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.

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.

Google Pixel Watch Suica…with limits

Now that Google Pixel Watch Suica is here, the obvious questions are: is it global NFC or is it limited to JP models, is Suica the only JP payment service? EMV is there of course, PASMO joined Google Pay recently with clear signs that Wear OS support is also in the works. At the very least we can expect PASMO in a future Pixel Watch update, but so far there is no mention of iD, QUICPay and other Google Pay FeliCa payment services on Wear OS.

On the global NFC side, things turned out exactly as predicted (copied below from May 2022). Pixel 7 Mobile FeliCa support is the same old ‘cheap instead of deep‘ story: all models have the same NFC hardware with Mobile FeliCa loaded, but Google only fully activates it for JP models, in other words they continue to kneecap NFC on non-JP Pixel phones.

Pixel Watch lists FeliCa on the spec page for all models and regions, it is global NFC…but is kneecapped in the initial Wear OS version. The Mobile FeliCa Cloud (aka Mobile FeliCa Lite) powered backend is the same used by Garmin and Fitbit that delivers a geolocation locked subset of Mobile Suica services; you get the stored fare balance (SF) functions and little else. All worldwide models support Suica but it can only be added on registered devices physically located in Japan, that is to say FeliCa support is limited by location not the device model. While not ideal, it does provide some highly useful digital payment functionality for inbound visitors with those devices.

Instead of limiting Suica by geolocation that Garmin and (Google owned) Fitbit do, Google kneecapped Pixel Watch Suica for some unknown reason, limiting Suica to JP models as Pixel Watch help documentation makes clear. It looks like a major fuckup for an expensive smart device from a leading tech company that can and should work the same everywhere.

Fortunately Google promises a Wear OS update that removes the NFC kneecap allowing all Pixel Watch users to add Suica when in Japan, just like Garmin and Fitbit. We shall see if Google keeps their promise. Pixel Watch Suica has other limitations similar to Garmin and Fitbit: no Suica commuter plans, no Suica plastic card transfers, no Suica Green Car Seats, no Suica Day Passes, etc, but you can register Pixel Watch Suica for extra services: JRE POINT, Eki-Net, Touch and Go Shinkansen.

In short, that state of Google Pay on Pixel 7•Pixel Watch is not the Apple Pay-like overhaul for robust native global NFC across the entire Pixel family many were hoping for. If Google delivers on their promise to remove the Pixel Watch NFC kneecap, all those users can at least use Suica. It does raise the question I asked back in May, if all Pixel Watches do Suica, why not Pixel 7? Pixel 7 is perfectly capable but Google is keeping that NFC kneecap in place. And there is the glaring Google Pay gap between Pixel 7 JP models which support all contactless JP payments from Suica to iD to Edy, while Pixel Watch only supports one: Suica.

Meanwhile Apple Watch remains the only full featured global NFC Suica wearable because Apple took the time and effort to do Apple Pay right…what else is new?

I’ll update this post with Pixel FeliCa details as they become available.


Will Pixel Watch finally deliver global NFC Google Pay? (May 2022)
Ever since Apple made global NFC standard on all iPhone and Apple Watch models in 2017, global NFC has become a litmus test of ultimate Apple-like user friendliness. When inbound devices can add Suica, it’s not only cool, but also necessary to get around. Garmin and Fitbit wearables do the global NFC thing, but Android remains stubbornly ‘buy a Japanese smartphone to do the Suica FeliCa thing.’

In the global NFC sweepstakes then, every Google Pixel release cycle is a game of ‘will they or won’t they’ finally deliver global NFC. Actually Pixel is already global NFC with Mobile FeliCa ready to go, but Google disables it on all non-Japanese Pixel models.

Which brings us to Pixel Watch which got a sneak peek at Google I/O 2022. The buzz on Japanese Twitter was basically: I want one, but not if it does’t have Suica support. Fair enough, I bet a lot of people are thinking that and not only in Japan. After all, Hong Kong users would love having a Pixel Watch that supports Octopus.

The good news is that Suica appears to be coming to Google Pay for Wear OS. Various Suica string have appeared in recent Google Pay APKs. This is expected: it would certainly be very awkward if Pixel Watch doesn’t support Suica when Fitbit devices do.

But this begs a bigger question. Wouldn’t it be extremely awkward if Pixel 7 doesn’t support Suica out of the box when Pixel Watch does? I would say so. But then again one hopes The Android Ready SE Alliance is working to fix all that, and do away with the limitations of Android HCE nonsense once and for all.

