How much does Suica Off-Peak Commuter Pass really save you?

JR East Off-Peak Commuter Pass PR vid

With the new train schedule and barrier-free transit tariff going into effect on March 18, current Suica Commuter pass users like myself who use the JRE POINT Off-Peak Commuter Point Service that ends this month, face a dilemma: does the Off-Peak Commuter Pass offer the same level of JRE POINT reward savings? Let’s face it, in these inflationary and looming tax increase times, pinching every point to yen counts.

It comes down to 3 choices: (1) a more expensive regular commuter pass that is difficult to swallow without the off-peak transit point return, (2) a less expensive Suica Off-Peak commuter pass without off-peak transit points, (3) no commuter pass with repeat transit points.

As my work place pays commuting expenses based on regular non-commuter pass transit fare, going with the less expensive off-peak commuter pass lets me pocket the difference. So my choice basically comes down to off-peak commuter pass or no commuter pass with repeat transit points, depending on which one gives better JRE POINT returns, better purchase price savings, or both.

Here is a comparison of the price increases for my 6 month commuter pass between JR East Asagaya and Tokyu Ikegami. The route is Chuo-Yamanote-transfer at Gotanda-Ikegami. The JR East portion covers 11 stations and 15 kilometers of track. Tokyu covers 12 stations and 11 kilometers of track.

Right away we can see that the JR East fare increase basically adds the barrier-free tariff, a 1.4% increase. The Tokyu fare increase is more than just the tariff, a lot more at 13.8%, likely including electricity price increases, salary increases, and what not. Tokyu also does not offer an off-peak option.

Now that we have the new commuter pass prices for both JR East and Tokyu, let’s run a simulation to find which configuration has the best JRE POINT returns. For the latter I used the very handy JRE POINT simulator, highly recommended for running reward point numbers. Remember, that off-peak and repeat points only apply to JR East fares.

As my work place covers the regular fare price, old and new regular fare difference is set at zero. Off-Peak points are calculated for 6 months based on 2022 returns. Repeat and recharge points are calculated on 20 round trips between Asagaya and Gotanda a month x 6 months for old and new fares. The return is the purchase difference plus JRE POINT with 1 point = 1 yen.

The simulation results are pretty much in line with my expectations. Suica Off-Peak commuter passes do give you the best value, by a little bit, especially when your company is reimbursing you at regular fare rates, which many companies seem to do. You also get the best value when your commute is exclusive to JR East lines as JR East has not raised fare increases, only adding the barrier-free tariff. The return drops when including connecting non-JR East lines but still give the best overall return. One thing is for certain: if you ride JR East lines regularly with Suica and are not registered with JRE POINT, you are throwing money away.

Gird yourself for the March 18 Suica Off-Peak launch because there will be a online crush of people like me, cancelling and refunding regular passes, and purchasing new off-peak passes. And don’t forget that date is also the launch of Mobile Suica passes for high school and junior high school students. Don’t be surprised if Suica App has a meltdown from the stampede. Good luck with simulations and finding the best way to save on transit costs.


State of Suica 2023

It’s time to take a look at Suica and Japanese mobile transit ticketing developments expected for 2023. The Suica transit platform and Transit IC partners will introduce some big and important new service in 2023 that will play out over the next few years. Some like Cloud Suica, were due years ago. Some, like Mobile ICOCA should have been done years ago. And some are a response to COVID which is the inflection point that has changed Japanese transit forever. There is no going back to the transit world that was 2019 due to, mostly imagined, fear. Once fear takes hold in society, it becomes a mindset and mindsets are very hard to change.

There is also the cashless factor. COVID kicked the Japanese cashless migration into high gear, but this smashing success hasn’t made life any easier in the checkout line, no thanks to QR Code payment apps like PayPay and dPoint, with people taking longer to pay than even before as they dig around for coupons and discounts codes in smartphone apps. These code payments apps also changed the consumer mindset: they don’t want plain old points, they want points that work like cash, everywhere and instantaneous, instead of being stuck in point ghettos like JRE POINT. This is exactly what the PayPay and Rakuten point economic zones deliver.

The biggest COVID business casualty has been transit, with profitable commuter passes taking the biggest hit as companies transitioned to working from home and Zoom conferences whenever possible. And while people are using transit more since mid 2022, it has not recovered enough to stabilize transit company bottom lines. It’s a tough environment with companies trying to entice people, especially workers, to ride again with transit point perks and off-peak commuter discounts.

