I really like YouTuber kenzy201’s latest post regarding the mysterious disappearance of the ¥170 paper ticket button at JR Kyushu Kokura station kiosks. Kenzy’s simple no frills talk style might look boring on the surface but his analysis is keen and enlightening, the kind of analysis we used to get with good journalists who don’t have the time for it anymore. I highly recommend listening to what he has to say here.
When JR Kyushu revealed the reasons behind their elimination of the ¥170 paper ticket option from JR Kokura station kiosks, it shined an uncomfortable light on their operations. Because of poor management decisions over the past decade that continued JR Kyushu’s reliance on paper tickets at the expense of leveraging SUGOCA, the result was 90% of ¥170 tickets sold at Kokura station were being used for fare evasion. Cheap passage to any paper ticket unmanned station on their system. This is because JR Kyushu has a continued reliance on legacy paper tickets instead of increasing SUGOCA transit card coverage and promoting its use, and because of cost cutting there are an increasing number of staff-less stations that are an invitation to paper ticket fare evasion.
As Kenzy points out, JR East Suica and Tokyu led PASMO revolutionized transit in the Tokyo region to the point where legacy paper tickets are hardly used, over 90% of fares are Suica • PASMO, with the old style transit operator interchange paper tickets already eliminated. There are station entrance/exit areas that only accept transit IC. JR Kyushu on the other hand, and despite having their own card and system, have not done much with SUGOCA. It’s a me too transit card without innovation or marketing muscle. The usage area is limited but more than that, JR Kyushu offers almost zero incentive to use it over paper tickets. No JRE POINT or WESTER-like reward point retail/service platform effort to encourage SUGOCA use and sell services, no mobile roadmap.
It’s a huge wasted opportunity that, unfortunately, has resulted in an embarrassing fare evasion problem that won’t be solved by eliminating a few paper ticket fare options. JR Kyushu management, and certainly SMBC group stera transit, may think that open loop will fix the problems, but it will not fix them. A bolt-on thin client like stera transit needs an existing hardware base to work. JR Kyushu has to fix and enhance the SUGOCA infrastructure they already have first.
The Suica cross region problem, no thru transit going from the Suica area to the TOICA area for example, is a well known and criticized shortcoming of the Transit IC system. There has been some recent progress with cross region thru transit commuter passes but barriers remain for regular Suica use, a headache for both local residents and longer distance travelers. Despite all the fancy technology, the cheapest cross region thru transit fare choice is paper tickets.
A lesser known Suica barrier remains on the JR East network: Suica service region gaps. Currently there are 3 Suica regions: Tokyo, Sendai and Niigata. There are also some curious gaps between them illustrated below:
Fortunately this is all about to change for the better.
Filling the Suica gaps In 2019 JR East CEO Yuji Fukusawa said the company planned to have 100% Suica deployment by March 2022 but that didn’t happen. Why? Transit use killing COVID, the resulting red ink and redeployed resources are a big reason of course, but system development snags certainly contributed to the missed deadline. There was also a shift from a narrow focus of a lower cost Suica system to a wider focus of Suica 2 in 1, Cloud Suica, a lot of new service parts built around a cloud based centralized fare processing system. JR East’s Suica vision is evolving to a wider, transit service platform encompassing a range of technologies, with FeliCa as one component of a larger whole and flexible new system.
In October 2022 JR Central announced that TOICA is expanding to all JR Central lines and stations. The pressure is now on JR East to complete their delayed Suica rollout to all stations first. But there is something else: it’s an open secret that JR East hosts the TOICA system. JR Central would not make such a big TOICA commitment publicly unless JR East had a new system in place to facilitate the expansion. This new system, which I call Suica 2.0, started operation on May 27 in the Tohoku region.
The launch brings Suica to 45 stations in the Akita, Aomori and Morioka regions but only 9 of these are fully automatic transit gate installations similar to what you find in Tokyo area stations (the same new QR equipped gates shown in the press announcement are installed in Yoyogi station). The rest, 36 in all, are Suica 2.0 validators. Performance is an obvious concern. Suica users are accustomed to the fastest transit gate fare processing speeds on the planet. Will Suica 2.0 performance satisfy the Suica 1.0 experienced customer base who expectation Suica to ‘just work’ like it always has? To understand how Suica 1.0 fare gates achieve speedy performance apart from FeliCa technology, we need to examine why Suica regions exist and how they relate to transit gate performance.
