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Pusses galore: Cats dominate the pet industry

February 23rd, 2015 by

Free at last: Stray female cat after undergoing spaying and about to be released

Free at last: Stray female cat after undergoing spaying and about to be released

Feb. 22 was Cat Day in Japan, because “two-two” in Japanese can be uttered using an approximation of a sound that cats make. It’s a typical pseudo-event, invented by the pet food industry, which is doing quite well by cats. In fact, it’s doing better by cats than by dogs if you’re talking about growth.

According to the Japan Pet Food Association, about 10.9 million dogs and 9.7 million cats are kept as pets in Japan. The pet-related market, including medical care, is worth about ¥1.4 trillion, but while the parity between the two species as animal companions is about equal, sales of respective food products is increasing more for cats than it is for dogs.

Dog food sales peaked in 2004 at a little more than 490,000 tons and has been gradually dropping ever since. Cat food sales in 2005 was much less, about 271,000 tons, but cats tend to be smaller and thus need less food, and at any rate, sales have been steadily increasing in the meantime. In 2014, the association says that a household with at least one dog spends on average ¥2,884 a month on dog food, while a household with at least one cat spends ¥2,996.

The slight difference can be explained by a number of factors: people with cats are more likely to have more than one animal than do dog owners, and dogs eat anything. Cats’ famous finicky tastes means that cat owners will likely buy more food to make sure their pets don’t get tired of the same thing.

Another economic related difference between cats and dogs is in their trafficking. According to the Yaseisha Pet Data Yearbook, in 2006, dogs accounted for 55.8 percent of pet shop sales (¥76.2 billion) while cats only accounted for 8.2 percent (¥11.2 billion). This wide gap is easy to explain. People who want dogs are more likely to buy them since they want pedigrees, while cat lovers are less particular about breeds and can easily pick up strays or get kittens from neighbors and shelters.

More to the point, the development of a pet culture in Japan has given rise to a concurrent awareness of the sanctity of non-human lives, an awareness that, taken to its natural ends, would not countenance the trafficking of pets, because when they are sold they are at the mercy of commercial prerogatives.

Only puppies and kittens are marketable as commodities, so once a pet-for-sale reaches a certain age it has to be “disposed of.” This realization means that, in all probability, the selling of dogs and cats for profit will someday be outlawed, or, at least, phased out in some way.

The manifestation of this pet-oriented sensibility is incumbent in the satsu shobun zero movement, which has become more prominent in the public sector. On Feb. 12, 60 national lawmakers representing all political parties formed a bipartisan group that “aims” to reduce the number of dogs and cats put down at public facilities to zero by 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics takes place. Kanagawa Prefecture already accomplished this aim with regard to dogs in 2013 thanks to the help of volunteers.

The prefecture’s next goal is no killings of cats, though the relevant authorities admit it’s more difficult since many cat owners still let their pets roam outside and don’t get them neutered, thinking it’s somehow cruel. Female cats can have two litters in a single year so the problem of stray cats killing birds and bothering neighbors will never go away, and so neither will the problem of having to somehow deal with unwanted cats.

Consequently, a lot of local governments also subsidize spaying and neutering of cats. According to Tokyo Shimbun, 30 percent throughout Japan have already implemented policies that address the stray cat issue. After successfully reducing the number of dogs put down in facilities by two-thirds over a five-year period, Kochi Prefecture set aside ¥4.9 million to spay female cats — ¥6,000 for a house pet, ¥10,000 for a stray.

The higher amount for an alley cat can be seen as encouraging to the TNR movement, wherein people trap stray cats, have them neutered, and then release them back in their familiar environment. Of course, some local governments don’t like this idea at all. Kyoto has proposed an ordinance making it illegal to feed stray cats, because people who don’t like cats somehow think that feeding them increases their numbers, but if you want to control the stray cat population TNR is a much more effective means.

Though not as effective as just catching and killing them outright, which is still the norm. In 2013, 128,135 dogs and cats were put down in public facilities, of which 99,566 were cats and 59,387 kittens. One of the hallmarks of the satsu shobun zero movement is finding new homes for abandoned pets. Of the 60,811 dogs brought to facilities in 2013, 15,129 were returned to their owners, since they were lost dogs, and 16,950 found new homes through adoption services.

