Ride the Rails with Apple Pay Suica and Earn JRE POINT

The enhanced NFC functions of iOS 13 could not have come at a better time for the Japanese market. The great 10% consumption tax cashless experiment begins October 1 when the tax hike becomes effective and the Japanese government starts giving 2%~5% refunds for cashless payments via established card point systems. The ‘My Number‘ Japanese Individual Number card will be a centerpiece for getting those point rebates and the Japanese government has already announced iOS 13 support for My Number card. The whole rebate/refund thing is clear as mud but exciting too. Suica is listed as one of the many e-money cards eligible for consumption tax refunds/rebates. Suica consumption tax point refunds will be delivered via JRE POINT.

JR East added to the excitement today with the announcement that starting October 1 Suica users can earn JRE POINT simply by riding the rails. Mobile Suica transit users (Apple Pay Suica, Google Pay Suica, Osaifu Keitai Suica) earn 1 JRE POINT per 50 yen of IC transit fare, plastic Suica cards earn 1 JRE POINT per 200 yen of IC transit fare.

That’s a huge incentive to drive transit users from plastic Suica to Mobile Suica. The same JRE POINT rates apply to Green Car Seat purchases. And get this, only Mobile Suica Commuter Plan purchases and renewals are eligible for JRE POINT with 1 JRE POINT per 50 yen of the purchase/renewal. This is a sweet deal if your company sponsors your commuter pass. They give you the money, you get the points. Ugh, now I have to hold off renewing my Apple Pay Suica Commute Plan until October 1 but the points are worth going without my commute plan for a few days. JR East’s big push for Mobile Suica over plastic is remarkable and will become a shove when the next generation ‘Super Suica’ format arrives in April 2021.

To earn points the Suica card must be registered to a JRE POINT account. The JRE POINT account setup process has gotten a little more streamlined, and the iOS JRE POINT App a little less clunky over the past year. Mobile Suica and JRE POINT systems are now dynamically linked so you don’t need to worry if the Apple Pay Suica card ID number changes.

Today’s announcement only applies to regular train travel but JR East will be adding a lot more in 2020~2021 as the Super Suica start date approaches: JRE POINT for Touch and Go Shinkansen travel starts with the new JR East eTicket system in April 2020, Round trip fixed travel route coupon-like JRE POINT is due December 2020. And finally, with Super Suica in place, the regular express train/Shinkansen ‘EkiNet‘ ticketing and point system will be rolled into the JRE POINT system. Travelers can then earn and use JRE POINT to purchase regular express train and Shinkansen eTickets and upgrade seats. It will be Apple Pay Super Suica eTicket bliss.

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Transit Gate Evolution: Do QR Codes Really Suck for Transit?

The short answer of course is: yes, QR Codes really suck for transit, which Abacus first reported on when the QR code transit meltdown hit Chengdu last April. Abacus is taking a closer look at the problem again in a new piece, QR code payments make long commutes even longer in China:

while QR codes have proven remarkably effective at meeting most people’s mobile payment needs, it seems ill-suited for public transit compared with NFC. Since NFC relies on radio waves, payment requires only a tap of the phone. There’s no need to wake it up or turn the screen on, making it as convenient as traditional transit cards.

The limitations of the <QR> technology are apparent even as cities race to install QR code scanners in turnstiles across the country. Over time, though, the inconvenience might be enough to nudge China away from its reliance on QR codes.

The long answer requires a quick look at transit gate technology evolution. The success of Suica can be found in its development process, a fascinating story by itself. The Suica card and transit gate were developed as one thing to replicate the ease of flashing a commuter pass to the gate attendant without stopping.

