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.
A Japanese friend once told me that when Suica first came out, young people in Tokyo sent Suica cards to hometown families to use for coming to Tokyo. But parents and grandparents sent them back saying, “we can’t use them,” even when they could use them in their local area.
What they were really saying was, ‘Suica doesn’t get us the same transit perks we do using local paper tickets or mag stripe cards.’ There has long been a huge gap between transit services available in major cities which ‘don’t work’ in one way or another for those in outlying areas.
That’s the challenge facing the Japanese transit IC card system. Being able to use a Suica or ICOCA transit card in the sticks isn’t enough, local region services must be attached to make it worthwhile for people living outside major city areas. Transit IC has to evolve if it is going to be useful in the mobile era with proliferating smartphone payment apps vying for a piece of the national transit pie.
Now that we have a clearer vision of how Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards address this problem and how they are central to JR East’s MaaS strategy, it’s time to look at evolving JR East cloud services and how they fit into that strategy. There are a number of new cloud service parts that have come on line over the past year, or are coming soon…some visible, some not.
Taken together they comprise what I call ‘Super Suica Cloud’ following my earlier definition of Super Suica: a collection of mobile focused transit and payment infrastructure services that can be shared with or incorporate other company services, or be hosted by JR East for other companies. MaaS is an elastic term that holds a lot of flashy concepts, but I think JR East is aiming for something more low-key but practical, a Japanese Multimodal MaaS if you will.
The immediate concrete end-goals are service expansion with cost reduction; elimination of duplicate or proprietary dedicated infrastructure in favor of open internet cloud technology. With that in place the next goal is tight integration of transit payment services that work everywhere but also deliver tailored services for local regions. Let’s examine the parts.
Mobile Suica People assume that Mobile Suica does everything mobile, but basically it’s a station kiosk in the sky. Put money in for a transit card, put money in for a recharge, or a commuter pass, a day pass, and so on. Issuing, recharging and managing Suica cards on mobile devices is what Mobile Suica was built for.
As the world’s first mobile transit card service, Mobile Suica has made a lot of progress over the years expanding support to include Android, Apple Pay and wearables, but the work isn’t done until any mobile device from anywhere can add Suica. And since Mobile Suica hosts Mobile PASMO (launched in 2021) and almost certainly the forthcoming Mobile ICOCA (coming early 2023), getting those on an equally wide digital wallet footing is just as important.
As the face of all things Suica on mobile devices, the smartphone app could have many more things plugging into it, like Hong Kong’s Octopus App. So far however, JR East has chosen, wisely in my opinion, to keep it limited to basic housekeeping, breaking out ticketing and MaaS functions to separate apps.
Suica Fare Processing • JESCA Cloud This is the traditional Suica network system centerpiece that locally processes touch transit stored fare on station gates and touch e-Money payments in stores. The station gate fare side is getting a major new addition in 2023 with a simplified cloud based Suica transit fare network rolling out to 44 Tohoku area JR East stations. This new Cloud Suica area closely aligns with Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards launching this year.
The store payment side also has a simplified cloud based FeliCa payment network and a name: JESCA-Cloud. System details are vague but Cloud Suica transit fare and JESCA Cloud store payments appear to do the same thing: move transaction processing off local hardware and onto the cloud. Fast processing time is very important at transit gates, Suica tap times are the fastest out there. Those familiar with the Suica system say Cloud Suica will spilt it 50% local processing / 50% cloud processing. Dumber terminals, smarter cloud that still offers great Suica service…we hope.
One difference Cloud Suica has from a similar effort by JR West for ICOCA, is that Cloud Suica supports all the standard Suica features like commuter passes that cloud ICOCA does not. An interesting side note is that JR East hosts the processing for JR Central’s TOICA transit card network, they can certainly put the new Cloud Suica backend to good use expanding TOICA coverage in rural lines like the Minobu line.
ID Port Comb through recent JR East press releases and you’ll find 3 service announcements built around ID PORT, a “cloud based ID verification solution” from JREM (JR EAST MECHATRONICS CO., LTD), the company that builds Suica infrastructure.
Maebashi City TOPIC MaaS service (November 2020): Local MaaS discount services provided by TOPIC that use Suica with My Number card address and age to verify eligibility:
Suica Smart-Lock (December 2021): registered Suica card access a variety of access services provided by ALLIGATE:
All of the announcements have 3 components: JR East (Suica), JREM (ID-PORT), 3rd party services attached to Suica using ID-PORT as the system glue. Most of these are either in testing or ‘coming soon’. What is ID-PORT?
