Google Pixel Watch Suica…with limits

Now that Google Pixel Watch Suica is here, the obvious questions are: is it global NFC or is it limited to JP models, is Suica the only JP payment service? EMV is there of course, PASMO joined Google Pay recently with clear signs that Wear OS support is also in the works. At the very least we can expect PASMO in a future Pixel Watch update, but so far there is no mention of iD, QUICPay and other Google Pay FeliCa payment services on Wear OS.

On the global NFC side, things turned out exactly as predicted (copied below from May 2022). Pixel 7 Mobile FeliCa support is the same old ‘cheap instead of deep‘ story: all models have the same NFC hardware with Mobile FeliCa loaded, but Google only fully activates it for JP models, in other words they continue to kneecap NFC on non-JP Pixel phones.

Pixel Watch lists FeliCa on the spec page for all models and regions, it is global NFC…but is kneecapped in the initial Wear OS version. The Mobile FeliCa Cloud (aka Mobile FeliCa Lite) powered backend is the same used by Garmin and Fitbit that delivers a geolocation locked subset of Mobile Suica services; you get the stored fare balance (SF) functions and little else. All worldwide models support Suica but it can only be added on registered devices physically located in Japan, that is to say FeliCa support is limited by location not the device model. While not ideal, it does provide some highly useful digital payment functionality for inbound visitors with those devices.

Instead of limiting Suica by geolocation that Garmin and (Google owned) Fitbit do, Google kneecapped Pixel Watch Suica for some unknown reason, limiting Suica to JP models as Pixel Watch help documentation makes clear. It looks like a major fuckup for an expensive smart device from a leading tech company that can and should work the same everywhere.

Fortunately Google promises a Wear OS update that removes the NFC kneecap allowing all Pixel Watch users to add Suica when in Japan, just like Garmin and Fitbit. We shall see if Google keeps their promise. Pixel Watch Suica has other limitations similar to Garmin and Fitbit: no Suica commuter plans, no Suica plastic card transfers, no Suica Green Car Seats, no Suica Day Passes, etc, but you can register Pixel Watch Suica for extra services: JRE POINT, Eki-Net, Touch and Go Shinkansen.

In short, that state of Google Pay on Pixel 7•Pixel Watch is not the Apple Pay-like overhaul for robust native global NFC across the entire Pixel family many were hoping for. If Google delivers on their promise to remove the Pixel Watch NFC kneecap, all those users can at least use Suica. It does raise the question I asked back in May, if all Pixel Watches do Suica, why not Pixel 7? Pixel 7 is perfectly capable but Google is keeping that NFC kneecap in place. And there is the glaring Google Pay gap between Pixel 7 JP models which support all contactless JP payments from Suica to iD to Edy, while Pixel Watch only supports one: Suica.

Meanwhile Apple Watch remains the only full featured global NFC Suica wearable because Apple took the time and effort to do Apple Pay right…what else is new?

I’ll update this post with Pixel FeliCa details as they become available.


Will Pixel Watch finally deliver global NFC Google Pay? (May 2022)
Ever since Apple made global NFC standard on all iPhone and Apple Watch models in 2017, global NFC has become a litmus test of ultimate Apple-like user friendliness. When inbound devices can add Suica, it’s not only cool, but also necessary to get around. Garmin and Fitbit wearables do the global NFC thing, but Android remains stubbornly ‘buy a Japanese smartphone to do the Suica FeliCa thing.’

In the global NFC sweepstakes then, every Google Pixel release cycle is a game of ‘will they or won’t they’ finally deliver global NFC. Actually Pixel is already global NFC with Mobile FeliCa ready to go, but Google disables it on all non-Japanese Pixel models.

Which brings us to Pixel Watch which got a sneak peek at Google I/O 2022. The buzz on Japanese Twitter was basically: I want one, but not if it does’t have Suica support. Fair enough, I bet a lot of people are thinking that and not only in Japan. After all, Hong Kong users would love having a Pixel Watch that supports Octopus.

The good news is that Suica appears to be coming to Google Pay for Wear OS. Various Suica string have appeared in recent Google Pay APKs. This is expected: it would certainly be very awkward if Pixel Watch doesn’t support Suica when Fitbit devices do.

