaoka explained.

Digital currencies come in many forms and have an ever-growing list of types and subtypes that describe them, such as:

  • Digital money
  • Electronic money
  • Virtual currency
  • Cryptocurrency
  • CBDCs

Unlike banknotes and coins, digital currencies don’t have a physical form. And yet they share essential qualities with cash—both are financial instruments that can be used as a means of payment, a unit of account, or a store of value.

Digital currencies trace their history back to the early 1980s, when American computer scientist and cryptographer David Chaum first proposed the idea of “digital cash.”

In 2009, digital tender in the form of the Bitcoin crypto­currency were first proposed by the pseudonymously named cryptographer Satoshi Nakamoto.

Fast-forward to today and a plethora of digital currencies and payments platforms—many pioneered by non-bank technology companies—proliferate in the financial system.

Facebook’s Libra, a cryptocurrency; Tencent Holdings Ltd’s WeChat Pay, a social media app that includes mobile payment features; and East Japan Railway Company’s Suica, an electronic money and contactless card, are examples of digital currencies and payment platforms.

And that’s not to mention credit or debit cards and online money transfer platforms, such as that offered by tech company PayPal Holdings Inc.

As currently proposed, CBDCs are likely to take two main forms: wholesale-only CBDCs and retail (or general purpose) CBDCs, Yamaoka and Kawai explained.

Kawai is an expert on blockchain and financial regula­tory issues and a partner at law firm Anderson Mori & Tomotsune.

In Digital Innovation, Data Revolution, and Central Bank Digital Currency, a BOJ working paper that Yamaoka co-authored in 2019, wholesale-only CBDCs are described as “large-value settlements which are based on central bank deposits and adopt new technologies such as distributed ledger technology.”

In this case, a central bank issues CBDCs to commercial banks and financial institutions, which play their traditional role as intermediaries between the central bank and corpo­rations and individuals.

Meanwhile, retail “CBDCs [are to be] used by the general public for daily transactions instead of banknotes.”

In the case where account-based retail CBDCs are issued, private companies and individuals with an account at the central bank can receive CBDCs directly for their daily transaction needs. CBDCs can also be issued in the form of digital tokens that represent monetary value.

What kind of CBDCs are currently in the works?

One example was unveiled in April when the People’s Bank of China announced trials for what it calls Digital Currency/Electronic Payment (DCEP). Initially, DCEPs, a digital form of the official Chinese renminbi currency, were rolled out in four cities in collaboration with commercial banks.

It is thought that tech companies such as ride-hailing provider Didi Chuxing will be at the forefront of scaling and optimizing the nationwide expansion of DCEPs.

Are CBDCs to be launched soon in Japan? Not immediately, Yamaoka and Kawai agreed.

For that to happen, several challenges will need to be over­come, not least of which surround the impact of CBDCs on the commercial banking sector and on data protection and privacy.

“Of course, what they need to consider is how to efficiently and safely implement CBDCs and what the impact would be on the private sector. And they need to think about [anti-money laundering / combating the financing of terrorism or AML / CFT], data privacy, and many other issues,” Kawai explained.

Unlike with cash transactions, which are mostly anonymous, the use of CBDCs would, in theory, allow central banks to track and trace all transactions.

While this capability can enhance AML / CFT initiatives, it raises questions about privacy and data protection—concerns that are set to increase as non-bank players enter the industry, Kawai added.

Will Japan embrace digital currencies? Yamaoka and Kawai are optimistic, especially when working in close collaboration with the private sector.

Why the optimism? Kawai points to the country’s historic ability to embrace new trends—when there is a general con­sensus to do so.

“Japanese people tend to be conservative, but once there is some big change, they dramatically change their attitude. This has been proved in the history of the country.”

Yamaoka holds a similar view, adding that the prevailing coronavirus pandemic has raised concerns globally over the use of physical cash, and this is driving many industries to seek contactless, digital solutions.

“Because of Covid-19, digitization of the Japanese economy is now becoming a big issue—and payment digitization is part of it.”

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.