ID-PORT is explained on the JREM site, but the first public mention in an NTT Data PDF document from November 2020 is more revealing: “The Open MaaS Platform and supporting Multimodal MaaS”. The JR East Suica MaaS strategy is outlined with various scenarios that indicate ID-PORT is the JREM side with MaaS services on the NTT Data side. In other words a co-venture.
The job of ID-PORT is that it acts as the middle man ID verification glue linking a registered Suica (or similar Transit IC card) with various 3rd party services such as special ticketing, access and discounts.
The interesting thing about the ID-PORT and NTT Data MaaS platform reveal is that the timing exactly coincides with Sony’s release of FeliCa Standard SD2, the next generation FeliCa architecture used for Suica 2 in 1 cards. One of the little discussed new SD2 features is ‘FeliCa Secure ID’. Here is Sony’s diagram of how it works.
Look familiar? Yep, ID-PORT sure looks like FeliCa Secure ID in action. The JREM ID-PORT page is more rounded out, incorporating non-FeliCa ID verification methods like QR and bio-authentication and many different services. ID-PORT has already been added to JESCA-Cloud and CardNet so that linked services are widely available on store payment terminals, not just Suica transit gates. In sum it represents MaaS and Account Based Ticketing in action with ID-PORT at the center.
MaaS and Account Based Ticketing in action MaaS and Account Based Ticketing are the new hotness now that people realize open-loop doesn’t solve everything as banks and card companies want us to believe. Fare Payments Platform provider Masabi explains it this way:
Account Based Ticketing (ABT) shifts the fare collection system from being ‘card centric’, meaning the ticket holds the journey information and right to travel, and moves this to the back office. Moving the ticket information to the back office holds a number of benefits. It means passengers no longer need to buy a ticket or understand fares to travel and instead they use a secure token, typically either a contactless bank card, mobile phone or smartcard.
In this scenario FeliCa Secure ID is a secure token, ID-PORT is the secure token platform using the secure token to link ticketing and services together. That sounds nice but when will we see it in action? I think we already are.
Eki-Net 2 Account Based Ticketing As explained above, ABT attaches tickets from the cloud to a secure token, in this case Suica. By this definition Eki-Net 2 Shinkansen eTickets represent JR East’s first step into ABT ticketing. Eki-Net uses registered accounts and credit cards purchase and attach eTickets to Suica. These eTickets do not use Suica prepaid stored fare nor is any eTicket information written to the Suica card, the eTicket system uses Suica as a secure token. JR Central smart EX is a similar ABT service and let’s not forget the web-only multi-lingual JR-East Train Reservation service that provides some ABT ticketing for inbound visitors.
Will JR East ABT implement the ‘no longer need to buy a ticket’ part of the Masabi ABT vision? I doubt it. Shinkansen eTickets are much lower ABT hurdle: lower passenger volume on far fewer transit gates than regular Suica gates. The complexity of interlocking non-Shinkansen Japanese transit systems and the vast array of fare schedules, such as higher paper fares vs cheaper IC fares, don’t easily straitjacket into an open-loop or ABT fare box, and it doesn’t fit the JR East business model.
Suica 2 in 1 region extras There are services besides ticketing attached to a ‘secure token’ Suica. One of the important things easy to miss in the Suica 2 in 1 rollout are extra region features not available in regular Suica. Disability Suica cards for example. These are finally due to launch on Suica and PASMO cards in October 2022, but disability Suica 2 in 1 cards are already available in region affiliates.
There are also region affiliate transit points, one of the services that ID-PORT is advertising for JR East MaaS. Transit points all ‘just work’ automatically the same way. Points are earned from recharge and transit use and automatically used as transit fare. The user doesn’t do anything except tap the bus card reader. No registration, no setup. I wish JRE POINT had an option to work this way.
Transit points mimic the scheme of old regional transit mag strip card like Nishitetsu that gave ¥1,100 with a ¥1,000 recharge. Those features were popular (automatic simplicity in action again). PayPay used a similar strategy to quickly build a large customer base but pissed everybody off later as they got big and started changing bonus rate returns like used underwear. That won’t happen with Suica 2 in 1 cards as region transit points are locked in by local government subsidies to the region affiliates.
