OpenType Variable Japanese Font Developments

A font developer friend of mine is working on OpenType Variable Japanese font prototypes and sent some screen shot samples. His work is intriguing and a reminder that the upcoming JAGAT Page 2017 conference and exhibition will be an interesting one for Japanese font developers.


I look forward to talking with Japanese font developers at Page and hearing their thoughts on OpenType Variable Font development.

Originally I planned to write a big long post discussing the points raised by Matthew Butterick’s Thoughts on OpenType Variations. Instead here are the main points I see from the Japanese market view.

Western font developers see OpenType Variable Fonts (OTVF) as a rerun of  Apple QuickDraw GX fonts vs. Adobe Multiple Master fonts. This was never the case in Asian markets because Multiple Master technology was incompatible with CJK fonts, just like the original version of PostScript.

This is the reason why OTVF is based on the TrueType GX model, not Adobe technology.

Font Upgrades
Unlike western fonts, Japanese PostScript font formats have never been stable. In western markets font upgrades are considered an unnecessary luxury, in Japan they are a fact of life. There have been three major upgrade cycles that Adobe forced on the Japanese market since Japanese PostScript launched in 1989: the OCF (Original Composite Font) PostScript font to CID PostScript font update, the OpenType upgrade, and the various enhanced character set upgrades (Adobe Japan 1-4, 1-5, 1-6 glyph sets). The upgrades were fixes addressing the numerous CJK shortcomings of the original PostScript format that QuickDraw GX had leapfrogged.

Japanese font developers lead by FontWorks Lets program followed by Morisawa’s Passport changed the Japanese font market from selling font package software to selling annual subscriptions, just like Adobe Creative Cloud. The upside for Japanese font users is they get any font upgrade ‘free’ as part of their yearly subscription. When OTVF Japanese fonts are released, users can download and start using them when they are ready to.

OS & App Support
This is where it all plays out. Will Apple or Microsoft simply add OTVF support deep in the OS leaving their application product teams and 3rd party developers to, perhaps, add support at some distant point? As Butterick points out, Microsoft’s Office team took a long time to add OpenType (OT) support. Apple’s own iWorks suite has yet to support any advanced OT features or basic CJK features such as vertical text layout.

I agree with Butterick’s view that the customer is right but there is a chicken or egg aspect. Only when OS support for OTVF is aggressively high up in the OS frameworks making it easy, almost mandatory, with all the built-in apps supporting it, do customers finally experience the value.

I still think that Apple with its unique position owning both desktop and mobile platforms, is the only one of the OTVF partners (Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Apple) that can pull that off, if it can be pulled off at all.

To put it another way: TrueType GX lives on in OpenType Variable Fonts but will it live on in Apple?

Apple Pay Japan Tidbits: Suica & Apple Watch, Pokemon Go & iOS 10.2, Suica Reload Lag, Other Stuff


Hacks for Creative Life! Kita san has a wonderful introduction to Suica Apple Pay on Apple Watch Series 2, everything from Apple Watch setup and Suica App/Mobile Suica account setup, to using it. Kita san likes it very much and his daily commute is now “stress free.” If you have an older iPhone, are not ready to upgrade to iPhone 7 but want to use Apple Pay in Japan, Apple Watch Series 2 is an option worth considering.

I don’t know why but I was having trouble playing Pokemon Go with iOS 10.1. Suica sometimes didn’t seem to work until I quit the game. Testing the iOS 10.2 beta has been pleasant surprise. iPhone 7 feels faster and Suica response is always instantaneous and bullet proof now. It works fine with Pokemon Go even going through the station Suica turnstile. The only remaining flies in the ointment are those pesky TMN UT1-Neo readers and the horrible Lawson Apple Pay double verification checkout process. It is so bad that Japanese users tweet they are avoiding Lawson altogether.

There is another bonus for Japanese iPhone users in the iOS 10.2 beta, the camera shutter sound is much quieter and can be silenced with the mute button when taking screen shots.

Yuriko Ota wrote a interesting piece on the Keitai Watch news site about Suica Apple Pay reload lag. I have noticed the Apple Pay reload lag too, it takes 20 seconds or more after Touch ID verification for the reload amount to show up on Suica.

