Real world Eki-Net impressions

I finally had the chance to use Eki-Net app, aka Eki-Net 2, eTickets (JR East Shinkansen) and Ticketless (JR East Express Trains) reservations on several trips recently, a real world workout. After a shaky launch in March 2020, followed by a major system upgrade in June of this year, the foundation is in place and JR East is going all out to promote Eki-Net for the year-end travel season that will see a considerable uptick compared to last year’s ‘stay home’ and stew regimen. I posted an Eki-Net 2 overview in June that covers the basics, this post is a short followup of impressions.

Using Eki-Net eTickets at the transit gate is clean and easy as the JR East promo videos. The messy part is creating an Eki-Net Japanese online account that is completely separate from your Mobile Suica account and your JRE POINT account. They all link together but are all separate with separate login names and passwords. This is the weak point of using JR East online services, there is no single master login system ID service like Apple ID or Google Account.

Once the Eki-Net online account is setup, with a VIEW credit card duly registered for maximum JRE POINT, using the bare-bone iOS Eki-Net app is a snap. Japanese user reviews of the Eki-Net app are overwhelming negative, but I found the app covers the basics well enough for what it is designed for: finding a discount reservation for your travel date, choosing a seat, purchasing the eTicket and assigning it to a designated Apple Pay Suica (or PASMO) card, or cards if your are purchasing for more than one. Group eTicket purchase and Transit IC card assignment are very convenient features.

My only real quibbles of using Eki-Net boil down to two feature requests.

  • Apple Pay Support: back in the Suica App Shinkansen eTicket days, you could purchase tickets using Apple Pay or the Suica App registered credit card. Both were convenient. Eki-Net does not support in-app Apple Pay. You make purchases with the app and have to confirm the purchase with the registered card CVV number for security purposes…a pain in the butt, pull out the physical card every time because I never can remember the code. Apple Pay in-app purchase would be great to have and it should be easy enough to arrange the backend so that Apple Pay VIEW purchases earn JRE POINT automatically.
  • Notifications: in the current version of Eki-Net (v2.1.5) train time notifications are basically email only, once when you make the reservation, another email before train departure and a final email notification when the assigned Apple Pay Suica card or equivilant goes through the Shinkansen gate. There is a link to add the ticket train boarding day/time as a calendar event that does in a pinch, but I would also like to have regular and robust native iOS notification support. For me there is nothing so handy as Apple Watch haptic notifications.

Eki-Net works well enough as is, but having Apple Pay in-app support and iOS notifications would significantly improve the app experience. There is a lot of room for other improvements: it would be great to have smooth integration with other eTicketing services for private rail and other JR Group companies (EX, etc.). Suica is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year, Eki-Net is at anniversary #21. The current state of Eki-Net App and eTicketing makes it clear the mobile ticketing journey is just beginning.

Apple Pay Japan 5 Year Mark: All of This and Nothing

Suica was the centerpiece of the Apple Pay launch in Japan October 25, 2016

October is Apple Pay month in Japan. Today, October 21, we have the Apple Pay WAON and nanaco launch. October 2020 saw the Apple Pay PASMO launch ceremony attended by Apple VIPS. October 2016 was the biggest launch of all. This month marks the 5th anniversary of Apple Pay in Japan that launched with the FeliCa enabled iPhone 7 and the iOS 10.1 update. The initial rush to add Suica to Wallet was so great that it brought down both Apple Pay and Mobile Suica servers for several hours. Junya Suzuki, the best journalist in Japan covering digital wallet payments and technology, predicted that Apple Pay would be the ‘Black Ships‘ inflection point catalyst in Japan that would change everything. He was right. Everything has changed.

I tried to think of something smart and elegant or throw together some market data numbers that explain the transformation Apple Pay facilitated in Japan, but it comes down to this picture, a crazy kaleidoscope of contactless payment choices at the local post office. That’s as mainstream as one can get.

