Recharge your recharge, the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean jack in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market

I love articles like this one. It’s fun examining how the writer, freelancer Meiko Homma, takes old news bits, worn-out arguments and weaves them into a ‘new’ narrative with a titillatingly hot title: “QR Code payments won the cashless race, Suica utterly defeated.”

Her article trots out some QR Code payment usage data from somewhere, the PASPY transit card death saga that illustrates the increasingly difficult challenge of keeping region limited transit IC cards going, the fact that Suica only covers 840 stations out of a total of 1630, all while conveniently ignoring recent important developments like the Suica 2 in 1 Regional Affiliate program, and big updates coming in early 2023: Cloud Suica extensions and the Mobile ICOCA launch.

It has the classic feel of ‘here’s a headline, now write the article’ hack piece passing as industry analysis we have too much of these days. The Yahoo Japan portal site picked it up and the comments section was soon full of wicked fun posts picking apart the weak arguments.

I’ve said it before and say it again: the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market. PayPay for example, started out as a code payment app but has added FeliCA QUICPay and EMV contactless support along with their PayPay card offering. Just like I predicted, these companies don’t care about payment technology, they just want people to use their services. My partner and I actually see less PayPay use at checkout these days and more Mobile Suica. Why?

The great thing about prepaid eMoney ‘truth in the card’ Suica, PASMO, WAON, Edy, nanaco, is they are like micro bank accounts coupled with the backend recharge flexibility of mobile wallets (Apple Pay, Google Pay, Suica App, etc.). PayPay, au Pay, Line Pay and similar Toyota Wallet knock-off payment apps with Apple Pay Wallet cards, are deployed as mobile recharge conduits that smart users leverage to put money into different eMoney micro bank accounts and get the points or instant cashback rebates they want to get at any given campaign moment. This is where the action is.

And so we have recharge acrobats like Twitter user #1: step 1 recharge PayPay account from Seven Bank account, step 2 move recharge amount from PayPay Money to PayPay Bank, step 3 move recharge from PayPay Bank to Line Pay, in Wallet app recharge Suica with Line Pay card. Or like recharge acrobat Twitter user #2: Sony Bank Wallet to Kyash to Toyota Wallet to Suica.

Phew…none of this involves transfer fees so it’s up to user creativity to come up with the recharge scenario that works best for them. Does it count as PayPay use or Line Pay use or Mobile Suica use? Does it matter?

It’s not about winners or losers, it’s about moving money around. Mobile Suica is extremely useful because of it’s recharge backend flexibility, thanks to Apple Pay and Google Pay (which does not support PASMO yet). This is the case for US citizens working in Japan who get a great return of their Suica or PASMO recharge right now using US issue credit cards because of the exchange rate. This is something visitors to Hong Kong cannot do with Apple Pay Octopus as the OCL recharge backend is far more restrictive than JR East. The biggest gripe users have with Suica is ¥20,000 balance limit.

In the weeks to come we’ll be sure to see hand wringing articles debating the future of Suica, open-loop, etc.,etc., because let’s face it, IT media journalists need something to write about in these challenging times where everything has to be sold as winner/loser, black/white, 0 or 10, and nothing in-between, to get any traction at all. As for me, I think it’s far more interesting, and real, to observe how users are using all these nifty mobile payment tools.

UPDATE 2022-07-04: Thoughts on the KDDI network outage
That was fast. No sooner had the “QR Codes won the mobile payments race” article appeared when major Japanese carrier KDDI experienced a nationwide mobile network meltdown on July 2 JST, lasted a full day with a very slow, still in progress, recovery affecting more than 40 million customers. Suddenly social media channels were full of people complaining that QR Code payments didn’t work, assuming that Mobile Suica and other NFC mobile payments stopped too. Which was not the case though a few fake posts claimed, or just ‘assumed’ people were stranded inside stations. Fortunately there were numerous online articles setting the record straight.

It’s a lesson that people soon forget in our attention span challenged social media era. We saw plenty of QR Code payment downsides in the 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi earthquake that knocked out power and mobile service across Hokkaido. At the time some fake Chinese social media posts claimed AliPay and WeChat pay ‘still worked’ in Hokkaido at the time, of course they did not.

Mobile payment disruptions happen with every natural disaster and war. Good and safe practices don’t come easy when smartphone apps lure us down the easy path without spelling out the risks. It’s a lesson we have to learn again and again, that while network dependent code payment apps have some benefits, they also have limits and security risks. One size does not fit all, NFC and code payments each have their place and role to play in the expanding mobile payments universe. The key is understanding their strengths and weaknesses.

Bad Suica App reviews, real or urban legend?

Suica App user reviews are relentlessly bad, rip after rip of ‘this software sucks’. Never a good thing to say. Here’s the thing however, when you dig into the reviews most of them have little to do Suica App. It’s also really weird that many reviewers/users seem to think they need Suica App for using Suica at the transit gate. They don’t.

