Road to Super Suica: 2 in 1 shared infrastructure and mobile transit card expansion update

The JR West Osaka Expo 2025 transit vision looks exactly like the Super Suica one

The October 21 announcement from JR East-Hachinohe City-Northern Iwate Transportation is the 3rd Super Suica local transit card and follows earlier Super Suica local transit card announcements for Utsunomiya Light Rail and Iwate Transit Co. Ltd. These fit neatly into the narrow definition of Super Suica as a local area ‘2 in 1’ transit card within the JR East region that hosts different transit company commute plans and reward points on a single card. New FeliCa chips announced in September have new features like ‘Extended Overlap Service’ to support the ‘2 in 1’ model.

The real test of Super Suica is the wider definition and how it plays with both private transit companies inside and outside of the JR East (JRE) region, JR Group companies and what infrastructure resources JRE is sharing to eliminate needless duplication and save costs for all players. In the COVID era of constrained public travel, reducing costs while maintaining good service is more important than ever.

On the mobile front I think we can safely say that Mobile PASMO is an unannounced joint effort between JR East and PASMO Association. Mobile PASMO service and software is Mobile Suica dressed up in PASMO colors, the penguin character swapped out for a robot. The JR West announcement of Mobile ICOCA one week after the Apple Pay PASMO launch is no coincidence. The Super Suica mobile template is in place and road tested, PASMO and ICOCOA are the first 2 customers.

Who’s next? Junya Suzuki pointed out that Suica and PASMO together account for 80% of Japanese transit card issue, ICOCA added in makes that 90%. The next largest market and logical choice is manaca, the Nagoya area equivalent of PASMO. Forget about the Kansai area PiTaPa, the credit card as transit card concept was a bust and will likely never go mobile unless it’s repositioned as just a credit card. JR Central’s TOICA has deep pockets, and it’s said that TOICA runs on Suica servers, but JR Central has a sibling rivalry thing with JRE that might get in the way.

I’m taking a wild guess but I think manaca will be the next mobile service announcement with the Kyushu area transit cards (SUGOCA and nimoca) following soon after. The next development to keep an eye on is the ‘2 in 1’ Super Suica local transit card model and if other major JR Group members offer a rebranded version of it in their respective transit regions.

From a western perspective people wonder ‘why not just have one national transit card and be done with all this nonsense’. A national transit card has been discussed by various Japanese governments from time to time, and gone nowhere. The shared infrastructure Super Suica model that aims to lift all boats certainly plays more to the traditional Japanese business mindset. In these challenging times that can be a good thing.

Apple Pay PASMO launch day behind the scenes

「モバイルPASMO」の実現までに13年もの歳月がかかった裏事情, CNET

The every reliable Junya Suzuki has posted exactly what I hoped he would: nitty gritty launch day event details. A quick rundown with commentary if you can’t read his original Japanese post.

Big Apple Presence
A large number of Apple Japan folks were on hand at the October 6 Apple Pay PASMO press event with media invited from America. Apple Pay VP Jennifer Bailey also checked in with a message via video link. Highly unusual given that a single person is what Apple usually fields for recent Suica announcements like the Apple Pay MIZUHO Suica. This is big in itself but it’s helpful to know some basic Transit IC card market share numbers. Suica and PASMO are #1 and #2, combined they represent 80% of all transit IC card issue. ICOCA is #3, manaca is #4.

The addition of Apple Pay PASMO is why Suzuki san now refers to Tokyo as a “キャッシュレス経済圏 “Cashless Economy Zone”. The Suica and PASMO zones blur and become one thing in a digital wallet. Mobile Suica membership passed 10 million users last month, total Suica issue (plastic and mobile) is about 85 million.

Out of the Suica issue numbers Suzuki san pulls an important growth figure: the 2020 Suica mobile to plastic ratio is 12%, at the 2016 Apple Pay Suica launch the ratio was 7%. That growth is the power of Apple Pay in action, and also Google Pay. The mobile growth curve will accelerate with the addition of Garmin Pay Suica and wena 3 Suica. That’s why Apple Pay PASMO is a big deal, not only for Tokyo, but for PASMO and Apple too. It is this shift that Suzuki san says finally drove PASMO to commit to delivering a mobile service after years of dithering.

But what about the other transit card economic zones and how will they be integrated into the mobile mix? For ICOCA the only question remaining is ‘when’ Mobile ICOCA arrives, ‘if’ is no longer an option. ICOCA is the Suica of the Kansai area, manaca is the Suica of Aichi. Osaka and Nagoya don’t want to be left behind the Tokyo cashless economy zone.

My own take outlined in Hello Apple Pay PASMO and Road to Super Suica is that PASMO is a dry run for other mobile cards. The template is ready to roll, right down to the recycled but sleeker modernized Suica App stuff in PASMO App.

The Apple Watch Transit Gate Wrist Twist

The new JREM gates introduce yet another Apple Watch Suica•PASMO wrist maneuver or contortion depending on which wrist.

Transit gate tappers are endlessly fascinating to watch: feather touchers, slappers, pocket fumblers, precision marchers, schlep slumpers. The daily routine is never routine.

Apple Watch transit-gating has a different set of challenges compared to plastic transit cards and smartphones, and a different set of circumstances: left wrist vs right wrist, transit gate reader position and NFC antenna read sensitivity with the much smaller Apple Watch NFC device.

