Thoughts on Suica 2.0

The Suica 2.0 launch in the Tohoku region on May 27 is not simply a launch. It marks the transition to a whole new business model for JR East. The future is Suica as a mobile payment and services platform that leverages JR East transit infrastructure. It has to be because the traditional business model of selling train tickets is declining along with the population of Japan. Fewer people, fewer trains. Lifestyles and work styles are changing too, as expected, but COVID has drastically accelerated societal shifts that planners expected to happen gradually such as doing away with work day commuting and the need for commuter passes.

And there is mobile. The ability of doing things with an app and a credit card instead of having to go to the station ticket office or kiosk has made a lot of station infrastructure irrelevant. Station infrastructure and ticketing systems built for the era of cash based kiosks for paper tickets, commuter passes is redundant in the Mobile Suica era, and maintaining local JR Green Window Ticket Offices in every station is expensive.

For example, long time JR East commuters have witnessed the gradual elimination of paper ticket kiosks in favor of pink Suica recharge kiosks. This is because over 90% of JR East Tokyo area transit users use Suica or PASMO and the reason why there are fewer expensive maintenance heavy IC + paper ticket gates and more inexpensive easy maintenance IC only gates at stations. Are there are more IC Card only exits in rebuilt stations especially with connecting shopping malls.

Green Window Ticket Offices are disappearing at a rapid pace too, 70% will be gone by 2025, replaced by Eki-Net online ticketing services and Mobile Suica commuter passes. As YouTuber kenzy201 says, once you migrate to Mobile Suica, you can never go back to plastic. As for those recharge kiosks, private rail operators are removing them and renting out station space to 7-11 ATMs that do the same job, as kenze explains in his video that covers reducing cash oriented station infrastructure.

Open Loop Reality
All of this is taking place while multiple transit companies are testing open loop transit for deployment as a way to increase revenue. One of the issues that people don’t discuss about open loop transit is the lack of integration on a large scale like closed loop Suica. Open Loop doesn’t travel well. When you examine the deployments around the world, it is limited to isolated systems with simple fare structures. That’s why I call the Japanese test installations transit boutiques. It doesn’t integrate well across complex fare structures and multiple transit connected companies. It doesn’t work for reserve seat Shinkansen and express train eTicketing. Complex transit ticket packaging and fare validation speed is where closed loop shines. In real world testing open loop isn’t an improvement over Transit IC. The mix and match transit gate environment, predictably, slows things down. Open Loop has its place in the transit mix, but I believe the return on investment will not live up to expectations.

With the launch of Tohoku Suica 2.0, the Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards are fully integrated into the larger JR East transit network.

Integration is the key
The promise of Suica 2.0 boils down to creating a whole new level of integration. The current Transit IC standard is a strong one because it integrates cards across different transit regions with cross compatible eMoney purchasing. The integration of mobile with Suica took it to a whole new level as the world’s first transit payment platform, as did Apple Pay integration in 2016. By moving fare processing to the cloud, Suica 2.0 will integrate isolated Suica regions, integrate new flexible fares and new types of commuter passes while promoting local services in new ways. It will eventually incorporate QR ticketing as well. As cloud based transit IC systems are linked together, the integration will spread beyond JR East. Integration is the only way forward for the Transit IC platforms, Suica, PASMO and ICOCA, to evolve and survive and grow in the mobile era. It’s going to be a very interesting journey.

Related: Final Frontiers: How Suica 2.0 will solve the IC fare barrier problem and much more

A big thank you to Junya Suzuki for taking time to discuss the Suica 2.0 launch on Twitter Space.

Launch Gallery

Suica 2.0 gates at Morioka Station on launch day
Suica 2.0 Tohoku area station validator, out of 45 new Suica equipped stations gone live today, 36 are validators, 9 are gates
Local media report from the launch in Akita.
A trip to Morioka with Suica, interesting station setup with Suica 2.0 validator on the platform (3:10 mark).