But this begs a bigger question. Wouldn’t it be extremely awkward if Pixel 7 doesn’t support Suica out of the box when Pixel Watch does? I would say so. But then again one hopes The Android Ready SE Alliance is working to fix all that, and do away with the limitations of Android HCE nonsense once and for all.

JRE POINT Reboot

The JRE POINT website and apps (iOS•Android) received a makeover on August 29. The purpose of the reboot was to increase security with Face/Touch ID login, and add some long overdue features such as removing the single Mobile Suica registration limit. With the new service, account users can register up to 20 Suica cards of any type and also share JRE POINT with other JRE POINT ‘family’ member accounts.

As with all JR East online services that get a reboot, things did not go very well. The first 48 hours were full of glitches and the app basically did not work for many people. After a few update patches things are working for the most part, the JRE POINT iOS app is currently 3.0.4 but still needs some fixes as auto login only works half the time. By far the best new features are the ability to add more than one Mobile Suica card, handy for families, as well as point sharing although it’s rather cumbersome.

From a UI perspective, JRE POINT app is very similar to Eki-Net in that the UI jettisons native iOS and Android controls for a clumsy web UI. The only reason for using the app instead of the web site is to use the JRE POINT barcode at checkout and play the stupid little games for extra JRE POINT. The Face/Touch ID login support is less appealing than you might expect, it’s only used in lieu of the 6 PIN code to access point transaction history, or change login ID and password.

I’ve updated the JRE POINT guide for the new features and UI. Let me know if you find anything missing.

Mt. Minobu Trail Run finally returns

After a long absence due to COVID restrictions and typhoon damage to trails and access roads, the Mt. Minobu Monk’s Run Trail Race is taking place Sunday, November 27. This is the first time in several years that the full 36 kilometer course over Mt. Minobu and Mt. Shichimen is open for competition. See the Japanese web site for details. Here are 2 article posts covering the event:

Monk’s Run
Monk’s Run revisited

Riding the rails with AirPods Pro 2

The original AirPods were a godsend for morning rush hour commuting on the super crowded Yamanote line in Tokyo. The sound quality was not all that different from the wired EarPods that came with iPhone, but they were wireless and that was a game changer. There were countless times when my EarPods cable would catch on a woman’s bag squeezing past in a rush for the car doors, with EarPods and iPhone suddenly ripped out of my ears and pocket, either falling to the floor, or most embarrassing of all, trailing behind a running person while I scrambled to catch them. AirPods eliminated that problem and physical cable noises too, more than enough to put up with the familiar EarPod issues of not staying in the ear so well, or cleaning ear wax buildup on the inside mesh.

Then came AirPods Pro and the magic of noise cancellation, transparency mode and earphones that fit snuggly, so comfortable I’d forget I was wearing them. AirPods Pro 1 were a perfect companion for riding the rails. The noise cancellation was good enough to filter most of the rail and station noise for all but the most extreme cases, such as JR Shinjuku platforms with multiple busy train lines, and loud announcements that have gotten much louder since AirPods Pro arrived as more and more people use…noise cancelling earphones. JR East has compensated by cranking train announcement volumes everywhere but especially so for platforms.

There is also the COVID effect which mandates partially open train car windows for COVID killing fresh air circulation. Not all windows are opened and only a bit, 10 cm or so, usually one window on each side between the doors. But even that little opening is extremely loud when a train goes underground or through underpasses. Older cars that run on the Tokyu Ikegami line are also not soundproofed like the modern Yamanote E235 trains. COVID era train commuting is a very challenging sound environment for AirPods Pro.

AirPods Pro 2: the best AirPods for COVID era train commuting
I’m happy to report that AirPods Pro 2 are a great improvement over the original AirPods Pro for rush hour train commuting in the COVID era. Here is my quick AirPods Pro 2 take from riding the rails everyday:

Audio Performance
With so many AirPods Pro 2 reviews out there, there is not much to add except to say the audio performance enhancement is as real as they say, the soundscape experience is much more immersive. My first impression grows stronger every day: if you like Dolby Atmos spatial audio mixes, these are the AirPods to have.

Noise cancellation
Apple’s claim of 2x noise cancellation over AirPods Pro 1st generation sounds about right. Switch point clatter, underpass roar, tunnel transit with open windows, extra loud platform announcements and more, are quiet but discernible background sounds instead of music killing sound tsunamis. You can even listen to music inside a pachinko parlor, the ultimate sound tsunami. Not that you would want to that, but with AirPods Pro 2 noise cancellation, you can.