Why are people even using Suica App anyway? You don’t need it to add Suica to iPhone, you don’t need it to recharge Suica. All these things can be done in Wallet app. And now that people are working remotely, there is much less demand for purchasing commuter passes, the biggest reason for using Suica App in the first place. But there is one good reason for using Suica App: setting up Auto-Charge. Set that and you’ll never have to use Suica App.

There’s an important difference to know about Auto-Charge vs. regular recharge in Suica app and Wallet app: auto-charge is locally processed via the transit gate Suica NFC reader. It’s instantaneous and doesn’t care about your iPhone network connection.

Wallet and Suica app recharge are processed via the iPhone (or Apple Watch) network connection. Apple Pay talks with iCloud and Mobile Suica, the transaction is processed online and relayed back to Apple Pay, the recharge amount is added to Suica card. Many network hoops.

There is a message the Mobile Suica twitter account puts out regularly: make sure your smartphone has a robust network connection and don’t use free WiFi when recharging Suica or using Suica App. A bad WiFi connection fools Suica App users into thinking their iPhone is connected to the internet when it is not. This is a particular problem with carrier Wi-Fi SIM auto-connect that bypasses a solid 4G/5G connection and automatically connects to an extremely unstable or overloaded carrier WiFi instead. WiFi on trains and in stations is never reliable and should be turned off when using recharging Suica in Wallet or using Suica App.

Which brings us to an interesting Suica App user review titled “It’s a real urban legend” which explains all the crap talk about Mobile Suica boils down to people trying to recharge at rush hour in transit gate areas with a crapped out carrier or free WiFi connection…the perfect Suica App killer situation. The reviewer recommends “recharge in a calm place at calm time,” to which I heartily agree. Or better yet, ditch network recharge altogether and use Suica NFC Auto-Charge. It will never fail you.

Deliciously timely iOS 15.4 Wallet and Mobile Suica day pass support

Mobile Suica day pass support starts March 12

JR East announced 2 new features for Mobile Suica yesterday: day passes and student commuter pass online purchase and renewal support. Day passes are already available for plastic Suica, Mobile Suica support starts March 12. The 4 passes are: Nobiri Holiday, Tokyo Ward Pass, Tokyo Free Pass, Yokohama-Minatomirai Free Pass.

These Mobile Suica passes will not be available at the local station ticket window, they are purchased in a new version of Suica App due by the service launch date. Only regular Mobile Suica or Mobile Suica with expired commute plan can be used for day passes, Mobile Suica with valid a commuter plan attached cannot be used. JR East is promoting the passes offering bonus JRE POINT when purchased in Suica App with a VIEW credit card.

New Wallet app strings in iOS 15.4 developer beta found by Steve Moser

The very next day after the JR East announcement Apple released the first developer iOS 15.4 beta with many new features including Wallet app strings related to transit card commute plans and stored value, such as “Save money with time based or unlimited ride plans.”

The delicious timing is not coincidence: Apple Pay Suica will certainly put these new iOS 15.4 Wallet strings to good use when the new day passes launch. Wallet app currently indicates when a Suica card is a regular type or has a commute plan attached. The addition of Suica day passes require some sort of new Wallet UI indicator.

One interesting aspect of the Mobile Suica commuter pass limitation: the current card architecture only has one area for attachted commute plans, if there is a valid commute plan it must be removed before a day pass can be added. This storage limitation is addressed by Suica 2 in 1 which holds up to 2 different commute plans but even here there is the problem of conflicting commute plan + day pass plan that exist for the same transit region on the same card. There is no way for the transit gate to determine which one to use for fare calculation: commute plan or day pass. Hence the ‘no commute plan’ rule.

Mobile Suica student commuter passes (university or vocational schools) have been around for some time, but purchase and renewal required a trip to the local JR East ticket office to confirm the school issue student ID. From February 13 students purchase and renew Mobile Suica student commute plans in a new version of Suica App after pre-registration and uploading a picture of the student ID for verification via the Mobile Suica member site (that got a desperately needed refresh). Still somewhat of a pain but much better than before.

Imagine how easy it would be if a digital student ID card loaded in Wallet could be used for secure digital confirmation instead of uploading a picture and mailing a paper copy. In time digital ID will hopefully deliver this kind of time saving convenience.

JR East eliminating 70% of ticket offices by 2025 in ticketless push

In the run-up to the June 27 Eki-Net reboot next month JR East released a nice looking PR release with the first 2 pages promoting a ticketless future. On page 3 they dropped a bomb: JR EAST will eliminate ‘up to’ 70% of their ticket offices by 2025, just 140 stations or so on the entire JR East rail network will have the honor of having a ticket office manned by real people:

JR East has been planning this for years and report that in 2019 only 30% of JR East ticketing was purchased at a JR East Ticket Window (Midori-guchi). In 2020 that number declined to 20%. Could it be people were so tired of waiting in long slow ticket office lines they bought tickets elsewhere? Let’s be real though, the COVID pandemic has hit transit so hard all expenses that can be cut will be cut. You will going ticketless whether you like it or not.