Suica regions and gate processing speed Suica stands for “Super Urban Intelligent CArd” (but there is also ‘IC’ in the name for integrated chip) and was designed for heavily used urban transit as a smart card recreation of visually inspected paper commuter passes. JNR (pre JR East) researchers wanted to eliminate the time it took urban commuters to pull their magnetic commuter pass out of a wallet or case and feed it into the ticket gate slot. This clogged up major station gates at rush hour. The researchers also wanted a centrally processed card system but the networks and processing power of that time could not deal with the rush hour traffic volume. So the Suica architecture was built around locally transit gate processed stored fare (SF) balance from the card. Instead of centrally processed payments, fares are processed at the station level and synced with the central server, said to be about 6 times a day.
Transit gates have very little memory, most of it dedicated to their main task of local processing Suica fare at the exit point. Low overhead is a necessity. They can’t hold massive fare tables, hot card lists, dead card lists and so on. Only the bare minimum information required to do the local processing job is periodically synced with the central server. Limiting fare processing to specific heavy use regions is a necessary strategy in keeping the local fare processing overhead low and speedy. This is why a Tokyo Suica/PASMO region transit exit gate only processes the fare from a Suica or PASMO (or any Transit IC card) that started the journey in the same region. It’s also the reason why Transit IC cards are generally limited to 200 km point to point trips in their respective local regions, though there are some interesting loopholes.
It’s the same situation writ large with when traveling across transit IC card regions. Border stations like Atami (Suica and TOICA) have 2 sets of exit gates: one for travelers from the Suica region, one for travelers from the TOICA region. Continuous cross region transit across Suica and TOICA regions is limited to special cross region commuter passes and special cross region stations, again to keep the local processing overhead low.
It’s important to note however that IC coverage extensions to border stations with 2 sets of different gates and cross region commuter passes, are very recent 2021 developments. This is the JR Group companies laying the foundation to remove IC transit barriers in the near future. Because Suica 2.0 can process any and all Transit IC fare configurations, transit gate memory limits for local processing are no longer a concern. The barriers will come down when gate hardware • firmware is updated and Suica 2.0 cloud servers are in place.
Conceptually, Suica 2.0 is simply going back to what the creators of Suica originally envisioned: centralized fare processing. Specifically the Suica fare processing hockey puck is moving from the station level to centralized cloud servers. The Suica card itself is exactly the same as it is now, transit gates still handle all mutual authentication read~write functions.
The original aims of Cloud Suica with lower costs and flexibility are still there, the JR East Suica 2.0 press release builds on those with emphasis on a distributed server processing system for both Suica service expansion (more stations and no region barriers) and service functions (all kinds of cloud linked services). Let’s examine the new kinds of services JR East is promising to deliver with Suica 2.0.
① Barrier Free Suica transit with no more region gaps. A main goal of Suica 2.0 and bigger than it might seem. Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets are already ‘barrier free’ with Suica, through clever use of Shinkansen transit gates, but Ticketless Limited Express trains are stuck with Suica barriers such as the Tokyo to Sendai Hitachi and Tokiwa Limited Express trains. Suica users have long complained that service gaps forces them to travel with paper tickets, or they are forced to pay in cash at the exit gate because they tapped in with Suica in Tokyo and forgot the Suica barriers. This problem, and many more barrier Suica gap issues will be eliminated.
② Automated Fare Discounts Part 1: Commute Plan Lite. This is similar to the recently launched Off-Peak Commuter Passes, think of it as short term ‘commute plan lite’ with tons of options. You buy a discounted fare option for certain routes, use times or frequency and it’s automatically linked with your Suica. And unlike the current Suica App method, the items are added in the cloud, not written and stored on the card itself.
③ Automated Fare Discounts Part 2: Fare Discount Gift Coupons. In a similar vein, fare discount reward coupons for store purchases with Suica can be automatically gifted with a tap at the payment terminal. Kinda like the old free parking ticket with store purchase gimmick only far more useful.