A video of old style paper ticket manned gates illustrates the start point. There is no physical barrier. People slow down to get their ticket punched but rarely stop. For a commuter pass the user flashed a wallet with a clear plastic window at the attendant and kept on going, shown at the 0:16 mark:

Shigeo Miki came up with an idea of using IC cards for tickets. The magnetic-type ticket automatic gates, which were in use since the 1980’s, had some inconvenient aspects. Old-style passes could be shown to attendants without being taken out of their cases. But to use automatic ticket gates, passengers had to take them out, pass them through the automatic gate, and then put them away again. He thought that was a decline in service quality…

JR East “Following the track leading to Suica

This was the late 1980’s when IC cards were just coming into wider use, but not for transit. The Suica project had a large impact on Sony FeliCa development as did the Hong Kong Octopus project starting in 1992…

Furthermore, systems that read ID data from read-only cards and interact with the main computer each time someone goes through the ticket gate could not keep up with the enormous volume of data processing transactions in rush hour. So Miki and his fellow researchers perceived that the cards must be read/write types.

There we have it, the Suica project goals were: open gates, waving commuter passes, local processing. Magnetic strip paper ticket gates got faster, Omron states the speed is within 600 Milliseconds (MS), and better with the ability to handle and sort multiple tickets at a time. Suica is cool but nothing is cooler than watching the physical action of a well designed machine:

Despite development problems and a low research priority within JR East at the time, Suica success was achieved by moving the battery supply from the card to the gate and creating fast reliable performance with an illuminated target NFC ‘hit area’ tilted forward at 15 degrees, the same design you see today on the JREM EG-20 transit gate. The EG-20 already looks surprisingly similar to the open public transport gate concept. (Here’s a Japanese website that catalogs every JR East ticket device if you are interested)

Smartcard Transit Gates Compared
Smart transit cards were an important development that revolutionized transit and launched successful systems such as Suica, Hong Kong MTR Octopus and TfL Oyster. However all smart transit gates are not equal. Compare the Malaysia Touch n’ Go gate speed with Suica on EG-20:

One of the commentators notes the crucial differences: FeliCa (used for Suica and Octopus) is the most efficient NFC protocol, 212 kbps minimum/847 kbps maximum, while Touch ‘n Go is mainly MIFARE Classic at 106 kbps an “early form of ISO 14443A, …the least efficient NFC protocol.”

There is another crucial difference: Japan transit gates are open by default and close only when needed, just like the old manned JR gates, while Malaysia and Hong Kong gates are closed on default or use old fashioned turnstiles. The combination of the Ferrari fast FeliCa combined with the well designed JREM EG-20 gate (and variants) that is default open, keeps people moving, best highlighted in a Pokemon Go event ‘Pikachu’ transit gate video:

Suica speed is part of what makes it fun but there is a serious reason behind it: major Japanese transit operators like JR East have to move a tremendous volume of people through a fixed station infrastructure space that cannot be enlarged. Bigger stations with more transit gates are not an option. So the system focus is using the fixed space infrastructure as efficiently as possible. That is why the Suica transaction speed is less than 200 MS, that is why a Suica transit gate must clear 60 people a minute.

Open Loop Multiple Protocol Transit Gates Compared
Using EMV contactless with cards and smartphones, or QR Codes on smartphones for transit instead of native transit smartcards, is a step backwards from the fast read/write local processing model of Suica, and back towards read only centralized processing, one of the original system bottlenecks that Suica was designed to avoid. The QR Codes used for transit in China appear to be particularly slow and a poor match for high traffic stations. Poor gate design is certainly a factor here.

EMV has it’s own transit gate problems as well, as Singapore transit users found out in the recent rollout of EMV SimplyGo service there, things slow down:

It’s fascinating that Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) dumped the fast FeliCa (rated 200 millisecond transaction but Octopus clocks in at around 100ms) behind EZ-Link cards to roll their own faster CEPAS technology (rated 180ms transaction) but are now letting super slow EMV contactless (500ms plus and counting) on their transit reader infrastructure. It’s like ripping out all the cutting edge transit gate technology and replacing it with clunky old supermarket cash register technology.

The last comment in the first Twitter timeline is an important observation: most EMV transit is simply grafted onto the current transit gate infrastructure which was designed for something else, a factor contributing to unreliable performance, forcing users to adapt. Most of the multi-protocol transit gates in service are poor design.

