RFID Cards Big in Tokyo
March 15th, 2003

I still have a couple hundred yen left on the railroad card I bought in Tokyo last September. New York Times reports that these slim, metallic, RFID-based cards are growing more popular in Japan. Some think they are the forerunner to electronic cash. All I know is that it was convenient to charge a card with cash at a vending machine, then simply slap my wallet down on the turnstile at the entrance to any Yamanote line train.

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1 - Tim

While the RF part is cool, in the US the dominant card-reading technology right now is the mag stripe… we’re almost there with the advent of ‘gift cards’ which are basically cash cards with a countdown value similar to what you’re describing. All we need to do is get past the “store-specificity” of the cards. Then when Verisign and Schlumberger, the dominant makers of card readers (at least in my area) decide to convert their thousands of readers to RF, we’d be done.

RFID Cards Big in Tokyo I’m wondering why we can’t do this here in Denver. The Denver,RTD certainly could benefit from their current paper based system. My past two jobs have been right on the RTD system, one on the LightRail and the other via the bus stop right outside our back/front door. By making a one time purchase of the card I don’t have to go down to the Market Street Station each month to purchase a new monthly bus pass. The lovely and talented lady of the house wouldn’t have to ask or remind me that she needs another book of 10 passes. No longer would people be getting on the bus or Light Rail and looking for exact change. The Transit folks who ride the LightRail checking tickets could be deployed to other essential tasks. I’m wondering if there are other cities that are making use of such or similar technology? I seem to remember that the Metro in D.C. was using some sort of fare stored card that was renewable. Are they still doing that?

We have this is sweden also on most public transport systems.

4 - number5

Public transport systems like metro and bus in Guangzhou, China started to adopt these RFID systems this year.

As to small amount payment, there is another way: mobile phone. You can buy drinks or snacks auto seller machine by send sms to a specified number, and you’ll pay for that when you pay your phone bill.

We are seeing success in the US with a small fob that fits on users keychain. Called “Speedpass” by the Mobil oil company these little sentient things allow users to charge gasoline and other service station purchases to a credit card. The system is faster than a gas pump that takes credit cards.

In the Chicago area the Speedpass can be used at McDonalds. The device can be swiped past a proximity reader mounted outside the drive-thru window.

Interestingly the Speedpass is intended to be on a users keychain. With the keys in the ignition it requires a two part keychain to be able to swipe the Speedpass without having to shut the engine down and remove the keys from the ignition.

This same user interface issue applies to the new “switchblade” Discover card now available. This is a kidney shaped credit card that swivels out of a small plastic case like a pocket knife. This device is intended to ride on users keychains to make carrying and using the Discover card easier. Fine for self-swipe transactions like mass retailors and food stores but not good for transactions like meals where you’d have to hand your keychain to the waiter to pay the bill. Perhaps there’s a quick release of some sort but I’ve not seen it in their advertising.

6 - Greg

For us that live in the Tokyo -> Japan region and commute via the public system here, smart card technology is quite convenient.

However, I see an even more convenient use for smart card tech, and that is including this technology in the already popular cellular phones here. This would make life equivalent to using an ATM card back in the states, as opposed to carrying cash around everywhere you go. This is not only inconvenient to the nth. degree, but also kind of risky carrying around all that cash.

This also alleviates the need to go hunting for a pricey ATM machine, which is located inside a convenience store mind you, as the banks are closed before I can get out of the office. So, this equates to being able to be out on the town and just swiping your *phone* for payment. Let’s not put too much thought or investment in ATM cards here as that technology has not taken off.

So, let’s wait until these new phones are supposed to be unleashed at the end of this year. More on this later….


RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identifaction (or similar) and usually means only a single number. SUICA is far more complex and versatile and MUCH better than RFID. SUICA is a “multi-application wireless smart card” and contains many secure applications, a non-secure (password protected, simple security) area for simple point cards and other low security applications, and therefore can be used for many different applications concurrently, not just e-cash, or railtickets. For more information see for example:


With 8 million SUICA cards, SUICA is probably the largest installed e-cash system in the world. SUICA has recently been extended to Sendai about 300km north of Tokyo, and similar systems are about to go online in Osaka and eslewhere in Japan, as well as Hong Kong and elsewhere, see:


for more details.

The question of magnetic cards is a good one. SUICA was introduced by JR when the first generation of magnetic stripe equipment needed replacement. Instead of updating to another generation of magnetic stripe equipment, JR decided to go one step further to wireless smartcards.

DoCoMo is presently experimenting with 5000 phones which contain wireless smart-cards. If these tests go well, it will not be long until all Japanese mobile phones contain m-cash and many other functions, for more details see: