March 13 New Cross Region Commuter Passes (plastic Suica/TOICA/ICOCA only): JR Group companies extend transit region commute pass region boundaries inside their respective regions for easier cross region Shinkansen commuting.
March 20~21 Special Mobile Suica service maintenance and update: Mobile Suica gets an upgrade on the backend to support new versions of Android Mobile Suica/iOS Suica. Most of the new features are for Android but iOS Suica App will get improvements too. Mobile Suica users will be required to enter account ID and password with the app update. Make sure you have that information ready or update/reset passwords before the Mobile Suica 20 hour service maintenance downtime 11 am March 20 to 7 am March 21.
March 21 Almost last but not least we have the first ‘Super’ Suica 2 in 1 region transit card launch: totra for Tochigi prefecture.
March 27 The last item is Suica 2 in 1 region transit card launch #2: Iwate Green Pass that covers Iwate Kotsu bus lines.
There is a consistent theme among some Japanese tech journalists: the native Japan Transit IC smartcard system is obsolete and destined for that fabled junk heap, the Galapagos island of over-engineered irrelevant Japanese technology. The arguments always boil down to cited higher costs of maintaining the ‘over-spec’ proprietary FeliCa based inflexible transit IC architecture in face of ‘flexible, lower cost’ proprietary EMV contactless bank payment tap cards and smartphone digital wallets used for open loop transit. Is Suica really ‘over-spec’ or is it clever stealth marketing sponsorship from EMVCo members and the bank industry disguised as journalism? Logically the same argument applies to proprietary MIFARE smartcard transit systems as well but is never mentioned, presumably because it was invented in Europe instead of Japan.
Despite all the digital ink on the subject I have yet to see a single article where said costs are actually shown and compared. Smartcard deposit fees are a standard way to offset plastic issue costs and Japanese transit companies like to earn interest off the float of card deposits and unused stored value. But this is never discussed nor the fact that digital wallet issue is free of hardware costs.
Bank payment cards and smartcards have very different business models. EMVCo members and their card issuers can hide associated hardware and licensing costs in bank transaction fees that NXP, FeliCa Networks and other smartcard technology solution providers cannot. Without hard numbers we can only take journalist claims at face value, that transit smartcards are not smart at all, but expensive obstacles to lower cost open loop centralization nirvana.
I don’t buy the ‘one solution fits all’ argument and neither should you. One constant issue in our internet era is that too much centralization is not only a technology monoculture security risk, cloud services fail, and cloud centralization is abused to limit human rights. As speech is censored on SNS platforms and online profiling is used to limit freedom of travel with politically biased no fly lists, it is inevitable that face recognition transit gates will be used to track people and implement ‘no ride’ or ‘limited ride’ policies. These are issues that people must be aware of in the relentless rush towards online centralization of transit payments and services.
Nevertheless there are articles with valid criticisms well worth reading. I ran across one recently by Masanoya Sano on Nikkei that asks a good question: ‘Does taking 14 years to deliver Mobile PASMO mean the transit IC card foundation is crumbling?‘ While I don’t agree with everything Sano san says he makes a good case that Japan Transit IC association members are failing in the face of a hydra-headed crisis: declining population with less ridership, competition from other payment services such as PayPay and EMV based VISA Touch, and ridership killing COVID lockdowns. He argues that transit companies must fix some basic problems if the Japan IC Transit standard is to survive:
Increase coverage: get all transit on the Transit IC card service map
Go mobile: for all transit cards
Improve the transit IC card architecture: improve compatibility and loosen up current restrictions for cross region transit, and the ¥20,000 stored fare limit
I believe most, if not all of these can be addressed with next generation FeliCa + 2 in 1 Suica (aka Super Suica) launching this year and deeper payment infrastructure sharing between transit companies. Nothing is guaranteed of course but here’s a look at each category and possible solutions.
Coverage The transit IC coverage gap is the biggest failure of Japanese transit companies and there are big gaps. Suica only covers major population areas in Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai, roughly half of the stations on JR East are not wired for Suica. A similar situation applies to the other JR Group companies. JR East has promised to get their entire rail network on Suica with a simplified lower cost cloud based Suica in the 2020 fiscal year ending March 2021 but has yet to announce any details (they are specifically referenced in the new Suica Terms and Conditions effective March 27).