This leads to another EMV issue users have to adapt to: ‘card clash’. When EMV is bolted onto an existing system slapping a wallet on the transit reader doesn’t work anymore, the card has to come out of the wallet. This is still one of the nice things about plastic Suica cards. Young Japanese women in particular seem to enjoy slapping those cute little Hello Kitty wallets on the gate reader with a surprisingly hard thwack, stress relief perhaps? Chicago Ventra support offers insight on the current state of EMV transit:

  • Get your device ready, first, for fastest entry
  • “Card clash”: touch only your desired payment method
  • Multiple credit cards: always use the same card on the same device on transit readers

These are issues that Apple Pay EMV Express Transit is designed to fix by designating a single EMV bank card for transit but it cannot change the inherently slow EMV transaction speed or solve the limitations of EMV bank card architecture which is basically centrally processed read only. There are limits on how much the central processing read only model can achieve when fast, precise, local transactions are required. All EMV Express Transit does it designate a bank card that tells the transit gate reader: I am a real bank card, not a forged one, we’ll settle the bill later.

That’s why complex transit fares are only supported on read/write native transit cards like Oyster on TfL, not EMV bank cards. It’s also the reason why manual swipe MTA Metrocards will be around for a few more years, the new OMNY Apple Pay Transit was not particularly fast or reliable at startup. Things will get better, a real OMNY transit card for plastic and digital wallets is due to arrive in late 2020. Last but not least, using EMV contactless for transit does carry some potential fraud risk that native transit cards do not.

Japanese IT journalist Junya Suzuki tests OMNY transit gate speed…
and reliability

The China Situation

The Abacus article highlights multiple protocol Chinese transit gates: paper tickets, NFC, QR Codes and Face recognition. Oh, and closed by default gates. This is not a fast transit gate environment.

The Abacus article points out the slow uptake of NFC, blaming it on UnionPay, but it boils down to the PBOC flavored EMV spec itself:

Each card organization has formed its own specifications based on the EMV specification based on its own business refinement and expansion, such as China UnionPay’s PBOC 2.0 specification, VISA’s VSDC specification and MasterCard’s M/Chip specification. Each specification follows the EMV specification for basic transaction processes and security mechanisms, but differs in terms of data element definition and extended application…PBOC based on the EMV standard, combined with the needs of domestic banks, the People’s Bank of China promulgated the PBOC series of standards:
1 PBOC1.0: e-wallet / electronic passbook / magnetic stripe card function
2 PBOC 2.0: E-wallet extension application, debit/credit application, personalization guide, contactless IC card standard
3 PBOC 3.0: Cancel e-wallet and electronic passbook application, cancel downgrade transaction, multi-algorithm extension, multi-application extension, mobile payment standard

Super Lu

Beijing and Shanghai Transit cards were originally MIFARE but instead of examining what technologies would be best for next generation transit needs, China simply migrated them to the much slower PBOC 2.0/EMV specification implemented on the China T-union transit card architecture. The China T-union card is country wide transit prepaid card spec for interoperable transit cards that can work everywhere, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc.

Unfortunately, the rollout of new format card issuance has been slow and piecemeal, with no apparent promotion push to educate transit users. Chinese users familiar with Suica performance find China T-union cards slower and less reliable at the gate. Because PBOC is slow EMV NFC spec 500 MS transaction speed and tightly chained to UnionPay, the transit gate performance edge is not great enough to ween users away from QR Codes and the point benefits of sticking with AliPay and WeChat Pay.

If the performance gain was similar to the huge Suica over QR difference, coupled with an open flexible backend for using different payment methods to add money, China T-union would stand a better chance of nudging QR users to NFC for transit. As it stands now, there’s no real difference between a UnionPay card and a China T-union card at the transit gate. One is post pay, the other is prepaid, 2 versions of the same thing, marginally faster than QR, but not much.

Whatever the causes for the current situation, it’s a perfect gift to Chinese QR code players, I suspect that the arrangement is also a profitable one for the Chinese government on some level because if it was not, they wouldn’t be adding QR Code readers to transit gates.


