- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

TOKYO Way too busy to waste any time, on-the-go commuters stream through Tokyo train stations, chatting on mobile phones, listening to portable disc players and flicking "smart cards" instead of stopping to pull out tickets.
Although the technology is generally a novelty elsewhere, gadget-loving Japanese commuters have embraced the cards plastic embedded with a tiny computer chip, permitting payments without the hassle of coins or making change.
Here the challenge is not getting people to use them, but figuring how to expand the system for shopping, concert tickets and other cashless transactions.
Similar cards have been introduced or tested in Washington, D.C., France and Hong Kong, and in the United States by retail chains like Target and ExxonMobil.
But Tokyo commuters outdo them all: Some 5.6 million people have the green-and-silver Suica cards about half the people who regularly ride on rail lines served by the card system. East Japan Railway Co. introduced the cards about a year ago.
"It's a breeze to use," said Yusuke Hirohama, an 18-year-old high school student who uses Suica just about every day.
East Japan Railway decided to switch to Suica because the old ticket-reading machines and passes were getting worn out, said spokesman Kazushi Masuya.
A play on the Japanese expression "sui-sui" (pronounced "sooh-eeh sooh-eeh"), which means "zip on by," Suica is short for "superurban intelligent card."
Unlike most commuter passes and cards found elsewhere, these smart cards work from up to 4 inches away from subway readers.
Most Japanese don't bother to take their Suica out of their wallets, coat pockets or even bags as they zip on by. That can be critical in a crowded, contact-avoiding city like Tokyo, where dozens of rushing commuters are pressing behind them.
If someone tries to pass through without paying, a turnstile flips out to block the path and an alarm goes off.
Suica's success among commuters could be a fluke.
Similar technologies that have been introduced in Japan have yet to reach the scale of Suica.
The commuter cards caught on quickly because millions were already familiar with the railway's more primitive card system, which used magnetic tape for commuter passes.
Another reason for Suica's success is the sheer number of commuters in Tokyo, the long lines for tickets and the frenzied hurry that everyone seems to be in.
Sony, which developed the Suica technology, also runs its own smart-card service called "Edy" short for "euro, dollar, yen." About 2,100 stores in Japan accept the 650,000 or so Edy cards in circulation.
The Edy cards, for instance, can be used for groceries at a convenience store or lunch at a restaurant. Instead of fumbling for cash, just place the card next to a display at the cash register.
But when Sony tried to sell tickets to a recent pop-music concert through Edy letting people punch in their Edy numbers on a Web page and then flash their cards at the door only about a dozen Edy-holders showed up.
However, now that Suica has caught on, users are looking to do more without having to turn to other cards.
Reflecting common sentiment, young Mr. Hirohama's only complaint is that Suica can't be used on the subways, which are run by different railway companies. And shopping with Suica would be nice, too, the student commuter said.
The possibilities are enormous.
Tokyo train stations are brimming with newspaper stands, coffee shops, soda machines, drugstores, even restaurants and fancy shopping malls mostly run or leased by Japan Railway or its subsidiaries.
But Japan Railway a former government monopoly that takes pride in its stodgy image of public service rather than competitive marketing says it has no immediate plans to expand Suica as an electronic wallet. It says it's still studying the options.
In June, Suica will hook up with Visa and JCB credit cards. But that will merely combine the Suica and credit card into one card.
Their functions aren't electronically linked, so you would still need to go to special machines to add money. The credit-card part works like a regular credit card. You just don't have to carry two cards.
Sony senior manager Shusaku Maruko says the key to success is how widespread it can become.
"Is the neighborhood greengrocer going to invest in this?" he asked. "Or is he going to insist, 'I just accept cash'?"


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