Private (non-JR) transit companies in particular are looking to offer more flexible fare options beyond what transit IC card systems currently offer. This is created a huge opening for the SMBC group stera transit open loop system: an off the shelf package ticketing system that combines transit gate reader hardware and cloud system from QUADRAC hooked into the SMBC stera payment platform. The SMBC stera transit marketing team is hard selling flexible fares such as fare capping and open loop appeal for inbound tourism.

It’s clear that JR Group and Transit IC association partners have to innovate and change to reduce costs while keeping the great convenience and benefits of the Suica transit payment platform. However as Steve Jobs once said about focus, focus is about saying no. You can either focus on making one service work great on your platform or just okay when you’re spreading limited resources too thin on supporting too many services. Do Japanese transit companies want better Transit IC for everybody or mediocre ticketing potpourri as money and engineering resources are diverted to bolting on open loop for a limited user base?

2023 Outlook
That said the main arc of Suica and Transit IC for 2023 is expansion. Suica, ICOCA, TOICA are expanding station coverage but in different ways. JR West ICOCA will expand to cover all stations in 2023 with a mix of hardwired station gates, ICOCA equipped trains and region affiliate buses. And of course there is Mobile ICOCA launching this spring. JR Central has outlined a similar strategy for TOICA but no Mobile TOICA plans so far.

JR East had opted for hardwired stations using a mobile connected Cloud Suica system for lightweight fare processing. At the same time they are expanding Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate card reach with new cards and service extensions to existing cards. With all that in mind, let’s examine the month by month launch slate.

January
ID-PORT based Suica Smart Lock service launches in JRE B4T business hotel chain. ID-PORT is cloud super glue linking an ID with Suica for specific time-limited or region-limited based services. Think of it as a kind of virtual key that unlocks access to places and services: hotel checkin, room access, location or age linked transit services, discounts and so on.

While it’s good that Suica and Transit IC cards can offer features and services attached to the card number, the current reality is that each service comes with a separate app, separate registration process and ID/PW login. There isn’t a single sign-in service, a JR East version of Sign in with Apple ID, for easy service registration and linking. Smartphone users are already drowning in apps, I don’t see most people using the growing tangle of services unless there is an easy to use and secure single sign-in service and streamlined UI.

February
Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate MegoIC card launches for Konan Bus lines operating in the Aomori Hirosaki region expanding Tohoku Suica coverage, Iwate Green Pass also extended service to more bus lines. More on Suica 2 in 1 further on.

March
March and April are traditionally busy months with new schools, new jobs, buying new commuter passes that go with them, and launching new services:

1) Mobile ICOCA launches March 22. Mobile ICOCA will be hosted in similar fashion to Mobile PASMO which is based on Mobile Suica assets and cloud infrastructure. Osaifu Keitai will launch first followed by iPhone. This is a big development. JR West is building their ICOCA system expansion in a slightly different way than Cloud Suica by using separate ICOCA tap in/out readers on local trains and stripped down, simple ICOCA (no commuter pass support) for connecting transit affiliates. One interesting trend is the decline of PiTaPa card users since Kansai area private rail companies started offering ICOCA commuter passes (see the chart at the bottom of the post).

2) Off Peak Suica Commuter Pass
COVID has made it clear that the old style ‘station to station’ commuter pass is outdated and its fare model needs to be modernized to bring business users back. All transit companies have to come up with new flexible commute plans that work for different work commute styles.

After dicking around with the confusing and convoluted off peak transit JRE POINT service campaign for 2 years amid a COVID induced commuter pass crisis, JR East is trying again: the confusing ‘Off Peak Commutes Pass’. Available for Suica cards and Mobile Suica, these new passes offer a 10% discount over regular commuter passes that are rising 1.4% with the condition: they must be used outside of the designated start station peak rush time. If you enter the transit gate during the peak rush time, bam, your Suica transit is charged the standard fare. No commute plan for you.

While this is a welcome development it doesn’t far enough. Flexible fare distance capped commute plans that are not tied to specific stations would be a much better deal for occasional business users. For example it would be great for sales people if there were commute plans that combined a selection of fixed distance zones (10 km, 20 km, 50 km, etc) with a selection of fixed trips (10, 20, 30 trips, etc.).