Foreign VISA cards blocked for select Japanese mobile in-app and online payments

Notice: this post will be updated with new developments, latest info here


SoftBank Payments network chart

When foreign issue VISA cards in Wallet stopped working for some kinds of Apple Pay in-app purchases from Japanese merchants starting on August 5, the first people to howl in pain were Apple Pay PASMO users who suddenly couldn’t recharge the stored fare balance or renew commuter passes with their Chase Sapphire VISA cards. Chase Sapphire still codes for 3x travel points on PASMO you see and long time resident Suica users had migrated to PASMO when JR East and VISA shut down 3x travel points.

I did the usual duty of talking with Mobile Suica support, official line: there should be no problem, contact the card issuer. I then contacted Wells Fargo card services support, official line: there should be no problem with your VISA, contact the merchant. Entirely expected of course but I did confirm that Mobile Suica transaction attempts were not even showing on the Wells Fago system. They said it might be a ‘communications issue’.

I suspected a larger issue than just Apple Pay and an Android Suica user confirmed the same non-JP VISA problem with Google Pay Suica. I also alerted IT journalist Junya Suzuki who focuses on mobile payments. His first thought was something might be going on with the VISA Japan merchant acquirer side of the payment network. Merchant acquirers are very secretive and nobody knows who is the merchant acquirer is for Mobile Suica/Mobile PASMO. Maybe they were tightening online transaction security…or something else. Everything was clear as mud though one source did say this:

An acquirer made the decision stopping handling cards issued in other countries. Acquirer are different between Apple Pay and Google Pay, so that’s why I said Apple Pay. Another guy suggests Apple or such acquirer may face money laundering issue by registering Apple Pay with pre-paid Visa cards or so.

A reader asked me if Japan was banning non-JP VISA cards across the board along with a screenshot of Universal Studios Japan advance ticket sales page with a red colored important notice on the top that said: “We apologize that currently Visa and Mastercard credit cards issued outside Japan are not available until further notice.”

The evidence pointed to a larger problem than just Mobile Suica and PASMO. The USJ wording also suggests that JTRWeb have their hands tied ‘until further notice’ and echos what JR East PR told Suzuki san about the non-JP VISA recharge problem being beyond their immediate control. Something seems to be happening with the VISA merchant acquirer…but in different highly selective ways. For example why does Apple Pay Suica work with foreign issue Mastercard and AMEX but not VISA, or why does foreign issue VISA work for Apple Pay in-app purchases with Japanese apps like Starbucks, but not in-app purchase with JR East for Suica recharge?

Phishing attacks and VISA Touch promotion
It’s helpful to examine the impact of phishing attacks that hit docomo, Line Pay, PayPay and other QR code payment services in late 2020, and JR East online services (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net and VIEW card) in early 2022. Responses to phishing attacks has been slow, varied and vague. Companies like to say they value customer security but are short detailing what they’re doing about it.

Docomo quickly suspended, then killed off, their problematic docomo koza e-paymnet service. Then Japanese credit card issuers got serious and responded by upgrading to EMV 3-D Secure v2 for browser and mobile app payments (edit: EMV 3-D Secure is the EMV e-commerce browser and app authentication spec for all members but card brands use their own naming) and are due to phase out 3-D Secure v1 by October 2022.

JR East upgraded Suica App to 3-D Secure v2 for in-house credit card purchases and changed the JRE POINT Suica recharge process to make it more secure, but seemly little else. Scratch under the surface however and you’ll notice unannounced recharge security blocks even in Apple Pay Suica. There are also new limits for certain Japanese issue cards registered in Suica App. Recharge with Revolut VISA for example is now limited to 3,000 JPY per day despite the fact that Suica App uses 3-D Secure v2. Clear as mud…again.

Which brings up to the most important point of the whole problem: why is the VISA payment network not accepting foreign issue cards for Apple Pay Suica and Google Pay Suica recharge when those digital wallets offer the highest levels of secure online transactions out there? A bumpy 3-D Secure v2 transition might explain what’s happening for online sites who don’t support Apple Pay and have not updated to newer protocol. But the transition has been going on for a while now, and it doesn’t explain what’s happening with Apple Pay Suica/PASMO and Google Pay Suica (Osaifu Keitai) which have nothing to do with EMV 3-D Secure.

The timing is perfect however when you consider that VISA is heavily promoting ‘VISA Touch’ EMV contactless. It’s very convenient that Apple Pay Suica and PASMO are suddenly sidelined as easy payment options for inbound visitors.