The lag is due to transaction processing on the JR East Mobile Suica system. The Android Mobile Suica app tells you that reloading can take anywhere from “20 to 60 seconds.” I notice that Suica reloading seems faster in the iOS 10.2 beta, about 15 seconds.

Exits and Entrances

Station signage is something you probably don’t think about, as long as it works. When signage doesn’t work, you notice. A lot of work is being done with Tokyo area signage in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Shinjuku Station signage in particular is getting a face lift that I hope to explore soon. In the above example from Asagaya station JR East uses interesting color cues, yellow for exits, green for entrances.

I’m At Shinjuku Station But Which Shinjuku Station Are You Talking About? A Final Review of Apple Maps Japan Transit


Apple launched Japanese transit for Apple Maps with the release of iOS 10.1 and macOS Sierra 10.12.1. This review takes a look and compares it with the local competition, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps. This replaces an earlier partial review of the iOS 10.1 beta version.

To keep things simple the review covers three key areas: UI & signage, indoor mapping, and agency data. I’ll use the traditional Japanese style three rank rating of previous reviews:

Rating System
O (maru) = good
∆ (sankaku) = fair/meh
X (peke) = NG/fail

Transit UI & Signage
The first real Japanese transit preview image that Apple released was similar to the left hand image below:

Right from the start we arrive at what I think is the most controversial aspect of Apple’s Japan transit service that I suspect will be a deal breaker for many Japanese users: Apple goes all in with the new international station letter code + number signage that has recently been rolled out in metropolitan areas. It’s so new that nobody knows what a JB 05 or JY 11 or IK 01 mean yet. It was designed for international visitors who can’t read kanji, not the Japanese who live here. Google and Yahoo Japan don’t use the new signage at all and stick with traditional kanji characters and transit line color coding. It’s what everybody has been using for a long time.

Apple’s mistake is using ONLY the new signage in the single most important transit UI component: route search result list view. It reads like a string of emoji. The new code signage is not meant to replace kanji but be used together. Apple could have used kanji names with the new signage as secondary information just like the real Shinjuku station sign at the top of this page. A tasteful blend of old and new would have been innovative yet respectful of Japanese kanji culture. Instead, Apple throws out the old and forces the new which really isn’t designed for Japanese users.

I am sure that the Apple Maps public transit team had good intentions but the result smacks this side of “is this a Japanese product or just some westerners’s idea of one.” Apple will be criticized for this UI gaffe, deservedly so.

The signage UI blunder is doubly unfortunate because it distracts from some nice transit UI improvements Apple is bringing to the party. For example, selecting Shinjuku station in map view (images below) offers all the various train and subway lines grouped neatly with easy access to destination and departures. To me this is a better deal than digging around in Google or Yahoo Maps to find the same information.

Taking a Ride
If users are not too discouraged by the route search result UI to look at route details, they might like what they find. Once you are in, route/trip details are well done. The new signage is used as backup to the kanji, not a replacement. They work well together which was the intention of the signage designers.

Another nice touch that Apple offers is a spread of departures times instead of locking you into one set departure time like Google and Yahoo Japan. This is smart. Maybe you were walking slow or catching Pokemon on the way to the station. What ever the reason, changing the train departure times in Google and Yahoo Japan maps on the fly is a hassle. Another nice touch is that on route Apple transit uses GPS to grey out stations as you pass them.

Lack of Live Data
The transit step by step on route process is completely different from turn by turn, it is very manual. There are no Siri prompts and your progress does not show up on the lock screen. GPS gently guides the transit steps but once you hit the green departure button, transit route and times are locked in and dead.

Apple, Google, and Yahoo Japan transit services all lack live data and contextual awareness. If you are late to the station, miss a connection, stop to have a cup of coffee, or a transit alert shows a stoppage along your route,  the transit service should offer updated routes and times. Turn by turn directions are live, transit directions need to be live too. If Apple delivers on this before Google or Yahoo Japan, Japanese users might flock to Apple Maps.

It would also be nice to have notification options to sleep on the train or talk with travel companions and receive alerts when an important transfer point is coming up in 5 minutes. Stand alone Japanese transit apps all have this but it belongs in built-in maps as well. There are lots of incremental improvements and innovations Apple can do here.