On the plus side JR West is expanding ICOCA coverage with a light rail approach of incorporating NFC readers installed in the train car for tap in/tap out for unmanned stations. No wires. SMBC and VISA use the same strategy for their VISA Touch transit boutique marketing program. It’s a practical low cost strategy for lightly traveled rural lines that reduces the hard wire requirement. Only stations that need it get wired and even those installations can use the lower cost JR East cloud based system.
All major transit companies need to install these lower cost solutions to fill the transit IC gaps and integrate remaining isolated regions. VISA Touch transit boutiques are marketed as a solution for inbound and casual users, but these EMV only installation leave those transit areas off the transit IC grid for regular users and don’t work for wider area travel.
Mobile Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO combined represent 80% of the current transit IC card market. Mobile ICOCA (JR West) is due to launch in 2023. There is no word yet about mobile for TOICA (JR Central), manaca (Nagoya City Transit rail/bus), PiTaPa (Kansai region private rail/bus), Kitaca (JR Hokkaido), Sugoca (JR Kyushu), nimoca (Nishitestsu), Hayaken (Fukuoka City Transit). This is a big challenge but the borrowed Suica infrastructure used for Mobile PASMO is a strategy that can be applied to the other major cards.
Improving Transit IC JR East is releasing the 2 in 1 Suica card architecture that incorporates new FeliCa OS features the most important being the “2 cards in 1” Extended Overlap Service. New regional transit card using this new FeliCa OS and Suica format are launching this month in Aomori, Iwate and Utsunomiya. The next challenge for JR East is expanding 2 in 1 Suica to existing and important region transit cards inside the JR East transit region such Niigata Kotsu Ryuto and Sendai City Transportation Bureauicsca. The JR Group has cooperated to deliver cross region commuter passes which started in
The ultimate long term success of the Japanese Transit IC systems depends on infrastructure sharing and integration. For this to happen other JR Group companies and private rail outside of the JR East regions have to incorporate the 2 in 1 Suica format and improvements for their own cards and regions. Only when all Transit IC Mutual Use Association members are using the new format can they link and combine services in new ways, and add new features such as raising the stored fare card value above the current ¥20,000 limit.
Will it be enough? I have no idea. Immediately I see problems for the Kansai region PiTaPa card association companies (Hankyu, Hanshin, Keihan, Kintetsu, Nankai) as they have to make fundamental changes to use the new card format. I don’t see a Mobile PiTaPA in its current incarnation and this is why SMBC (who run PiTaPa card accounts) and VISA are targeting the Kansai area for VISA Touch transit: non-JR Kansai transit companies have their backs against the wall and no way easy forward to mobile except for going all in with JR West Mobile ICOCA, or taking what SMBC offers them.
Open Loop competition Kansai area private rail companies never managed to create the equivalent of PASMO. PiTaPa is a postpay card that has credit card issue checks and cannot be purchased at station kiosks like all other transit cards for casual use. Issue is limited, so Kansai transit companies issue JR West ICOCA commuter passes for people who can’t use credit cards. This is the context surrounding the SMBC VISA Touch transit for Nankai announcement that got lots of press attention as the first major test deployment of open loop on a Japan Transit IC card system.
Junya Suzuki’s latest Pay Attention installment has a deep dive on the VISA Touch Japanese open loop transit system solution powered by QUADRAC Q-CORE server technology. It is the solution also used for the Okinawa Yui Rail monorail fare system that integrates Suica/Transit IC and QR support. He argues that open loop EMV is good enough because, (1) we don’t need the over-spec FeliCa 200 millisecond (ms) transaction speed (it’s actually faster, between 100~150 ms), (2) it has a leg up on future MaaS and cloud integration. Holding onto Suica local transaction performance as ‘faster/better’ is a myth holding back progress.
I have tremendous respect for Suzuki san and his work but his arguments fall down for me here. He completely ignores the white elephant in the room: closed loop is here to stay because the open loop model cannot support all fare options. Even on the open loop systems that he champions, Oyster and Opal for example, closed loop cards are still essential and are transitioning to a closed loop EMV model for digital wallet issue. The only change is the closed loop card transition from MIFARE to EMV because bank partners are running the transit system account system backend instead of the transit company. In other words it has nothing to do with technology at all, it is bank system convenience. Bank convenience is what it all boils down to.
