The Weekly

2022-03-14 Spring Cleaning

Mobile Suica day pass support started March 12

Mobile Suica App Day Passes
As promised Mobile Suica added day passes starting March 12. These are digital versions of the 4 day passes available for plastic Suica at JR East station kiosks: Nobiri Holiday, Tokyo Free Pass, Tokyo Ward Pass, Yokohama-Minatomirai Free Pass. Day passes are ‘same day’ purchases, valid from the first train through the last train of the purchase day.

Mobile Suica day passes are purchased via the smartphone app (Suica App on iOS, Mobile Suica on Android) and can be added to any Suica card displaying in Suica App that does not have a valid commute plan attached (expired commute plan Suica can be used). See the Suica App guide for purchase details.


Greater Kanto area Suica and PASMO extensions
March is always a busy month for transit companies, on the bright side new schedules go into effect and new services launch, on the not so bright side some older services are terminated. COVID has hit all transit very hard, but there are some good changes too such as increased Suica and PASMO Transit IC card use instead of paper tickets, and the extension of those networks.

March 12 saw two big launches, Suica 2 in 1 nolbé card with wide Gunma area bus support, and the Chichibu Railway joining PASMO. As the Yahoo Japan news blurb says, it’s finally possible for to ride all transit in Saitama Prefecture with just a Suica or PASMO.


Off Peak Commuter Suica Point Service Extension
Last but not least, the JRE POINT Off Peak Point Service campaign for Commute Suica cards (plastic and Mobile Suica) is being extended for another year, 2022-04-01~2023-03-31. The point service is being tweaked a bit. Instead of offering different point rewards for ‘early’ and ‘late’ commute times, the same points are given for both designate off peak times. The update also gives more points after 4 commuter pass transits in the same month. The program promotes commuter pass use and the updated point schedule doesn’t up the monthly max but it does offer max points to all Suica commuter users now, not just late off peak users.

JR East Off Peak Point Service update

Timeout: a very long transit card transit

It’s been a year since JR Central’s TOICA network was expanded to more stations making Suica-TOICA-ICOCA cross region commuter passes available for the very first time. Regular transit cards are still stuck with tapping out of one fare region and tapping in at fare region border stations in Atami (Suica~TOICA) and Maibara (TOICA~ICOCA). But even for regular transit cards, crossing IC fare regions is much easier thanks to special IC fare region specific exit gates installed with the TOICA expansion.

Transit YouTuber Wataru Watanuki took the fare region border crossing challenge with a 10 hour trip by regular trains from Tokyo to Osaka using his Suica card. A 556.4 kilometer trip. Try that with a transit card in any other country.

He could have used his Apple Pay Suica but used plastic Suica because it’s easier to get detailed Suica receipt printouts at mobile-unfriendly JR West station kiosks. In his video there are two IC fare region border crossings, one at Atami station from Suica to TOICA and one at Maibara station from TOICA to ICOCA. It’s a leisurely fun train travel video similar to videos that investigate transit IC fare loopholes.

Things would have gone smoothly for Wataru san but he was tripped up by a little known stingy TOICA tap-timeout rule, rumored to be within 3 hours from tap in before the card is invalidated for the trip and has to be reset by a station agent. There is no way to travel from Atami to Maibara by regular train in 3 hours, the shortest travel time is 5 hours 44 minutes, 3 hours barely gets one to Hamamatsu. JR Central supposedly does this to prevent ICOCA card abuse (Really? I suspect they just make it inconvenient so people ditch local trains and ride the Tokaido Shinkansen instead). JR East Suica appears to have much more lax timeout rules. JR West ICOCA limits IC transit on their regular lines to 200 km, though there are some interesting ICOCA loopholes.

Long distance travel with Suica and other IC transit cards isn’t a problem, any regular person would just take the Shinkansen using smartEX or Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets. Timeout doesn’t apply because the IC card SF balance ‘taps out’ when going through the Shinkansen entrance gate. But the video does point out a long standing weakness of Japanese transit IC fare systems: it’s a hassle for people living in fare region border areas and prevents them from using transit IC cards for local area cross border transit.

One example is the JR Central Minobu line. It does not have transit IC service yet because the line starts at JR East Suica region Kofu station. Suica users from Tokyo can only go as far as Kofu before switching to paper tickets for the Minobu line transfer.

The best thing would be JR East and JR Central cooperating so that IC fare tables work both ways and integrate for cheaper through IC fares instead of 2 separate trips. Most Minobu line stations are unmanned, the trains already equipped with paper ticket fare boxes at the front door exit. Adding a IC card reader is the next logical step and work exactly like buses and some JR West ICOCA equipped train lines do: tap in at the entrance, tap out at the exit. Small improvements would like this would go a long way to solve cross border IC card hassles and make transit easier for local residents. Transit cards only become useful when they integrate with everything from transit to purchases, that in turn, encourages mobile for transit use.

