Road to Super Suica: 2 in 1 shared infrastructure and mobile transit card expansion update

The JR West Osaka Expo 2025 transit vision looks exactly like the Super Suica one

The October 21 announcement from JR East-Hachinohe City-Northern Iwate Transportation is the 3rd Super Suica local transit card and follows earlier Super Suica local transit card announcements for Utsunomiya Light Rail and Iwate Transit Co. Ltd. These fit neatly into the narrow definition of Super Suica as a local area ‘2 in 1’ transit card within the JR East region that hosts different transit company commute plans and reward points on a single card. New FeliCa chips announced in September have new features like ‘Extended Overlap Service’ to support the ‘2 in 1’ model.

The real test of Super Suica is the wider definition and how it plays with both private transit companies inside and outside of the JR East (JRE) region, JR Group companies and what infrastructure resources JRE is sharing to eliminate needless duplication and save costs for all players. In the COVID era of constrained public travel, reducing costs while maintaining good service is more important than ever.

On the mobile front I think we can safely say that Mobile PASMO is an unannounced joint effort between JR East and PASMO Association. Mobile PASMO service and software is Mobile Suica dressed up in PASMO colors, the penguin character swapped out for a robot. The JR West announcement of Mobile ICOCA one week after the Apple Pay PASMO launch is no coincidence. The Super Suica mobile template is in place and road tested, PASMO and ICOCOA are the first 2 customers.

Who’s next? Junya Suzuki pointed out that Suica and PASMO together account for 80% of Japanese transit card issue, ICOCA added in makes that 90%. The next largest market and logical choice is manaca, the Nagoya area equivalent of PASMO. Forget about the Kansai area PiTaPa, the credit card as transit card concept was a bust and will likely never go mobile unless it’s repositioned as just a credit card. JR Central’s TOICA has deep pockets, and it’s said that TOICA runs on Suica servers, but JR Central has a sibling rivalry thing with JRE that might get in the way.

I’m taking a wild guess but I think manaca will be the next mobile service announcement with the Kyushu area transit cards (SUGOCA and nimoca) following soon after. The next development to keep an eye on is the ‘2 in 1’ Super Suica local transit card model and if other major JR Group members offer a rebranded version of it in their respective transit regions.

From a western perspective people wonder ‘why not just have one national transit card and be done with all this nonsense’. A national transit card has been discussed by various Japanese governments from time to time, and gone nowhere. The shared infrastructure Super Suica model that aims to lift all boats certainly plays more to the traditional Japanese business mindset. In these challenging times that can be a good thing.

Power and Responsibility and Cultural Respect

It took me a while to fully appreciate the issue that Twitter user Yoshimasa Niwa was describing. At first glance I and many others assumed that setting Japanese over English would solve his app library sorting issue.

Then I realized that wasn’t his point at all. The software app in the screenshot is the Yahoo Japan ‘Norikae Annai’ transit app, one of the most popular free stand alone transit apps in Japan. I use it all the time. It’s a Japanese app with a Japanese name but the basic iOS English sorting algorithm ignores this and assumes all Chinese characters used everywhere must follow modern mainland China’s Simplified Chinese rules for reading and sorting.

This is ridiculous as assuming that all Roman based character sets everywhere must follow modern Italian reading and sorting rules. I always find that westerners assume the Kanji culture flow was always one way from China which it is not, with different and unique readings, usages, and Japanese Kanji like shitsuke 躾 traveling the other way over the centuries. The same is true for other cultures that adapted the Chinese writing system for their languages.

It amounts to cultural destruction by neglect and ignorance by large western based technology companies who think things are ‘good enough’. Or are just bugs to fix in a later software update that usually never appears. Modern computer software has pretty much destroyed traditional kanji culture publishing this way, with many countries abandoning mainstream traditional vertical text layout for western style layout because ‘it’s easier’, i.e. western tech companies couldn’t be bothered getting Asian language typography right. All these years later web browsers still can’t do vertical text worth a damn.

A veteran Japanese font engineer whose entire career was devoted to preserving high end Japanese typography in the digital age recently told me, “I don’t think anybody cares anymore.” In the end it all too often comes down to this: I don’t care cultural death by I don’t care companies who have the money and power to care.

That’s bitter irony in our age that purports to champion cultural diversity.

Kuyo: the importance of remembering and forgetting

The Japanese Kanji and meaning for Kuyo (供養), apparently has no real direct equivalent in Chinese; I occasionally run across online questions from mainland Chinese exchange students in Japan asking what it means. The standard English translation, ‘memorial’, is worthless and does almost nothing to convey what Kuyo really is.

Kuyo is praying for the spirit of the deceased to be nourished by our earthly efforts so they attain enlightenment. In this way Kuyo is closer to the original ancient Indian Buddhist ceremonies and also elements of Vietnamese Buddhism which suggests that the culture traveled the southern trade routes to Japan.

In traditional Japanese Buddhism the 50th memorial year was the usual cutoff up through the Showa era, but these days the cutoff is the 33rd memorial since most of the people directly connected with the deceased aren’t around to do Kuyo for them, and it’s not the responsibility for later generations.

Japanese Buddhist practitioners say that forgetting is just as important in Kuyo as remembering. That sounds like a contradiction but it’s part of letting go of the past even as one honors it with Kuyo prayers; an important natural progression not only for the living, but also for the spirits of the deceased to leave past lives and become enlightened.

2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. The annual Kuyo ceremony for all victims of the war and prayer for world peace was held on August 15 at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery. This years event was drastically scaled down because of COVID but I see it staying small as the number of people with direct connections with the war dwindles away.

When it disappears entirely I hope people will remember to forget, in the right way. I don’t believe that the people of the war generation wanted Kuyo to go on forever or burden future generations with the responsibility. They wanted them to be free from the past and lead happy lives, because that is the ultimate goal of Kuyo: happiness and enlightenment for all beings of the past, present and future.

In case you wondered why parasols for men are a thing this summer…

Parasols are a standard Japanese summer item for women but I was scratching my head when I saw men using them this summer. Was it the heat? Was it something else? I searched online and soon found the answer: COVID and face masks.

You see men don’t mind tan lines in the usual places but face mask tan lines are to be avoided at all costs. Japanese guys apparently have it tough these days because Japanese women are incredibly picky. Guys have to have just the right muscled physique but not too much, face hair is okay but body hair is no, and no face mask tan lines.

I don’t know about you but I take comfort in people caring about appearances despite all the chaos that is 2020. A little dose of normal helps the day go down.

Apple’s Once and Future Japanese Variable System Font

2020 is the coming out party for Apple designed OpenType variable fonts, both the SF Pro and SF Compact system fonts and the all-new New York font shipping in iOS 14, watchOS 7 and macOS 11. The Apple created variable font technology is not new of course. It has been around since the QuickDraw GX days along with the TrueType GX enhanced Skia font. It was due to be standard in MacOS Copland system fonts including a Japanese variable font created by FontWorks. Then Steve Jobs returned to Apple and everything changed.

Yes, it has taken 25 years for an Apple created technology to make it into the basic system. It proves my long stated belief that font technology doesn’t matter unless it is built into every nook and cranny of the OS foundation. The TrueType GX Skia variable font has been with us all this time, but only matters now because the SF Pro system font has gone variable.

Why is It Taking So Long?
iOS 14 and macOS 11 variable font basics are covered in an excellent WWDC20 video, ‘The Details of UI Typography’. It’s important to remember that while OpenType variable font technology is ‘world ready’, at this stage they only apply to Roman based font sets. It’s going to be a long time before we see a Japanese language system font in variable format.

There are many reasons. In the WWDC20 video Loïc Sander of the Apple design team drops a big hint when he explains that while digital technology (PostScript fonts) “gave us a lot more flexibility in handling text,” it also “made typography a bit more crude than it used to be.” The statement shows how clueless designers and engineers outside of Japan can be about Japanese fonts and typography.

While a ‘bit more crude’ might be true for Roman based fonts and text layout, PostScript fonts completely broke traditional Japanese font design and composition models. Everything was thrown out because Adobe made no accommodation outside of western typography needs when creating the PostScript font DTP foundation.

Japanese DTP forced users to adapt to technology rather than technology solving their production problems. I know this because everyday at work I had to deal with the endless problems and limitations of Japanese PostScript fonts that could only reside on the output device.

Another big problem was that Adobe relations with Japanese PostScript licensees in the 1990’s was not healthy. Adobe stuck with closed print device font licensing for far too long and discouraged independent font production wherever they could. Because of this situation, digital font progress in Japan was slow and very expensive.

Here are some challenges facing Japanese variable fonts.