Making the right technology choices are essential in our era of limited resources, ride the right horse and you succeed. I want to believe the cloud holds the promise to extend transit IC to low transit volume rural areas that don’t have it now, but every time I use a slow cloud based stera payment terminal I’m reminded how impractical that approach is for stations with high transit volume.
Does it make cost sense to replace the current transit IC system and re-create it with EMV open loop when Opal, Oyster and OMNY systems will always need closed loop cards? The practical thing is leveraging a good system already in use. Upgrade the Japan Transit IC system we have now, spend precious resources that fix current limitations and extend it with new technologies like UWB Touchless.
The strength and weakness of the Japan Transit IC standard is that it’s not top down but based on mutual cooperation. It’s not one entity but association members have to move forward as if they are one. JR East has been the technology leader and is working to improve and share it at lower cost. 2021 is not the make or break year for Japan Transit IC, but it will be an important and challenging one that will set its future direction.
A reader asked a very good question: what’s the point of an Apple Pay My Suica? Can’t you already migrate a normal ‘unregistered’ Suica to another device if you loose your device?
There are 3 basic Suica plastic card categories: unregistered, registered (My Suica) and commuter. PASMO and all other major Transit IC card are the same. An unregistered Suica card just spits out of the station kiosk after putting money in and you are on your way, but it cannot be replaced or re-issued if lost. Buy a new one, end of story.
With a registered My Suica card, the customer registers a name and other information on the kiosk touchscreen and if the card is lost it can be re-issued for a fee with the original stored balance intact. It’s Suica insurance. Same deal for Commuter Suica which is registered Suica with a commute plan attached.
Mobile Suica uses the same 3 category card model but Apple Pay Suica changed the game considerably. When a user transfers any flavor of plastic Suica to Apple Pay, the card is permanently linked to the user Apple ID. When a user creates a Suica card in Wallet it creates a My Suica card also attached to Apple ID. Apple Pay Suica cards also seem to be ‘ghost’ registered to Mobile Suica even when the user does not have a Mobile Suica account. Only the Apple Pay and Mobile Suica system elves really know what is going on.
The upside for Apple Pay users is that Apple Pay and Mobile Suica preserve Suica card information so the user can safely remove Suica from Wallet, re-add it, or transfer it to another device at any time. It’s free insurance without the hassle of registering a Mobile Suica account. All Suica card types are treated the same. The downside is that if you want to migrate to Android you have to delete your Mobile Suica account and refund the card, then create a new card and Mobile Suica account for Google Pay Suica. It’s the same deal going migrating the other way.
To answer the reader question regarding the point of Apple Pay My Suica, the point is this: commute plans, auto-charge, Green Car seat purchase. The point of Apple Pay Registered PASMO is similar: commute plans and auto-charge. All this is done via Suica App or PASMO App. If you don’t want those extra services, a plain unregistered Suica or PASMO is all you need.
9 months is a quick turnaround for announcing and launching an entirely new mobile transit service across 2 digital wallet platforms: Android (Osaifu Keitai) and Apple Pay. It sure beats Cubic Transportation Systems who have yet to get Apple Pay Ventra out the door more than a year after it was first announced in March 2019 on the far less complex Chicago transit area.
While many Apple Pay users in Japan are happy to have PASMO, there is always that nagging question: if I already have Apple Pay Suica that works nationwide, what’s the point of Apple Pay PASMO? All the major transit cards are cross compatible, the only difference is commuter passes…and reward points. As FeliCa Dude astutely explained in his Reddit post, Mobile PASMO is a boondoggle, the result of JR East and PASMO Association failing to cooperate and mutually host commute plans…and points.
All Japanese transit cards are slightly different versions of Suica. There could easily be one national transit card and Japanese users absolutely would love having it, but ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, SUGOCA, Kitaca, nimoca and Hayaken want to hang on to commuter passes…and points. The good news is that (1) Mobile PASMO got off the ground in a very short time, (2) JR East is providing Mobile Suica cloud assets. I suspect Mobile Suica is likely hosting Mobile PASMO as well but whatever deal they cut is hush-hush.
