In Japan, train tickets are a bit like flip phones. If you’re still buying paper stubs, you’re an old-schooler. (Or you’re just forgetful and misplaced your Suica, which again means you’re old.)
IC cards (integrated circuit cards) like Suica have been around for the past two decades. In the world of Japanese transport, they’re the biggest game in town. Making travel easy and convenient, almost everyone has an IC card these days.
Even the popular, all-inclusive Japan Rail Pass for inbound tourists became its own IC card in 2019. But despite being named the “Welcome Suica,” tourist IC cards got 70% less welcoming three months ago. JR Group, which issues the IC card, announced plans to raise the price of tourist IC cards by an average of 70% for all six passes sold.
Once hailed as the ultimate travel deal, the Welcome Suica let tourists ride all the JR trains, including Shinkansen, at a steal price of $200 for seven days or $350 for fourteen.
The announced price hike stirred up a good deal of discussion, mostly negative.
But there is a silver lining. The new deal includes new Shinkansen rides like Nozomi and Mizuho on the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen Lines. This means cutting the ride between Tokyo and Osaka short by 30 minutes and less waiting time in between transfers.
A Must Have
Much as traveling with the Welcome Suica makes a huge difference for tourists, having an IC card makes life so much easier for locals.
In Japan, people travel 2142 kilometers per person by rail each year, making Japan the world’s second top country for railway travel; only Switzerland ranks higher. That’s 50 full marathons spent inside a train, most of the time packed shoulder to shoulder.
So, given the convience, it’s no exaggeration to say that virtually every Japanese carries an IC card.
A Collector’s Dream
While the popularity of IC cards may not come as a surprise, their diversity will.
Japan has over 50 variations of commuter IC cards. Each one has its own design, oftentimes including a mascot character. People in Japan have a real weak spot for attaching a mascot character to anything and everything.
And just like the plethora of Pokémon cards hook in collectors, Japan’s numerous IC cards have a collectors’ group of their own.
Collectors like Sunagawa Hiroyuki (砂川寛之) run websites where they keep a record of all the IC cards they’ve procured. Hiroyuki’s website Studio JamPack boasts a collection of 55 IC cards. There’s also a map that you can zoom into to see what IC cards are used in each area.
Swiping Across Japan
There are ten major companies in Japan that operate within their own zones and sell IC cards that can be used within each domain.
However, since 2013, IC card holders of any of the ten companies have been allowed to travel across all ten zones. This setup is called zenkoku sōgo riyō eria (全国相互利用エリア), or nationwide mutual use area.
Here are the ten IC cards, each of which gives you access from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
Railway company: JR Hokkaido
Main zone: 54 train stations in the Sapporo area of Hokkaido
Design: Hokkaido’s ezo flying squirrel
Railway company: JR East Japan
Main zone: Tokyo metropolitan area
Fun facts: The name Suica comes from the Japanese word suisui (スイスイ), which means “moving smoothly,” because who wants to get stuck at the ticket gate? The penguin was facing away to the side until a design change in 2008 when the friendly penguin began looking our way.
Operating company: PASMO Ltd.
Main zone: Tokyo metropolitan area
Design: A robot
Railway company: JR Tokai
Main zone: Tokai area
Design: Two chicks
Railway company: Emuaishī Ltd. and Nagoya Transportation Development Organization Ltd.
Main zone: Nagoya City’s buses and subways
Design: Yellow smiley face
Railway company: JR West Japan
Main zone: JR West Japan and JR Shikoku
Operating company: Surutto KANSAI
Main zone: Kansai’s private railways
Design: A ninja
Railway company: JR Kyushu
Main zone: Kyushu
Design: A frog and a clock
Railway company: Fukuoka City Subway
Main zone: Fukuoka City’s subway
Design: black-tailed prairie dog character named chikamaru
Railway company: Western Japan Railway
Main zone: Western Japan railways and buses
Design: A ferret
The IC card most used in Japan is Suica, followed by PASMO and ICOCA.
The “ca” often found at the end of Japan’s IC card names is an abbreviation of the English word card.
Sometimes, IC cards don’t just stop at mascot characters. So very typically Japanese, dajare (駄洒落) or Japanese dad jokes get smacked onto them as is the case with popular snacks.
Take for example the regional IC card from Kanagawa prefecture: IruCa. There’s a blue dolphin facing straight toward you. If you know the Japanese word for dolphin, iruka (イルカ), you probably got what the first half of the pun is.
But Kotohira Railway couldn’t resist adding a second pun to it. Iruka (要るか) with different kanji means “you need it?”
What a sales pitch. Don’t you need our IC card?
Occasionally, companies issue limited edition IC cards.
