Recharge your recharge, the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market

I love articles like this one. It’s fun to see how the writer, freelancer Meiko Homma, takes old news bits, worn-out arguments and weaves them into a ‘new’ narrative with a titillatingly hot title: “QR Code payments won the cashless race, Suica utterly defeated.”

Her article trots out some QR Code payment usage data from somewhere, the PASPY transit card death saga that illustrates the increasingly difficult challenge of keeping region limited transit IC cards going, the fact that Suica only covers 840 stations out of a total of 1630, all while conveniently ignoring recent important developments like the Suica 2 in 1 Regional Affiliate program, and big updates coming in early 2023: Cloud Suica extensions and the Mobile ICOCA launch.

It has the classic feel of ‘here’s a headline, now write the article’ hack piece passing as industry analysis we have too much of these days. The Yahoo Japan portal site picked it up and the comments section was soon full of wicked fun posts picking apart the weak arguments.

I’ve said it before and say it again: the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market. PayPay for example, started out as a code payment app but has added FeliCA QUICPay and EMV contactless support along with their PayPay card offering. Just like I predicted, these companies don’t care about payment technology, they just want people to use their services. My partner and I actually see less PayPay use at checkout these days and more Mobile Suica. Why?

The great thing about prepaid eMoney ‘truth in the card’ Suica, PASMO, WAON, Edy, nanaco, is the backend recharge flexibility on the mobile side (Apple Pay, Google Pay, Suica App, etc.). PayPay, au Pay, Line Pay and similar Toyota Wallet knock-off payment apps with Apple Pay Wallet cards, are deployed as mobile recharge conduits that smart users leverage to get the points or instant cashback rebates they want to get at any given campaign moment. This is where the action is.

And so we have recharge acrobats like Twitter user #1: step 1 recharge PayPay account from Seven Bank account, step 2 move recharge amount from PayPay Money to PayPay Bank, step 3 move recharge from PayPay Bank to Line Pay, in Wallet app recharge Suica with Line Pay card. Or like recharge acrobat Twitter user #2: Sony Bank Wallet to Kyash to Toyota Wallet to Suica.

Phew…none of this involves transfer fees so it’s up to user creativity to come up with the recharge scenario that works best for them. Does it count as PayPay use or Line Pay use or Mobile Suica use? Does it matter?

It’s not about winners or losers, it’s about moving money around. Mobile Suica is extremely useful because of it’s recharge backend flexibility, thanks to Apple Pay and Google Pay (which does not support PASMO yet). This is the case for US citizens working in Japan who get a great return of their Suica or PASMO recharge right now using US issue credit cards because of the exchange rate. This is something visitors to Hong Kong cannot do with Apple Pay Octopus as the OCL recharge backend is far more restrictive than JR East. The biggest gripe users have with Suica is ¥20,000 balance limit.

In the weeks to come we’ll be sure to see hand wringing articles debating the future of Suica, open-loop, etc.,etc., because let’s face it, IT media journalists need something to write about in these challenging times where everything has to be sold as winner/loser, black/white, 0 or 10, and nothing in-between, to get any traction at all. As for me, I think it’s far more interesting, and real, to observe how users are using all these nifty mobile payment tools.

UPDATE 2022-07-04: Thoughts on the KDDI network outage
That was fast. No sooner had the “QR Codes won the mobile payments race” article appeared when major Japanese carrier KDDI experienced a nationwide mobile network meltdown on July 2 JST, lasted a full day with a very slow, still in progress, recovery affecting more than 40 million customers. Suddenly social media channels were full of people complaining that QR Code payments didn’t work, assuming that Mobile Suica and other NFC mobile payments stopped too. Which was not the case though a few fake posts claimed, or just ‘assumed’ people were stranded inside stations. Fortunately there were numerous online articles setting the record straight.

It’s a lesson that people soon forget in our attention span challenged social media era. We saw plenty of QR Code payment downsides in the 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi earthquake that knocked out power and mobile service across Hokkaido. At the time some fake Chinese social media posts claimed AliPay and WeChat pay ‘still worked’ in Hokkaido at the time, of course they did not.

Mobile payment disruptions happen with every natural disaster and war. Good and safe practices don’t come easy when smartphone apps lure us down the easy path without spelling out the risks. It’s a lesson we have to learn again and again, that while network dependent code payment apps have some benefits, they also have limits and security risks. One size does not fit all, NFC and code payments each have their place and role to play in the expanding mobile payments universe. The key is understanding their strengths and weaknesses.

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.