This isn’t a technology or system problem, it’s a business model mind-set problem. JR East has the Suica system in place to take mobile ticketing to the next level. It’s time that the JR Group lead the way for all transit companies to cooperate for a seamless national mobile transit solution.

3) Disability fare Suica/PASMO service starts in the following regions:

  • Tokyo area Suica/PASMO
  • Tohoku Suica (from May 27)
  • Sendai Suica (with the odeca region joining in July)
  • Niigata Suica

The challenge of disability fare Suica/PASMO/Transit IC is that while the card is issued by the transit operator, the disability Suica card has to be certified using the resident city issued disability ID. This authorization is why disability Suica/PASMO is limited to plastic cards for the time being, at least until Digital My Number Card is launched on Android and iPhone. Why is disability fare Suica important? Up until now Suica has been a ‘stored Fare is stored fare’ one size fits all card. Suica has to evolve to include different fare types and services to survive as a viable transit payment platform.

4) Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO Commute Plans for High/Jr. High School Students
Another big push away from plastic to mobile with a streamlined app process for student commuter pass certification via updated Suica and PASMO apps. Hopefully a more streamlined mobile app certification process for student passes paves the way forward for disability fare issue Mobile Suica/PASMO as well. Local governments need to help make this happen.

April
ICOCA extensions close the Transit IC gap between Honshu and Kyushu for thru transit via Shinkansen and plastic ICOCA/Sugoca commuter passes starting April 1. This is similar to the Suica-TOICA-ICOCA Atami and Maibara station extensions that launched in March 2021. The final piece of the JR puzzle is integrating their systems for thru local fare transit with regular plastic and mobile cards. It’s long overdue that they eliminate this last nonsensical nuance.

May
1) Cloud Suica extensions. A big one, a new Suica fare system that powers the Tohoku region Suica extensions for Aomoi (10 stations), Morioka (18 stations), Akita (17 stations) launches May 27. As outlined the separate posts, Cloud Suica is best thought of as Suica 2.0. The card is the same but the reader side and processing system is completely new. Ideally Suica 2.0 offers the best matchup of local stored fare with internet cloud based transaction processing instead of expensive dedicated pipes to the data processing center.

Lower system costs is one objective but not the only important one. The Suica 2.0 fare processing system will also power the new QR Eki-Net Ticket service that launches in the very same Tohoku Suica region in late FY 2024 (October 2024~March 2025). We’ll found out how flexible Suica 2.0 is if JR East starts offering much more fare innovation.

It’s important to reexamine the role of Suica 2 in 1 here. We have two new Suica developments that converge in the Tohoku region: we have the Suica 2 in 1 card itself, new updated FeliCa card and OS with new Suica architecture, and we have the cloud based Suica 2.0 fare system. In other words we have a Suica 2.0 card coupled with the Suica 2.0 processing system.

July
1) Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate odeca card joins the system, the first established transit card updating to the 2 in 1 format. All 2 in 1 cards to date have been new cards. The next established non-Suica compatible transit card transitioning to Suica 2 in 1 is Nagano City Kururu card in 2025.

2) Open loop stera transit comes to Tokyo in a big way as Tokyu Railway starts tests. If it’s anything like the gradual Nankai open loop tests, a few important stations will have a few gates retrofitted with open look EMV contactless and closed loop QR Code readers. They will also surely offer a smartphone app for QR ticket purchase and display. One interesting aspect of the Tokyu Railway effort is that Tokyu were responsible for pushing, and paying for, Mobile PASMO. It would not have happened otherwise.

August
Utsunomiya Light Rail due to start service using Totra 2 in 1 Suica.

The rest of 2023
There will certainly be more services announcements and launches in the 2nd half of the year such as Apple Pay ICOCA and more open loop test installations.

Coming in 2024
We have Suica linked financial services coming with JRE BANK (rebranded Rakuten Bank cloud infrastructure), Yamagata region Suica extensions (21 stations) and unspecified Sendai Suica region extensions that will pretty much complete the installation of Suica on the entire JR East rail network. And of course QR Eki-Net Tickets which build on all the Cloud Suica infrastructure rolling out this year.

As always I will update this overview post as new services are announced with links to individual posts and updated guides.

Note the decline of PiTaPA (chart based on data from rail-card.com)

High School Mobile Suica Commuter Passes and Apple Watch Family Sharing

There’s a very interesting section at the in the Apple Platform Security May 2022 document in the section covering transit and eMoney cards.

