The last Christmas card

After my mother died I took to writing Christmas cards to our family friends as I knew my dad wouldn’t keep up the tradition. Although I never liked sending Christmas cards in my youth, I found a strange enjoyment reaching out in mom’s place with bits of family news and my adventures of becoming a Buddhist priest. If Japanese love Christmas even though most of them are not Christian, so could I.

At first I got lovely cards in return, but as most of mom’s friends were already old and getting older, the handwriting got weaker and shorter over the years. The number of cards dwindled, receiving and sending. I always send a card to dad even though he never sent any. It didn’t matter, we talked regularly and on Christmas too. But then COVID hit and the rest home visitor restrictions and eating alone in his room drained the life out of him. My older brothers live nearby and did what they could. My talks with dad grew fewer and shorter, he rarely picked up his iPhone unless one of my brothers were nearby.

Dad entered hospice care after a few recent falls recently and I knew I was sending the last Christmas card I would ever send him. The short list grows shorter, I hope he gets it in time. It’s a strange feeling though, deeply experiencing the impermanence of life as taught in the Buddhist tradition, while sending Christmas cards. Not sad really, just hoping dad can leave this life with some dignity, or as he liked to say, ‘leave here with my boots on.’ I don’t know what to think about it but I miss sending those Christmas cards.

It all connects: JR East QR Eki-Net Tickets


One of the great things about Japanese trains is how seamlessly they connect nationwide. Buy a ticket and travel to your destination anywhere in the country even on a different JR company line. This is the legacy of JNR with ticket office staff that knew everything inside out and got you the best connections at the best price. But even in local regions cross company thru transit is a given. There is a small catch however: you must have a ticket specifically designated for the destination on a different connecting company line. For paper tickets that is.

The great innovation of Suica and the Transit IC standard was that it did away with the need to purchase special connecting tickets. Just tap and go, each company transit gate automatically calculates and deducts the stored fare (SF) from Suica. Another innovation of Suica was IC fare. IC fare is slightly cheaper because it is ticketless, the fare collection is automatic and less expensive to process. The cheaper IC fare is also encouragement to use IC cards instead of paper tickets for local travel. As of FY 2021 JR East says 95% of Tokyo area transit uses Suica/PASMO.

Nevertheless, despite Suica being around 20 years and the Transit IC standard in place for 10, paper mag strip tickets are still with us. Why? A number of reasons but the biggest one being they are essential for long distance interconnected transit. Travelers can get on a local JR West train in the Osaka region, transfer to the Shinkansen and ride to Tokyo, transfer to a JR East local train and ride to their destination with a single purchased set of paper tickets, usually with a discount when purchased far enough in advance. Can’t we already do this with Suica and the like? Yes and no.

Bad JNR Breakup
The 1987 breakup of JNR had some bad repercussions that are still with us today. It came at a crucial point just as the next generation ticketing Suica smart card was in development, delaying deployment for many years. This delay fossilized the JR Group ticketing system to mag-strip paper. Post breakup JR companies developed their own transit IC card systems without larger JR Group integration, limiting coverage to high volume traffic areas where they could recoup transit IC system installation costs. This resulted in large sections of lower traffic rural lines being left off the Suica/Transit IC map with mag-strip paper tickets the only option. I experience this situation whenever I travel from Tokyo to Minobu. Suica only goes to Kofu, but the Minobu line is not wired for Transit IC as the Minobu station signage makes very clear.

The transition from mag-strip paper tickets
When JR East unveiled their next generation transit gate prototype in late 2019 with Suica and QR Code readers but no paper ticket slot, it was clear that closed loop QR ticketing was the transition plan for retiring paper tickets. Mag-strip paper recycling costs are increasing and mechanical paper ticket transit gates are expensive to purchase (said to be 10 million JPY per unit) and maintain. Migrating to QR eliminates these costs…but it will be a long transition. The end of mag-strip paper tickets will only be happen when all JR Group companies, and connecting private transit companies, implement QR that covers all station points paper does now.