There is also the crucial wrist twist. Apple recommends a quick wrist twist so Apple Watch faces down to the reader for better NFC reception, best shown in the Apple Pay Octopus Ride and Buy video:

Twitter user S posted a fascinating take on the subject. S wears his Apple Watch Suica on the right and keeps it facing up on the reader, not down. Apple Watch Journal has a great video showing this in action. The Apple Watch face up trick works on JR East gates but not so well on PASMO gates. Why? JR East gate readers are manufactured by JREM. PASMO gates are a mix of Omron, Toshiba and Nippon Signal.

I notice PASMO gate difference with Apple Watch Suica, some gates work great face up, others not. When you use the same stations everyday you develop a natural sense of the best gates. The differences are tiny but noticeable if you pay attention. Even so I am not a face up Apple Watch Suica user, I go sideways and it works everywhere.

HELLO Apple Pay PASMO

UPDATE: Apple Pay PASMO launched October 6, download PASMO App for extra features.

The cute pink PASMO robot joined the cute Suica penguin in Wallet today, October 6. It’s the end of a journey that started in October 2017 with registration of the Mobile PASMO name just one year after Apple Pay Suica stomped into the Japanese market like Godzilla, changing everything.

The Mobile PASMO for Android announcement in January was unexpected and caught many by surprise. The service launched in March 2020 and it was soon clear that Mobile PASMO was JR East Mobile Suica IT code dressed up in pink. Meanwhile Apple dropped hints that PASMO was on the way, Apple Pay PASMO was finally announced August 6th.

Apple Pay PASMO Express Transit and differences with Suica
Apple Pay PASMO is just like Suica with similar device profiles: iPhone 8 • Apple Watch Series 3 and later with iOS 14 • watchOS 7 or later. The advantages of Apple Pay Suica also apply to PASMO: Apple Pay credit/debit cards work for recharge, and thanks to global NFC any iPhone 8/Apple Watch 3 from anywhere can add PASMO. An English language PASMO page covers the basics for adding and using cards.

You can have both PASMO and Suica in Wallet but only one card can be set for Express Transit at a time though it is easy to change Express Transit cards. The PASMO App can be downloaded for additional features like commuter passes. You can also setup auto-charge if you have the right PASMO related credit card.

PASMO App

Suica and PASMO are the French vanilla and vanilla ice cream flavors of IC transit cards that do the same thing, does using Apple Pay PASMO have any advantage over Apple Pay Suica? It comes down to one thing: PASMO train commuter passes, and especially bus commuter passes which JR East or Suica App do not offer.

PASMO can be added and used in Wallet without PASMO App, but the app offers deeply useful commuter pass options if you download and register a Mobile PASMO account. Successful registration unlocks all menu options, basically it’s a slightly streamlined Suica App without the Green Seat and and EX Reserve options. The commuter pass purchase screen offers a huge variety of PASMO rail and bus line choices and your PASMO can hold a rail + bus combo commuter pass, a feature that Suica does not have.

Transit companies only cooperate for commuter passes that transverse both company rail networks. A Suica commuter pass has to have a JR East line, PASMO has to have a PASMO Rail or bus line. From a card architecture point Suica could do it all, but as FeliCa Dude points out, Mobile PASMO is the result of JR East and PASMO Association failing to cooperate and mutually host commuter passes.

Behind the scenes
What took PASMO so long to go mobile? Part of the delay was that many members of the PASMO association don’t have deep pockets and couldn’t agree to mutually fund Mobile PASMO infrastructure. According to IT journalist Junya Suzuki, one rich member took the initiative to fund the entire effort. The PASMO member who runs the mobile operation has not been publicly announced but evidence points to Odakyu.

Another part of the delay was JR East laying a mobile service foundation for the major Japanese IC transit cards in connection with next generation ‘Super’ Suica. JR East bought a piece of FeliCa Networks stock from NTT Docomo effectively changing it from a Sony + NTT Docomo company to a Sony (FeliCa) + NTT Docomo (Mobile FeliCa) + JR East (Suica/Mobile Suica) company. The result of this is the Mobile FeliCa Platform for supporting all kinds of Mobile FeliCa services worldwide. One fruit of this effort is Garmin Pay Suica, Apple Pay PASMO is another.

I suspect JR East Mobile Suica IT assets are part of the Mobile FeliCa Platform and one reason why so much Mobile Suica code was found in every corner of Mobile PASMO. When Super Suica arrives in early 2021, Mobile FeliCa Cloud is sure play a big role, both for Super Suica partners and for getting the remaining major Transit IC cards on mobile: ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, SUGOCA, Kitaca, Hayaken, nimoca.

Other tidbits

  • Apple Pay PASMO does not support iPhone 7 and Apple Watch 2 Japanese models which Suica does. This suggests only iPhone 8/Apple Watch 3 and later embedded secure element (eSE) devices can up upgraded to support multiple IC card configurations like PASMO/Suica/ICOCA etc.
  • To add a PASMO card in the Wallet app, you need to set up two-factor authentication for your Apple ID.
  • Apple Pay PASMO is a plus for China Union Pay card holders over Suica: PASMO can be recharged with Apple Pay in Wallet, a game changer for those card holders.
  • Apple Pay Wallet has a ‘experiencing heavy load please try later’ notification setting that alerts the user, via banner and email, when the card can be added. This ‘virtual queuing’ helped avoid a repeat of the Apple Pay Suica launch meltdown situation for the PASMO launch
  • Apple Pay PASMO cards can be created in PASMO App without a balance or using a credit card. Handy for inbound visitors from countries without Apple Pay support who want to use PASMO.