Return of the Dragon

It was a very tough winter for the priests working at Keishi-in temple on the top of Shichimensan. There was so much heavy snow that it snapped the utility poles. Repairs couldn’t be done until the spring. Chief priest Kochi Uchino described the scene. “We were without power and pumps for running water. All we could do was scoop up the snow and melt it over the wood fire. We had never experienced anything like it.”

Nothing in recent memory prepared them for an endless string of natural calamities: unusually heavy snow, multiple typhoons passing directly over the mountain, torrential rains washing out huge swaths of the upper trail, the main path to Keishi-in temple for pilgrims and supplies, a holy mountain for Nichiren Buddhists with a history dating back more than 800 years and roots as a holy place of practice for wandering Shugendo mystics.

It seemed like cruel irony, all this after the Edo period Keishi-in main hall had undergone a long restoration, 100 years of grime and soot were carefully removed with new gold leaf applied so that the main altar enshrining a statue of the protective goddess Shichimen glittered again in the dim light. There was also a magnificent new painted ceiling. The old soot covered painted ceiling with its protective Dragon dating from 1802 was carefully removed. Each 4 meter board was wrapped and taken down the mountain to a safe warehouse in the Kuon-ji temple compound in Minobu, where plans were made to do something with it eventually.

The calamities continued. The popular Monk’s Race Trail Run was cancelled due to the washed out roads, then washed out trails, then nearly undone by the COVID pandemic. But the faithful pilgrims who continued to climb told Uchino, “You should not have removed the old Dragon ceiling, it was a ‘kekkai’ protecting the mountain.”

Kekkai is a tricky word to translate from Japanese into English. It originally comes from Shinto, as do all esoteric Japanese Buddhist practices do from Shingon to Tendai. Some of the Tendai esoteric lineage can still been seen in Nichiren Shu practices. It’s a kind of spiritual barrier, to protect or to keep ‘bad things’ out, or sometimes keep humans out. The definition of what constitutes a bad thing also varies because it depends on how humans define bad, in their very limited and selfish ways, at any given moment. Protective deities see things differently. Nevertheless the old Dragon ceiling was not only protecting pilgrims and priests, it was protecting Shichimensan too.

A simpler explanation came much later from a friend who was raised in a Shinto household, “You mean to tell me the priests of Keishi-in didn’t know that? I guess the ignorance of Buddhist priests knows no bounds. The Japanese dragon is a completely different creature from the Chinese dragon, far back in Shinto lore. Priests used to know these things.”

With no respite from endless calamities Uchino thought about asking for the old ceiling back but didn’t know how to take up the subject with Kunon-ji Temple, the most important temple in Nichiren Shu. Maybe they had already made plans. Then a terrible electrical storm hit.

“It was the worst, most intense lightning storm I’ve ever experienced,” Uchino said. “Cloud to ground, bolt after bolt, dirt flying in the air. That’s when I make up my mind to call Kuon-ji. I was just about to dial when the phone rang. It was Kuon-ji…they wanted to return the old ceiling.” The carefully wrapped Dragon ceiling boards were taken out of storage and back up Shichimensan, half-way by a small wire lift, the rest by backpack.

But there was no way to put it back, the new ceiling was in place. Uchino consulted with the Miya-daiku. Miya-daiku are a special breed of Japanese carpenters, shrine carpenters, the nobility of their craft. Only they know how to construct traditional wooden shrine and temple buildings in the traditional manner, without nails or other modern techniques. As chance would have it the miya-daiku had re-hung a big new main hall re-dedication sign from the left wall to the front. “The sign was mostly hidden by the big paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling on that side. We decided to move it to the front but it was a difficult job, just barely fitting.

“As luck would have it, when the old ceiling boards came back the miya-daiku pointed to the now vacant left wall and said, ‘It will fit there.'” And it did, a perfect fit, ” As Rev. Uchino explained, “the moment they finished installing the old ceiling, the weather returned to peace and quiet like somebody had pressed a button.” The kekkai Dragon ceiling was back on the job, completing a mysterious chain of events. After it was all over, having served a longer term than usual, nearly 4 years instead of the normal 3 years, he reflected on the adventure. “I don’t want to criticize the former Chief Priest but there wasn’t any thought about preserving the classic art of the Keishi-in main hall when repainting the ceiling.”