The Suica 2 in 1 mobile dilemma: promoting targeted region services on a wide mobile platform

Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit Cards have a problem: it would be great to have these cards available on mobile wallet platforms (Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay, etc.) however, the whole point of region cards is to promote region affiliate transit companies and service benefits for the people who live there. There are region affiliate transit points and services for everybody, discounts and point rebates for elderly and disabled users, commute plans and so on, subsidized by prefectural and local city governments.

Hence despite the Suica logo on them, region affiliate cards are not available from JR East. They are only available from region affiliate bus offices. But it’s a pain getting them, commute plan renewal requires another trip to the bus office and cash recharge is the only option. Suica 2 in 1 would be infinitely more useful and user friendly on mobile. Region affiliate users are certainly happy to have a card that covers all of their transit needs but it doesn’t bring them into the Mobile Suica era.

But mobile is a two edged sword. On one hand you want the convenience of Mobile Suica, on the other hand region cards need to promote subsidized services for a particular location, keeping them local on a wide mobile platform and restricting access for special services with certain eligibility requirements (local disabled and elderly residents) is a challenge. How does one promote targeted regional services on widely available mobile platforms like Mobile Suica on Apple Pay?

The Suica App mobile fix
Hmmm, this sounds like a similar problem with student commuter passes. JR East and customers want to do away with the drudgery of going to the local JR East station ticket window to confirm student ID validity, nevertheless, student ID validity must be confirmed before a student commuter pass can be purchased. Mobile Suica has supported student commuter passes but students have to go to a local JR East office to validate and activate it.

Mobile Suica will address this problem on February 13 with a system update and new version of Suica App (v3.1.0) that adds support for in-app purchasing and renewing student commute plans. Another Mobile Suica update on March 12 will add Tokyo region day pass purchase support. Think of these as selective local services on a widely available mobile platform. Let’s see how this approach can be applied to Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards.

1) Region affiliate mobile issue
When I made my Apple Wallet transit card wish list mockup, I thought it might be nice to have all the new Suica 2 in 1 cards available directly in Wallet app along with Mobile ICOCA (coming in 2023).

In reality, it’s not a good idea to make region affiliate transit cards available to every Wallet app user. Transit cards are easier to add in iOS 15 Wallet app than ever before, but not delete and get a refund. Too many choices confuse users who may be new to Apple Pay. What if a user wanted to add a regular Suica but added totra Suica or nolbé Suica by mistake?

Apple Pay WAON deals with this problem in a smart way: regular WAON can be added directly in Wallet app, regional WAON cards are added to Wallet with WAON app. The beauty of issuing specialty WAON cards in the app is they have region specific goodies attached: a portion of the region WAON card transaction goes to a local government development fund.

This approach is a perfect fit for region affiliate Suica cards on mobile with local perks, bonus local transit points and so on when issuing cards on mobile.

2) Suica 2 in 1 commuter pass purchases and limited eligibility card issue
There are a few more hurdles to clear before Suica 2 in 1 can join the mobile era: region affiliate commute plan purchase and renewal, limited eligibility card issue (for elder and disabled users).

Let’s say you are a totra commuter who rides a region affiliate bus and a JR East train. In this case you need 2 separate commute plans on your Suica 2 in 1 totra card, one for the region affiliate bus, one for JR East. The commuters plans must be purchased separately: the region affliliate commuter pass is bought at the bus office, the JR East section is then purchased added at a JR East station ticket office. It’s a complex hassle. JR East stations are all cashless but only a few region affiliate bus offices take credit cards…and so it goes. How nice it would be to do this with an app and pay with Apple Pay.

Mobile Suica already hosts this kind of complex commute plan configuration but not in Suica App. Mobile PASMO and PASMO App are hosted on the JR East system, basically rebranded Mobile Suica, and easily configure complex bus + train commute plans from multiple transit operators for mobile purchase.

This leaves limited eligibility card issue. The February 13 Mobile Suica update adds student commuter pass pre-registration and ID verification uploading via the Mobile Suica member website. The student reservers a pass entering school information, commute route and uploads a picture of their school ID. Approved student commuter pass reservations are then purchased in Suica App. This ID verification method can be used for issuing elder and disabled Suica 2 in 1 cards. It’s still a manual authentication process that digital My Number cards will, hopefully, transform into a simple automatic one with instant verification of necessary personal information.

One of the really interesting things about Suica 2 in 1 is that the next generation format is the very first Suica card that supports disability fares. Up until now disability fare users have been limited to paper passes inspected at manned transit gates.

JR East plans to drastically reduce the number of manned transit gate areas. Before this happens, mobile support for all Suica cards of every kind, especially the new Suica 2 in 1 features, must be in place. The pieces of the solution are there, it only a matter of JR East integrating them into a Mobile Suica system and Suica App update.

One Suica App to rule them all
If we are promoting region affiliate Suica cards does it make sense to do it all in Suica App or have individually branded local apps for totra, nolbé, cherica, et al? One main goal of Suica 2 in 1 is cost reduction and infrastructure sharing. Despite all the different names and card artwork these are Suica cards with all the Suica benefits and JR East managing the Suica infrastructure for region affiliates.