Once Upon a Time
One basic flaw of OpenType font outline technology is that it’s extremely inefficient for kanji glyph production and storage. Every glyph has to be created and stored separately and doesn’t scale well. This is why OpenType CJK fonts on tiny devices like Apple Watch are a match made in hell. One solution to this problem is stroke fonts. Stroke fonts use a library of basic glyph parts to efficiently create complex glyphs.

Stroke fonts are a perfect fit for kanji font production and for small constrained devices like Apple Watch because reusable parts don’t take up precious resources. On the desktop, stroke fonts can do weight variations over the full range from Light through Ultra Bold without losing typographic details, all in a single 4 MB font while an equivalent OpenType variable font can weigh in around 18 MB.

The technology has been around for a long time and was supported up until macOS 9 but lost out when Apple quietly dropped the QuickDraw GX derived Open Font Scaler architecture in the migration from classic to macOS X.

While stroke fonts are not supported in the current Apple OS lineup, on the font tool side stroke font technology has appeared in software such as the classic MacOS Gaiji Master from FontWorks. The lead engineer of that effort is currently working independently on a similar gaiji glyph tool for Windows based on stroke font technology that is much more advanced than the old and long unavailable FontWorks software. I plan to cover developments in a future post.

The Japanese Font Production Challenge
The Hiragino iOS/macOS Japanese system font was not created by Apple, it was licensed from Screen Holdings (SH), originally created by independent font design studio Jiyukobo in the early 1990’s. There is much more work involved creating a Japanese font compared to Roman based languages. Hand drawn glyphs are created, scanned and cleaned up for digital production.

The Adobe Japan 1-7 glyph collection requires 23,060 glyphs for a single weight, multiply this work by the different weights for one family and you get an idea how massive the undertaking is. From Osamu Torinoumi, one of the key designers of the Apple licensed Hiragino font on its creation:

On average, one person would (hand) draw 12 or 13 glyphs a day, which is not much change of pace from the days of creating block type…the whole process, from start to finish, took three years.

One might think that a single CJK (Chinese-Japanese-Korean) font sharing a common design can streamline the process but this is a huge misconception. Each culture has centuries worth of different design aesthetics that good design must incorporate: what looks good to a Chinese designer and works well in a Chinese text design, looks terrible in Japanese context. I have yet to see a decent digital ‘kana’ design from a Chinese font designer. Osamu Torinoumi on the differences in creating the Simplified Chinese Hiragino Sans GB:

“We worked with the Adobe GB 1-4 character set (29,064 glyphs) at 2 weights. Basically we had to finish one weight in 6 months. One year for the entire project. At first we only thought we would be there as backup, but Screen kept passing us all the questions from Beijing. It turned out to be a lot more work than we anticipated.”

Jiyukobo sent all the original Hiragino design data to Hanyi Keyin through Screen and they adapted the designs for China. Torinoumi said that one of the major differences is that Chinese design demands that Gothic (sans serif) characters mimic handwritten style. This means the character should be slightly off center within the virtual body. “Even after the project was over I still didn’t understand the difference between Japan and Chinese “Kokoro” glyph which the Chinese designers insisted were different.”

The Variable font UI Challenge
Finally we get to a problem on the Apple OS platform side that has been around since the GX days: how to present advanced typography features in a useful and easy to understand system UI that works everywhere. What works on macOS obviously won’t work on iOS, but iPad OS will need some degree of advanced typography feature access. Sliders have their place but I agree with Adobe Type Senior Manager Dan Rhatigan who made a very good point in his TYPO Talk 2016 presentation: there has to be a better UI control concept out there.

fvar
Dear Apple, didn’t Adobe tell us not to use sliders?

This is because there are many more OpenType Japanese variable font features than just weights. There are gylph variations, vertical layout variations, horizontal and vertical compression for tatechuyoko instances. In macOS Catalina these are hidden away in the crusty old Font Pallet that is desperately in need of a major overhaul. Please tell me that macOS 11 fixes this or that Apple has a vision how to.

Oh where can my glyph variations be?

Japanese typography is unique in that it has preserved its own print ‘moji bunka’ cultural history and vision that China and Korea have largely abandoned in the face of western centric computer culture that all too often pretends to care about such things, which it does not. If it did we’d have vertical text in web browsers by now that actually works. I hope a rich text culture can be preserved and conveyed to future generations even in such small details as a well designed and executed Japanese variable font for computers and smart-devices.


Japanese Typography and Font Posts