In 2015, Suica released a limited edition design commemorating Tokyo Station’s 100th birthday which sent collectors on the hunt.
Now, have you ever noticed the dents on the right side of IC cards?
These are to assist the visually impared in distinguishing IC cards from credit cards, etc. Cards with one dent are those on which the owner’s name and information are printed. Two dents mean that the card is void of printed information.
Suica, which has one dent, can have its user’s name, age, and travel route on it.
Before IC Cards
Before the modern age of IC cards bearing penguins and robots, Japan had a comperative stone age era of makeshift train tickets.
The earliest train tickets, called kippu (切符) in Japanese, were made out of thick cardboard pieces. Both sides were covered with washi (和紙), a traditional paper in Japan made from fibers of the paper mulberry plant. Because the ticket was so thick and stiff, it was called kōken (硬券) or hard ticket.
Around the same time, Japan began importing technology from England to manufacture train tickets of better quality. That’s why some of Japan’s oldest train tickets share similar fonts and designs with what the British were using.
When Japan’s first commuter railway opened between Shinbashi and Yokohama in 1872, tickets were checked manually. Train station officers would inspect each ticket as people walked up to the gate.
Ticket machines appeared in 1966, nearly a hundred years after the first trains ran the grounds of Tokyo.
The First Tickets: Rip ‘Em
The Japanese word for ticket, kippu was used interchangeably with wappu (割符) in the feudal Edo period.
Wappu were official tickets that were ripped in half and divided between Japanese merchants and foreign traders.
The two parties would present government officials with matching ticket halves to prove that the trade had been legally approved.
This system died with the closing of Japan’s borders, which lasted between 1639 and 1854.
The words kippu and wappu resurfaced in the Meiji era as a referral to transportation tickets, albeit the reason for this change in definition is unclear.
Trial And Error: The Road To IC Cards
Fidgeting around one’s pockets got annoying and Japan did what it does best: innovation in the name of convenience.
Plans to use IC cards were in the making as early as 1987.
Seven years later, the first field tests for IC cards began.
Companies experimented a lot. One thing they had to figure out was where to put the scanner.
Today, it’s a given that scanners are horizontally installed. But back then, field tests put both horizontal and vertical scanners on one machine to see which was better.
90% of questionnaire respondents said the horizontal model was better, which ultimately stuck.
Three field tests were conducted over the course of thirteen years before Japan’s first official IC card was put on the market in 2001.
And what was the first name in the IC game? That would be Suica.
SONY’s FeliCa, a contactless RFID (radio-frequency identification) smart card system, created Suica.
Suica differed from commuter passes that came before it in that it was rechargeable. Earlier models were single use but Suica could charge up to 20 thousand yen or $138 at a time.
Suica users increased rapidly. Cardholder numbers jumped from 11 million to 25 million in the two years between 2006 and 2008. In 2021 alone, over 85 million Suica cards were issued.
A Slow Departure From IC Cards
After two decades of IC cards’ dominance, a new payment system is slowly emerging in Japan.
In December of last year, Tokyu Railway announced plans to run field tests using credit cards and QR codes as an alternative scanning method. Tokyu’s tests are scheduled this summer.
Elsewhere, in Kanagawa prefecture, Enoshima Railway started using credit card and smartphone apps for ticket payments from April 15th this year.
The initiative comes from a collaborative effort by Mitsui Sumitomo Card and VISA Worldwide Japan.
App payments are taking off in JR Shikoku’s zone. The app, called Shikoku Smart Ekichan (しこくスマートえきちゃん) allows users to purchase tickets online. To get through the gates, users scan the app’s display on the ticket machine.
Shikoku residents were quick to adapt to app payments because their regional IC card, ICOCA, was causing them more inconvenience than wanted. ICOCA is only applicable to 10% of JR Shikoku’s train lines, which left residents with no choice but to buy paper tickets.
Companies are also becoming more environmentally aware.
Kyodo Printing Co., Ltd. invented an IC card partially made from recycled plastic.
HID made IC cards out of sustainable bamboo that they have branded “Seos Bamboo.” The materials have been certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council.
Beyond The Trains
IC cards have taken over not only the sphere of transportation, but shopping too.
Major convenience stores including 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, and Coca-Cola vending machines all accept payment with your charged IC cards.
Supermarkets and malls like Maruetsu and Don Quijote take IC cards too.
It’s harder to find stores that won’t accept IC cards these days.
Although the price hike coming in 3 months might make tourists think twice about purchasing their own JR Pass Suica, IC cards might become an object of the past if credit card payments take off.
Of course, if you are a collector of regional IC cards, you won’t make the switch. And with IC cards becoming intricately linked to other expenses such as your daily 7-Eleven purchases, paying extra might really be worth the extra cost.
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