Adaptive Transparency
Transparency mode is one of the killer features of AirPods Pro 1. The real time audio of transparency mode is on a level that other earphone makers have yet to match. How do you beat a hard to beat feature? By making it so natural you forget that you’re wearing them. 2nd generation transparency is much less tinny than the original. Everything sounds more natural, I’m not conscious of my voice like I was with the 1st generation, I feel like I’m having a normal conversation without earphones. Because it’s not flashy, the new ‘Adaptive’ feature is hard to pin down, but there’s a perfect way to test it. Stand outside a pachinko parlor near the entrance and wait for someone to go through the door. The resulting sound tsunami that always overwhelms 1st generation transparency is handled by adaptive transparency with ease, it doesn’t overwhelm your ears.

Touch control
AirPods was a huge improvement over EarPods in every way except one: the volume/playback control buttons. Listening to music in a packed train has special challenges. There isn’t always enough space to hold iPhone in one hand and a strap or pole in another. I always put my iPhone in my pack before getting on. Apple Watch isn’t a reliable solution either. Double clicking to bring up the player app and then rotate the knob to adjust volume is great in theory, but the reality is a pain point: not enough room to maneuver, buggy WatchOS that doesn’t change the volume, etc. AirPods Pro 2 touch controls are finally complete. They are easy to use and use discreetly. That is huge.

All aboard
AirPods Pro 1 were easily my favorite piece of Apple hardware these past few years. I got more day to day enjoyment than anything else. For me AirPod Pros 2 are a wonderful upgrade, not only for the new features and enhanced performance, but also for bringing the Dolby Atmos spatial audio experience into focus. I finally ‘get it’. We are still at the very beginning of the spatial audio era, but with AirPods Pro 2, I look forward to exploring new soundscapes yet to come. To enjoy a fully customized AirPods Pro 2 listening experience, make sure you dig into all the options, they make a big difference. Have fun.

Foreign VISA cards blocked for select Japanese mobile in-app and online payments

Notice: this post will be updated with new developments, latest info here


SoftBank Payments network chart

When foreign issue VISA cards in Wallet stopped working for some kinds of Apple Pay in-app purchases from Japanese merchants starting on August 5, the first people to howl in pain were Apple Pay PASMO users who suddenly couldn’t recharge the stored fare balance or renew commuter passes with their Chase Sapphire VISA cards. Chase Sapphire still codes for 3x travel points on PASMO you see and long time resident Suica users had migrated to PASMO when JR East and VISA shut down 3x travel points.

I did the usual duty of talking with Mobile Suica support, official line: there should be no problem, contact the card issuer. I then contacted Wells Fargo card services support, official line: there should be no problem with your VISA, contact the merchant. Entirely expected of course but I did confirm that Mobile Suica transaction attempts were not even showing on the Wells Fago system. They said it might be a ‘communications issue’.

I suspected a larger issue than just Apple Pay and an Android Suica user confirmed the same non-JP VISA problem with Google Pay Suica. I also alerted IT journalist Junya Suzuki who focuses on mobile payments. His first thought was something might be going on with the VISA Japan merchant acquirer side of the payment network. Merchant acquirers are very secretive and nobody knows who is the merchant acquirer is for Mobile Suica/Mobile PASMO. Maybe they were tightening online transaction security…or something else. Everything was clear as mud though one source did say this:

An acquirer made the decision stopping handling cards issued in other countries. Acquirer are different between Apple Pay and Google Pay, so that’s why I said Apple Pay. Another guy suggests Apple or such acquirer may face money laundering issue by registering Apple Pay with pre-paid Visa cards or so.

A reader asked me if Japan was banning non-JP VISA cards across the board along with a screenshot of Universal Studios Japan advance ticket sales page with a red colored important notice on the top that said: “We apologize that currently Visa and Mastercard credit cards issued outside Japan are not available until further notice.”

The evidence pointed to a larger problem than just Mobile Suica and PASMO. The USJ wording also suggests that JTRWeb have their hands tied ‘until further notice’ and echos what JR East PR told Suzuki san about the non-JP VISA recharge problem being beyond their immediate control. Something seems to be happening with the VISA merchant acquirer…but in different highly selective ways. For example why does Apple Pay Suica work with foreign issue Mastercard and AMEX but not VISA, or why does foreign issue VISA work for Apple Pay in-app purchases with Japanese apps like Starbucks, but not in-app purchase with JR East for Suica recharge?