Payment options at the Japanese post office

The post office payments menu doesn’t have an Apple Pay logo but EMV brand cards at the top are Apple Pay, FeliCa cards in the middle are Apple Pay, shitty pain-in-the-neck-launch-an-app code payments at the bottom are not Apple Pay…and yes, you can still pay with cash if you need to. This crazy variety, by western standards, is the reason why Japanese Wallet users are excited about the new 16 card iOS 15 Wallet limit, they want to add more cards and 12 was not nearly enough. We have Apple Pay to thank for this overflow of payment options. Even though Apple Pay logo isn’t anywhere to be seen, Apple Pay is reason why so many contactless payment choices exist and why they are mainstream. This is the Apple Pay Japan transformation.


A timeline of changes and challenges

  • October 2016: Apple Pay launches in Japan with support for Suica (compatible with the Transit IC transit and payment network), iD and QUICPay payment networks (American Express, JCB, Mastercard, VISA).
  • September 2017: Global NFC on iPhone 8, iPhone X, Apple Watch 3 supports dual mode cards and seamless EMV and FeliCa NFC switching. Japanese users can make payments internationally with their Japanese issue cards on EMV payment terminals, and FeliCa payment terminals at home. Mobile PASMO trademark registered.
  • 2018: Carrier code payments services launch as cashless momentum grows, iOS 12 Wallet adds MIFARE support for Student ID, May: NTT docomo dBarai, October: SoftBank PayPay.
  • 2019: Japanese Government Cashless Consumption Tax Rebate Program
  • October 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020. The aim of the program is to encourage cashless purchases and increase cashless use up to 25% of all purchases by 2025. To do this the program offers up to 5% tax rebates for cashless purchases made at middle~small businesses and also offers merchant subsidies for installing cashless checkout systems. This is a prescient inflection point as COVID proves to be huge catalyst for going cashless, far more than a normal Tokyo Olympics would even have been.
  • 2021: Apple Pay WAON and Apple Pay nanaco eMoney cards launch, VISA Japan adds Apple Pay in-app purchase support and NFC dual mode switching. This completes the Apple Pay lineup. The Tokyo Olympics didn’t turn out to the big crowd contactless driver the industry expected. Nevertheless market surveys indicate that cashless payment use in Japan has already passed the 25% target.

Japan was a very unique case, the most unique but don’t make the mistake of dismissing it as an outliner. It was way ahead of the curve with important lessons beyond the tired old meaningless FeliCa vs EMV winner-loser debate. Japan already had the extensive and mature Osaifu Keitai mobile wallet platform that launched in 2004, built on the Sony and NTT docomo created Mobile FeliCa standard, long before EMV grafted NFC on their chip and issued contactless credit cards.

The Apple Pay that launched in 2014 was exclusively EMV as credit cards were the best start point, but Apple was already hard at work adding FeliCa, MIFARE and other NFC based transaction protocols as standard in the secure element hosted on Apple Silicon. The result was first seen in 2016 iPhone 7 and Apple Watch 2 in Japan, with Apple Pay Suica, Express Transit and direct Wallet transit card adding as the centerpiece launch strategy, all firsts.

This was an extremely shrewd move. The Japanese public was well versed using Suica for transit and quick purchases. The impact of choosing the Tokyo area based Suica as the start point, coupled with the convenience of anywhere, anytime Apple Pay recharge, supercharged Suica and Apple Pay. They both grew quickly.

JR East factsheet: Apple Pay supercharged Suica growth

The full Apple Pay vision came into focus with the 2017 release of iPhone 8, iPhone X and Apple Watch 3, these were the first global NFC devices that worked everywhere. This was a complete break with the Android model of only selling FeliCa capable devices in Japan or Hong Kong. This is why any iPhone from anywhere can add and use a Suica transit card and Android devices cannot.

