All You Need to Know About Smart Cards and How to Use Them in Japan!
The convenience and safety features of smart cards have inarguably made a lot of people in Japan very happy.
In a country where cash is the name of the game, smart cards are now making more Japanese people use digital money instead of physical money.
What are smart cards?
Public transit smart cards are also known as Suica which stands for “super urban intelligent card.”
Since Japan has a penchant for naming things based on onomatopoeic sounds, Suica is also a derivative of the onomatopoeia “suisui” which means “smooth.”
Smart cards are also sometimes referred to as IC cards – an acronym for the “integrated circuit” found on the card.
These types of cards are based on the contactless communication system technology developed by Sony which is known as FeliCa.
FeliCa stands for “felicity card.”
In Shinjuku Station alone, public transit smart cards have played an active role in facilitating passengers at ticket gates in just 0.2 seconds without the trouble of lining up at ticketing booths for every ride.
While smart cards are commonly used in public transport as a digital payment in place of cash, the use of this technology has now expanded to restaurants, supermarkets, drugstores, and electronic stores.
How have they changed public transportation in Japan?
The first application of Suica or smart cards in Japan was launched by JR EAST in November 2001.
In 2004, a Suica e-money service was launched so that passengers can reload their smart cards via vending machines, convenience stores, and other outlets.
By March 2007, PASMO was issued in place of the existing Passnet magnetic card system in the Tokyo area.
With the help of JR EAST, PASMO cards were also integrated to Suica which means that Suica cards can be used where PASMO cards are accepted (i.e. in any railway or bus in Tokyo) except for monthly passes.
Still, both cards are functionally identical for commuters.
In March 2013, Suica’s collaboration have expanded to other smart cards such as ICOCA, Kitaca, PASMO, TOICA, manaca, PiTaPa, SUGOCA, and nimoca.
About 87 million cards were issued and that is a big number when compared to the total population of Japan which is about 120 million people.
The interoperability of Suica with other smart cards means that passengers can now travel to almost 4,500 train stations in Japan and access bus services without having to buy separate tickets or cards.
Can they be used all over Japan?
Recent reports by the Transportation Ministry in April 2015 suggest that ten prefectures in the country do not use the smart card technology yet.
However, they aim to implement the use of these smart cards in all prefectures before the commencement of Tokyo Olympics 2020.
To date, Suica has also launched a mobile application wherein passengers can now use their smartphones as a substitute for their smart cards provided that such model is compatible with the scanner.
As for travelers who plan to live or travel around Japan for long periods of time, investing in a smart card is a great idea.
Here are links to three major cards sold in stations:
Suica (JR EAST): https://goo.gl/KvSf1
ICOCA (JR-WEST): https://goo.gl/nLceIH
Kitaca (JR Hokkaido): https://goo.gl/l2f3X5