Filling the gaps
Despite all appearances, JR Group companies have been busy creating a foundation of new services that fall into basic categories:

Extensions: (1) Closing Transit IC gaps on their respective systems with hard wired stations or readers installed on trains for tap-in/tap-out transit, (2) Extending Transit IC beyond JR Group systems with lower cost cloud based solutions or government subsidized installations for connecting transit operators.
Cross region transit between Suica-TOICA-ICOCA-SUGOCA regions (Atami, Maibara, Shimonoseki, etc.), this has started with through cross region Transit IC commuter passes, the next step is through cross region for regular cards.
Online Reservation and Ticketing: Eki-Net, EX/Odekake-Net that cover eTicketing for Shinkansen, Ticketless reservations for express trains and special seasonal package tickets.
Special Issue: Suica/PASMO for disabled users with discounts that replace paper passes

By company:

JR East
Suica is extending to cover the entire rail network starting in the Tohoku region in March 2023 with a new lower cost cloud based Suica system (aka Super Suica Cloud), Suica is also extending to cover Tohoku region bus companies via the Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Card program that kicked off in 2020. Suica/PASMO for disabled users will also launch

JR West
Has been extending ICOCA with the final extensions coming to the Shimonoseki region in March 2023 along with the Mobile ICOCA launch.

JR Central
Announced TOICA will be coming to all lines and stations “soon”, along with more EX non-Shinkansen ticketing options and EX-MaaS package tours that cover train, hotel, car rentals, etc.

In short QR will be a mobile only default replacement for paper while JR East-Central-West are extending Suica-ICOCA-TOICA to be the default mobile + physical card mode for local travel. This covers all of Honshu but we still don’t know what Transit IC expansion + QR plans there are for the financially weaker JR Group companies: JR Hokkaido, JR Kyushu, JR Shikoku.

The Eki-Net QR Super Suica Cloud Connection
One of the little noticed key aspects of the JR East Eki-Net QR Ticket announcement is the initial service launch area and time: Tohoku. This is the same area where the Cloud Suica extension is launching in March 2023. Eki-Net QR starts here over a year later, between October 2024~March 2025. This new Suica system has a few tricks up the sleeve that give a clue how Cloud Suica and Eki-Net QR complement each other. Let’s start with the new Suica/PASMO cards for disabled users launching in, yet again, March 2023. Fare discounts for disabled users are very complex as they are certified by the resident local ward or city. Up until now paper passbooks were manually examined at entrance or exit to verify the fare discount.

Suica/PASMO disability fare cards are the first time the discount is validated by the Suica system. Look very carefully at the valid use regions because Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards were designed to support special fares on non-JR East transit and region affiliates will support Suica/PASMO disability cards when they launch. As both Cloud Suica and QR will use the same cloud linked transit gates, it’s a given they will also share the same backend validation system.

The new cloud based gate validation system going online in March 2023 (on right) will certainly validate both Suica and QR

Where does Eki-Net QR fare fit?
The online reservation and ticketing apps we use now (Eki-Net, EX, etc.) will be the same apps people will use to buy and display QR Code tickets. We already use QR Codes to pickup paper tickets from a station kiosk, displaying the same QR Code to go through a gate is the next natural step. The essential question is which fare tier QR tickets reside in. Currently JR East has 2 basic fare tiers:

  • eTicket and Ticketless (Suica / Transit IC cards)
    Less expensive fare tier for regular local transit, Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets with bigger discounts, Eki-Net Ticketless Express Train Reservations with bigger discounts
  • Paper Tickets
    More expensive fare tier for regular transit, cash purchase only for local travel, credit card purchase for express train and Shinkansen tickets, seasonal tickets, special package tours, and so on.

