All You Need to Know about Smart Cards and How to Use them in Japan!

  • HOW TO
  • The convenience and safety features in 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?

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    Public transit smart cards are also known in Japan 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 onomatopoeic term suisui which means “smooth”. Smart cards are also called IC card (ay-shee ka-do-): an acronym for the “integrated circuit” found on the card. These types of cards are based on the contactless communications system technology developed by Sony which is known as FeliCa. FeliCa which stands for “felicity card” uses a contactless RFID smart card system which is primarily used in electronic money cards.

    Common uses

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    In Shinjuku Station alone, public transit smart cards have played an active role in facilitating passengers to ticket gates in just 0.2 seconds without taking the trouble to line 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 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 on November 2001. In 2004, a Suica e-money service was launched so that passengers can reload their smart cards via vending machine, 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, meaning 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.

    On March 2013, 25 different types of smart cards were released by private railway companies in Japan. Suica’s interoperability and collaboration have​ expanded with other smart cards such as ICOCA, Kitaca, Pasmo, TOICA, manaca, PiTaPa, SUGOCA, and nimoca. About 87 million cards were issued which is almost close to the total population of Japan (120 million people). The interoperability of Suica with other smart cards means that passengers can now travel to almost 4,500 stations in Japan plus the perks of using bus services.

    Can they be used all over Japan?


    Recent reports by the Transportation Ministry in April 2015 suggest that only ten prefectures in the country do not use the smart card technology. However, the Transport Ministry aims 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 where passengers can now use their mobile phones as a substitute for their smart cards provided that such model is compatible with the scanner.

    Indeed, smart cards have not only changed the way Japanese live today but has also influenced other countries like Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore with the use of its octopus card system in its railway projects. 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 four major cards sold in JR Stations: Suica (JR East), Pasmo (Tokyo/Kanto), Icoca (JR West) and Kitaca (JR Hokkaido).

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