The Weekly

2022-05-14 Early Rainy Season

Will Pixel Watch finally deliver global NFC Google Pay?
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 Android HCE nonsense once and for all.


Digital My Number on track for Android 2022 launch, Apple Wallet due in 2023
The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) digital version of My Number Card (Individual Number Card) is on track to launch in 2022 (October-ish?). The latest MIC Work Group PDF document has a full outline of the digital My Number system and the various services the Japanese government plans to link with it. In late 2020 MIC said they were ‘in discussions’ with Apple to bring digital My Number to Wallet and this has not changed. Nikkei reporter Mayumi Hirosawa saw a chance to grab some eyeballs and published, The My Number iPhone Wall, a typical Nikkei ‘article’ of lazy, subjective, puerile observations angled as big bad Apple, but nothing new.

Meanwhile Yasuhiro Koyama’s online article on Keitai Watch is far more interesting and informative. MIC official Takashi Uekariya, the goto My Number digital guy, says the MIC and Apple are ‘working hard’ to bring digital My Number to Apple Pay Wallet, and that because Apple locks down new iOS features far in advance, timing wise it looks like iOS 17 in fall 2023 is the likely target for My Number on Apple Wallet. It would be nice though if Apple could surprise us later on in the iOS 16 release cycle, always good to raise the bar and deliver above expectations.

Looking at the larger picture, MIC documentation clearly states that My Number digital card requires a GlobalPlatform embedded Secure Element (GPSE) device, and that except for a small amount of SIM Free Android junk, most smartphones sold in Japan (both Apple and Android) are GPSE certified. An interesting sidelight is that ‘FeliCa chip’ Osaifu Keitai Android devices will support My Number NFC-B transactions. Going forward that means nobody in Japan will buy a device without a GPSE that doesn’t support My Number digital card and the associated banking services that will link to it. Kiss HCE goodbye.


The JR East paper ticket booklet replacement problem has a solution: Suica 2 in 1 transit points
It might seem like a great idea for JR East to migrate the legacy paper ticket bundle (the good old buy 10 and get one free) to Suica…but there’s this little problem of JRE POINT. Repeat Point Service has the same basic concept, 10 trips on the same route in the same month earn you a free trip in JRE POINT. Unfortunately, setting up a JRE POINT account is a pain in the ass, and getting the points back into Suica balance is a huge pain in the ass. For Mobile Suica there’s JRE POINT app + Suica app + Suica Pocket. For plastic Suica there’s JRE POINT app + a visit to the local station kiosk. It’s way beyond the ability of elderly transit users who just want to save on expenses.

Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards are a much better deal because they have transit points built in. No registration, no setup, just use the transit card and the system does everything for you. Automatically earned points are turned around and automatically used for paying fare. Simple, useful incentive: all one does is use the card for transit and receives a discount in return. This is the way it should be. JR East would be smart if they implemented a similar automatic transit point feature for Tokyo region Suica. JRE POINT is fine for larger more complex integration such shopping and Eki-Net ticket purchase, but integrated, invisible transit points for discounted regular transit would fill a big post-Covid need. I guarantee people would start riding the rails again after the long pandemic pause.

Apple removes region requirement for Suica, swaps recharge with top up and other updates

Sometimes it takes Apple support pages a while to acknowledge the current reality of iOS. iOS 15 Wallet brought ‘region free’ transit cards with an improved UI so that allowed Apple Pay users from anywhere to add transit cards directly in Wallet. Apple support document HT207155 “Add a Suica or PASMO card to Apple Wallet removed the ‘device region set to Japan’ requirement in an April 29, 2022 update, some 6 months after the iOS 15 release.

‘Region free’ transit cards are not all equally region free however: some transit cards only accept locally issued Apple Pay cards for adding money. This is the case for Hong Kong Apple Pay Octopus and all Chinese T-Union brand transit cards (too many to list). Octopus does offer a surprisingly user unfriendly iOS Octopus for Tourist app for tourists add Octopus to Wallet, that unfortunately locks in usurious currency exchange rates.

Suica remains the first, and best, truly region free transit card because you can “pay for transit rides and make purchases with just a tap,” and all Wallet payment cards that support in-app payments are good for adding money to Suica (and PASMO).

There are also some interesting tweak updates in the companion support doc: Use Suica or PASMO cards on iPhone or Apple Watch in Japan. The first is Apple going all in with the UK English ‘top up’ as the default English word for adding money to prepaid cards. Why not stick with regional differences? Does Apple want America to become a cultural extension of Great Britain or something? Recharge was used previously in the US doc version though I suspect most Americans use reload. ‘Top up’ is too quainty UK English for my tastes, sounds like drinking. I’ll stick with recharge.