Adding transit and eMoney cards to a family member’s Apple Watch
In iOS 15 and watchOS 8, the organizer of an iCloud family can add transit and eMoney cards to their family members’ Apple Watch devices through their iPhone’s Watch app. When provisioning one of these cards to a family member’s Apple Watch, the watch is required to be nearby and connected to the organizer’s iPhone using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Family members are required to have two-factor authentication enabled for their Apple ID for this to occur. Family members can send a request to add money to a transit or eMoney card from their Apple Watch using iMessage. The content of the message is protected by end-to-end encryption, as described in iMessage security overview. Adding money to a card on a family member’s Apple Watch can be done remotely using a Wi-Fi or cellular connection. Proximity isn’t required.

Apple Platform Security May 2022 (p. 152)

Adding money, remote recharge, is a very handy function for stored value cards in a family setting, especially now that Apple Pay Suica • PASMO will support high school and junior high school school commuter passes from March 18.

Commuter passes (commute plans) are purchased in Suica or PASMO app and new versions are coming that support student ID certification. The student takes a picture of their school ID card in the app and uploads it along with a requested commute route. They can use student commuter passes on iPhone or Apple Watch, which is the only wearable option for Mobile Suica • PASMO. All other wearables, including Pixel Watch Suica, do not support commute plans, only regular Suica.

After the student ID is certified they complete the commute plan purchase. Here is where it gets interesting. If the student does not have a credit card, they can purchase it via the new ‘one time purchase’ option with a parent’s card. Most Tokyo high schoolers already seems to have a Mobile Suica or PASMO, but now that they don’t need the plastic card for going to school, they can buy a commute plan and toss the plastic. That means the Tokyo area HS set will finally be 100% mobile for payments and transit.

But what about the JHS set, especially the younger ones who might not have payments cards? This is where Apple Watch Family Sharing Suica via iMessage comes in handy:

“Hey ma, I need recharge!”
“I just gave you ¥5,000.”
“But that was Tuesday and I have to eat before going to the Juku, can’t study when I’m hungry”

Bing! The possibilities are endless.


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.

Apple Pay Suica recharge security block

JR East online services (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net), along with many other online services that have accounts with credit cards, have been inundated with phishing attacks since the Russia-Ukraine situation erupted in February. It has gotten to the point that JRE POINT announced temporary security limitations on July 6: a temporary suspension of JRE POINT service recharge for Mobile Suica (via Suica App) and a 5,000 JRE POINT app barcode use limit per transaction (plastic JRE POINT card use remains unlimited). All JRE POINT services were later restored with new security enhancements.

There is another security limitation Apple Pay Suica users need to be aware of: credit/debit card recharge security block. This does not apply to cash recharge at station kiosks, convenience stores, 7-11 ATM, etc., but it can happen with multiple credit card recharges in a short period of time, i.e. heavy users. Unfortunately JR East does not reveal what conditions trigger a recharge security block that displays an error message: チャージをご利用できない状態です/ Recharge is not available. The Mobile Suica support page specifically states that JR East “cannot inform you about the conditions and contents of restrictions.” User reports suggest a general daily recharge limit between ¥5,000~¥10,000, however I think it also depends on the credit card issuer. My JR East JCB VIEW card for example has never run into any recharge limits in 5 years of heavy recharge use.

Apple Pay Suica recharge security block appears to be somewhat rare, but it is happening more with the recent Mobile Suica phishing attacks. In general Wallet app recharge tends to be more robust than Suica app recharge but security recharge block seems to affect all credit card recharge. The only user recourse appears to be contacting the card issuer or using the Mobile Suica member online Trouble Report Form (Japanese only). No word on Apple Pay PASMO but users should expect the same situation.

Mobile Suica registered account information can only be changed in Suica (iOS) and Mobile Suica (Android) apps by applying for an account update, it cannot be directly changed in the app, it cannot be changed via a web browser. This offers a level of account security but too many people fall for phishing emails. Even my internet savvy partner fell for a Mobile Suica phishing mail and have to get his credit card reissued.

The short term solution for JR East is to implement 2FA across all of their online services with a single login ID credential instead of the multiple service ID account mess we have now…hopefully soon. The longer term solution will be eliminating ID and password login altogether using Passkeys.