Cats were less lucky: 115,273 were brought to facilities, with 305 returned to owners and 16,023 going to new homes. The rest were destroyed. Some local governments who have a zero-killing policy get around the problem by just not accepting abandoned animals, which is hardly a solution because in all likelihood the person who wants to bring a cat into a facility will just let it go in a local park. For the most part, a cat is abandoned because its owner’s living situation has changed and he or she can no longer keep the cat.

Government commitment is essential for reducing the number of unwanted cats, either by funding facilities that prioritize adoption or subsidizing spay-neuter operations. As it stands, the Environmental Ministry has set aside ¥100 million for pet-related matters. That means local governments have to come up with more money themselves, or pet-related NPOs have to rely on donations from concerned pet-lovers. Some people have suggested a tax on pet food that would pay for shelters and operations.

Supporters of the TNR movement point to Tokyo Chiyoda Ward as a success story. The local government pays up to ¥17,000 for male cat neutering and up to ¥20,000 for female cat spay operations. Moreover, they will pay ¥25,000 for cat abortions. Consequently, there have been no cats put down in the ward for the past several years.

Who benefits from the new overtime pay system?

February 16th, 2015 by

On Feb. 13, a Labor Policy Council sub-committee submitted to the labor ministry a report with suggestions for a bill to revise the labor standards law. The revision, which the ministry plans to submit to the next regular Diet session, applies to the work of skilled white collar professionals and will allow them to “work in a manner that demonstrates their achievements” more effectively, which is another way of saying that employers will no longer be required to pay these workers overtime for extra hours on the job, which in turn means that employers cannot be accused of pressuring them to work overtime for no pay, a system popularly known as saabisu zangyo, or “free overtime.”

Ostensibly, the revision will affect a small portion of the labor force, since it will only apply to workers who make at least ¥10.75 million a year, mainly foreign currency traders, financial analysts, consultants, etc.

Burning the candle at both ends.

Burning the candle at both ends.

According to the advisory panel’s recommendations, if a company wants to utilize this new overtime system, it must reach an agreement with the targeted workers and somehow introduce rules that will guarantee the employees avoid overwork as much as possible by, for instance, making sure they don’t work weekends.

The panel also recommends another revision to so-called sairyo rodosei, the “discretionary labor system.” Under to this system the worker and his employer decide together how many hours the former will work and how much pay he will receive based on those hours. If the two parties believe that in order to accomplish his tasks he may occasionally need to work longer hours, then those hours and appropriate compensation should be incorporated beforehand into his wages. But if the worker works even more hours than the overtime covered by the extra wage, he will not be paid extra in accordance with the new system, though there may be special conditions for after-midnight and weekend work.

This system targets sales agents, researchers, legal workers — people who tend to require flexible hours since the size of their work load varies in accordance with the nature of a specific project. The whole point, according to the labor ministry, is to peg pay to achievement.

An report in Tokyo Shimbun points out that there is more to the proposed bill than the two revised overtime systems. The ostensible purpose of the revisions is to prevent “overwork,” so the sub-committee also recommends a law guaranteeing a minimum number of paid vacation days a year, even for management employees; and that overtime rates be increased for employees of small and medium-sized companies to those already being paid by large companies.

With regards to workers on flextime systems, overtime should be paid for any hours that exceed 50 in a week, and employees with small children should be better able to set their hours in order to address parenting contingencies.

These changes sound progressive, but representatives of labor groups who participated in the sub-committee discussions expressed serious reservations about their direction, saying they may actually have the opposite effect and lead to overwork. They may even exacerbate karoshi (death from overwork), something the revisions are supposed to prevent.

To the labor side, the current system of stipulating a normal workload as being five days a week, eight hours a day, with any extra hours worked as qualifying for overtime pay, should remain unchanged. The problem is that it isn’t enforced strictly enough. By deregulating the current law, there is a danger that workers will be pressured even more into working longer hours.

The government has countered by saying that cutting the relationship between wages and work hours will lead to greater economic activity and should even mean shorter work hours. The management representatives on the sub-committee added that a “broader choice of working styles” will mean greater productivity and thus more sustainable economic growth.

The main problem is that there is no definition of what qualifies as “achievement.” For sales agents, it may not be a problem since they have sales targets, but what about researchers? For the time being, the new changes will only affect about 100,000 workers, but in 2005 the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) said they wanted this kind of “zero-overtime” system for all workers who make over ¥4 million, which is about 40 percent of the white collar workforce.