Apple Pay Integration
There are some interesting transit and fare options that you can access at the bottom of the route search results list.

The IC Fare toggle at the bottom of fare options is the Japanese transit hook into Apple Pay Suica Apple has been talking about but there is no option to filter out expensive Shinkansen or express train fares

In addition to on the fly transit type selection, options include JR Express train/Shinkansen settings for transit fare calculations based on non-reserved seating, reserved seating and Green car seating. Unfortunately there is no option to filter out Shinkansen and Express Trains from route searches.

There is also an IC fare toggle to calculate fares for IC cards when possible. This is the Japanese transit hook into Suica Apple Pay that Apple mentioned in the iPhone 7 keynote and in the Apple Pay Japan press release.

Apple Pay integration is simple and shallow: Apple Maps transit calculates the fare and warns you if your Apple Pay Suica card does not have enough SF (stored fare) for the route.

If you have Suica Apple Pay, Apple Maps alerts you if Suica SF (stored fare) is insufficient for the route.

The current implementation is hobbled by JR East Suica limitations: Apple Pay alerts won’t work if the route includes any Shinkansen travel or areas without Suica coverage. Wallet alerts are basically limited to non-express train routes within the JR East rail network Suica orbit. JR East has said they expect full interoperability with other JR group companies by the summer of 2017. When that happens, Apple Pay integration might become useful.

Transit UI: O
Signage: X
Apple Pay Integration: ∆

Transit UI & Signage Summary
Apple’s choice of locking users into the brand new and incomprehensible transit signage is unfortunate. The overall UI is clean and nice looking but route search results should mark ‘fastest’, ‘cheapest’, ‘fewest transfers’, etc., route options more clearly. Step by step transit routes are very manual, a plus, but need more GPS and contextual awareness. Notification options would be a plus too. Apple Pay integration is a good idea but is currently limited to regular train fares in areas with JR East Suica coverage, and there are no filter options to omit expensive Shinkansen and express trains when searching routes and fares

Station Footprints & Indoor Mapping

Before we get into it let’s compare Apple’s transit preview image from July with the real thing.

As said before, a preview movie trailer has scenes that never end up in the finished film. In this case the traditional dashed line railroad indicator seen in the preview, Google Maps, and Yahoo Japan Maps is gone. On the plus side transit lines are thicker, station footprint and indoor mapping colors are heavier with more contrast.

On the negative side Apple still has not learned that you do not do colored text labels with kanji characters. It’s one of biggest UI mistakes that western designers make and remains a huge UI problem for Apple’s cartography in Japan maps. Google and Yahoo Japan have long since dropped blanket use of colored kanji characters from their Japan map cartography. Apple should too.

Indoor Mapping – Map View vs. Transit View
The rule of thumb with Apple’s indoor mapping of Japanese train stations is this: indoor mapping ≠ indoor route guidance. Apple shows you the outline of what is down there underneath Shinjuku station but only gives you exit/entrance information, nothing more. You are completely on your own to wander the underground maze of a Shinjuku or Tokyo station to find stores, train platforms, ticket gates, though Apple Maps Japan transit will help you find your final exit.

Finding the exits and entrances of indoor mapped areas isn’t as easy as it should be either. One of the major differences between Google and Apple is that Apple has separate view settings for map, transit and satellite. Google uses a single map view with layers the user toggles on or off. Both approaches have downsides.

A Google maps view of a dense and complicated area like Shinjuku station is overwhelming with too much information to be useful when when you are on the go. Apple’s use of a separate view to reduce the information overload has merit but Apple’s method of switching views is clumsy, time-consuming and unintuitive. Only by toggling to transit view do you get train/subway lines, bus stops, and indoor mapped station exits/entrances.

Apple’s initial rollout of Japanese indoor mapping has a curious feel of being half finished: it only exists to show you how to get in and our of a train station when in step by step mode, and doesn’t match on-the-ground signage unless you are on route. Touch an exit point and you only get very tiny exit icons (stair, elevator, etc) and generic station information that tells you nothing about the exit.

The big question is where does Apple’s indoor mapping effort go from here. Will they go the Google way of mapping everything above and below ground, or take the Yahoo Japan way of just showing above and below structures directly related to the station? If Apple only wants to show exits and entrances they could vastly improve the current experience by increasing on route exit signage size and providing information cards with real information.