The other change is an expanded Check the balance section that now includes If your Suica or PASMO card balance doesn’t update, with a link to a fairly new support doc, “If your transit card balance doesn’t update in Apple Wallet.” If there is one common complaint from Suica and PASMO users it is that the sometimes sluggish Apple Pay recharge process, usually due to a poor internet connection, occasionally results in the balance not updating. As the Apple doc states: the truth is always in the recent transactions list.

The last new tweak is a new section: Get a refund for purchases made with your Suica or PASMO. It has good advice that should have been there from Apple Pay Suica launch day, “return the item to the same terminal where you made the purchase before you use Suica or PASMO to make another purchase using Apple Pay.”

Unfortunately Apple failed to update has the Use the Suica or PASMO app section, leaving some very outdated and incorrect information. Shinkansen eTicket service in Suica App ended back in March 2020, and Green Car tickets were never available in PASMO app.

I guess they were too busy swapping American English with British English to notice the errors.

Add a Suica or PASMO card to Apple Wallet: no more region settings

How much will Smart Navigo HCE suck?

It’s interesting parsing app reviews that say ‘this app sucks’. How does it suck and why? As I’ve said before, the overwhelming negative App Store reviews for Suica App are less about the app and more about lousy carrier auto-connect • free WiFi connections messing with the Mobile Suica recharge function. Most users see Suica App as the software that controls everything Mobile Suica AND iPhone NFC hardware. It does not of course but people dump all blame on Suica App anyway.

It’s a complete mystery why people even bother using Suica App when so much Mobile Suica functionality is built in Apple Pay Wallet right out of the box. Nevertheless it’s safe to conclude that Suica App user angst is network related. People assume the WiFi and cellular icons at the top of the iPhone screen indicate a healthy internet connection, which they decidedly do not.

Most of what Mobile Suica does is done without an internet connection. The only time it needs one is recharge time with a credit card in Apple Pay Wallet app or Suica App. All that complaining over one Mobile Suica feature however, tells us something important about WiFi and cellular internet connections in station areas and on trains: they suck. Despite ubiquitous cellular and WiFi coverage, reliable internet is notoriously fickle in those famously busy Japanese train stations. This is the real reason behind all those ‘this app sucks’ Suica App reviews.

Which brings us to Smart Navigo, the Île-de-France Mobilités (IDFM) Paris region transit card for mobile that is going wide on Android smartphones this year. IDFM has spent a lot of time and expense working with Calypso Networks Association (CNA), the transaction tech used for Navigo, to implement the less secure network dependent Calypso HCE ‘cloud’ secure element approach as the default mobile transit tech for Android devices in 2022.

It is very unusual that IDFM chose HCE as their go to mobile strategy on Android when the more secure hardware embedded secure element (eSE) is standard on all smartphone NFC devices, and does the job without internet connections. HCE is very different from eSE in that both NFC smartphone and the reader need a connection to talk with a server. HCE was also conceived for leisurely supermarket checkout, not the challenging transit enviroment. How does Calypso HCE compare to the network-less eSE experience? CNA says:

For security reasons, transactions using the personalization key or the load key are not possible through the NFC interface, and must be done with a secure connection to a server.

Only the Calypso debit key is stored in the HCE application for validation on entrance and control during travel, coupled with a mechanism of renewal of the Calypso Serial Number (CSN) to mitigate the risk of fraud : a part of the CSN contains date and time of validity of the debit key which shall be checked by the terminals.

Thales says: poor mobile network coverage can make HCE services inaccessible. In short no internet connection, no mobile transit service. Let’s compare the basic mobile transit card features of Mobile Suica with Calypso HCE:

It’s too bad IDFM didn’t study Mobile Suica shortcomings, they could have learned a few things. Most certainly they understand HCE shortcomings but chose it anyway for unknown (political?) reasons. Right out of the gate Smart Navigo HCE won’t support power reserve NFC transactions even on Android devices that support it for regular eSE NFC. In total, there are 6 core Smart Navigo features that are internet connection dependent vs 1 Mobile Suica feature. 6 more things to complain about when they don’t work…in other words the Smart Navigo HCE suck index is 6 times greater than Mobile Suica. If Suica App is anything to go by, there are going to be a lot of bad Google Play reviews for the HCE version of the Île-de-France Mobilités App.

iPhone and Apple Watch users can be thankful that Apple Pay Navigo will use eSE (as Samsung Pay Navigo already does), and avoid most of this mess when the service launches in 2023, matching the Mobile Suica experience, feature for feature.