State of Suica 2022

Now that the 1st wave of Suica 2 in 1 card launches is complete, it’s a good time to review the ‘State of Suica’. And it’s always interesting to examine the cultural differences too, when it comes to labeling trends as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Westerners for example invariably say, what’s the point of having so many Suica card flavors? It’s a waste, better to have just one. It’s a classic double standard professing to want but insisting that life should revolve around single kind of credit card. Japanese don’t seem to care much as the culture is adept at ‘振り分け’: this thing for doing this, that thing for doing that. And the region affiliate users getting Suica for the first time seem pretty excited and all Suica varieties work the same for transit and e-Money purchases.

As of now we have the following plastic Suica card flavors beside the regular Suica available at station kiosks: Rinkai Suica, Monorail Suica, Welcome Suica and Suica Light. On the Mobile Suica side we have: Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Fitbit Pay and Garmin Pay, along with branded Mobile Suica for Rakuten Suica and au Suica on Osaifu Keitai and Mizuho Suica on iOS. Last but not least we have 11 new Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit cards that are the keystone of JR East’s MaaS strategy.

What exactly are the differences? It comes down to commuter passes or points. For Suica 2 in 1 cards specifically, it is both. This is a small but very important difference. All the other non-regular Suica outside 2 in 1, come with specific features and limitations. Rakuten and KDDI au users can recharge those Suica with those outside point systems but they can’t add commute plans. Welcome Suica expires in 28 days, Rinkai and Monorail Suica exist for commuter passes and nothing else, and so on.

Suica 2 in 1 doesn’t have limitations and does more than any other Suica: it can hold 2 different commuter passes (one from JR East, one from the region affiliate) and it supports 2 different point systems: messy JRE POINT which is an optional account setup manually linked to the Suica card number, and local government subsidized region affiliate transit points which are automatic and stored on the card itself. The only thing the user needs to do is use the appropriate card for transit to earn and use transit point discounts.

In a mobile payment era where everybody is distinguishing themselves with increasingly complex reward point schemes, the simplicity and flexibility of Suica 2 in 1 transit points, think of it as locally processed transit point stored fare, can go places that old Suica cannot. Imagine how many more people would use Suica transit in Tokyo if it came with transit point discounts. There are other 2 in 1 features not yet supported by regular Suica: disabled and elderly transit user discounts. These are coming to Tokyo area plastic issue Suica, and PASMO too, this October though I suspect those won’t come to Mobile Suica until it gets an upgrade.

Mobile FeliCa hasn’t been updated to the next generation ‘Super Suica’ FeliCa SD2 architecture yet, but once updated we should see Suica 2 in 1 on mobile and new Suica features, along with more Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards. All in all the new Suica 2 in 1 card format tells us where JR East wants to go.

There are some interesting numbers from the JR East FY results. All things transit took a huge hit in FY 2021 from the COVID pandemic, Suica included, but are now recovering though still below pre-covid transaction levels. Another surprise is the popularity of Eki-Net eTickets, a 39% usage rate is not bad for a service that only started in March 2020. One of the smarter things JR East did with Eki-Net eTicket discounts is making them simple and available to all Eki-Net users and credit cards. The JR Central EX system has 2 different Shinkansen eTicket tiers (EX-Press and smartEX) with larger EX discounts limited to select credit cards.

There are lots of things that JR East needs to do longterm, more Suica day passes, Mobile Suica recharge that is available 24/7, phasing out legacy mag strip ticketing and UWB touchless transit gates. In the short term we have Cloud Suica and Mobile ICOCA coming online in March 2023, the end of the current fiscal year. At the very least it should be an interesting time for JR West ICOCA users, and one more nail in the PiTaPa coffin.


My JR-EAST mess

My JR-EAST, like a lot of JR East software services, is a nice idea, poorly implemented. It’s an attempt to unify scattered account login IDs for various JR East web services that evolved independently but need to work together as one in the mobile app era: Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net, View-Net.

The mess was brought home to me recently when I helped a co-worker register his Apple Pay Suica card for Eki-Net Shinkansen eTicket service because the eTicket discounts are attractive. He created a Eki-Net account, which you can only do via the webpage, not the app.

Him: Where do I get the Suica ID?
You need Suica App for that.
One download later it took him 2 tries to register the Suica ID because Suica App copies the entire ID string but Eki-Net cuts off the last 2 numbers as the first 2 sting letters have to be manually selected from a pull down menu. Dumb.

Him: I want to use Green Seat upgrades.
You have to login to Suica App to do that.
Can I use the Eki-Net ID to login?
No, you have to sign up with Mobile Suica.
Can I buy Tokkaido Shinkansen eTickets too?
No, you have to sign up with the JR Central EX service.

And so it went and that’s the mess of JR East software services: each one has a separate registration process and login. On the MY JR-EAST webpage users can register a single ID and PW then login and link other services. One MY JR-EAST ID/PW for Mobile Suica, Eki-Net, JRE POINT, View-Net, except it doesn’t work. Oh wait, it does work for webpage login but not apps. Suica App supports MY JR-East login but JRE POINT and Eki-Net apps do not. View-Net doesn’t even have a mobile app. If JR East wants customers to use their services, why do they make it so hard? This doesn’t jive with the company’s stated intent of reducing in-station service staff and encourage customers to use online resources instead.

It should work like this: the JR Group companies accept online reservation accounts from each other, b better yet they mutually host each other’s online reservation system. I shouldn’t need a separate ID account and registered credit card just because I want to buy a Tokaido Shinkansen eTicket. Let me do that in Eki-Net. The same goes for EX (JR Central) and e5489 (JR West) which are already compatible with each other. Ditto JR Hokkaido and JR Kyushu. Use the sign in with Apple ID model to make all these services work seamlessly with each other and give your customers a break. They might actually start liking JR software services, a first.

All JR Group online services were created back in the era of ISDN internet and iMode handsets. If the JR Group companies want travelers to return after the COVID vaccination program winds down, they have to get their mobile act together and build for the future.

Japan mobile payment survey results

I gave the Twitter survey function a workout and asked 2 questions:

  • Which Japanese mobile payment do you use most?
  • Which Japanese reward points do you use most?

The results are not surprising but come with many caveats: the survey sampling was puny, in English and pretty much limited to a small group of Twitter followers, which means they are pretty much already invested in Mobile Suica. Also it is important to remember that mobile payment use profiles in Japan are highly regional, what’s convenient in Tokyo isn’t necessarily convenient in other areas. That said, there are some interesting and fun takeaways.

Japanese mobile payment takeaways and feedback

  • The 55% Suica/PASMO figure expresses the power of Apple Pay Express Transit (and similar for Osaifu Keitai) for store purchases in the COVID induced face mask era without the hassle of Face ID. It’s important to remember that the ballyhooed Unlock with Apple Watch Face ID feature introduced with iOS 14.5 is useless for Apple Pay authorization. Remember too that Mobile Suica has good support on wearables: Apple Watch, Garmin, fitbit, etc., the widest mobile payment platform in Japan.
  • Despite the heavy marketing VISA Touch from VISA Japan, the majority of users have been using Apple Pay and Osaifu Keitai for iD and QUICPay, etc. I suspect EMV ‘Touch’ (Visa, MC, AMEX, JCB) probably appeals more to plastic card users as VISA is pushing EMV only plastic cards vs. digital wallet dual mode Apple Pay.
  • QR Code payment apps (PayPay, dBarai, LinePay, etc.) are not as popular as you might think and are probably feeling the pain of recent bank account linking security problems, and the recent revelations of user transaction records being stored outside of Japan.

Changes quite a lot. Recently using EMV touch a lot because of SMCC 15% back campaign and Amex 20% at FamilyMart. Otherwise probably a little bit of everything just to get maximum reward. (Tokyo)

I don’t ride trains so I have no real use for Suica. Using it to pay in shops is too much of a PITA since you have to constantly recharge it. (Kagoshima, note that Suica Auto-charge only works in JR East transit region)

I do iD for the point rewards (none in JP CC recharge of Suica) otherwise Express Transit is perfect. (Tokyo)

Mostly Suica (via Garmin Pay), but I’ve been using au Pay (QR or barcode) a lot more recently. (Hiroshima)

Japanese reward point takeaway
Results are complicated. Twitter surveys are limited to 4 choices, I lumped the Japanese carrier reward point systems for docomo, au and SoftBank (dPoint, au•PONTA, T-POINT) into one category, the top choice at 43%. However if we break down the carrier number by carrier marketshare ratio we get the following:

  1. 21% JRE POINT
  2. 28% Rakuten POINT
  3. 19% dPOINT
  4. 14% au•PONTA POINT
  5. 10% T-POINT
  6. 8% V POINT

The key takeaway for reward points is the power of the Rakuten ‘Economic Zone’, i.e. where all the Rakuten pieces including shopping, banking/credit card/payments, transit (Rakuten Suica), mobile, stock trading, travel, etc., are glued together by Rakuten POINT and feed off each other. The Rakuten Economic Zone is the model that others will have to successfully emulate if they are going to be serious long term competitors. NTT docomo announced a tie-up with MUFG this month, the digital banking wars are just getting started.