Phishing attacks and VISA Touch promotion
It’s helpful to examine the impact of phishing attacks that hit docomo, Line Pay, PayPay and other QR code payment services in late 2020, and JR East online services (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net and VIEW card) in early 2022. Responses to phishing attacks has been slow, varied and vague. Companies like to say they value customer security but are short detailing what they’re doing about it.

Docomo quickly suspended, then killed off, their problematic docomo koza e-paymnet service. Then Japanese credit card issuers got serious and responded by upgrading to EMV 3-D Secure v2 for browser and mobile app payments (edit: EMV 3-D Secure is the EMV e-commerce browser and app authentication spec for all members but card brands use their own naming) and are due to phase out 3-D Secure v1 by October 2022.

JR East upgraded Suica App to 3-D Secure v2 for in-house credit card purchases and changed the JRE POINT Suica recharge process to make it more secure, but seemly little else. Scratch under the surface however and you’ll notice unannounced recharge security blocks even in Apple Pay Suica. There are also new limits for certain Japanese issue cards registered in Suica App. Recharge with Revolut VISA for example is now limited to 3,000 JPY per day despite the fact that Suica App uses 3-D Secure v2. Clear as mud…again.

Which brings up to the most important point of the whole problem: why is the VISA payment network not accepting foreign issue cards for Apple Pay Suica and Google Pay Suica recharge when those digital wallets offer the highest levels of secure online transactions out there? A bumpy 3-D Secure v2 transition might explain what’s happening for online sites who don’t support Apple Pay and have not updated to newer protocol. But the transition has been going on for a while now, and it doesn’t explain what’s happening with Apple Pay Suica/PASMO and Google Pay Suica (Osaifu Keitai) which have nothing to do with EMV 3-D Secure.

The timing is perfect however when you consider that VISA is heavily promoting ‘VISA Touch’ EMV contactless. It’s very convenient that Apple Pay Suica and PASMO are suddenly sidelined as easy payment options for inbound visitors.

The Apple Pay difference
The security issue doesn’t apply to Apple Pay. Apple Pay comes with the extra security and guarantees that Apple provides to issuers and merchants, once a card is added to Apple Wallet, it is cleared for all things Apple Pay (ditto for Google Pay). This is why a plastic contactless card that doesn’t work on TfL open loop transit gates works when it is added to Apple Wallet. It’s the Apple Pay difference.

So we circle back to foreign issue VISA again. Why are cards cleared for Apple Pay, cards that worked fine until August 5, suddenly not working? Is JR East shutting down recharge for foreign issue cards like Hong Kong Octopus and China T-Union do without telling us? So far JR East support says that all credit and debit cards that support Apple Pay in-app purchase are good to go. They certainly want inbound visitors to use Suica. What little evidence we have so far points to a change on the VISA merchant acquirer side. Everybody else seems to be doing what they always do and haven’t changed anything.

VISA has a history of not playing nice with Japanese stored value cards on mobile. JP issue VISA cards didn’t work for Apple Pay in-app purchases and Suica recharge until last year, it took VISA 5 years to ‘resolve’ that issue. VISA cards still do not work with Mobile WAON and Mobile nanaco on Android and Apple Pay, they likely never will. My take is that VISA is happy with people buying things with VISA, they are certainly happy with people borrowing money with VISA, but they are not happy with people using VISA to move money into stored value prepaid cards for making payments, earning points, etc., that are not VISA.

Who knows? VISA has played hardball in the Japanese market before, maybe they are doing so again. Perhaps they refuse to be an ATM-like recharge backend for Japanese e-money cards unless they also get ATM-like lending rate surcharges, or maybe they want to promote open loop VISA Touch and Stera Transit at the expense Mobile Suica market and mindshare. You get the picture.

Junya Suzuki thinks the VISA merchant acquirers might be coming under pressure from potential money laundering risks. I think people have the right to move their money where they want to, after all we’re only talking a max Suica balance of ¥20,000 here. Whatever the reason let’s hope it is fixed soon, though I have learned over the years that card brand payment issues are never simple. Time will tell. At the very least I think we can say this is another skirmish in the ongoing digital payment turf wars.