QR Codes for Japan Transit
Some Japanese tech journalists have fretted about JR East not embracing QR Codes on transit gates because JR Central plans to completely eliminate paper tickets for the next generation Chuo Shinkansen. It’s less about QR and more about eliminating magnetic strip paper tickets. JR East does have limited QR code use for ticket purchases at station kiosks, we’ll likely see wide support of many cashless payment options, QR included, with the new JR East eTicketing system due in April 2020.

QR Codes have seen some limited use on local monorail systems such as Okinawa’s Yui Rail but Suica compatilbilty is coming to the system in April 2020. The next generation Super Suica that does a lot more for much less, will arrive in April 2021. QR Codes for transit use in Japan will reamain a small side show far away from the main attraction.


In summary, the use of EMV bank cards and QR Codes for transit all comes down to transit company priorities for safe operation, better customer service and long term business goals. My position has been and continues to be is that it’s a better long term business opportunity for transit companies to:

  • Offer robust support of bank cards, QR and digital wallets on the backend for adding money to native transit cards on digital wallets and plastic, where they are really useful and add value without giving control away to outside companies.
  • Use closed loop transit gate value capture to focus on building better services tied to transit cards that benefit customers and businesses of the entire transit region, aka the transit platform business model.

It’s a simple choice really, moving people quickly and safely by transit, managed wisely, is a license to make money. A company can either use that license to build something of greater long term value for the users and businesses of the transit region, a win-win, or give it away to someone else.

Apple Pay Octopus and the future of the Octopus Transit Platform

UPDATE: Hong Kong OCL officially announced Apple Pay Octopus

One downside of breaking a tech story on the internet is news aggregator sites. Responsible tech news sites like MacRumors and AppleInsider post outside sourced news that serves their readership and sends traffic to the original source. And then there are not so nice aggregator operations posing as news sites like The Verge, TechCrunch and 9to5Mac who craft crappy posts, lifting whole chunks from outside stories, or simply lifting without attribution, minimizing any outside contribution to keep traffic on their own site.

So it’s a bummer that SC Yeung’s excellent EJ Insight story “Why Hong Kong can expect Apple Pay support for Octopus Card,” quotes the 9to5Mac ripoff of my piece instead of the original, but it’s an interesting read with good analysis. Yeung makes the same point I did a few months ago that the expansion of Octopus to Apple Pay is an important step forward for the platform. But it can’t stop there: Octopus Cards Limited needs to continue digital wallet expansion and create new business opportunities. Unfortunately it has to accomplish this while parent company MRT Corporation is opening up its transit gates to QR Code and EMV payments which will compete with the subsidiary OCL Octopus card business:

MTR will begin accepting QR code payment starting from next year and the rail operator will also add more contactless payment systems on its gates in future. For commuters, Octopus Card will no longer be the only choice for MTR payments…

<It> is becoming clear that <OCL> needs a new business model to maintain its market-leading position. Using a specific card for payment is no longer a modern way of payment. The core issue for Octopus is transform into something bigger, moving beyond the current payment functions and offer a lot more, perhaps even a mobile banking service, to retain users.

Why HK can expect Apple Pay support for Octopus card

JR East has taken a very different approach. Suica is a central business pillar and JR East will be expanding it with the next generation Super Suica in April 2021. Suica will gain the ability to virtually host other transit card under the same Suica umbrella on plastic and on mobile. Think of it as a national transit and payment card with Express Transit anywhere, anytime. How fascinating it would be if Octopus had a similar kind of opportunity to expand outside of Hong Kong.

Even from the short vantage point of 2.5 years since the launch of Apple Pay Suica, it’s already easy to see the charges that it has brought to the Japanese payments market. It will be interesting to watch the changes that Apple Pay Octopus brings to Hong Kong.

Rakuten Pay Super Suica Connection

IT journalist Junya Suzuki wrote an interesting piece for Impress Watch detailing the recent Rakuten Pay Suica announcement. Unfortunately there was a major missing piece of analysis: Super Suica. I asked him about it.