Eki-Net getting reboot with multilingual support

Well, finally. JR East Eki-Net is getting the makeover I complained about when Shinkansen eTicket service and the mobile app launched just a year ago. On June 27 Eki-Net gets a badly needed re-boot with multi-lingual support, JRE POINT support, more Shinkansen eTicket discounts, inbound discount ticket support, a new UI and more. Here’s a quick look.

JRE POINT Integration
There are so many goodies in the update it’s hard to find a starting place. For many people the integration of JRE POINT is big, it replaces the old separate Eki-Net point system and greatly expands the usefulness of JRE POINT with reward points with ticket purchases and point exchanges for eTickets, upgrades, etc.

Cloud attached ticketing
JR East migrated Mobile Suica Shinkansen tickets to the new eTicket service in 2020 that uses the same Transit IC card number attachment scheme of smartEX. JR East also uses it to attach inbound discount ticketing and passes to Welcome Suica. Expect more Eki-Net domestic discount ticketing and pass options for purchase and attachment to any registered Transit IC card. Drawbacks that I see: (1) yet another account and credit card registration process in a long cluttered line of separate JR East account services (Suica App, JRE POINT, Eki-Net, etc.), (2) Outside of Suica App there is no Apple Pay in-app support for ticket purchases, (3) As always, if your Apple Pay Suica ID number changes you have to re-register it.

QR Code for group ticket pickup
This is a handy feature for group or family travel. Mom can buy tickets online, mail the QR code to the kids, kids pickup the tickets at the station kiosk and travel home for college breaks, etc. At least that’s the idea when we all start traveling again, whenever that is. Seriously though I think this will be convenient and greatly appreciated.

Multilingual and JR East Train Reservation support
English, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Korean, French, German, Spanish, Thai, Indonesian are the supported languages. Inbound discount tickets and passes can already be purchased and attached to Welcome Suica and Suica and it appears that more options are on the way. The press release is short on details but it looks like most JR East Train Reservation functions will be migrating to Eki-Net (note the graphic shows making reservations via the desktop, not with an mobile app). And if Eki-Net is going multilingual, Suica App is close behind.

UI Improvements
One of my biggest grips was the funhouse horror of using Eki-Net desktop. So many options, so poorly arranged and hidden. The current mobile browser Eki-Net is already better and it’s going to get better still with improved eTicket reservations, seat maps, ticket price comparisons, etc. The Eki-Net app is getting improvements too but I suspect the app functions will remain limited to Shinkansen eTickets and Express Train ticketless seat reservations.

There is lots more to dig into when time allows. I’ll be very interested to see the online reaction to Eki-Net discounts and reward point schedules posted at the end of the press release. Japanese customers are ruthlessly efficient at mining the good values and dumping on the junk. This is just the first pass and there will be much more as June approaches. Eki-Net will be down from June 26 20:00~ June 27 5:00 for the big refresh. Expect launch day snags and delays like the recent Mobile Suica refresh. The only thing I don’t look forward to: updating JR POINT Guide for the new point exchange functions.

The Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit Card

The Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate transit card ‘totra’ launches today, the first card based on the September 2018 joint JR East/Sony Imaging Products & Solutions/JR East Mechatronics announcement. The joint roles are defined as: (1) JR East for promotion, coordinating and supporting the implementation process with local transit companies, (2) Sony for developing new FeliCa additions necessary for 2 in 1 and supporting ICT (Information Communication Technology) transit card developments, (3) JREM for issue, testing and qualification of 2 in 1 cards.

Based on information released by the totra partners, the end product closely aligns with the 2018 announcement:

  • 2 in 1 Commuter Passes: a JR East Suica commuter pass and a region affiliate commuter pass
  • 2 in 1 Points: JRE POINT and region affiliate transit points
  • Other region affiliate services: a totra card for disabled users with special discount fares/subsidies, welfare points (starting April 2021) for elder and disabled transit users

…all in one Suica card. This is more important that it seems and solves some long standing problems. Let’s look at the situation with the wonderfully useful Transit IC card chart created by Wiki user ButuCC.

Transit IC interoperability chart

The core square contains the 10 mutual use ‘Transit IC’ cards with many IC arrows pointing to region transit cards outside of the square. This means the core Transit IC cards work on those local transit systems but only one way. There are no IC arrows pointing in towards the core region because there are no regional transit cards mutually compatible with all core Transit IC cards…until now: totra Suica is the first region transit card that works nationwide.

2 in 1 Suica combines the ‘outside the square’ region card with the core Suica card. totra is a Suica card, mutually compatible with all Transit IC, but also a local transit card with new services built on Suica infrastructure. One example: the first transit IC card for disabled users that automatically gives them the local region discount fare and subsidy, but only for the totra fare region, not outside it. Disabled fares are highly regional with local prefecture and city governments providing transit services and fare discounts. It’s a trade off but it does provide a transit IC card option for disabled users instead of paper tickets with a ID card for the first time.