Suica growth, the CASHLESS tax rebate effect, COVID and all that Junya Suzuki beat me to the punch today with an excellent piece that covers the Apple Pay PASMO announcement and several recent Suica trends including the recent addition of Suica to Square. The most important one to me is the July 2020 edition JR East factsheet Suica section: “Number of e-money available shops”. The number of Suica ready stores increased 50% YOY by 324,000 in the March 2019~March 2020 fiscal year with store growth outside of station areas increasing the most.
This is a direct result of the CASHLESS Tax Rebate program which provided merchant subsidies for cashless infrastructure. That program ended June 30 but there is talk in government circles of implementing a similar program to boost the economy and drive cashless use in the COVID era.
Suzuki san points out what I have said in other posts, Mobile Suica growth from the October 2016 Apple Pay Suica start point is remarkable: 9.3 million users as of March 2020. And the growth rate is accelerating. Smaller and less expensive mobile devices like Apple Watch with Apple Pay Suica and Garmin Suica make the mobile transition attractive for a wider number of users.
With restricted travel in the COVID era every single transit company in Japan is facing tremendous pressure to reduce costs. Moving away from high cost plastic transit cards with cut and past Mobile Suica IT assets and next generation Suica card architecture will be the easiest way to do that.
The rush to mobile It starts now. Apple Pay PASMO marks the start point of a transit IC card rush to mobile digital wallets. Mobile PASMO is rebranded Mobile Suica. With next generation aka Super Suica coming in 2021, at the very least I think we’ll see similar arrangements from JR West ICOCA, JR Central TOICA and other major transit IC cards. With the addition of MaaS NFC Tag Suica, we’ll see a faster, wider uptake of Mobile Suica and sister services for payments everywhere.
And for those Open Loop advocates out there Junya Suzuki has some surprising analysis regarding the Japanese transit scene: despite some limited installation such as Okinawa Monorail, he does’t see transit companies going in for Open Loop in any big way. Mag strip paper ticketing will gradually be eliminated as next generation transit gates go into service over the next few years but mobile transit cards and paper QR Codes will be the replacement, not Open Loop.
As I have said before, the whole ‘Open Loop vs Closed Loop aka EMV contactless bank cards vs Native IC transit cards’ debate is pre-mobile plastic era out of date thinking. Mobile wallets and apps have tossed that whole game out the window for good. It’s a whole new crazy game. Better get used to it.
A reader pointed out that I was wrong. iOS still uses the PassKit Suica Shinkansen call with Eki-net eTickets and Notification Center throws out the same ‘Shinkansen’ Suica Notification when the user goes through a JR East Shinkansen gate with a cloud based eTicket.
The eTicket cloud service interaction with the local Apple Pay Suica card on iPhone offers some insight into what JR East (JRE) is up to as it closes in on the next generation ‘2 in 1’ Suica architecture due for release in spring 2021. JRE has said many times and in many ways that the future of the Suica platform will combine cloud services with the fast local processing of the FeliCa powered Suica architecture. However, details are few, with different pieces dribbled out in bits.
What’s the overall vision and goal of next generation 2 in 1 Suica, which I call Super Suica? There’s a lot of ground to cover so let’s examine things in 2 basic categories: the card architecture (offline and local) and the platform (cloud) even as those distinctions are increasingly blurred. Here is my take based on what JRE has announced so far.
Super Suica: the Transit Card
The next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Suica architecture hosts partner transit cards and services on Suica infrastructure, effectively extending the Suica system to non-JRE transit companies. 2 in 1 partner transit cards gain the benefit of Suica hardware and Mobile Suica infrastructure with considerable cost savings related to plastic card issue and management. The heart of Super Suica remains the offline stored fare. JRE hopes to grow Mobile Suica cloud services as much as possible with the lower cost next generation Super Suica architecture and a Cloud Suica backend system.
Stored Value Update, Region expansion and Commuter Pass Changes Starting with the basics, it’s a no-brainer that Super Suica will raise the current ¥20,000 stored value limit, likely doubling it to ¥40,000. This would put it in line with other eMoney prepaid cards like WAON and nanaco, also similar to the recent Hong Kong Octopus stored value update. The increase would have broad appeal to tourists, business travelers and shoppers everywhere and extend the JR East ‘Touch ‘n Go” ticketless Shinkansen service area.