I look forward to reading Suzuki san’s take, meanwhile here is mine. It has everything to do with the Japan Transit IC card standard and the common eMoney purse that I wrote about in the Apple Card piece.

(The) Japan Transit IC card standard occupies a very special category, 255 transit companies form a common interoperability standard which started from Suica. There are more issued Transit IC cards than people in Japan, everybody has one.

The core group of 9 major cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, TOICA, Kitaka, manaca, SUGOCA, nimoca, HAYAKEN) also share a common prepaid purse: Transit IC eMoney. The national coverage and scale of the major cards transforms Transit IC eMoney into something special found nowhere else: a de facto national prepaid card standard.

File:ICCard Connection en.svg
Japan Transit IC Map, a very cool animated timeline is also available

Pay close attention to the transit cards that encircle the pink area, with the exception of PiTaPa. These are local rural area transit cards that are currently orphaned from both the common eMoney purse, and transit interoperability.

In April 2021 Super Suica will enlarge the pink area to include these orphaned cards. They will join the common eMoney purse and be compatible with all the pink area cards for transit and purchases. These will also be on Apple Pay Suica, Google Pay Suica and Osaifu Keitai.

That is a huge change in and of itself, but there is another very important aspect. All of these orphaned rural area transit cards are basically cash recharge only. Rural area transit companies operate on shoe string budgets and cannot afford the infrastructure cost to host credit card recharging on the back end even for kiosks.

Super Suica will solve this problem and what better solution than Rakuten Pay Super Suica for all rural Rakuten Pay users, and there are lots of them. This is the major sweet spot that Rakuten and JR East are aiming for. It merges the Rakuten Pay backend with the Super Suica frontend into one convenient service for transit and eMoney purchases while leveraging lucrative Rakuten loyalty points. Rakuten has the best integrated point system in Japan and JR East wants to use it to extend the Suica Platform nationwide. Rakuten Pay and Super Suica belong together, like peanut butter and jelly.

Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Apple Card and the Prepaid Innovation of Apple Pay Suica

The Apple Card tag line says it all, “A new kind of credit card. Created by Apple, not a bank.” This is a bank card that’s not a bank card, except that it is a bank card with basic limitations that can never be changed: a bank card is postpay and this chains it to the creaky banking industry that everybody knows and loathes, with predatory fees, credit checks and service nonsense.

To overcome this limitation, and the slow uptake of EMV Apple Pay and Apple Cash, Apple is merging the postpay Apple Card and the prepaid Apple Cash, glued together with Apple Pay into one service. Two is better than one, right? This merge of postpay + prepaid is a long overdue development for the American market that builds on ideas and experience that Apple gained from Apple Pay Suica in Japan.

The credit card drag on Apple Pay adoption
The slow uptake of Apple Pay and other digital wallets in the USA is pointed out from time to time. The eMarketer blog piece in May 2018 predicted stronger growth for In-App loyalty prepaid cards like Starbucks, over Apple Pay and Google Pay. The Starbucks card is like many prepaid loyalty cards that offer points and rewards along with apps that let users add the loyalty card and attach a credit card for easy In-App reloads. It’s an easy entry point for customers to enjoy the benefits of using prepaid cards and get the most out of their purchases.

There are other factors cited for slow Apple Pay adoption rates in America, but I think the basic reasons are simple. During my 4 month American stay in 2018, I was surprised how slow and uneven the Apple Pay experience was at checkout. Pulling out a plain old credit card was often the faster hassle free choice. Either way it’s the same credit card right? It’s marginally move convenient, but not a new service.

That is the problem. Apple Pay and digital wallets are new technology but bank cards carry the combined weight of a creaky, out of date banking industry. Banks operations are retro, analog businesses living in the digital age on borrowed time. Bank cards with all kinds of new technology attached to them are still the same stodgy card services from the same stodgy banks.