④ Linked MaaS services. JR East has been experimenting with MaaS programs like RingoPass but linking MaaS services with Suica 1.0 is a real pain. Suica 2.0 should make bundling much easier, it’s also an opportunity to clean up the current mess of apps.
Reality check and missing pieces Glossy JR East press releases are one thing but reading between the lines of the Suica Service Roadmap there are hints of missing pieces. Suica 2.0 is all about eliminating physical transit barriers but in the mobile app era there are lots of software barriers that need to be addressed too. Right now JR East online services are hosted in a bunch of apps that don’t fit together very well. It’s a maze of walled gardens: lots of service apps each with different accounts and login, making them work together is a real pain. The real problem is there is no one app to see and manage all the services and tickets attached or linked to your Suica.
A few things need to happen to make Suica 2.0 truly useful.
The current version of Suica App lives a double life: one half pulls things off the Mobile Suica cloud, one half does local housekeeping attaching Commute Plans, Green Car Seat Tickets and recharges to Suica card. Meanwhile Shinkansen eTickets, MaaS and other online services live in different apps with different accounts IDs. Wouldn’t it be nice to have all these services living in one cloud savvy Suica App that shows and manages everything attached to your Suica? Absolutely yes please.
Local Processing Fail-Safe?
We all know that cloud and mobile services fail. Stuff happens. Safe railroad operation requires fail-safe design. Japanese IT journalists like to pooh-pooh FeliCa and Suica reliability, heaping praise on how ‘fail-safe’ the Transit for London open loop Oyster system is. But London transit doesn’t have to deal with major earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, torrential rain and flooding, train communication cable arsonists, communication cable damaging trackside fire disasters, not to mention sarin gas and cable cutting terrorists. Japanese tend to take safety and security for granted but these infrastructure risks are very real. They have all happened. Suica 2.0 will be a highly centralized system, the higher the centralization, the higher the associated risks when it fails.
Does Suica 2.0 have a fail-safe backup? Here’s a possible, and from emerging details, likely scenario. We all know programmers don’t like using a new API for mission-critical programs unless they have to. They like to stick with what they already have for compatibility with a smooth gradual transition strategy to the new API. Same for Suica 2.0. Automatic Suica transit gates could be upgraded with both the Suica 1.0 ‘Suica Region local processing API’ and the new Suica 2.0 ‘Region-Free central processing API’. If something goes wrong with the Suica 2.0 central servers, the exit gates switch to reliable local processing Suica 1.0 API mode to keep passengers moving with station level fare processing or perhaps regional level fare processing depending on the JR East distributed server setup. Long story short, If this backup is not in place we can expect this to happen.
Suica 2.0 rollout and the QR Eki-Net Connection By all accounts the Suica 2.0 May 27 launch seems to be a happy marriage of ‘truth in the card’ Suica Stored Fare balance + central fare processing without any loss of fast transit gate speed. It works just like the Suica we’ve always had. Region barriers remain however, and they have increased: the 3 new Tohoku additions (Aomori•Morioka•Akita) each represent a new Suica region. Transit IC card barriers will eventually go away when Suica 2.0 is deployed across the entire JR East system. People can travel anywhere on the transit IC network not having to think about barrier nonsense, just like paper tickets. Sounds great but when does it happen? Let’s take a look at the JR East rollout schedule.
As of May 27, 2023 we have six Suica regions, however Suica extensions announced for 2024 and 2025 give us a clue how the barriers will drop. The 2024 Yamagata Suica extension will be added to the Sendai region, the 2025 Nagano Suica extension will be added to the Tokyo region. Sequentially we can expect Sendai to be folded into the Tokyo region first, then Niigata and finally Tohoku as missing station gaps between regions are filled.
JR East says the Suica region barriers will drop by 2026, at the latest, when Suica 2.0 is rolled out across the entire rail network.
An interesting point here is that QR Eki-Net service starts in the very same Suica 2.0 Tohoku launch region which means that QR Eki-Net uses the same Suica 2.0 fare validation system. Suica 2.0 does QR too. When Suica 2.0 goes wide, so does QR. It’s one package with 2 parts as shown in the Suica Service Roadmap: the Suica 2.0 Platform and a ‘new’ (and unnamed) Ticketing system, which might be the venerable (and earthquake hardened) JR Group MARS system updated for the mobile transit era.
