Tokyo Subway Launches New Experiment with Credit Card Touch Payments

Tokyo Subway Launches New Experiment with Credit Card Touch Payments

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Woman entering subway gate with a tap payment
Picture: ソライロ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
A subway line in Tokyo now lets you enter with a credit card tap. What does this mean for the future of Japan's IC transit cards?

Once a heavily cash-dependent country, Japan continues introducing more payment options for cashless and contactless methods. Now, a subway line in Tokyo becomes the latest to support entering the gates with a credit card tap. But what does this mean for the future of Japan’s beloved IC subway cards?

All aboard the Denentoshi

This week, Japan’s Tokyu Railways Co., Ltd. announced it was trialing credit card and QR code ticket support. As of August 30th, riders can use either form of payment to board the company’s Denentoshi Line in Tokyo, which runs from Shibuya Station all the way to Chūō-rinkan in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The Denentoshi Line is the first in the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area to offer credit card payments. However, it’s not the first in Japan. In March, Fukuoka City announced support for credit card payments for all three city-operated lines at all 36 city stations. This followed experimental support for the technology that the city introduced in the previous year.

However, the implementations differ dramatically. Fukuoka’s system is true “touch to pay”: touching a valid credit card (including debit cards, prepaid cards, smartphone, and watch wallets) will pay the rider fee instantly.

By contrast, Tokyu’s system uses Q Skip, which requires first buying a pass with a major credit card. After buying a pass, you can swipe the same card you used to purchase the pass to enter. Alternatively, you can scan the QR code for your pass on a QR code reader.

Tokyu and Fukuoka aren’t the only ones introducing touch payments. Fukushima says it’ll support touch payments on its buses and subway lines beginning in March 2024.

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A peek at the clunky Shibuya Station gate

New QR code and credit card payment options at the Denetoshi Line in Shibuya Station

Curious to see how this was implemented, I went to Shibuya Station, one of the endpoints of the Denentoshi, to check it out.

Currently, only a single gate at the Denentoshi supports the pass system. And it’s a bit of a monstrosity. The reader is bolted to the front of the gate, below the existing options for paying by ticket or IC card.

New QR code and credit card payment options at the Denetoshi Line in Shibuya Station - close up view

When I posted this on my personal X (Twitter) account, some residents commented on how clunky and ugly this looked. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt here. This is obviously an experiment to vet the technology. And it’ll take time (and cost money) to revise gates to make this a more seamless and integrated experience.

The more limiting factor is the need for a pass. Since you must buy a pass beforehand, it’s not a seamless “touch-and-enter” pay experience. If Tokyo Railways uses this throughout its system, it’s bound to create confusion with both locals and tourists who see the credit card symbols and think they can touch to enter.

I’m interested to see how many riders actually use this system. Given the need to buy a pass online beforehand, it’s less convenient than just swiping a railway IC card like Suica or PASMO.

Whither SUICA and PASMO?

A sign at Shibuya Station near the Denentoshi Line announcing in English that customers can no longer by PASMO IC cards due to the recent IC chip shortage.
A sign at Shibuya Station near the Denentoshi Line announcing in English that customers can no longer buy PASMO IC cards due to the recent IC chip shortage.

Despite its limitations, the support for contactless payment by both Tokyo and Fukuoka City raises an interesting question: What will become of Japan’s famous IC cards?

For years now, residents of Japan have relied on cards such as Suica and PASMO for their transit needs. IC cards have also transcended their use as mere transportation payment cards. You can use all of Japan’s major railway IC cards to pay at most grocery stores, combinis (convenience stores), restaurants, and shops.

Could that come to an end in the next decade? As it is, due to an IC card chip shortage, you can’t easily buy a physical Suica or PASMO anymore. And you don’t really need to: you can add virtual IC cards to your iPhone or Android smartphone and charge them via credit card.

However, if touch payment becomes widespread, IC cards could go out of fashion quickly. The cards aren’t very convenient as a general payment method, as they limit how much of a balance you can carry. For example, you can only have ¥20,000 (around $136) on a Suica card at any moment – even a virtual one. That means, if you use your Suica as a general contactless payment method, you’re constantly charging it.

More retailers in Japan are also introducing support for touch payments. If this trend continues, IC cards could become a relic of the past.

In other words, if you have a physical IC card, hold onto it tight. Chances are that, by 2030, it’ll be a “Reiwa Retro” collector’s item.

Japan Rail Companies Limit Train Passes Due to Chip Shortage

Sources

日本初 地下鉄全駅「クレカでピッ」に 対象カード一気に6ブランドへ拡大 福岡. Traffic News

東急田園都市線、カードでタッチ乗車を30日開始 首都圏の課題と狙い. Impress Watch

福島交通・会津バスの路線バスと鉄道に「タッチ決済」含む各種キャッシュレス決済を導入 24年3月から. BCN Retail

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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