A long standing hurdle for Super Suica to clear is the transit IC card region limitation. The current Transit IC system uses unique fare regions for each card (Suica, ICOCA, TOICA, etc.) and the stored value doesn’t work across fare regions. Transit systems within the same card region such as JR East and PASMO have their fare systems connected so that a user’s transit card can enter a JR East station then exit a PASMO member station with the fare instantly calculated and deducted from the offline card balance.
This region limitation is a problem for transit users in fringe areas. In order to use an IC transit card they have to exit and re-enter separate transit company gates at specific transfer station points. The only viable cross region options have been mag strip commuter passes or paper tickets.
2 in 1 Commuter Passes In September 2019 JR East, JR Central and JR West announced new cross region commuter pass rules going into effect in spring of 2021, exactly when Super Suica arrives. The new cross region transit card commuter passes cover cross region regular train transit up to 300km.Superficially the changes are about making cross region local to Shinkansen transfers easier for commuters, but the timing, and the necessity of issuing brand new cards for cross region commuter passes suggests other changes are coming.
The ‘2 in 1’ Super Suica concept has special meaning for commuter passes. The current Suica only supports 2 basic patterns via a card id commuter pass account number: JR East only lines, and connected commuter passes covering JR East and connecting lines. 2 in 1 Super Suica will support 2 separate commuter passes: one hosted by the non-JR East transit partner for rail and bus lines and one hosted by JR East.
Super Suica: the Platform
One primary aim of Super Suica is extending the platform reach with shared infrastructure to rural areas too small to establish their own local transit cards. Pay close attention to the transit cards outside the pink area, with the exception of PiTaPa. These are 2nd tier local area transit cards currently orphaned from eMoney or transit interoperability. There are also ‘off the map’ areas such as Utsunomiya Light Rail and Iwate Transit Co. Ltd. who have announced Super Suica 2 in 1 agreements with JRE.
Super Suica enlarges the pink area to include those 2nd tier and off the map cards. Those who sign on join the common interpretability area for transit and eMoney, and also gain access to Mobile Suica hosted Apple Pay Suica, Google Pay Suica and Osaifu Keitai. This is a real boon for smaller areas who, up to now, couldn’t afford to launch their own card operations. I suspect it will be very attractive to all transit card operators who run on shoe string budgets, they can save money by offloading card operations to JRE and get the mobile support in the bargain.
What does Super Suica mean for the major transit cards like JR West (ICOCA), JR Central (TOICA) and others? It depends on what kind of deal JRE offers them. Even if the majors don’t sign on directly I see them getting access to the new Suica card format and Mobile Suica IT assets.
2 in 1 Reward Points and Auto-Charge In addition to the 2 in 1 commuter passes, Super Suica also supports different reward point systems. ‘2 in 1’ partner Super Suica users will be able to exchange points for a Super Suica recharge just like they do now with JRE POINT and Rakuten Pay points. Auto-Charge for 2 in 1 partner branded credit cards will certainly be supported as well. Points and Auto-Charge may seem mundane but they are very important to customers and transit companies, a vital part of luring foot traffic, new businesses and visitors to local areas in an era of shrinking passenger traffic.
Expanding and leveraging the Recharge Backend The ever expanding Mobile Suica recharge backend is a fascinating development mostly ignored by the media even though it’s where the action is. Suica and the other transit cards are a huge green pasture full of cash (less) cows waiting to be milked by card companies and payment platforms. JRE lets them milk Mobile Suica cows for a cut. Up until Apple Pay Suica came along in 2016, JRE was the only recharge backend. As of July 2020 there are 5: JRE, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Mizuho, Rakuten. 2 in 1 partners will have the ability to add their own recharge backends with apps, if they so choose.
Other points to remember: the recharge backend only works on iOS and Android platforms, point rewards can be used for Suica recharge. Currently that only works with JRE POINT and Rakuten Points but this will be extended to the ‘2 in 1’ partner point systems.