And when does seamless cross region IC transit for Suica, TOICA, et al. happen? Hopefully the JR Group is coordinating so that the Suica 2.0 rollout is mirrored by the other JR Group companies. The JR Central TOICA announcement certainly suggests so. Slight differences are already apparent: JR East prefers cloud connected Suica 2.0 validators at unmanned stations. JR Central and JR West prefer the bus style approach of having on board enter and exit validators for rural lines with unmanned stations. Either way is fine, just get it done as quickly as possible. Let the Transit IC barriers drop away into the past where they belong. Because with Suica 2.0 in place and barriers gone, the way is also cleared for fare capping, automated discounts, specialty ticketing and lots of new cloud based transit services.
This post was originally published 2023-02-27 and was reposted with the latest information from JR East on 2023-06-21.
Android 10 devices: the Osaifu Keitai supported devices list is limited to modern Android 10 devices that support multiple transit cards (Suica + PASMO + ICOCA) with only one card set as the default ‘Express Transit’ card.
WESTERID required: this new point system + single ID for multiple JR West online services was put in place just for Mobile ICOCA and a registered account is required for Mobile ICOCA. Similar to JRE POINT, users earn points from transit use, recharge and purchases at participating stores. WESTER POINT to Mobile ICOCA recharge is built in and self contained, more streamlined than JRE POINT app to Suica app recharge. J-WEST credit cards earn the most WESTER POINT for recharge and commute plan purchase.
Users can register 3-D Secure 2.0 credit cards for recharge in the Mobile ICOCA app but ‘some foreign issue cards’ are not supported (looking at you foreign issue VISA)
No wearables (Garmin, Fitbit, etc.) yet, Apple Watch will be first hopefully followed by WearOS devices later
No auto-charge support…a real pain point, stick with plastic if you want this feature.
Mobile Commute Plans: most regular and university student commute plans are supported including JR West + Osaka Metro/Hankyu/Keihan/Nankai/Hanshin routes, but other commute plan types/routes are not. These include, FREX Shinkansen plans, HS/JHS student plans (launching on Mobile Suica and PASMO March 18), disability discount commute plans, bus and trolley routes, and routes that include the JR West Tsuruga~Ishikawa Hokuriku line that will transfer from JR West to third sector ownership in 2024. Stand alone ICOCA commuter passes for Hankyu, Keihan, Osaka Metro routes that do not include JR West lines are not supported.
Suica and PASMO together account for roughly 80% of all Japanese transit card issue, ICOCA added in makes that 90%. In other words, 90% of the issued transit card market has mobile service. It will be very interesting to see how the Mobile ICOCA migration works out. I’ll update this post with details as they become available.
Notice: The VISA payment network is blocking foreign issue VISA credit cards for Apple Pay In-App use with Suica, PASMO, ICOCA. Apple Pay Wallet users cannot add or rechargeSuica, PASMO, and ICOCA cards with foreign issue VISA credit cards, attempts to add money to the card in Wallet result in a ‘Payment Not Completed’ error shown below:
The issue has been ongoing since early August 2022. Use Mastercard, AMEX credit cards, UnionPay credit cards for adding money to Apple Pay Suica in Wallet app. More foreign issue credit and debit cards work for Apple Pay Suica than PASMO or ICOCA. Here’s the current situation based on online user feedback:
Non-JP VISA: credit cards are blocked by VISA for adding money to Suica, PASMO, ICOCA. Some credit cards may work sporadically but only temporarily. Some VISA debit cards work for adding money to Suica: DKB, Hyundai Zero, ANZ. Boursorama, Revolut and WISE work depending on the country of the account, no other issuers confirmed though more seem to be working over time. Non-JP Mastercard: cards work for adding money to Suica, some credit cards are not working for PASMO depending on the issuer. Some debit cards may be limited by the ATM withdrawal limit. Mastercard is not currently working for adding money to ICOCA. Non-JP AMEX: cards work for adding money to Suica, PASMO, ICOCA. UnionPay: cards work for adding money to Suica, PASMO, ICOCA.
Pass-through workaround option for inbound VISA card users from EU • UK (VISA credit and debit), US (VISA debit only): link VISA with a Curve Mastercard added to Apple Pay Wallet to add money to Suica indirectly with VISA.