The Apple Pay difference
The security issue doesn’t apply to Apple Pay. Apple Pay comes with the extra security and guarantees that Apple provides to issuers and merchants, once a card is added to Apple Wallet, it is cleared for all things Apple Pay (ditto for Google Pay). This is why a plastic contactless card that doesn’t work on TfL open loop transit gates works when it is added to Apple Wallet. It’s the Apple Pay difference.

So we circle back to foreign issue VISA again. Why are cards cleared for Apple Pay, cards that worked fine until August 5, suddenly not working? Is JR East shutting down recharge for foreign issue cards like Hong Kong Octopus and China T-Union do without telling us? So far JR East support says that all credit and debit cards that support Apple Pay in-app purchase are good to go. They certainly want inbound visitors to use Suica. What little evidence we have so far points to a change on the VISA merchant acquirer side. Everybody else seems to be doing what they always do and haven’t changed anything.

VISA has a history of not playing nice with Japanese stored value cards on mobile. JP issue VISA cards didn’t work for Apple Pay in-app purchases and Suica recharge until last year, it took VISA 5 years to ‘resolve’ that issue. VISA cards still do not work with Mobile WAON and Mobile nanaco on Android and Apple Pay, they likely never will. My take is that VISA is happy with people buying things with VISA, they are certainly happy with people borrowing money with VISA, but they are not happy with people using VISA to move money into stored value prepaid cards for making payments, earning points, etc., that are not VISA.

Who knows? VISA has played hardball in the Japanese market before, maybe they are doing so again. Perhaps they refuse to be an ATM-like recharge backend for Japanese e-money cards unless they also get ATM-like lending rate surcharges, or maybe they want to promote open loop VISA Touch and Stera Transit at the expense Mobile Suica market and mindshare. You get the picture.

Junya Suzuki thinks the VISA merchant acquirers might be coming under pressure from potential money laundering risks. I think people have the right to move their money where they want to, after all we’re only talking a max Suica balance of ¥20,000 here. Whatever the reason let’s hope it is fixed soon, though I have learned over the years that card brand payment issues are never simple. Time will tell. At the very least I think we can say this is another skirmish in the ongoing digital payment turf wars.

The open loop mobile connectivity challenge

The recent additions of stera transit (Visa-SMBC-Nippon Signal-QUADRAC) open loop test systems in Kyushu covering Fukuoka metro, Kuamamoto city transit and JR Kyushu expand the VISA Touch transit boutique deeper into western Japan territory. Open loop based cloud processing advocates like to portray these developments as proof that local processing based FeliCa systems like Suica et al. are expensive bygones due for replacement.

There’s just one little problem that open loop advocates fail to mention: mobile connectivity, aka the Suica app problem, the QR Code payment problem, the Smart Navigo HCE problem, etc. Wide LTE and 5G deployment doesn’t mean reliable mobile and internet connectivity that mobile payment apps depend on, and carrier outages quickly bring down the cloud transaction processing side of the equation. This was proven, yet again, on July 2 when major carrier KDDI suffered a massive nationwide outage that lasted for 80 hours. Let’s make a quick reference graph for examining local processing vs cloud processing in the mobile era.

Stera is a mobile based payments platform from the SMBC group (basically the VISA JP group) that does away with the NTT Data Cafis dedicated backbone and replaces it with the internet based GMO Payment Gateway. This is the same stera that powers the open loop stera transit initiative.

The weak point of course is that since mobile powers the gate reader side, when mobile service goes down, stera gate readers stop working. As everybody found out during the KDDI network meltdown, Mobile Suica kept right on working on the transit gate and the store checkout reader, while mobile app based code payments and point systems all stopped. Some vital services that depended on KDDI connectivity like ATM networks also stopped working.

Cloud based Suica will face some of these challenges when it goes online in March 2023. The only difference being how much local processing stays intact and how much system buffering there is (how much it needs to talk with the cloud server to do the job), we shall see. Which brings me to the point I want to make. The media almost always portrays the open loop/cloud vs closed loop/local match as a winner takes all, one size fits all proposition. As the KDDI meltdown proves, this is stupid, and dangerous. Never put all the eggs in one technology basket. I don’t think the risk will go away, not as long as telecommunication company corporate structures don’t foster and promote their engineering talent (the people who actually make things work) deep into the executive decision making forums.

Open loop in Japan is geared for inbound tourists the supplements, but does not replace, the old reliable Transit IC infrastructure which is evolving and reducing costs too. They compliment each other, address different needs and uses. One size doesn’t fit all. If it did, Oyster card would have died years ago.