The logical progression is that Eki-Net QR tickets simply replace the paper ticket tier. There’s a huge variety of one-off specials and package tours that don’t fit well in the Suica eTicket/Ticketless box that would be ideal for QR treatment. We shall see but I suspect JR will want to keep the tier differences in place because NFC Suica/Transit IC ticketing works without a network connection, QR Code ticketing does not. And we all know that station network environments are the worst.

Eki-Net already issues QR Codes for picking up paper tickets, this is what Eki-Net QR Tickets will replace.

New Transit Gate Design
Last but not least we have QR reader equipped transit gates that JR East will start installing in stations starting December 2022. Like the paper to QR transition, installation will see a gradual replacement of older end-of-life combo Suica + paper transit gates with new Suica+QR+paper transit gates. We may also see installment of the earlier Suica + QR prototype gates that JR East tested in 2020.

One aspect of both designs is the QR reader is placed way in front of the Suica reader, which is placed as far back as possible. This peculiar design has an important function of preventing ‘Suica Express Transit’ card clash when a user is going though the gate displaying a QR Code. JR East doesn’t want an extraneous Suica card read/write to clash with a QR read that sets Suica to ‘start transit’ mode. I’m sure the gates will automatically turn off the blue Suica reader when it detects a QR Code, but keeping the readers far apart is a good thing. We don’t want any MTA OMNY-like launch nonsense.

Looking Ahead
This is only a start. JR East has only announced the broad outlines of their paper to QR transition, the real transition will kickoff when other JR Group companies announce their plans which they have not done so far. One thing is for sure, the trusty old JRN built mag-strip paper ticketing system is finally getting a reboot for the cloud based mobile ticketing age.

Death Detergent

My partner used to get packages of vegetables from his mother’s vegetable patch in the summer, rice from the family rice fields (long since loaned out to other farmers) after harvest time in the fall. Up until his fisherman father died a few years back he used packages of dried fish too. Little by little the care packages have dwindled away except for one item that is growing: bottles of detergent.

The Buddhist funeral culture of Japan is a complex gnarly institution, an event timeline that traditionally runs 100 days from from death, wake, cremation, funeral, 35 day ceremony, and finally 100 days. Up until the 1970s it was common for Buddhist funerals to last 5 days outside of the cities. There is also the wider society net of give and take: Koden, the monetary offering to the bereaved family. Koden comes with a running scale, friends and neighbors offer less, relations and immediate in-laws offer more. Koden helps offset the cost of a Japanese Buddhist funeral which could be very expensive. To wit the grandfather’s funeral.

When the grandfather died, the family temple (Shingon) resident priest was unavailable because he was in jail. He had lost both parents at a young age and was indulged by the community and his older sister. With no sense of responsibility in life, and too much free time on his hands he took to drink and drank so heavily that he developed adult onset diabetes in college, along with a mahjong habit. When he got back to Sado and took up the temple duties he had more free time to drink and play mahjong. One early drunk morning, driving back to the temple, he hit and killed a pedestrian, and so went to jail. And because he was in jail, the other Shingon priests in Sado didn’t want anything to do with him, publicly that is, and refused to take over the funeral duties to tamp down any bad gossip.

So the family had no choice but to call Koyasan mother ship and have 2 high priests come to Sado. Instead of taking using the plane tickets that had been arranged they traveled first class train and ferry. The also brought 2 assistants to help change their robes…without telling the family. They also stayed at the most expensive hotel in Sado using hired taxis refusing the pre-arranged hotel and family transportation. All of this quickly added up to more than 2 million yen for three days of work. By the 2nd day they were too drunk to chant properly. The grandmother, not one to mince words, called them a disgrace and dismissed them, refusing to pay for the 3rd day, in front of all the very surprised guests.

Whoever said that Japanese can’t speak their mind is full of BS, or hasn’t been to Sado. So much for the high priests of Koyasan. This sense of ingrained passed down entitlement is why the Japanese Buddhist priesthood is not well liked in everyday Japanese society. Tolerated, but not well liked. After all, somebody has to take care of the family grave. As for the bereaved family, the Koden fortunately covered all the outrageous expenses.