Super Suica or something else?
So is this Super Suica or not? Simply put, Suica 2 in 1 is the core technology for the JR East MaaS strategy, it offers the benefits of Suica infrastructure to link local transit agencies within the JR East area who don’t have the resources to launch or maintain their own transit IC card system. Plugging orphaned regions into the wider transit network and leveraging the established infrastructure in new ways is the sensible thing to do.

The totra Suica logo explains some of what is going on inside the card. There is a ‘+’ mark which indicates ‘Suica plus affiliate’ that combines Suica with an attached financial service like credit card recharge. This is the Suica plus mark you see on all Mobile Suica cards including Mizuho Suica (iOS) and Rakuten Suica (Android).

There is also a ‘••’ mark which indicates FeliCa Pocket services, FeliCa applets on a physical card or Osaifu Keitai card that provide different services in a single card (transit, points, ID, etc.). You can see the ‘••’ Suica logo on Rinkai Suica and Monorail Suica and both marks on the Suica + VIEW combo cards. The Rinkai Suica design also looks like totra with a similar blue trapezoid.

FeliCa Dude points out in an interesting Twitter thread with treastrain that 2 in 1 is a new kind of Suica plus affiliate card issued outside of JR East with no financial service attached to it. As treastrain notes, it’s weird that Suica plus is being used for a rechargeable ¥500 deposit Suica with no attached credit card, but we are in uncharted territory with new features to come.

Suica 2 in 1 is the first Suica based on the new FeliCa Standard SD2 card. We can’t see exactly how FeliCa SD2 is used to deliver 2 in 1 functionality but FeliCa Dude gives us an excellent rundown of 2 important additions: Extended Overlap Service (points and passes) and Value Limited Purse Service (purse). These are tools for JR East and the other Transit IC operators to integrate services in new ways, implement their own version of 2 in 1, raise the balance limit and more. The new FeliCa SD2 features have big implications. Like all things the Super part of Super Suica depends on what JR East and the other CJRC members (Congress of Japanese Railway Cybernetics) mutually accomplish using these new FeliCa and Suica parts. The more region transit cards that migrate and merge inside the Transit IC square while addressing regional needs, the better.

totra Suica 2 in 1 has 2 issue numbers for JR East and the region transit card operator. JR East owns the SF (stored fare) purse, which means they own the float.
Suica 2 in 1 extensively uses the new FeliCa Standard SD2 Extended Overlap Service

What about mobile?
It’s important to remember that 2 in 1 Suica extends Transit IC coverage, including Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO, into new transit areas. 2 in 1 Suica is limited to plastic issue at this point so those users do not have a mobile option. 2 in 1 Mobile Suica service depends on resolving 4 things:

  • Will Mobile FeliCa be upgraded with the new FeliCa SD2 functions?
  • Will Mobile FeliCa be updated on Osaifu Keitai and Apple devices?
  • Will JR East manage Mobile Suica card issue for outside transit companies
  • Is there an (local 2 in 1 Suica transit card) app for that?

Mobile Suica already hosts Suica ‘+’ cards (Mizuho Suica and Rakuten Suica) and FeliCa Pocket services are designed for physical cards and mobile. 2 in 1 is a new card so the first hurdle is upgrading Mobile FeliCa to support SD2 card features and pushing that update to devices.

FeliCa Dude posted some tweets that suggest Mobile FeliCa 4.x on Android devices can be updated but industry practice on the Android side so far has been doing a pre-install and leaving it at that. If users want newer Mobile FeliCa features, get a new device. Apple can certainly update Mobile FeliCa on their custom embedded secure element, but will they?If nothing else I think the recent addition of Garmin Pay Suica and Fitbit Pay Suica indicates that FeliCa Networks is getting better at pushing new services from Mobile FeliCa Cloud.

The app question is another hurdle and a bit complicated. The whole 2 in 1 concept means 2 different managed services are bundled in a single card. Who manages what? While it makes sense to add 2 in 1 Suica non-JR East local commuter routes for purchase and renewal in Mobile Suica and Suica App, local area transit point account management needs to be handled in a separate app. Does each 2 in 1 Suica locale handle that? That approach makes sense but JR East could certainly help with coordinating support and leveraging common resources and infrastructure to eliminate redundancy.

Summary
2021 is only the start line for 2 in 1 Suica with totra and Iwate Green Card. 2022 will see 6 more 2 in1 Suica cards, probably more, it will be the real coming out year. By then Mobile ICOCA will be on the horizon, I think we’ll know if 2 in 1 is the start of Super Suica…or not. If the other Transit IC partners simply copy what JR East is doing with 2 in 1 region cards, that will be super enough for the people who live, work and go to school in those regions.