Streamlined simplicity, integration, regionality Despite the la-la-land promise of MaaS and Account Based Ticketing, the ‘just works’ angle is crucial for people to actually use it. One of the current problems with Mobile Suica, Eki-Net, JRE POINT and the MaaS services JR East advertises is that is each service is a separate app + registration + attach cards process. This needs to be streamlined into a single simple JR East sign-on service option like Sign in with Apple that works across multiple services. I suspect ID-PORT is the glue between Mobile Suica and JRE POINT that keeps those registered services automatically linked even if the Suica ID number changes. A good sign because the JR East cloud needs a lot dynamic linking.
There is also the larger problem of integration outside of JR East, such as the current state of multiple online ticketing services; Eki-Net for JR East, EX for JR Central, Odekake-net for JR West, and so on. It would bet great to have a common app that plugs into every online ticketing service. At the very least JR Group companies need to integrate eTicketing the same way they have always integrated paper ticketing for one stop service in their own apps.
The bigger question is do Super Suica Cloud parts (ID-PORT / Mobile Suica / Cloud Suica) scale beyond JR East to include other JR Group companies (JR West, JR Central, etc.) and potential region affiliates nationwide? If increased services with reduced costs is their MaaS goal, JR East needs to step up to the plate and share. Infrastructure sharing with backend integration is the only way forward for all. Japanese transit has always excelled at physical interconnection, the cloud service side needs the same level of interconnectedness.
There are cultural angles too. Japanese have a passion for hunting down local perks, bargains and discounts. People complain about Eki-Net (deservedly) but they sure scramble and swamp the system getting those time limited discount eTickets like crazy pre-COVID era Black Friday midnight Christmas shopper crowds rushing into the store.
There is also the traditional cultural value of promoting local economies. As the saying goes, cities are only healthy in the long term when local economies are healthy too. If JR East is really serious about promoting regional MaaS, they’ve got to aggressively offer linked services that clearly promote regions. There are many region programs that visitors are simply not aware of. JR East can do a lot simply linking them to discount coupons, limited offer eTickets and such that appeal to the bargain hunter Japanese mind. The key is being creative and nimble like QR payment players.
The JR East MaaS region affiliate strategy was conceived long before the COVID crisis, yet COVID also presents a golden opportunity to invest in regions and promote working remotely. The world has changed and transit has to change too, the biggest risk is doing nothing, staying with the status quo. The emerging Japanese MaaS vision is unique in that Japan has a golden opportunity of leveraging the national Transit IC card standard into something new, taking it into the next era…if old rivalries and sectarian interests don’t get in the way and blow it, that is. Either way the next few years will be a very interesting time for Japanese transit.
One unfortunate legacy of the Japanese National Railways (JNR) breakup and privatization in the late 1980’s was a fragmented ticketing system. The JNR paper ticket system worked very well. I was always impressed how you could go to any JNR Green Window ticket office and the all knowing agent would give expect advice and deftly punch up tickets to anywhere, in any configuration, even covering private rail.
The JR Group model fell apart in the internet era with online ticketing services, Suica and compatible Transit IC cards limited to separate JR Group regions. JR Group ticketing for paper, but not for mobile. What got broken doesn’t get put back together easily though it desperately needs to.
Last weekend the 20 year old JR East Eki-Net online ticket reservation system, older than Suica, got the ‘renewal’ overhaul advertised back in March. The main aims are to reintegrate JR Group tickets into one slick consistent UI instead of a swamp of sub-menus, and integrate JRE POINT that replaces the old cumbersome Eki-Net point system. The overhaul also repositions Eki-Net from a limited ‘nice but I’ll stick with paper’ online purchase option to a standard way that JR East wants people to buy all train tickets, both paper and mobile.
There are 2 Eki-Net flavors: (1) the full comprehensive Eki-Net Web version optimized for desktop and smartphones offering mobile tickets, paper tickets, car rentals and tour packages like the classic 2nd honeymoon ‘Full Moon’ campaign for retiree couples, (2) Eki-Net App that only offers JR East eTicket and Ticketless mobile options.
What exactly is mobile ticketing? To understand the aim of Eki-Net it’s important to know the basic ticketing categories:
Suica (Transit IC cards) pays the distance based fare using the Stored Fare (SF),
eTickets are cloud account Shinkansen ticket bundles that include the end to end distance fare plus the express • seat reservation charge, they are attached to the Suica or Transit IC card via the card number but do not use SF
Ticketless is a mixed mode that combines a cloud account express • seat reservation purchase for regular express train seating used in combination with Suica or Transit IC cards for basic fare.