The real point of the eMarketer piece is that In-App prepaid cards with postpay credit cards attached on the backend, offer customers a convenient new merged service that is than far better than either by itself, with bank cards limited to a indirect backup role. The prepaid card is the main point of contact between the customer and merchant, not the bank card. And this makes all the difference because it’s where the innovation is.


Japan Transit IC eMoney Transactions for non-transit purchases topped 8 million a day in April 2019

Apple Pay Japan success built with prepaid
Prepaid card use for transit and purchases in Japan dwarfs credit card use, especially with younger people. The major prepaid cards include WAON, nanaco, Rakuten Edy and Japan Transit IC cards (an interesting bit of history is that Suica and WAON were initially conceived to be a single card). Of these the Japan Transit IC card standard occupies a very special category, 255 transit companies form a common interoperability standard which includes Suica. There are more issued Transit IC cards than people in Japan, everybody has one.

File:ICCard Connection en.svg
Japan Transit IC Map, a very cool animated timeline is also available

The core group of 9 major cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, TOICA, Kitaka, manaca, SUGOCA, nimoca, HAYAKEN) also share a common prepaid purse: Transit IC eMoney. The national coverage and scale of the major cards transforms Transit IC eMoney into something special found nowhere else: a de facto national prepaid card standard.

Transit IC eMoney transactions for non-transit purchases topped 8 million a day in April 2019. At current growth rates, transactions should be more than 10 million a day when Super Suica arrives in April 2021 and significantly enlarges the common eMoney purse footprint while unifying it.

The success of Apple Pay in Japan is very different from any other country: it was not accomplished with bank cards, it was accomplished with the Suica transit card with it’s common prepaid Transit IC eMoney purse. The success formula has 2 basic ingredients: de facto national prepaid purse for transit and purchases matched with Apple Pay postpaid bank cards for recharging Suica. Prepaid + Postpay as one service with bank cards limited to the backend for reloading.

The concept is just like In-App prepaid loyalty cards: a prepaid front end with a flexible open ended postpay backend. But this one is much more powerful because it can be used everywhere for transit and purchases. Putting the Suica prepaid card on Apple Pay and Google Pay with their infinitely flexible postpay backend for instant, anywhere, anytime recharge and reloads takes everything to a whole new level of convenience and use.

One of the failures of Apple Cash is that the current version is pigeonholed as a peer to peer service. How different Apple Cash would be if it was positioned like Suica. Apple Pay HOP users are just getting their first taste of new things now, as will Chicago Ventra users when Apple Pay Ventra launches later this year. Unfortunately eMoney is not part of the mix for HOP and Ventra, only transit, nor are they compatible with each other.

A first step towards virtual currency?
I used Suica before Apple Pay arrived and have nearly 3 years of Apple Pay Suica use under my belt. The prepaid + postpay service model matched with transit + purchase eMoney is a combination that is almost impossible to describe to a person who has not lived with it. The daily experience is very different from using bank cards which feel like hard money wrapped in plastic. Hong Kong Octopus card users are probably the only ones who can relate to it, and then only Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay users.

Suica eMoney on digital wallets represents a small step towards virtual currency in a way that bank cards do not. QR Codes serve the same function for China, the first small step away from hard cash. Even though QR Codes payment systems are usually hard wired to bank accounts, they are not run by banks.

None of these schemes are real virtual currencies of course, but they are an important cushion for the mind. The daily use experience prepares people for a future where payments, and the whole infrastructure supporting them, will be completely different from what we have now. It changes old habits, and more importantly, old ways of thinking, just a little. Taking the next step from there is much easier.

A few days ago I wrote:

The Apple Card rollout due this summer is a head scratcher. There are lots of things Apple Card can do in Wallet that other cards, as yet, cannot do. It feels too big and important for just a press release and a new web page. And yet, by itself, it’s too small for a full blown Apple event. I think the Apple Card rollout is going to be a very interesting release for all things Apple Pay.

The new Apple Card + Apple Cash will be the first major postpay + prepaid Apple Pay service for iPhone users in America. The experiment will be fascinating to watch, but Japan remains the world’s most exciting and heady payments market experiment there is.