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, outside white area cards are due to join Super Suica in 2021

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.

Golden Week Golden JRE POINT

Golden Week 2019 is going to be an extraordinarily long one, 10 days in all. It would not be Golden Week without a few marketing gimmicks and JR East has not disappointed: 15X bonus JRE POINT running May 2~6 with any JRE POINT registered Suica purchases at yellow sticker Suica JRE POINT stores (NewDays, Becks Coffee Shop, Kiosk, etc.) .

To be sure setting up Apple Pay Suica with JRE POINT is a pain, but once done it’s nice to rack up the points. Until May 6, goodbye Starbucks and hello Becks.

When you purchase things with Apple Pay Suica at Suica JRE POINT stores you earn JRE POINT automatically

Apple Pay Transit and 6 Reasons for Closed Transit Fare Systems

After the announcement of Apple Card and more Apple Pay Transit coming soon to “major cities in America” like Chicago (Salt Lake City/Utah Transit Authority is an embarrassment to Apple since UTA dropped Apple Pay EMV credit card support in summer 2018 because of too many difficulties), I came across this interesting tidbit about the Ventra card:

Arguably it’s a good thing that the Ventra prepaid debit card is going the way of the dinosaur. The debit card function debuted with a long list of fees that had the potential to siphon of much of the money stored on the card, including:

A $1.50 ATM withdrawal fee
A $2 fee to speak to someone about the retail debit account.
A $6.00 fee for closing out the debit balance
A $2 fee for a paper statement
A $2.95 fee to add money to the debit account using a personal credit card
A $10 per hour fee for “account research’’ to resolve account discrepancies

“These fees were probably not any different than other bank cards offered by Money Network or Meta Bank or other predatory banks,” says Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance, who reported on the issue at the time. “But it was shameful for the CTA to be aligned with that.”

After a backlash, most of these fees were reduced or eliminated, but CTA retail outlets were still allowed to charge Ventra card holders a fee of up to $4.95 to load cash on the debit sides of their cards. So maybe it is for the best that the CTA is getting out of the bank card business.

Streets Blog Chicago December 2017

Open loop transit fare systems with EMV contactless credit cards are invariably promoted as a great convenience and the bright open future of transit, but the dark business downsides of letting credit companies and banks on transit gates is rarely, if ever discussed.

Fees and predatory banks are never going away and will always be a problem as long as credit cards are allowed on transit gates. It’s a much better business solution to keep banks one step removed from the process and limited to the back end for adding money to transit prepaid cards that can then be used for building a real business that benefits the entire transit region. In one sense Apple changing the rules for Apple Pay Cash person to person transfers protects customers from a potential layer of ‘predatory fees’ by removing the credit card (debit cards are still ok) .

I have said it many times and say it again: if a transit region is serious about building a Japanese style Transit Platform, keeping transit gates closed system is the first rule of business. The next step is leveraging the transit card on digital payment platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay that can mix and match credit/debit cards for adding money on the back end, link with rewards and much more.

For JR East the tight integration of transit, Suica and retail has been very successful: 30% of 2017 revenue (26.8 billion USD) was Suica/IT/Retail projected to grow to 40% by 2027. It’s a business model that grows revenue even when transit ridership has leveled off. This kind of growth is impossible to accomplish with open transit fare systems.

JR East presentation slide from March 2019

The Contactless Payment Turf Wars: tapping the potential of TAP

  1. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Transit Platforms
  2. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: PiTaPa Pitfalls
  3. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: why Oyster is missing from mobile
  4. >Contactless Payment Turf Wars: tapping the potential of TAP

The recent MacRumors report that the Los Angeles Metro Transit Access Pass card is coming to Apple Pay was not entirely new information, the Source blog and Curbed reported back in May 2017 that TAP was coming to smart devices with a system upgrade:

Cubics (sic), the company handling TAP technology, is developing Nextlink, a “cloud-based connection system,” that will link the existing TAP fare infrastructure to an upcoming mobile payment app. The app is expected to be released, “as early as 7-9 months from the start of development.”

“Metro’s TAP card system is getting a major upgrade” Curbed May 2017

As Curbed explains it, Cubic is developing a backend cloud system that enables online transit accounts with credit/debit cards attached to TAP cards for anywhere anytime mobile recharge with the eventual goal of TAP cards being hosted on mobile devices. In other words it sounds just like Mobile Suica, the world’s first contactless transit card system on mobile, which has been around since 2006 and on Apple Pay since 2017.

The MacRumors Apple Pay information was new but also vague and unclear:

MacRumors can confirm that LA Metro, the transit agency that manages integration of the TAP card system in the Los Angeles Area, said it is working with Apple to support mobile payments for iPhones, with rollout scheduled for this fall…and eventual support for Android phones with NFC, although the timeframe for the latter is unknown.

The process is similar to using Apple Pay for in-store payments. Depending on the iPhone, that means double-pressing the home button or side button, authenticating with Touch ID or Face ID, and holding the device near the card reader. Apple Watch payments are also activated by double-pressing the side button. 