Station Footprint & Indoor Mapping: 

Indoor Mapping Summary
Indoor mapping is incredibly difficult to do well. Google offers a rich layer of indoor mapping that is overkill and too complex when on route in a crowded station. Apple’s indoor mapping feels incomplete: it is there for the step by step on route instructions, not for quick navigation or look ups. Even at this basic level Apple needs to improve the signage and exit/entrance information to make it remotely useful.

Agency Data
Apple Maps relies on 3rd party supplied data. The Japan product has long suffered from “C” grade suppliers. When incoming data is poor quality, there is little Apple can do to fix it other than changing the supplier. For example Incremental P (IPC) supplies Japanese map data, if you go to Shibu Onsen in Apple Maps you will see a strange data cut-off slicing across the area. Look at the same place in IPC’s iOS app and you see the same cut off.

This is one kind of problem. Another problem is Apple not getting 100% throughput of the data they get from the supplier. Here are two screen shots of a nearby park. IPC supplies a lot of map detail that Apple simply does not load into their system.

The challenge for Apple’s transit team was to get the best agency data AND get the best throughput. Based on limited testing in Tokyo, I’m happy to say that the Apple transit team appears to have succeeded in breaking the Japan data jinx.

Apple’s transit data supplier for Japan is Jorudan Co.,Ltd., the same company that supplies Google’s Japanese transit information. This is both good and bad. The good is Apple uses the same quality Japanese transit data that Google uses. The bad is that any incomplete or incompetent data hits Apple and Google equally. Apple’s options to improve Japanese transit data quality above Google, are limited.

Japanese users have complained about Google’s bus transit data occasionally. In the short span of Apple’s transit service beta, Japanese users noted and complained about missing train information in rural areas. In my own Tokyo area testing I have hit some rough spots as well: transfer information is not always reliable.

In the left hand example above the transit route lists the train transfer at Yoyogi station when Shinjuku would be a much better choice. The right hand example has instructions to walk out the east exit of Gotanda station to transfer to the Tokyu Ikegami line which is incorrect, the transfer point is inside the station.

The first example is poor information from Jorudan (data supply) as you find the same exact issue in Google Maps. I suspect the second example is a problem with Apple’s indoor mapping of Gotanda station: the location mistakenly groups Asakusa subway and Tokyu Ikegami train lines together as a separate Gotanda subway station.

Weak Route Searches
After extensive use and transit route comparisons with Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps, I find that Apple’s Japan transit consistently misses finding or offering cheapest routes or routes with the fewest transfers. Even though Apple is using the same transit data as Google, their search algorithms  are not up to speed. Yahoo Japan has the best transit data and search results.

Transit Alerts
One last item to mention is transit alerts. In Tokyo or any metropolitan area transit alerts are a vital travel companion, if the JR Yamanote line stops 30 minutes due to “passenger injury” (code word for suicide) you want to know immediately so you can change your route. Nothing is worse than being stuck in a stopped commuter train between stations. Apple has included alerts in their transit service.

Transit information alert details for the Saitama line.

So far I find that Apple transit alerts are slower to arrive than Yahoo Japan Maps which are the fastest of the competition. Apple Maps also seems to filter out the lowest level alerts: if the JR Yamanote line is running 5 minutes late, Yahoo Japan Maps will tell you, Apple Maps will not.

The newly updated Google Maps widget neatly groups transit times of trains and buses based on your GPS location. The widget is simple, convenient and far more useful than any Apple Maps widget. Apple Maps should be following Google’s lead here.

Agency Data: O
Transit Alerts: ∆
Widgets: ∆

Agency Data Summary
Japanese agency data quality is the biggest win for Apple’s Japan transit service and puts them in the same league as Google. Apple still has to improve data integration, they may have the same agency data as Google but they are not yet using it as well as Google does.

Final Summary
The Apple Maps transit team has put a lot of effort into Japanese transit, despite the rough edges it shows promise and potential.

The rough spots will have to fixed quickly if Apple wants Japanese customers to use the new service. The new signage problem, for example, could be solved with simple kanji character additions and tweaks. Local bus transit data is currently limited to Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya and needs to be expanded as local bus transport is very important for rural areas.