New developments will be posted to this page, feedback from users is much appreciated.
Common issues are explained here in more detail and include Suica App or PASMO App use to resolve network issues not covered in the official but limited English language support pages. There is also a support tip list at the bottom.
Make sure you perform troubleshooting outside of the Mobile Suica • PASMO • ICOCA service maintenance downtime window that runs nightly 2 am ~ 4 am JST .
Recharge and Network Issues The majority of Apple Pay Suica • PASMO issues are due to poor network connection issues, usually when using free WiFi, auto-connect carrier WiFi, or in crowded areas with maxed out mobile connectivity. Always make sure your device has a robust internet connection when recharging in Wallet app or using Suica or PASMO apps.
When recharging a Suica or PASMO card with a poor network connection, Wallet appears to hang during the process. When recharge fails or hangs, don’t panic. Cancel the recharge process by hitting the sleep button, then check to make sure iPhone has a robust network connection: turn off WiFi and use 4G • 5G. Toggle Airplane Mode on and off to clear a bad mobile connection. When you have confirmed a robust network connection try recharge again.
One important thing to remember about recharge: if you see failed charges on your credit or debit card, these are temporary charges that are not processed and automatically resolved by the Mobile Suica • PASMO • ICOCA system during the 2 am ~ 4 am JST nightly system maintenance period. Temporary charges on your card are erased but they may not show immediately depending on your card company system, contact your card company to confirm.
If you still have recharge hang problems do this first:
Make sure you have the latest iOS • watchOS installed
Restart iPhone or Apple Watch and make sure they are paired
Make sure your iPhone has a robust internet connection.
Make sure you are not in the Mobile Suica / Mobile PASMO / Mobile ICOCA 1 am~5 am JST maintenance window.
It’s also a good idea to check Apple’s Japanese System Status page to make sure Apple Pay & Wallet services are online and not experiencing local region issues.
If you still have recharge issues follow these additional steps (note that you cannot do these steps if you are in transit and have not tapped out at your final destination):
Confirm that you are logged into the same Apple ID used to add Suica • PASMO • ICOCA
Open Wallet > select Suica, PASMO or ICOCA > tap the more button ‘…’ > scroll to the bottom of the card > tap ‘Remove this card’.
Wait 5 minutes.
Tap add card ‘+’ in Wallet, tap Previous Cards in Add to Wallet screen
Select your Suica, PASMO or ICOCA in the Previous Cards screen, tap Continue.
In Add Card the Suica, PASMO or ICOCA you removed from Wallet should be showing with the balance, tap Next to complete.
If recharge still fails, download and open Suica App or PASMO App. It may display an error number or a red exclamation mark. Tap the red explanation mark if you see one on the card, then tap ‘OK’.
This operation will clear most error problems. Give it 10 minutes or so to clear the problem.
When the card remove operation appears hung If the Suica•PASMO•ICOCA card removes from Wallet but appears hung as “Removing/Deleting” in the iCloud device list, or if Wallet says the card cannot be removed because it is “In Transit”, sign out of Apple ID on your iPhone, restart the device, then login with the same Apple ID.
Card Unavailable Message In some cases you may get a Card Unavailable screen when attempting to re-add Suica•PASMO in Wallet:
This means there are some issues that the Mobile Suica / Mobile PASMO systems will clear during the maintenance period. Simply wait for the end of the next 2 am~4 am JST maintenance window, then re-add the card.
**Troubleshooting notice for Apple Pay Commuter Suica users: Suica App 3.0 has a new process for re-adding Commuter Suica cards. There are cases when re-adding a Commuter Suica to Wallet when the stored fare balance will be 0. Don’t panic if this happens. The stored fare balance is not lost.
This is done so that commuter passes can be re-added and used immediately even if there are remaining stored fare issues that will be fixed during the next Mobile Suica nightly maintenance reset. The previous stored fare balance is restored manually via the Suica Pocket option in Suica App and will show up as a Suica App notification.
Bricked iPhone If your iPhone or Apple Watch becomes bricked due to damage the first step is following the same steps for a lost or wiped device: login to your Apple ID account on the web or from another trusted Apple ID device and remotely delete the Apple Pay cards from the bricked device.
