You might think that JR East has installed Suica gates in every station but this is not the case: as of 2018 Suica is installed in roughly half of JR East’s 1667 stations. The reason is cost. Unmanned stations have simple Suica gate readers but apparently the cost of these is an obstacle. Fast local processing is one of the advantages of Suica but I suspect the dedicated network backbone costs for linking and syncing with JR East servers doesn’t come cheap.
JR East is fixing the cost problem by developing a new cloud based Suica gate reader that can easily be installed anywhere. The trade off is slightly slower speeds, perhaps, with the benefit of lower installation and maintenance costs. JR East said they expect to reach 100% Suica deployment with the new model and hope to sell it internationally.
Hankyu Corporation announced in January they would sell ICOCA cards for commuter pass use starting March 1. The switchover is interesting on many levels. ICOCA is the JR West transit IC card and PiTaPa is the transit IC card for Kansai area private lines (Hankyu, Keihan, Hanshin, Kintetsu, etc.). They are both FeliCa cards, offer commuter passes and are compatible for transit use under the Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association project specification.
There is one big difference: ICOCA is prepaid while PiTaPa is a postpaid credit card/transit card hybrid that can never really be mainstream because it has credit checks. ICOCA can be bought by anyone at a ticket machine. The Hankyu/Hanshin switchover to prepaid ICOCA for the masses follows the JR West arrangement that Kintetsu and Keihan already have in place. There is just one last little detail that JR West needs to work out however: get ICOCA on mobile digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay. Super Suica should take care of that in 2021.
2019 looks to be a year of change and going cashless. JR East is swapping out old reserve seat ticket machines with new ones that only take credit cards and transit cards (Suica, PASMO, etc.). This sign in Ikebukuro station says the last day for cash purchases is February 27, cashless operation starts March 1. From this date customers who want to buy reserve seat ticket purchases with cash have to line up at JR Ticket Offices (Midori-no-madoguchi) and at Travel Service Centers (View Plaza).
It will be interesting to see if the new machines will use the ‘smart bin’ design approach that accepts both plastic cards and smartphones for Apple Pay Suica, etc.
iOS 12/watchOS 5 Suica performance continues to be a very mixed bag for many as Apple closes in on the iOS 12.1.3 update. There are no showstoppers but glitches are constant enough that there’s even an Reddit thread on the subject, a first. Suica performance glitches fall in 4 basic patterns:
Suica Express Card error flicker: occasional error flicker at transit gates with iPhone 7, iPhone 8, iPhone X (Rev. B) and Apple Watch 2~4. This is a completely different issue from the iPhone X NFC hardware defect. There is no workaround and will likely be fixed in an iOS update at some point…we hope.
Dead Suica Notifications/No Suica Balance Update: Suica Notifications stop working and Suica Balance fails to update at transit gates, store readers and Suica recharges. This affects iPhone 7, iPhone 8, iPhone X (Rev. B) and Apple Watch 2~4 but is easy to fix by putting Suica in Service Mode for a few seconds.
Slow or unresponsive Suica Recharge: this is probably more of a backend system issue between Apple Pay iCloud and Mobile Suica than iOS 12 but Apple Pay Suica recharge fails half of the time on the first attempt. This affects all devices and there is no work around except to try again. The Mobile Suica maintenance this month (January 2019) might help.
Express Card power reserve mode kicks in with iOS up and running. This only affects iPhone XS and iPhone XR. Express Card power reserve mode kicks in for some reason when it should not. Suica still works fine but the Apple Pay Suica UI stops working. No notifications, no balance update, nada. Service Mode does not revive Suica notifications but the fix is simple: restart iPhone and all is good.
The CreditCard no Yomimono site (CCY) has collected and listed all the FeliCa contactless card issued to date numbers released by Japanese companies in 2018 into one convenient table. WAON is missing because AEON didn’t release any numbers this year, CCY estimates WAON card numbers at 70 million . The numbers are fairly recent and roughly inline with the Japanese fiscal year through early 2018. They are very interesting but as CCY points out the number of issued cards does not always translate into actual use: previous surveys indicate that Rakuten Edy is used much less frequently than Suica at the cash register.
Prepaid Transit IC cards (Suica, PASMO, etc.) are by far the largest at 143,700,000 which means that every person in Japan has at least one. CCY also notes the explosive 51% growth rate of QUICPay which they attribute to Apple Pay. This is one half of the story. JCB has certainly done an excellent job of working with Apple Pay but I suspect another reason is that Japanese Apple Pay Suica users switched from using Japanese issue VISA cards that don’t support Apple Pay Suica recharge in favor of QUICPay cards like JCB VIEW that do.