The most useful marketing survey covering Apple Pay use in Japan was a November 2018 survey and article from Japanese IT journalist Sachiko Watatani. At the time she found the following:

  • Only 27% of iPhone users who can use Apple Pay use it
  • 50% don’t use Apple Pay but are interested in using it
  • 22% don’t use Apple Pay and don’t care about using it

The middle 50 is the most interesting aspect, there has certainly been migration to the Apple Pay use bracket since COVID hit. Other interesting data points: 34.4% use Apple Pay daily, 24.9% use Apple Pay every 2~3 days, 37% use it for public transportation, 69% use it for convenience store purchases. This last one is the classic Apple Pay Suica (and now also PASMO) sweet spot: quick small on the go purchases without Face • Touch ID, courtesy of Express Mode. With COVID and Face ID with face masks, that sweet spot is sweeter than ever.

The secret of success and important lesson
That is all well and good, but how did Apple Pay spearhead this market change? Apple Pay proved to be a great neutral platform for payment players to both play on and play off from. But that’s not all, there is a vital point that most people miss. The secret of Apple Pay Japan’s success was that it shifted the user focus and experience away from the Osaifu Keitai app model where different NFC services are scattered across many different apps, to a simple ‘just add the card’ in Wallet where everything ‘just works’ without apps. Complexity vs simplicity; it was this simplicity that ultimately won out because most users don’t want to deal with setting different services in a bunch of apps. It was this simplicity of the Apple Pay user experience, combined with Global NFC Apple Pay as standard across the board on all devices and price points, that drove the Japanese payments transformation that Osaifu Keitai could not with its complexity and exclusivity that pigeonholed it as a high end option instead of a standard feature.

This is the lesson of Apple Pay in Japan that other markets would do well to study. Lots of different apps offering NFC services doesn’t drive user uptake, centralized simplicity with an easy to use UI drives user interest and use, ‘it just works’ standardization. It is this centralized simplicity that is driving user interest in iOS 15.1 Vaccination Certificate Wallet support and driver’s license ID. The EU and Australia are determined to force Apple to make iPhone NFC ‘open‘ and move everything to the app centric model. If their intention is to drive user uptake, the Japanese market experience proves otherwise. Good luck with that. To most westerners the value of the Japanese mobile payments experience will remain utterly lost, like that old Psychedelic Furs song whine line, “You didn’t leave me anything that I could understand.”

The Crowd Cast cashless map illustrates the rich variety of Japanese payment platforms, some code payments players like ORIGAMI no longer exist

Looking ahead
Where does Apple Pay Japan go from here? Rakuten Edy, the very last holdout, will certainly join the lineup soon enough. iOS 15 Wallet has shifted the focus from payments to keys and ID. Expect to see to some digital key action later this year. On the ID side the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) has said they are in discussions with Apple to bring the digital My Number (Japanese Individual Number) Card to Wallet, hopefully soon after it launches on Osaifu Keitai in March~April 2022.

The value of having a digital My Number ID in Wallet is that regions want to promote special services and discounts tied to a resident address. That way local governments can promote differently tailored discounts and campaigns for locals and visitors. JR East for example, is planning to use My Number Card for MaaS transit discounts that promote regional economies. When a payment is made with Suica, the appropriate discount kicks in with the My Number Card verification. The My Number Card + digital payments concept is similar to the 2019~2020 Japanese Government Cashless Consumption Tax Rebate Program. The promise of getting local area based discounts for using transit or buying stuff with Apple Pay is one of the most practical use case scenarios for digital My Number Card that I can think of.

Farther out we might see development of ‘Touchless’ transit gates that incorporate Ultra Wideband technology which is already being used in iOS 15 Wallet for Touchless car keys. It would be cool to simply walk through the gate iPhone in pocket, with Suica taking care of business. I was recently reminded that UWB enhanced gates would greatly benefit those with disabilities. I saw young man in an electric wheelchair going through a JR East station manned gate, the station attendant was holding the reader out for him to tap but his movement was limited. It was difficult for him to hold his iPhone to the Suica reader. A UWB gate would let him zip through unattended at any touchless gate, that’s what barrier free should be about. When you think about it, QR Code apps for transit are just cruel for handicapped users.