MaaS NFC Tag Suica It’s clear that the really big Super Suica changes will be on the cloud side. Transit card eMoney has been a huge success, but Suica has to evolve to remain a viable payment platform in today’s hyper competitive world of mobile payments.
That next step is Suica NFC Tag payments. Think of it as Suica transactions without a reader, let’s call it MaaS Suica. JRE joined the MaaS alliance in November 2019 closely followed by an December 2019 press release announcing NFC Tag tests with 4 partners: JRE (Suica), DNP (NFC Tags), Sony (FeliCa) and AquaBit Spirals (NFC Tag SmartPlate payments software).
JRE & us (AquaBit Spirals) have announced to conduct technical verification for the use of NFC tags focusing on transportation and ‘payments’, and that the role of Sony is to investigate technical specs as part of promoting a lifestyle through ‘FeliCa’ tech. You may know what we mean😉
AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara
It’s clearly implied by the diagram and by comments from AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara that Suica powers the NFC Tag payments middle section via the cloud. This means the Suica card balance on a device works ‘over the cloud’. Suica is unchained from the NFC reader infrastructure and can be used to pay for any kind of NFC Tag linked service or item. This is still a pilot test program but has connections with the Cloud Suica system JR East is planning to roll out.
NFC Tags and App Clips level the playing field with QR One of the ways PayPay and other QR Code players disrupted the Japanese market so quickly was leveraging the low entry point bar of static QR codes combined with mobile smartphone apps. All stores need is an official QR Code sticker. Small merchants are freed from having to invest in POS hardware to go cashless.
The pieces appear to fit very nicely now: the NFC background tag sheet pops-up ‘while the screen is on’, the right code snippets load in for a simple focused task, the user can Sign In with Apple ID if needed, and pay with Apple Pay. Simple, uncluttered action; no apps, no Safari launch. And we have background NFC tag reading on every current iPhone model.
MaaS Suica wrapped up in new technologies like App Clips and background tag reading iPhone has the potential to take the Suica eMoney payment platform to a whole new level. Success depends on how aggressively JRE promotes the service and how they license it to sister transit card operators. It would be great if we got MasS Suica, MaaS ICOCA etc. working seamlessly as a single mobile payment just like transit cards do now.
Based on what JRE has said over the past 2 years in the press and in recent company announcements, it seems we’ll have 4 basic versions of Suica: (1) Hard-wire Suica (what we have now) for major stations and stores, (2)Cloud Suica, lower cost cloud based fare processing for transit gates that cover rural stations not currently on the Suica map, this cloud backend is also expected to power closed loop QR code ticketing (3) MaaS NFC Tag Suica powered by the Suica Cloud backend for reader-less App Clips-like mobile payments, (4) Licensed Mobile Suica assets and card architecture for PASMO, ICOCA and other partners.
Indirect partners get the new Suica card architecture, New FeliCa OS improvements, Mobile Suica IT assets and wireless Suica gate system technology. The arrangement will be similar Mobile PASMO who licensed Mobile Suica IT assets but run their own cloud service with their own backend mobile recharge, commuter passes and reward points.
Mobile PASMO was first announced in January 2020, launched on Android Osaifu Keitai in March and Apple Pay PASMO with arrive with the iOS 14 update this fall. 9 months is a quick turnaround for announcing and launching an entirely new mobile transit service across 2 digital wallet platforms: Android (Osaifu Keitai) and iOS/watchOS Apple Pay. This speedy rollout was possible because Mobile PASMO is rebranded Mobile Suica cloud assets.
Think of Mobile PASMO as a trial run for the major transit card players following the same strategy and launching Mobile ICOCA, Mobile TOICA, etc., starting in 2021. Next generation Super Suica won’t be a slam dunk national transit card that does it all, but it will be start line towards that goal in a race that has already started: a new foundation of shared infrastructure and services with transit companies working toward a cohesive de facto standard that has lots of mobile potential.
In these COVID challenged times all transit companies are under enormous pressure to reduce redundant infrastructure, streamline and bury old grudges. The current situation will drive Super Suica and mobile uptake as the payoff is more mobile services with reduced operating costs. Another case of COVID driven ‘unfortunate success’. I remain hopeful that, in the end, we’ll be pleasantly surprised.
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