I’d argue it doesn’t make sense nor does it fit with cost reduction goals to do a bunch of re-skinned local Suica Apps when JR East is making a bunch of replicas. Better to focus efforts on making Suica App a streamlined easy to use app with all the necessary tools for managing mobile region affiliate cards. And because physical cards remain an important part of the Suica platform strategy, Suica App must also add a physical card iPhone recharge feature similar to what Octopus App and Navigo App offer.

All in all I expect that 2023, which will see the launch of the highly anticipated JR West Mobile ICOCA service, will be a big year for Mobile Suica and Suica App too.

Mobile FeliCa evolution: FeliCa without the FeliCa chip

FeliCa Dude did his usual public service of posting Mobile FeliCa details for the latest Pixel 6 devices. There wasn’t any change from Pixel 5, so no global NFC Pixel for inbound visitors. Nevertheless it’s a good opportunity to review some important recent developments that have taken place behind the scenes on the Android Mobile FeliCa side and examine some possible 2022 scenarios. Things have changed even if most users don’t notice any difference.

The chart outlines Mobile FeliCa on Google Pixel developments based on information from FeliCa Dude’s tweets.

Mobile FeliCa 4.0 (Pixel 4) freed Android device manufacturers from having to use embedded secure element + NFC chips from the FeliCa Networks supply chain. Any FAST certified secure element will do. This development has resulted in a number of inexpensive Osaifu-Keitai SIM-Free smartphones released by Chinese manufacturers recently that are selling well. Hopefully it will have wider implications for inexpensive global NFC Android devices. There are lots of people in Hong Kong who would buy one to use Octopus.

Mobile FeliCa 4.1 (Pixel 5/Pixel 6) introduced multiple secure element domains. This allows the device manufacturer to ‘own’ the eSE and load or delete Java Card applets. FeliCa Dude thinks that multiple secure element domains (MSED) might play a part in the MIC digital My Number Card due to launch on Osaifu Keitai devices in 2022. My Number card uses NFC-B but MSED allows the Mobile FeliCa secure element to host it anyway, an interesting development.

Mobile FeliCa 4.2 or 5.0? The next version of Mobile FeliCa (MF) will hopefully support FeliCa SD2 next generation features that shipped in November 2020, features that power Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit Cards (aka Super Suica) which are going wide in March 2022. These cards really need to be on mobile for future MaaS service plans outlined by JR East which cannot happen until SD2 features are added.

The improvements in MF 4.1 certainly give Android device manufacturers the ability to update MF over the air but don’t hold your breath. Standard industry practice to date has been ‘buy a new device to get new features’. Apple has been a little bit better in this regard: MIFARE support was added in iOS 12 for Student ID cards and iOS 15 fixed some Calypso bugs on ‌iPhone‌ XR/XS and ‌iPhone‌ SE.

A FeliCa Dude Reddit post comment regarding Asus smartphones illustrates the pre-MF 4.0 situation: “any phone that lists ‘NFC’ compliance must support Type F (FeliCa), but as there is no Osaifu-Keitai secure element <aka Mobile FeliCa secure element>, you will be limited to reading and potentially charging physical cards: you cannot use the phone as a card itself.” That was then, this is now.

Most people assume FeliCa support requires a Felica chip but this is not true. The evolution of hardware independent Mobile FeliCa is very clear: the ‘FeliCa chip’ from Sony/FeliCa Networks requirement is long dead and gone. Manufacturers like Xiaomi claim they make special models and add FeliCa chips just for the Japanese market, but that’s just marketing BS: they run Mobile FeliCa on the same NXP NFC chipset they use everywhere. The majority of smartphones supporting FeliCa don’t have a FeliCa chip, everything from EMV to FeliCa and MIFARE runs on any GlobalPlatform certified secure element on any Android device.

Hopefully the sum of recent Mobile FeliCa developments, along with Garmin Suica, Fitbit Suica and built in WearOS Suica showing up in recent developer builds, indicate that FeliCa Osaifu Keitai services will become standard on Android devices as they have been on all iOS and watchOS devices since 2017.

Only Japan has cute transit card mascots?! Why?

I have been in Japan for so long that I assumed the cute, cleverly effective transit card mascot characters like Suica penguin, PASMO robot, ICOCA duck (er platypus?), etc., are employed by transit companies around the world. They are not. Let’s compare…

TfL Oyster? Not cute.

San Fransisco Clipper? So unoriginal.

Sydney Opal? Ditto.

Hong Kong Octopus? Borrowed mascot better than none?

For goodness sake, if transit companies around the world can’t implement the great technology that makes Suica great, they could at least create cute fun mascot characters that brighten the commuting day and help people feel good about riding transit again. And you do want people to ride transit again after the COVID nightmare right? Cleverly designed mascots with a touch of anime kawai’ are a great marketing tool for that.