Touchless walkthrough transit gates coming in 2020, Mobile Suica eTickets more popular than ever

Mobile Suica has been under a lot of stress this week. The cloud service almost went down under a heavy load on November 26, at the same time the Suica App has shot up in the App Store Japan rankings, briefly touching the top 3 which is unusual. At first I scratched my head then remembered that Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets become available 30 days in advance, and that means the New Year vacation period. But the unexpected Mobile Suica load and Suica App downloads signal something else: more first time Suica App users than ever before.

Even though Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket purchases are not eligible for CASHLESS rebates, it looks like more Japanese are taking the opportunity to go cashless this year with many first time users signing up for a Mobile Suica account and going all in with Apple Pay Suica/Google Pay Suica. Discounts on some advance Shinkansen eTickets are also pretty good.

In other news Kyodo reports that JR East is developing a new ‘touchless’ walkthrough gate with an overhead antenna design that lets users keep Suica in a bag or pocket. No more waving cards and devices over a reader. It’s also big help for left handed people, Apple Watch Suica users and wheelchair users. Field tests are expected to start in 2020 with a rollout in 2~3 years. It sounds like a perfect match for the new eTicket system that JR East will launch in April 2020 and Super Suica coming in April 2021. It will be Super Suica all the way, we are entering the final years of magnetic strip paper ticketing.

It would be great fun if a few JR stations near Tokyo Olympic venues could have a few walkthrough Touchless gates installed for inbound Apple Pay Suica users to try out. Great for travelers with both hands full. Look ma, no hands! Take that QR Code fans.

UPDATE
It looks like Kyodo News is playing somewhat loose with their reporting. Ever reliable IT journalist Junya Suzuki contacted JR East for confirmation. JR East confirmed the basic story that they are developing a Touchless gate but have not committed to a rollout schedule. The picture that ran with the Kyodo piece is an older photo of an exhibition demo unit and not necessarily the Touchless gate, or the Touchless gate technology in development.

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Suica, Toica, ICOCA integrating commuter pass regions staring in April 2021

Big things sometimes come in small packages. JR East, JR Central, JR West issued a joint press statement on September 20 that starting in April 2021, Suica-Toica-ICOCA commuter pass regions will be enlarged into one continuous virtual commuter region. This will cover regular rail lines and Shinkansen lines, and address current transit region ‘gotcha gaps’. The press release comes almost exactly one year after the JR East, Sony, JREM ‘Super Suica’ next generation transit card announcement, the start date coincides with the new transit card rollout.

This has big implications and fits with the scenario outlined in the Super Suica piece. The press release does not mention Mobile Suica, and only shows current style IC transit cards, but it’s important to remember that Super Suica is a next generation transit card architecture with a next generation FeliCa OS for both IC cards and mobile.

For Apple Pay Suica users this means that starting in 2021 all commuter passes for those IC card regions can likely be covered by one ‘Super Suica’, however details are few at this point. I hope to post an analysis of these developments soon. There is a lot to look forward to as Japanese transit companies prepare for the big, long term migration to the next generation transit card architecture.

This press release only covered the JR Group side, some grey areas remain. Now that the JR Group have an agreement in place to integrate their trunk line commuter pass regions, I expect that we will hear something similar for PASMO and other private rail IC transit card commuter regions at a later date.

Train Manner Posters

Train station posters promoting safety and good manners are a stock item in Japan and are all about promoting safe transit. No drunk naked Halloween partying Aussies on the Yamanote line for me please. Boring, punctual, safe, fast transit is all I want.

Manner posters are usually humorous and light hearted. It’s easier to keep good manners when you can laugh at yourself. The latest JR East effort is along the lines of ‘don’t be a bird brain’ that plays on the different meanings of the Japanese word ‘toori’ which can mean bird, street, or on time. Japanese love word play and are well aware that, ‘Manner de Keep’ is not grammatically correct anything, it’s just fun and catchy.

And the message is a good one: don’t be a bird brain and walk around while looking at your smartphone. It’s dangerous. Put it away and pay full attention to your surroundings. That will help everybody be on time.

Apple’s Secret Weapon

Technology is hard to cover well in a way that’s clear and easy to understand, that educates and elevates without dumbing down the technology or it’s intended audience. Technology like Apple Pay Suica is especially hard to cover well because it is multifaceted: it merges the Apple Pay platform of Global NFC technology deployed on iPhone and Apple Watch, with the Suica Transit Platform of FeliCa NFC deployed for transit and eMoney on a national scale, and how Apple delivers all of this to a global user base.

With so many parts it’s difficult to explain the greatness and importance of Apple Pay Suica, simply and clearly, and what connects it to Apple Card. Ken Bolido who is the production lead and creative director for Austin Evans, has created a video titled Apple’s SECRET Weapon aka Your iPhone has Super Powers…in Japan. Ken ‘get’s it’ and captures all of it brilliantly: why Apple Pay is Apple’s Secret Weapon, how Apple Pay Suica is a perfect embodiment of that secret weapon, and how it relates to Apple Card. If you want to understand any of this and how it will play out, watch Apple’s SECRET Weapon. It’s essential viewing and a perfect primer for the role Apple Pay Suica will play in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Apple Pay Suica Auto-Charge Confessional

I have a confession to make to my brothers and sisters of the Apple Pay Suica Super Smart Shopping League (Apple Pay 4S): I never used Suica Auto-Charge. Until now.

I know, I know, it was a really stupid thing to do even though I had all the power tools at my disposal: Apple Pay Suica card, BIC CAMERA View JCB card, JRE POINT card, Mobile Suica and JRE POINT accounts, Suica App. Somehow I could never quite bring myself to take that final step of turning on the Auto-Charge option in Suica App.

You see, I’m a very manual man. I think it was my addiction to the Apple Pay ‘ka-ching’ sound. Even though it’s audio confirmation that my money is going down the drain, it just sounds so good. That and my addiction to Suica Notification shortcuts, they were always there but never really worked right until iOS 12.3. Those are flimsy but valid excuses. But now that notification shortcut recharge is working good in iOS 13, I knew I had to take the last step. The final blow was the Dr. Shump/Arale-chan JR East View card campaign ads. I always had a soft spot for Arale-chan, I mean if she didn’t originate the pile of poo emoji, nobody did. And so I turned on Auto-Charge.

What can I say? Auto-Charge makes the Apple Pay Suica experience better and smoother in every way. It’s far better than futzing with credit cards, even Apple Pay credit cards, but fellow Apple Pay 4S members already knew that.

I keep the auto-charge amount at the lowest setting, ¥2,000, because my manual man side is uncomfortable with large recharge amounts and prefers manual Apple Pay recharge to keep an eye on the money before it goes down the drain.

I look forward to the day when Suica Auto-Charge functionality extends from Suica/Pasmo gates to all transit gates nationwide. It would be insanely great if JR East opened up Auto-Charge to non-JR East View credit cards, but that will probably remain an exclusive incentive. If Super Suica delivers nationwide transit gate Auto-Charge compatibility, I’ll settle.