So yes, we have Mobile Suica and Eki-Net Ticketless for regular express trains, Touch and Go Shinkansen, Mobile Suica and Shinkansen eTickets. By 2025 I suspect QR tickets will have replaced mag strip tickets. The Cloud Suica system coming in 2023 is said to power QR ticketing as well. All is good, I guess. Except for when you need help at the transit gate for some weird ticket problem, a smartphone that died before you got to the last station because you were too wrapped up playing games on it. What do you do? Press a button for an online station agent:

JR East says real station agents will be available to offer real assistance for disabled customers and such. We shall see. If JRE wants people to use Suica as much as possible they need to get Suica disability discount fares in order and working on mobile. Right now they are only working in the 2 in 1 totra Suica region. They need to work everywhere.

The Super Suica Reference

The new features that make up 2 in 1 Suica are called many things. JR East calls it ‘Next Generation Suica’ and ‘2 in 1 Region Affiliate Card’. Yanik Mangan came up with a great ‘All-in-one Suica’ moniker in his limitless possibilities podcast. I call it, and will continue to call it, Super Suica because I see wider Suica platform initiatives built off the new FeliCa OS features used for 2 in 1 • next generation Suica. It’s a looser, fuzzier platform evolution definition compared to Yanik’s tighter all-in-one card solution focused one.

That doesn’t mean that Super Suica or all-in-one Suica will ever happen they way we envision it, but at least we have some convenient handles to discuss and categorize ongoing developments until something official comes along.

This is a list of announcements, launches and posts related to Super Suica as a platform with links to JR Group PR releases, color classifications as follows:

🟩= Suica cards • Suica region extensions
🟧= Mobile FeliCa, Mobile Suica + derivations (Mobile PASMO, Mobile ICOCA)
🟥= FeliCa Standard SD2• New FeliCa OS
🟦= Cloud Suica (transit fare) • JESCA-Cloud (e-Money payments)
🟪= ID-PORT Services

DateCategory • AnnouncementLaunched
September 2018🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 • FeliCa Standard SD22021
June 2019🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 for Tochigi
🟧Rakuten Pay Suica
2021-03
2021
September 2019🟩🟥Cross Region Commuter Passes for ICOCA-TOICA-Suica2021
October 2019🟧Mobile PASMO (hosted on Mobile Suica)2021
December 2019🟥🟧UWB Touchless Mobile FeliCa2024(?)
January 2020🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Iwate Green Pass (Iwate)2021-03
March 2020🟪Eki-Net Shinkansen eTicket service2020
May 2020🟧Garmin Pay Suica launch
🟧Rakuten Pay Suica launch
September 2020🟥FeliCa Standard SD2 cards with new FeliCa OS features ships
November 2020🟧wena 3 (smartwatch+band) Suica launch
October 2020🟧Apple Pay PASMO launch
🟧Mobile ICOCA
🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Iwate
🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Hachinohe

2023-03
2022-03
2022-03
November 2020🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Aomori
🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Akita
🟩🟧🟪 Maebashi MaaS Suica services linked with My Number ID card
2022-03
2022-02
2020-12
January 2021🟩Cross Region Commuter ICOCA-TOICA-Suica launch with TOICA & ICOCA region extensions2021-03
March 2021🟩Cross region exit gates installed at Maibara and Atami stations
🟧Fitbit Pay Suica launch
🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Yamagata announcement
🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Gunma announcement (Nolbé)


2022-05
2022-03
April 2021🟦🟩Cloud Suica & Suica region extension announcement
🟪 Eki-Net reboot: cloud services and JRE POINT integration
2023-03
2021-06
June 2021🟧Fitbit Pay Suica expansion
🟩🟪Disabled fare Suica • PASMO announced for later in 2022

2022
August 2021🟩🟧🟪Suica Smart-Lock2022
November 2021🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Shuhoku Orange Pass
🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 TOWANDA
2022-03
2022-05
January 2022🟧🟪Mobile Suica support for day passes, student commuter passes2022-03
February 2022🟩🟧🟪Suica bike parking2022-02

🟩🟥Next Generation Suica 2 in 1 cards
A new card for integrating Transit IC and region cards in new ways focusing on Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate transit cards and FeliCa Standard SD2 • FeliCa OS as the core development. JR Cross Region Commuter Passes included as I suspect they also use SD2 Extended Overlap and represent a step towards cross region through transit for Transit IC.

🟧Mobile FeliCa • Mobile Suica
The evolution of Mobile FeliCa to include UWB touchless and multiple secure element domains for digital ID, Mobile Suica service expansion and hosting Mobile PASMO and Mobile ICOCA.

🟦Cloud Suica • JESCA-Cloud & 🟪= ID-PORT Services
Cloud based fare transaction processing and e-Money store payment processing reduce local processing hardware costs for easy expansion

  • Eki-Net reboot: more cloud based ticketing services tied to Transit IC cards and JRE POINT integration
  • Super Suica Cloud: March 2022 update of JR East cloud initiatives