It was a very nice story, just like a lot of Nichiren Shonin legends, but they are important beyond being true or not. It’s not superstition either. Nichiren Shonin put enormous energy into teaching the power of belief. Belief in the Dharma, belief in the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, belief that Eternal Buddha is always with us and in us. I think it’s the power of belief, belief in the Dharma, belief that there is a Buddha in you, that brings people to Shichimensan where they are watched over by the Goddess Shichimen, and protected by the Dragon of the Dharma.

Special thanks to the Chief Priests of Keishi-in Temple Shichimensan for their time and special permission for taking pictures inside of the Keishi-in main hall and the Dragon wall. The pictures of the temple interior may not be shared without their permission.

Golden Weeks

Golden Week is never a good time to travel in Japan. Tickets are scarce, discounts are impossible to find. Japanese media shows packed Shinkansen trains and traffic jammed expressways. But somehow Golden Week nowadays doesn’t feel like the Golden Week of the early 1980’s. Back then Golden Week, Obon and New Years were the only big vacation times and everybody travelled, salaries also bought a lot more. These days people have the luxury of many national holidays to choose from, but proportionally less salary to travel with.

There was a kind of thrill traveling in ridiculously vacation packed transit back then that is hard to experience now. And crowds were younger with families in tow with something always going on. In my stupid youth I thought I could find the ‘real Japan’ and avoid the crowds. It was years before I realized that ‘real Japan’ was a fool’s quest that prevented me enjoying special moments in special places with special people.

My father and mother came to Japan just before Golden Week 1984 for a company event. I had been in Japan for 6 months in an exchange program and met up with them in Shizuoka where a new manufacturing plant had been built. The local president arranged lodgings for our trip with a stay in Atami during Golden Week. I don’t remember the name of the hotel but it was a typical Showa style family place with everybody in yukata and kids running everywhere. The walls were thin, the food was blah, the husbands were slightly drunk, the wives scolded kids, the onsen baths were packed, and our room had view of the ugly backside of the hotel next door.

In my mind I thought my knowledge of Japan was enough to navigate a nice quiet outing the next day to see some ‘real Japan’. We headed to Hakkone in jam packed trains, a jam packed bus and finally a jam packed ropeway. The summit was covered in clouds and crowds. Completely defeated I took my parents back to the awful Atami hotel. The next day they got on a Sunrise bus tour and I went back to Osaka, later meeting up with them in Kyoto for a wonderful and magical overnight stay at the famous Sumiya Ryokan.

And yet, through the years we’d always laugh, ‘do you remember that awful Atami?’ The magical Sumiya memories slowly faded, but not awful Atami. My mother loved her one and only visit to Japan and never made it over again. Years later I had to the chance to take my father and family friends on some wonderfully crafted and unique Japanese travel experiences that my partner spend months planning, the kind of trips you only get to do once or twice in a lifetime. My father always had a great time but as the years advanced even those memories faded. But not Atami. Even in his last years we still laughed about Atami. Now that my parents are gone there’s nobody to laugh with anymore, but the worst memories of Atami are now the best memories of all…and they still make me smile.

Hope Vampires

Now that Tokyo Yamanote line train cars have replaced most of the ad poster spaces with display screens showing endlessly looping silent video commercials, catchy slogans are more important than ever. Most of the ads seem to be plastic surgery for gals and body hair removal for guys. There are also spring seasonal ads serving up companies enticing new university grads to come work and create a future that finally puts to rest the ‘lost 30 years’. Maybe it’s a black joke playing off a cultural trope but the context it references isn’t funny.

Excuse me but the so called Japanese ‘lost decade’ turned into the ‘lost 20 years’, and is now the ‘lost 30 years’. 20 years from now Japan will be dismissed as the country of that ‘lost 50 years’ with no future. Excuse me again for saying this is all bullshit, created and sustained by the media because it’s catchy copy for whatever Japan story they want to write.