Next generation JR East transit gates are wheelchair friendly but UWB touchless gates are the best ‘barrier free’ solution for users with limited mobility.

On that note…despite all the hand wringing over the rise of code payment apps, even as Apple is flirting about adding code payments to Apple Pay, Japan will continue to be a fascinating place to observe contactless payment trends before they appear in other markets. And even though Apple Pay Japan has lost the cool factor that peaked in 2018 and become mundane, that’s okay. Apple Pay in Japan will continue to be the payment service where you can do things that you cannot do with Apple Pay in any other market. That sounds like fun to me and I look forward to the next 5 years of Apple Pay Japan and hope to write about digital wallet developments…occasionally. Since COVID hit blog traffic has collapsed to the point where I think it might be time to change gears. We shall see.

Until next time stay safe and have a good cashless…er you know what I mean.


Apple Pay Japan Comments
Some reader and net comments about using Apple Pay Japan through the years. Tweet or email if you have any experiences you’d like to share and I’ll add them here.

Apple Pay Suica is so convenient it made me wear my watch on my right wrist

The last 2 times I was in Japan, I used Apple Pay with Suica. It is miles ahead of what we have in Singapore, in terms of speed, feel, and experience. And best of all, no app download required!

I changed from Android back to iOS in 2017 mostly due to being able to use Mobile Suica…And this is the real reason I still have to educate people coming to Japan about mobile Suica and putting a debit card into ApplePay and never need an ATM for most things here…Also stop with “Japan is a cash driven society” tropes. I go for weeks not using bills and coins here.

Comment regarding code payment apps vs NFC: Imo Apple and Google Pay are all a payment system needs: it’s quick, easy, and doesn’t require looking like a clown trying to scan a code…Imagine having to scan a code to pay for Suica, it would be a nightmare.

I have no idea why Apple Pay isn’t more widely supported over here. I usually just try and use Suica on my Apple Watch for most things.

The true value (of Apple Watch) is in Apple Pay and Express Transit card. If your city support it especially the latter, it’s a tremendous value.

Truth to be told, I’ve been a user of Japan’s Apple Pay almost since it came out, even thought I don’t live there haha. As a Software Engineer I always was amazed how Japan had a contactless system that you can use seamlessly on transport or store purchases.

It might sound trite, but I am still happy and amazed every time I use Suica on my iPhone. It has been a long road from Edy and Mobile Suica to this point. The next thing for me would be export of my spending for tracking. Not through Suica, but from iOS. And I really wish more Japanese businesses used the Apple Wallet for (reward) cards. When it first debuted I imagined finally getting rid of all my store cards, but it never happened.

When I was in Japan in November, when I looked up my destination via Apple Maps, I got seamless linked to buy a SUICA for my Apple Wallet direct from my credit card. It was pretty slick – 10 second transaction and I had a SUICA in my Apple Wallet.

The best way to use Suica Card on Android devices is to simply buy a new iPhone…

Suica on Watch is just superb. Even better when worn on right hand.

Two great things about my iPhone XS when traveling in #japan: first, SUICA public transport card in Apple wallet and you are able to charge them via Apple Pay wherever you are and second the dual SIM feature to get a traveller SIM like #Ubigi into your phone easily.

Twitter question: Japan peeps, what are your fave “cashless” payment apps? What do you consider the most convenient/useful?

Twitter answer: Suica wallet. Everything else is fucking shit

I want more reward point card support in Wallet that’s easier to use than it is now and supports movie tickets too.

One more for the road: Ken Bolido’s wonderfully informative Apple Pay Japan intro video from 2019

October 23~24 Yamanote Line Inner Circle service suspension detour transfer guidance

Apple Pay Suica or PASMO commuter pass users who need to detour during October 23~24 must not use automatic gates, use the station agent window reader instead

Note: this post is marked archived as construction was completed.