The Koden crowd gets a generous meal, sushi, beer, sake, etc., and a gift to take home with them as a thank you for coming and paying respects…and helping with the costs. The gift is usually a package deal arranged by the funeral ceremony operator, ‘here is our catalog of funeral gift options, please choose one.’ Sometimes it is food or gift towels, in Sado these days the default gift is detergent because…well because it’s practical.

My partner’s mother is 84. Going to funerals of family relations, departed neighbors and friends of her generation is an increasingly common activity. She has way too much death detergent on her hands and sends it on to her son. Even so our collection of death detergent is not long for this world. The mother will pass on of course but so will the institution of the often, usually for the wrong reasons, maligned Funeral Buddhism.

The tragedy of ‘Funeral Buddhism’ isn’t that it’s a business network of priests, temples, funeral service companies, caterers, crematoriums and cemeteries that keep a lot of people employed and money flowing, I mean if somebody can make money off my dead body in return for a healthy local economy and a respectful sendoff, I say fine. No, the tragedy is that younger generations have inherited gutted social institutions that don’t help them make the best of things because priests and parents didn’t teach them the proper value of things. They were too busy making money.

My partner’s grandmother was the last generation who knew how, and more importantly why the social institutions worked the way they did and how to teach them. But even she saw the writing on the wall. “Life and culture isn’t about convenience, they’re a pain in ass but don’t bother mindlessly following them, keep only what’s important and has meaning to you.”

This was the generation of neighborhood grandmothers who would gather at every household for a funeral, to prepare, to cook, to clean, to help. No need for funeral parlors or banquet halls. But with smaller families and the decline of younger people staying in Sado that started big time with the 1973 oil shock, it became harder and harder to maintain and the neighborhood grandmother funeral brigade decided to disband in mid-1980s. At that point everybody started using funeral business companies that took care of everything from funeral hall to banquet hall for a higher price.

The funeral business is a cosy relationship between Buddhist temples and local funeral businesses. In Sado for example the local JA runs the funeral business side but the smarter temples rent out funeral/banquet halls that they own to JA…and get a bigger slice of the business. In Tokyo recently this cozy relationship had been upended when the Chinese financier who owns Laox Holdings, bought up 70% of the Tokyo area funeral/crematorium business, and promptly slapped on aggressive ‘fuel surcharges’ and such. Buddhist priests are paying close attention to these developments but the writing is on the wall.

Younger generations don’t have the connection to Buddhist temples their parents did because priests haven’t been doing their job. To them Buddhist funerals are just another gutted social institution, and an expensive one at that, but at least they’ll have bottles of death detergent to do the washing.

The curse of Japanese PostScript fonts will live on: outline your outlines

I have not used Adobe Illustrator much the past few years and certainly don’t use it enough to justify buying a Creative Suite subscription that only lasts 12 months. Recently a localization project came in where I needed to edit the original Illustrator file data text. The printer sent me their Illustrator print files and I blithely opened the file with a name that ended with ‘OL’.

As soon as I clicked the body text I realized what OL meant: outline. All the text in a 2 page document with lots of text had been converted to outlines via the Illustrator convert text to outline feature. I couldn’t edit anything. I contacted the printer and received a backup file with the text intact that had not been converted to outlines.

I reflected on this basic Japanese designer practice of converting all Illustrator file text to outlines before sending work files to the printer. It took me back to my days setting up some of the first Japanese PostScript DTP production lines for print companies in Shizuoka. Any printer or high end print service like Lithmatic (a great service company by the way) always requests designers to submit Illustrator work files with all the text data pre-converted to outlines. I hate doing this because it strips away all the font hinting. Font hinting is now only thought of as a screen display thing, but printer font hinting was necessary back in the days of 300~600 DPI PostScript laser printers.

