Travel cards: Tokyo vs. London

NB: this post is largely incorrect… at least in the fact that actually the systems are much more similar and becoming even more so. I am not going to change the post (because being wrong is part of research and learning), but will direct you to a more recent post here.

Tokyo and London both have pre-paid smart card systems for travel on public transport. They look superficially similar but also have crucial differences.

JR East's Suica card
JR East's Suica card

In fact, first of all, there are several smart cards from different railway companies in Japan. Each of main privatised regional railway companies has one: the most common in Tokyo are the Suica card operated by JR Higashi (East Japan Railways) and the Pasmo card issued by a collection of smaller private railway companies as well as the TOEI subway, bus and Tokyo Metro systems. JR NIshi (JR West) and JR Toukai (JR Central) also have their own cards, ICOCA and TOICA respectively. They are all now pretty much interchangeable and Suica, which is the oldest system in operation since 2001, in particular can now be used for other kinds of payments in station shops and the ubiquitous Lawson chain of konbini (convenience stores) elsewhere in the city. It also now has a keitai denwa (mobile phone) enabled version in which the card is virtually present as a piece of phone software.

Great! It’s convenient, costs no more than buying tickets separately and if you forgot to bring any cash for your morning paper, you can use Suica for that too.

So, just like London’s Oyster card then?

Well, no.

TfL's Oyster card
TfL's Oyster card

The Oyster card, issued by Transport for London, looks pretty much the same and operates along similar technological lines, but because it also requires the user to register using a verifiable name, address and telephone number, with which the card is then associated, it is effectively also a tracking system, which is gradually producing an enormous database of movement surveillance. And of course this has not gone unnoticed to the UK’s police and security services who have reserved the right to mine this database for reasons of ‘national security’ and detection of crime. If you lose your card or have it stolen, then not only do you lose your £3 deposit, you’d better tell the authorities too or you might end up having some criminal activity associated with your name on the database.

Suica cards, on the other hand, can be bought from any ticket machine, require no deposit and no registration, and it doesn’t matter if you lose them, or leave the country, even for several years.

Tokyo and London’s transport systems have both experienced terrorist attacks so there’s no particular reason why Japan’s authorities shouldn’t have demanded a similar database (if you accept the UK’s reasoning). Tokyo also has a far more extensive, complex and multiply-owned transport infrastructure. Surely this must inevitably lead to an insecure and out-of-control system where disaster is inevitable.

So in which of the two cities does the transport system work far more efficiently? And where is that you are actually less likely to be a victim of crime, and feel safer?

I’ll give you a clue – it isn’t London.