The JR Shibuya station platform and track realignment of the Yamanote Inner Circle line takes place October 23~24 (unless bad weather postpones it to November 20~21). All Yamanote Inner Circle train service between Ikebukuro and Osaki stations is suspended all day, both days.

JR East posted multilingual information in English, Chinese, Korean (deleted after the construction was finished) that includes detour transfer guidance to non-JR lines during the line closure. The English wording is fuzzy because the exact distinctions between mag-strip commuter passes, Suica commuter passes and Suica IC transit fare are not always clear to the reader. It’s also important to understand detour transfer rules.

Detour Transfers
Tokyo area transit operators have special detour transfer rules to deal with transit situations when there is an unexpected stoppage and in-transit users suddenly need to use a different transit route from the normal one to reach their destination. Detour transfers have one rule for Suica or PASMO commuter passes, both mobile and plastic: do not use automatic transit gates during the detour portion of the route, go to a station agent window gate instead and use the reader. The station agent checks the validity of the commuter pass and waves you through, the NFC equivalent of visually inspecting printed tickets and passes. Regular non-commuter pass Suica, PASMO and other transit cards are outside of detour transfer rules and are charged normal IC transit fare.

For example, my normal commute route from JR Asagaya to Tokyu Ikegami has a line transfer point at Gotanda. A Gotanda transfer isn’t possible during the service suspension. Instead I plan to transfer at Shibuya to the Tokyu Toyoko line, ride to Jiyugaoka > transfer to Tokyu Ooimachi line > transfer at Hatanodai to Tokyu Ikegami line > exit at Ikegami.

In this case I make 2 automatic gate reads and 2 station agent window reads with my Apple Watch Suica commute pass: the JR Asagaya start point (automatic gate as always), leaving JR Shibuya (JR station agent window reader) transfer to Tokyu Toyoko line (Tokyu station agent window reader), Tokyu Ikegami (automatic gate as always).

This poster at the Tokyu Ikegami station clearly shows the ‘do not use automatic gates during detour rule,’ and which kinds of tickets can be used for detour transfers: Suica and PASMO commuter passes and all mag strip passes and tickets. For Apple Pay Suica and PASMO commuter passes, always use the station agent window reader on the detour portion and you’ll reach your final destination even with a long detour.

A very strange Apple Pay Suica outage

The October 5 Apple Pay & Wallet outage that went completely unnoticed outside of Japan and Hong Kong was a very strange one. That’s because it was a very specific outage: ‘truth on the card’ transit cards with a stored value balance. But not all transit cards, only Suica, PASMO and Octopus. Similar transit cards such as Clipper, SmarTrip and TAP were unaffected. The former are FeliCa cards, the latter are MIFARE cards.

Let’s translate the Apple speak from the iCloud System Status page. Some users = FeliCa stored value card users, specifically: Suica, PASMO and Octopus. In addition to the not being able to add, suspend or remove existing cards, users could not recharge them (reload, top up, add money, etc.) but this issue was not listed. The add, suspend or remove existing card label gives us a big clue.

It soon became clear from the cacophony of Japanese tweet complaints that FeliCa credit/debit cards on the iD and QUICPay side were not a problem, only the stored value (SV) recharge, and practically unnoticed, Toyota Wallet iD prepaid card recharge. Meanwhile, Android Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO users didn’t have any problems at all, everything worked fine. Bingo, the outage was an Apple Pay server problem, not caused by Mobile Suica or Mobile PASMO which was mistakenly reported by the Japanese media.

From the get-go Mobile Suica and PASMO support said it only an Apple Pay problem. Octopus Cards Limited, confoundedly coy as usual, didn’t say which ‘top up’ service wasn’t working but we damn well know it was Apple Pay. Overworked Suica, PASMO and Octopus support folk were left to clean up a recharge mess because the Apple Pay outage hit exactly at peak Tokyo morning commute time in the first real commuting week since the State of Emergency was lifted.