Having lived and experienced the Japanese bubble economy firsthand, it was incredibly destructive of culture values. Everything went out the window in the pursuit of money. And when the money went poof, what was destroyed couldn’t be rebuilt. Anybody who thinks the Japanese bubble era is the high bar that Japan can never live down if it can’t live up to that surreal standard…is out of their mind.

So ask yourself something: who benefits when the people of Japan are never allowed to feel good about themselves, their country, or their future, living in a constant barrage of western media messaging, amplified by the domestic media, that says, “you are a nation of has beens”?

It’s a form of mind control that Japanese who fought in the war and witnessed how the game of defeat played out in the postwar world order put in place the GHQ, were intimately familiar with: Japan must be destroyed from the inside so that the people never have the confidence to claim forbidden subjects like the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are war crimes against humanity that the United States must compensate the people of Japan for.

That will never happen of course. The United States is like my older brothers: they never say sorry. More importantly even when they say sorry, they never do sorry. And while the ‘lost XX years’ cultural trope that media uses to define Japan may not appear to be on that level, it is worse: it robs younger generations of hope. To me that’s not only a sin, it’s also self defeating. Like a curse that rebounds and goes back to originator, hope denied in others is denied in you. One of the central teachings of Nichiren Shonin is that if you want peace and prosperity for yourself, you must pray for the peace and prosperity for others first. That’s another way of saying, if others around you are full of hope, hope comes to you too.

Refurbishing classic Japanese text for the digital age

One of my favorite work tasks is bringing classic Nichiren Shu Japanese texts into the digital age so they can be translated easily or republished using the latest print technologies for paper and ebooks. Before a title goes into production there are essential steps of obtaining the basic text in digital format, if any exists, and exploring archives for definitive published Showa era sources to double check digital text integrity. Exploration is spelunking into the past to find people connected with the original production process, however remotely, and tease out helpful details: are there any production materials, was it all analog, is there any digital content to work with, and so on.

When helping to bring Senchu Murano’s wonderful Lotus Sutra English language translation back to life, I was heart broken to learn that after months of searching, the original production materials had been destroyed when the printer closed the business only a year earlier. Fortunately there was already a team working on recreating all the English text (over 120,000 words with lots of transliterated, diacritical heavy Pali vocabulary) in desktop computer word processing software. However, when the project finally entered into the primary layout stage I quickly discovered that Murano, or the kumihan typesetters of the 1974 1st edition, had used a number of non-standard Kanji characters in the glossary section, aka Gaiji.

The glossary from The Lotus Sutra 3rd edition

Fortunately I knew the designers of the Hiragino Japanese macOS system font and they introduced a former apprentice who did outside contract font design work. After a careful review he found 15 gaiji characters, unique regular kanji variations not included in the Hiragino Gothic Pro N extended character set and created them for Lotus Sutra 3rd edition.

The 15 Gaiji characters created for the Lotus Sutra 3rd edition.

One thing I learned from the gaiji creation process is that the line between a quirky Japanese kanji design of a regular character and a real gaiji can be very fine. It’s not always an easy black or white call. There is also the publishing history to consider, what was the original intention? Did latter editions swap out complex kanji with simplified versions due to the transition from analog production, and because the early electronic layout production systems were so limited? These are all important points to consider when porting classic Japanese texts to modern production system software.

I was reminded of this with a new project recreating a 31 day chant book of Nichiren Shonin’s Minobu Letters. Fortunately Okazawa san was available to do another fine comb review of our materials.

We found that the original Showa text kanji, which is considered the definitive source, had been changed in the Heisei version. Upon further investigation I discovered the Heisei text had been reproduced on a proprietary Panasonic electronic typesetting device that had limited character sets, and was obsolete. The Panasonic device Japanese fonts used i the book were also somewhat quirky. They looked different enough to consider them gaiji-like, but in the end after comparing everything to Showa printed books, we realized they were just quirky simplified designs of the Panasonic device. Not the original intention.

The happy end here is that the default macOS Hiragino Gothic Pro N extended character set has all our production needs covered. And it’s a great design that travels very well.

I highly recommend it.