Restoring Suica etc. is exactly the same as transferring Suica to a new iPhone. Once you successfully delete the card on the bricked device and are ready to restore the card to a new device, simply add the card using the iOS 15 or later Wallet app Previous Cards category.
Mobile Suica account users also have the option to reissue the Suica from a bricked device via the Mobile Suica members site. Once signed in you can check the online status and balance of the Suica card. Select the reissue option and follow the instructions. Users can also quit Mobile Suica and refund the remaining card balance to a Japanese bank account with a ¥220 handling fee.
Transit Gate Issues When exiting the last station the user failed to tap correctly. The gate will flash red with an alert sound but sometimes the user continues on leaving the Suica card status as ‘in transit’. The next time you enter a transit gate it flashes red with an alarm sound. Take your iPhone to the station attendant and they will reset it but they will have to deduct fare from your previous trip to reset the card. Be aware that you must do this at the station of the same company line used for the last trip. Suica, PASMO, ICOCA cards cannot be used again until you have settled the fare. You cannot at any station or different company line.
If you enter a transit gate with Suica but exit outside of the Suica/PASMO region, you will have to pay cash fare for the entire trip. The station attendant will give you a piece of paper validating that you paid the fare. When you are in the Suica/PASMO region again, give the paper and iPhone to a station attendant and they will reset it for you.
Mobile Suica Operational Hours (24 hour format) Operational times for specific functions are listed. All times are Japan Standard Time (JST) Basic services run 22 hours from 4:00 (am) to 2:00 (am), with a 2 hour system maintenance window. Special system maintenance schedules and other important Mobile Suica system info is posted here (Japanese only). Mobile PASMO and Mobile ICOCA operational hours are the same.
Account Registration 04:00~02:00 Create new Mobile Suica account 05:00~00:50 Register and transfer Suica commuter pass to Mobile Suica account
Stored Fare Balance 04:00~02:00 Wallet App or Suica App recharge* *(Cash recharge at stations, 7-11 ATMs, convenience stores is always available 24/7) 04:00~02:00 Auto-Charge registration/change settings/cancel (VEIW CARD) 05:00~00:50 View transaction history in Suica App 05:00~00:50 Download PDF receipts from Mobile Suica members site
Suica Commute Plans 05:00~23:45 Purchase, renew, refund or change commute plan route
Suica Green Car Tickets 04:00~00:50 Purchase Green Car Tickets in Suica App 05:00~00:50 Refund Green Car Tickets in Suica App
Suica Day Pass 05:00~23:45 Purchase Day Pass in Suica App 05:00~23:45 Refund Day Pass in Suica App
Other 05:00~23:45 Mobile Suica reissue 04:00~02:00 Transfer Suica to new device 05:00~23:45 Suica withdrawal refund
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a new transit gate alarm sound going around. It sounds like this:
Yeah, that sound. I hear it more and more these days but what does it mean? We already have the bing-bong alert sound when there’s a transit IC card error or low fare, in which case the gate says, “insufficient fare”. Unlike those alert sounds however this new one is not a new alert for transit users…it’s an alarm sound for station staff, There was also the mystery surrounding the new alarm name: rainbow. Why do they call it the rainbow alarm?
It took some digging to find the answer. On the face of it people might assume it is「キセル防止」”fare evasion prevention“. The Japanese word for fare evasion “kiseru” has an interesting but murky history dating from the early pre-war Showa era. And the rainbow connection? All the lights on the transit gate flash. So when station staff hear the head turning rainbow alarm they can easily see which transit gate is sounding the alarm. But as we already have the standard red ‘insufficient fare’ and ‘see the station’ agent alarms why do they need this new one?
A distinctive alarm sound for fare evasion has advantages. A few years back I was inside Shinjuku station walking directly behind a gaijin gal who exited JR Shinjuku without a ticket or Suica, completely ignoring the standard bing-bong alert without breaking stride. She then entered Odakyu Shinjuku without ticket, again completely ignoring the bing-bong alert without breaking stride, walking on to the train with attitude. Two fare evasions in a row. With the rainbow alarm, and ubiquitous station video surveillance, that kind of stunt will be much harder to pull off, especially for ‘gomi gaijin’ playing dumb to break rules and get their way.