There was also another fascinating issue going on that most people didn’t pick up on. Suica and PASMO Apps offer 2 kinds of recharge: Apple Pay and their own direct credit card recharge system. Because Suica App recharge is independent of Apple Pay and deals directly with the Suica SV on the device, similar to adding cash at a station kiosk, it should have worked during the Apple Pay outage…but it did not. Why?

The FeliCa on Apple Pay story is a deep one. To date Apple Pay is the only digital wallet platform that offers all flavors of NFC (A-B-F) with the major transaction protocols that go with them, (EMV, FeliCa and MIFARE) as standard on all Apple NFC (and now also NFC + UWB) devices. The industry scuttlebutt in Japan is that to make this happen, Apple licensed a Mobile FeliCa key server from FeliCa Networks to manage their own Apple Pay devices. This indicates Apple’s commitment but I also believe was setup this way so that Apple Pay can safely backup the FeliCa card SV balance in Wallet if something goes wrong with the device or if some glitch happens during the recharge process from a credit/debit card, either Apple Pay (Wallet) or independent app (Suica, PASMO, Toyota Wallet).

Here is my take of what happened. Apple is preparing to launch 2 new FeliCa SV eMoney cards on Apple Pay very soon, WAON and nanaco. That means they need to reconfigure their FeliCa key server and Apple Pay server so that WAON and nanaco SV card balances are well protected because WAON and nanaco card balances are much bigger than Suica or PASMO, up to ¥40,000. If anything happens to the device, WAON and nanaco must always appear in the iOS 15 Wallet Previous Cards screen, otherwise users will freakout and won’t touch Apple Pay again. Hence the add, suspend, remove Apple Pay FeliCa SV card outage. It was a server configuration mistake on the Apple Pay side related to WAON and nanaco preparations to make sure those bigger card balances are ironclad protected.

In other words, WAON and nanaco are coming with iOS 15.1.

Apple Pay Suica • PASMO • Octopus service outages follow the Facebook one

16:00~18:00 October 5, 2021 JST
Apple Pay / iCloud system status updated to ‘outage resolved’ at 16:00 JST. Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO Apple Pay services were also listed as ‘restored’ at 16:00 JST. As Apple Pay Suica and PASMO recharge started working again at 14:00 JST, the service outage was 8 hours total.

15:00 October 5, 2021 JST
Apple Pay Octopus recharge is also not working, this means the problem is an Apple Pay system issue, not caused by Mobile Suica, Mobile PASMO or Mobile Octopus systems. No signs yet if Apple Pay recharge for Clipper, SmarTrip and TAP transit cards is affected as well.

14:15 October 5, 2021 JST
Apple Pay Suica and PASMO recharge are working again for me on iPhone and Apple Watch. No official status updates yet from Mobile Suica, Mobile PASMO and iCloud.

8:00 October 5, 2021 JST
Apple Pay Suica and PASMO services are currently not working for Apple Pay recharge, commuter pass renewal, transfer to other devices, new card issue, and Green Seat upgrades (Suica only). The Apple iCloud system status page shows an Apple Pay outage for adding and removing cards but does not mention Suica or PASMO. Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO recharge on Android Osaifu Keitai and Google Pay Suica are not affected though some Android users report problems with some Mobile Suica services such as Green Seat purchases.

The first report of trouble was 6:00 AM JST, but Apple Pay Suica auto-charge worked normally for me passing through the station gate at 7 AM. If you attempt a Suica or PASMO app recharge you get network connection errors no matter how good your device connection is.

Apple Pay Suica and PASMO recharge is limited to cash recharge at station kiosks and convenience store ATM machines. A major outage took out Facebook services earlier today, Japanese twitter users also report Outlook is not working. Suica and PASMO card use for transit and purchases is not affected.

This post will be updated as service status changes.

Links
Mobile Suica system status
Mobile PASMO system status
iCloud system status