Like the famous Steve Jobs quote from WWDC 1997 : “we’ll find the mistakes and we’ll fix ’em,” rough spots and problems are not a problem if Apple finds and fixes them.

The real test for the maps team is this: Apple has finally broken the Japanese data quality jinx, can Apple break the organizational jinx to rapidly identify and fix  problems while delivering improvements?

If the Apple Maps team can do that, the Japanese transit service will be a success.

A Week With Suica Apple Pay

Matsumoto-KiYoshi Drug Stores now accept Apple Pay.

Got Suica Apple Pay – Need AirPods
My Jet Black iPhone 7 Plus arrived last weekend and I finally got to use Suica Apple Pay instead of just writing about it. Loading Suica commuter pass into Apple Pay was quick and easy, and I was on my way through a regular work week. This time with iPhone 7.

My first impression matched  Japanese Suica Apple Pay user comments on Twitter: “It works…Sugoi!” Suica transit is slick and fun to use with iPhone 7 but I quickly realized how much I want those soon to arrive Apple AirPods. Listening to music with wired headphones while pulling out iPhone to go through the station Suica turnstile in one smooth motion takes practice. Too often I find myself digging deeper in my pocket to avoid tangling the headphone wires which still manage to catch a backpack strap or coat button.

I also learned not to play Pokemon Go while going through a Suica turnstile, it kills the iPhone Felica NFC signal but this seems to fixed in the iOS 10.2 beta.

Suica store purchase experiences were varied. Mini Stop, 7-11 and Sunkus convenience stores were all easy and seamless. Lawson and Aeon stores force you to choose the payment method first before putting iPhone near the reader. And then there is the Transaction Media-Networks UT1-Neo NFC reader.

The TMN UT1-Neo reader is temperamental and in my experience always fails if you rest iPhone on the reader. If you run across a UT1-Neo reader, and you will,  hold iPhone at an angle above the reader, not flat, just like they do on the Apple Japan page. That has worked well for my iPhone 7 Plus.

Suica App Review


There is a funny story from the 2005 President Bush visit to Japan. The Bush staff freaked out when they rode the Tokyo trains and saw that most of the Japanese had eyes glued to their feature phones. Why do that when a feature phone was only for making calls?  Japanese i-mode feature phones had internet, email, good cameras, FeliCa NFC and i-mode web content, but it wasn’t until the iPhone debut two years later that Americans finally ‘got it’.

That was the golden era of i-mode, the first major internet capable phone platform. i-mode gave the world emoji and prompted Adobe to purchase Macromedia to get their hands on the extremely lucrative Flash licensing revenue from the Docomo i-mode/Flash licensing deal.

Docomo recently announced the end of i-mode feature phones. If there is one thing to remember about i-mode it is i-mode made a lot of money for a lot of Japanese companies, not just Docomo. i-mode gave birth to huge and very profitable mobile service content empires and infrastructure long before the Apple’s App Store appeared in late 2008.

Mobile Suica
What does the soon to be extinct i-mode have with the iPhone Suica App? Everything, let’s take a look. Mobile Suica is the JR East Suica service that launched in 2006 for mobile devices, first with feature phones, then Android, and now iPhone 7/Apple Watch Series 2.

To access all the services of Mobile Suica you must first create a Mobile Suica account with JR East. Mobile Suica is one part of a whole family of Suica services. There is: Suica Point Club for Suica loyalty points, View’s Net for the Suica View credit card, Suica Internet for online shopping, Eki Net for Shinkansen/JR Express train reservations and tickets purchases, and finally JRE Point Club. Each service has its separate ID and password but you can link them all together with one master JR East ID called My JR East. And you thought juggling more than one Apple ID was a challenge.

iPhone 7 Wallet lets you use Suica cards seamlessly in Apple Pay without having to deal with a Mobile Suica account at all. With Wallet you can add physical Suica cards, recharge Suica and renew a Suica commuter pass. Suica Apple Pay is a slick, easy to use product and works just fine without the Suica App. For a majority of Suica Apple Pay users Wallet is more than enough.

