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Apple Inc.’s plan to allow Japanese customers to use iPhones to pay for their daily commute underscores the potential for digital payments to grow in a nation where people still prefer to hold cash.

Japanese have for years been using rail passes that double as electronic money cards, which a growing number of retailers now accept for payments. Yet people have tended to restrict e-money purchases to small items, and Japan trails countries including South Korea and Singapore for digital settlements as bank notes remain widespread.

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