Touch and Go is a ticketless Shinkansen option that uses Suica and Transit IC cards for non-reserved seat Shinkansen travel in a pre-determined area, basically the whole JR East network
What’s new in Eki-Net 2? Suica plays a central role in Eki-Net mobile ticketing. 2021 is also the 20th anniversary of Suica which has evolved beyond its commuter pass origins to encompass eMoney payments, mobile devices, Transit IC mutual compatibility and more.
In recent years Suica has gained another role as an all purpose mobile transit card hosting Shinkansen eTicket from JR East and SmartEX from JR Central. The challenge facing JR East is migrating the vast array of special ticketing and discount fares schemes from paper to mobile. Let’s take a look at the new banner features advertised for Eki-Net 2 and examine how JR East is doing this.
JRE POINT Integration The integration of JRE POINT is the biggest new feature and illustrates JR East’s intention. The old Eki-Net point system was scrapped, good thing, there is finally point synergy and compatibility between Suica and Eki-Net. If you have any doubts that JR East is serious about mobile ticketing, take a look at the JRE POINT reward schedule:
Online paper ticket purchases give you basically zero points if you buy them with anything other than a JR East VIEW credit card, called ‘VIEW PLUS’ service which adds 3% or 8% more JRE POINT per ticket purchase amount depending on the VIEW card for a total of 5% (Regular VIEW) or 10% (Gold VIEW). JRE POINT can also be used for purchasing mobile only eTicket and Ticketless, and upgrading to Green Car and Gran Class seats. The upgrade exchange rate depends on distance and the train type, the new UI shows users all possible JRE POINT seat upgrades during seat selection.
Improved UI for web and app Basically the new design dumps the old way of selecting the JR line or train and streamlines everything into a single station point and date entry screen. Seat selection is the advertised UI improvement and it shows: it is much improved on the web side, discount ticket comparisons are easy to see as are JRE POINT seat upgrades.
QR Codes support for group ticket pickup A nice paper ticket option so that one person can purchase all tickets and send a QR Code for group members to pick up their tickets at the nearest station kiosk. It’s more convenient and replaces the old insert credit card and enter PIN code method for paper ticket pickup.
Eki-Net ticket discounts Paper tickets have traditionally been the cheaper option. JR East must offer good discount incentives to drive mobile ticketing uptake. Fortunately the new Eki-Net ‘Tokuda-ne’ discounts offer anywhere from 5% off for same day tickets to 50% off for 20 day advance tickets. Discounts combined with JRE POINT are good but we’ll only find out if they drive mobile ticket uptake when regular train travel returns. While these options have closed the discount gap between mobile and paper somewhat, the majority of discount ticketing is still paper only.
JR-EAST Train Reservation The international flavor of Eki-Net is called JR-EAST Train Reservation. It’s a completely separate web only multi-lingual service that offers regional passes for inbound tourists that can be purchased online before coming to Japan, or at a passport reading station kiosk. JR-EAST Train Reservation passes are different from the paper only Japan Rail Pass in that a growing number of them can be attached to Suica. New features here include: (1) Expanded multi-language support (2) pass purchases after coming to Japan (3) using Suica to attach eTickets. For the later there is a new user guide and How to register your IC card section. You can use Apple Pay Suica • PASMO by registering the card number, get the number using Suica App or PASMO App.
Weak points and summary The Eki-Net renewal is big, complex and getting mixed reviews from Japanese users. Some love it, others hate it calling it, ‘an improvement for the worse’. The biggest gripe for many is that only up to 4 Express Train • Shinkansen sections are supported for one trip purchase. If you are traveling from Kagoshima to Aomori, forget Eki-Net and go straight to your local station ticket office for paper tickets.
The iOS Eki-Net App remains a nice idea that needs work. It feels like a thin re-skinned version of the mobile web one without offering any obvious benefit, the Face ID•Touch ID login option still useless as you have to manually login once every 24 hours and complete a picture puzzle. And there is no Apple Pay in-app support.
My biggest gripe is the failure of the JR Group to get their mobile ticketing act together. Sure, we have JR Central EX and JR East eTickets, but these are locked in their respective service regions. This is 2021, JR Group ticketing should be cross compatible, streamlined and mobile ready. It doesn’t matter how great JR East makes Eki-Net, users can travel with just Suica on the Tokaido and Tohoku Shinkansen, but they have to buy 2 tickets using 2 different accounts and billing with 2 different ticketing systems. We should be able to travel anywhere on JR Group lines using one account to buy mobile tickets. In todays scenario this isn’t possible. The unfortunate legacy of the JNR breakup lives on.