Cubic is the 800 pound gorilla of public transit gate and fare systems in America, Europe and Australia with long and profitable history of creating and operating fare systems. Cubic builds client IC transit card systems with MIFARE technology, which has made MIFARE a de facto standard in those regions. As Cubic literature says, “Over 60% of public transit rides in the US, UK and Australia are taken using Cubic systems.”

So far Cubic has not hosted any client transit card on digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay or Google Pay. Instead of native digital cards Cubic and clients have chosen ‘open loop’ EMV contactless credit/debit cards as their digital wallet strategy. Transit for London (TfL) went open loop in 2012, other Cubic operated systems such as Opal and Vancouver Compass have added it as well. The New York MTA and Cubic plan the same strategy for replacing the venerable New York Subway Metro Card.

There are huge business model and operational differences between the 2 approaches but from a Apple Pay user viewpoint the difference boils down to an Express Card-like experience (Suica, China Transit, Contactless Student ID cards) for going through a transit gate versus a Touch ID/Face ID credit-card-at-cash-register experience. That’s because EMV contactless was originally designed for cash registers, not transit gates. EMV contactless is a slow and very stupid smart card.

The MacRumors piece suggests that TAP on Apple Pay is Cubic TfL flavored EMV contactless, not native TAP Express Cards. But if TAP on Apple Pay turns out to be a native express card, it could be one of the largest express card deployments outside of Asia. In America and Europe there are only 4 native transit express cards on a digital wallet platform, all of them Google Pay only: Portland HOP, Las Vegas Monorail Network West Midlands Swift and Transport for Victoria Myki.

What’s fascinating to me is that smaller agencies like Transport for Victoria (TFV) are accomplishing what the mighty Cubic has not by launching native transit cards on digital wallets. Why? One possible explanation is that TFV understands the value of acquiring and managing online accounts while TfL dumps them in the Thames along with Oyster in favor of bank cards. I think we can look at LA Metro’s digital TAP rollout in the same way: if LA Metro is going to the trouble of building a cloud backend to migrate from plastic card management to online account management, does this mean they understand the business value of it? After all Apple, Amazon, Google, FaceBook and every other online business understands the value of online accounts with attached credit cards for building platforms, why not transit companies?

The Transit Platform Difference

One building block of a transit platform that follows the Japanese business model is migrating from plastic transit cards to a mobile account acquisition cloud backend that connects the customer transit card with credit/debit cards for anytime anywhere mobile recharge. The next step is loyalty reward goodies and bonus points with preferred cards, or better yet house brand cards. JR East Mobile Suica for example plugs and plays with a huge variety of cards but offers JRE bonus points for recharging with a JR East View card. Major retailers at major stations issue branded View cards with store points in addition to JRE points both of which help drive transit use and station area retail traffic.

The next crucial step is interoperable transit cards (TAP, EZ Rider, Compass, etc.) that are key to making transit easy to use statewide and eventually nationwide. This can only happen if there is good business planning and development behind the transit account acquisition process, and a management that understands the importance of how all the different infrastructure pieces need to integrate: California High-Speed Rail, regular lines, subway, buses, station retail, services, Mobile TAP, etc. The business vision has to create a whole that is much larger than the sum of various infrastructure parts.

Unfortunately this kind of business development and promotion comes hard for government run transit authorities. Egon Terplan of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) came to Tokyo and studied the business model:

By 2017, Japanese trains carried nearly 30 percent of all rail passengers in the world, more than all of Europe. But unlike many European countries, Japanese rail companies are privatized, with for-profit publicly traded companies running separate rail lines all around the country.

JR East, the largest of the JR companies, carries 17 million passengers per day on 12,300 trains. (By comparison, Amtrak carried just 31.3 million passengers during all of 2016, a record year in ridership; the New York City subway averages 5.5 million daily rides and BART, 430,000.) And JR East’s $26 billion in annual revenue includes no government subsidies.

I have lived in Japan since 1984 and am lucky to have witnessed the amazing transformation from Japan National Rail, dingy stations and paper tickets punched at the gate, to JR, Apple Pay Suica, constantly upgraded infrastructure and stations stuffed with and surrounded by all kinds of retail and delicious food. The transformation and integration continues and not only infrastructure.

The next generation ‘Super Suica’ transit card format under development by JR East and Sony aims to solve cost and remaining compatibility problems with all Japanese IC transit cards. But Super Suica isn’t just for Japan, it’s part of the vision JR East unveiled at the July 2016 NFC Forum Japan meeting that starts with the Public Transportation Workshop created NFC specification to eventually create a transit payment standard that works everywhere while meeting transit operation needs. If that goal is achieved, the whole argument for EMV contactless, a standard created for retail, as an open standard for transit payments falls away.

Note how the agent keeps his punch going at a constant speed

The choice between keeping TAP transit card accounts ‘in-house’ and closed loop on Apple Pay/Google Pay vs. EMV contactless open loop may sound trivial, but the decision will reveal whether LA Metro values transit online accounts as a business resource to build on, or a giveaway to banks and credit card companies. It comes down to what the famous Japanese daimyo Uesugi Yozan (a favorite of John F. Kennedy by the way) had to say about government and economic planning: always plan 50 and 100 years ahead. Think and plan for the generations to come.

Update: edit updated with NFC Forum Public Transportation Workshop and Super Suica information