The first indication that something was up the FeliCa chip supply chain came on May 31 as an small announcement from Iwatekenkotsu Co., Ltd that the scheduled last leg of their Suica 2 in 1 Iwate Green Pass bus support rollout would be delayed due to new IC reader device procurement delays.
This was quickly followed by a large joint press release from JR East and PASMO on June 2 announcing that unregistered Suica and PASMO cards, the plastic ones that people can buy in Tokyo area station kiosks, would not be available starting June 8, ‘until further notice’.
On July 31 JR East • PASMO announced that registered Suica and PASMO plastic cards would not be available from August 2, expanding upon the June 8 sales suspension of unregistered Suica and PASMO plastic cards. The news turned media heads but was not a surprise to industry analysts and insiders.
The official reason for the Suica plastic card sales suspension is ‘the global chip shortage,’ but that doesn’t sound right when there are gluts out there. These things can be complex so I asked an old colleague who specializes in chip production analysis about the situation. He had this to say:
Domestic manufacturers of non-volitive memory of the type used in FeliCa chips, reduced manufacturing capacity (the NAND market segment is currently in a recession due to overproduction and excess inventory). This reduction came when there was an increase of inbound visitors to Japan buying Suica and PASMO cards. There was also increased demand for new Suica purchases due to the expansion of the Suica area to the Tohoku region, because the population is not as large as Kanto and Kansai, demand is expected to settle down soon.
However as production capacity will not return to previous levels, there is a high possibility that supply and demand will continue to be tight to some extent.
Other Japanese sources say another factor is that all transit IC manufacturing has been sub-contracted out to Taiwan. In short, buckle up folks, it’s going to be a long bumpy ride as in addition to manufacturers cutting production due to the non-volitive memory glut, Japanese IC card production (FeliCa chip, antenna, card, etc.) has been farmed out to Taiwan. As the saying goes, they’re always a great risk putting all ones eggs in one basket, especially with chip production. But no matter how many times companies learn this hard lesson, companies soon forget.
The May 27 Tohoku Suica launch and Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate card launches are certainly a short term factor in the FeliCa chip shortage as JR East is still selling both registered and unregistered Suica cards in the Tohoku region and Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards. Outside of the Tohoku area JR East and PASMO will continue to sell plastic commuter passes and inbound speciality cards like Welcome Suica and PASMO PASSPORT, however inventory is tight and JR East reduced the number of Welcome Suica sales outlets on August 2.
People assume that Transit IC cards from other regions like ICOCA or SUGOCA are readily available but this is not the case as operators are quietly limiting sales outlets. SUGOCA for example is not available at station kiosks but kept ‘under the counter’: buyers have to go the nearest JR Train Reservation office and ask for it. Expect this to start happening for all regular non-commuter pass Transit IC cards as well, partly to control inventory, partly to keep scalpers from cleaning out transit cards from kiosk station machines for resale.
Why not use Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO then? Unfortunately the mobile situation for inbound visitors isn’t great: visitors with only VISA cards or Android are basically out of luck.
- The VISA problem: the VISA payment network (merchant acquirer) stopped accepting foreign issue VISA cards for Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO use back in August 2022, this means Apple Pay users cannot use a VISA card to add money to Suica, PASMO or ICOCA.
- The Android problem: this is the well known problem of Android manufactures who have the hardware and software in place to use Mobile Suica but kneecap it on non-JP models. Wearable devices like Fitbit and Garmin support Mobile Suica on non-JP models but Suica recharge with Google Pay has the same foreign VISA block that Apple Pay does.
So unless VISA lifts their foreign card Mobile Suica blockade, and it has been in place for a year now, even Apple Pay Suica • PASMO • ICOCA users are limited to using Mastercard and Amex cards…using cash recharge. More on that situation in later post.
The easiest solution for JR East and PASMO is to encourage domestic Suica and PASMO users to go with Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO instead of plastic cards. They are already doing that but expect more Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO promotion campaigns and reward point enticements. If anything, the plastic Suica • PASMO card shortage is the best Mobile Suica • PASMO promotion ever.