Suica App Basics
Suica App is the iPhone version of Mobile Suica long available on Japanese feature phones via i-mode and the Mobile Suica app on Android. Suica App gives you extra functions:

  • Create a new Suica card (on your iPhone)
  • Create or change your commute plan
  • Buy Shinkansen or Green Car tickets
  • Set up auto-recharge (using a ViewCard only)
  • Set or change the notifications that you get from JR East

If you already have a Suica loaded in Apple Pay and log in with a Mobile Suica ID, or set up a new account, you’ll see a default home screen. If you do not have a Mobile Suica ID, or do not want to set one up, you can still use the app to create a Suica card on iPhone if you do not have a physical card, see this page for details.

On the upper left corner is Mobile Suica Account Settings, on the upper right is Add Suica Card. On the bottom are Recharge and Ticket Purchase•Manage Suica. Suica App recharge offers you two different methods: Apple Pay or the View credit card that you register in the Suica App section below. The later methods bypasses Apple Pay and the Apple Pay Visa restriction for Suica recharging.

Suica App Credit Cards
The Suica app accepts a large number of credit cards and pre-paid card such as Line Card and even accepts credit cards issued outside of Japan. Suica Recharge via Suica app bypasses the Apple Pay Wallet system and the current Japanese Visa limitation. It gives you a lot more payment flexibility but you have to navigate the Japanese language credit card setup screen. If you want the Suica auto-charging option you are limited to JR East View branded credit cards.

So far Suica App looks like a iOS app but select any item shown in the screenshots above and you leave iOS for an i-mode style editing window.

Ticket Purchase•Manage Suica is where most of the Suica App functionality resides.fullsizeoutput_5e30

The purchase section includes Green Car tickets, Shinkansen Tickets/JR Express Train Tickets, and commuter transit pass purchases/renewals. You can make tickets purchases up to 30 days in advance, but are limited to JR East rail network trains. You cannot purchase JR Central Tokkaido Shinkansen or any other JR group company train tickets. JR East has said they are working with the other JR companies to provide full smartphone interoperability by September 2017, roughly six months from now. I expect the other JR group companies will sign on with Apple Pay by then.

Despite the limitation to JR East trains, purchase options are well covered. The i-mode UI port is not pretty but the i-mode system has been in place for over a decade and gets the job done. The commuter transit pass purchases/renewal section has all bases covered too from simple renewals to route changes and Green Car commuter pass upgrades.


Below the purchase section is Suica Purchase History and Suica Pocket. The first item is straight forward but Suica Pocket is convoluted. When you cancel a Suica purchase, tickets or store merchandise, the refund transaction can take time. Suica Pocket is a temporary transaction holding area before you send a processed refund amount to a designated Japanese bank account.

The next two menu items include changing Suica card names and setting up a credit card for automatic Suica recharging. You are limited to JR East View Card for automatic recharging but because automatic recharging bypasses the Apple Pay system, you can use the VISA version of View Card along with JCB, AMEX, Master Card, Diners Club and  JR Central Express Card.

The very last two menu items cover setting SF (stored fare) to cover commuter transit fare in case your pass expires and forget to renew it. The last item is a spoken guidance option which I have not tested.

Suica Apple Pay works perfectly well without the Suica App but if you want the extra functionality, more payment flexibility and are willing to invest time to set up an Mobile Suica account, give it a try. The UI is built on top of JR East’s i-mode system: it’s not pretty and accessing options can be convoluted, but it gets the job done.

The biggest drawback at this point is that ticket purchases are limited to JR East rail network trains. This is due to improve by the summer of 2017. Until then Suica App is only useful for travel on the JR East rail network.

3/12 update: added Suica App credit card recharge information.
11/15 update: 
added Suica App credit card recharge information.

The Fading Neighborhood Tobacco Shop

Before the rise of convenience store chains, the neighborhood tobacco shop was a Japanese institution and common sight well into the 80’s. Back when tobacco was still a government monopoly, a tobacco shop license was highly sought after and expensive, but also a guaranteed income.

After the war, many Japanese war widows raised families, put children through college and into a secure life from the income of the little neighborhood tobacco shop. Times have changed and tobacco shops are a rapidly disappearing relic.

This shop in Koenji is remarkably well preserved. From the beautiful mid Showa era signage to the polished glass cases and carefully arranged cigarette cartons, the only thing missing is a red public telephone sitting on the glass case next to the sliding window.