Maybe printer font hinting is no longer necessary in this era of high resolution CTP (computer to plate) on-demand small print runs. Even so, to my eye, stripping out the font hinting reduces the Japanese typographic quality of smaller printed kanji text with their complex glyph strokes. Why is it necessary in this age of PDF workflows to even bother converting text to outline anymore?

It all goes back to the many original sins of the first Adobe Japanese PostScript fonts, the biggest sin being they could not be downloaded to the printer on a job basis…they had to reside on the printer. And they were not cheap: ¥300,000 a pop (back in 1990 when that kind of price was a lot heavier on the wallet) for a single unlimited resolution Japanese PostScript printer font. Not only that, early Japanese PostScript print drivers sucked. They were slow and print jobs would often trip up the RIP job with a memory error or something arcane. Like it or not, print job managers learned to read voodoo tea leave PostScrip error codes to decipher problems, fix the Illustrator file and run the job again. Late work nights were common for production staff.

Usually it was just easier to convert text to outlines which was the godsend feature that arrived with Illustrator v5 along with Japanese Adobe ATM. Instead of buying expensive printer fonts and dealing with incomprehensible PostScript output errors, it was easier (and cheaper) for print service bureaus to require all Illustrator file text data be converted to outlines. This was a time when Illustrator was the workhorse choice for DTP designers in Japan.

All of the PostScript problems were eventually fixed with OpenType fonts and PDF workflows, PostScript fonts themselves will officially die on January 2023. But the PostScript font damage done in Japan will never be fixed. There’s just too much legacy data out there, both in data files, and printer fonts still installed on high end output devices. And Morisawa will always provide legacy OCF fonts for their Passport customers that need them, no matter what Adobe says.

PostScript fonts may be going away, but the ghosts of PostScript fonts, the fine art of outlining Illustrator text data, will be haunting Japan for a very long time.

iPhone NFC misinformation alive and well on reddit

Once in a while I get a surge of traffic from reddit and like to see which post was linked and the attached discussion. This was very hard to do before reddit added comment searches and even so it takes a few days before a new entry shows up in search results. The latest one was about iPhone X and NFC.

Question: What’s the difference between X and XS ? Which is better ? My second question: Recently I bought an X Japanese Version. Is it different from regular X ??

Answer 1: X to XS is Just a small minor cpu upgrade and minor antenna fixes making the iPhone bottom speaker/microphone holes assymetrical, if you bought a X from Japan and are planning to use it for commuting using apple pay there, make sure to check the production date, pre2018 iPhone X has a suica gate problems that got fixed with the Rev B iPhone X. iPhone X suica problem

Answer 2: Also, all Japanese iPhones have a different NFC reader, so they won’t work with non Japanese tap and pay terminals and other NFC points, eg on public transit and similar

Yikes, all the good and bad of reddit in one post. The question is a good one but the good natured answers are equally helpful and utterly misleading.

Answer 1 is a little off in that bad iPhone X NFC was not a Suica problem, NFC was unreliable across the board regardless of type (A-B-F) or protocol (EMV, FeliCa, etc.), with iPhone X NFC crapping out completely later on (after AppleCare expired naturally). The Rev B thing was just my made up name for units manufactured after April 2018 with reliable NFC. And even though most people have moved on to newer iPhone models with much superior NFC performance, the big bad iPhone X NFC problem continues to haunt users. For me, with 3 replacements and a lot of headaches, iPhone X was the worst iPhone ever. iPhone X users deserved a NFC repair program but never got one because at the time Apple Pay Express Transit was only available in Japan. Apple at its Tim Cookian worst.

Answer 2 is completely wrong. The poster has no idea what they are talking about. All iPhone models have the same NFC hardware. It doesn’t matter what country the iPhone was purchased in, it all just works in every Apple Pay supported region for all NFC flavors. That’s the beauty of Apple’s global NFC hardware strategy that began with iPhone 8 along with NFC switching savvy Apple Pay Wallet that Android has yet to match…not even Google Pixel.