They’ve since reduced it to 10 percent of the workforce, but obviously they aim to increase that portion. And as one labor lawyer interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun explained, the discretionary labor system already in effect has led to longer hours, so a revised system may simply make matters worse.

But the real issue is how these revisions affect wages. According to a study by Mitsubishi UFJ Research (pdf), the average “fixed wage” (shotei-nai kyuryo) has remained the same since 1995, mostly due to changes in the makeup of the labor force, which now includes more part-time and regular workers than there were 20 years ago. That means any increase in pay for the average worker comes from bonuses (tokubetsu kyuryo) or overtime pay (shoteigai kyuryo).

As the English nomenclature suggests, bonuses are paid at the discretion of the employer, usually as a reflection of either the company’s business achievements or the individual worker’s. However, in Japan, employees consider bonuses to be part of their salary, as do consumer markets. Banks take bonuses into consideration when extending loans. Mitsubishi found that in 1995, bonuses accounted for 22.9 percent of the average pay of workers who received them, and that now bonuses make up only 18.5 percent of their yearly pay. Since salaries have remained flat during that interval, it means overall pay has actually decreased.

The only way a worker can make more money over time is thus to work extra hours. Mitsubishi found that overtime pay increased steadily through the mid-2000s as the Japanese economy grew, and then dropped suddenly with the onset of the recession in 2008. In recent years, as the economy improved, overtime pay has increased.

That means overtime pay is a better index of economic achievement than salaries or even bonuses, but it doesn’t mean workers are benefiting from better corporate performance, since they are contributing to it with more time spent on the job. When Mitsubishi evaluated industries that tend to demonstrate low productivity, it found that workers also tend to work longer hours, which is particularly conspicuous for young workers, who may need more time to finish projects, and higher-income workers, whose higher incomes are a direct function of working more overtime.

According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics, in the United States, which leads the world in per person hours worked with 1,790 a year, part-timers, who are defined as working less than 35 hours a week, make up 13 percent of the labor force, while in Japan, which is second with 1,745 hours a year per person, part-timers make up more than 20 percent of the labor force. That means full-time employees are working more hours than their American counterparts, and Mitsubishi reports that the average number of hours worked by full-time regular employees in 2013 was 2,022.

Though companies have demanded the zero overtime revision in order to increase productivity, their main goal is to reduce personnel costs. If that’s the case, then the revision flies in the face of the government economic recovery strategy, which is to boost corporate profits that will in turn boost wages and consumption. If overtime is cut, then workers lose the only recourse they have — at the moment, at least — for wage growth. Moreover, in order to fulfill work loads that will be used to judge performance they may have to work more hours without pay.

Who benefits in the end?

Retiring boomers make their last stand on the real estate market

February 9th, 2015 by

Onward and upward: Diorama showing high-rise condos under construction on Tokyo's waterfront

Onward and upward: Diorama showing high-rise condos under construction on Tokyo’s waterfront

Following the 2011 Eastern Japan Earthquake, sales of high-rise condominiums in Tokyo saw a drop that reflected anxiety over living so far off the ground. Though no high-rises were damaged in the temblor (if anything, the disaster showed how well they’d been built to withstand earthquakes), matters such as stopped elevators and the possibility of losing water or other utilities even temporarily were made apparent to tower dwellers. More significantly, elderly people who lived high up realized how difficult it would be to evacuate in the case of a quake hitting the city more directly.

The sales decline was short-lived. High-rise condos, or “tower mansions,” are as popular as ever right now, and according to a recent article in Shukan Asahi, especially popular among retired and soon-to-be-retired people.

With the memory of the quake receding and developers promoting even safer high-rises, the aging baby boom generation is looking at the issue from a practical standpoint. The article profiles a 60-year-old woman named Midori Takahashi who bought her condo four years ago in Koto Ward on the Tokyo waterfront, in a new high-rise 10 minutes by foot from Kiyosumi Shirakawa Station on the Hanzomon Metro line. She and her 57-year-old husband bought the property after assessing the situation of her own parents, who lived in Shizuoka City. When her father retired, he bought a house in the countryside, near a river with a beautiful view, since he wanted to spend the rest of his life surrounded by nature. But as his health deteriorated he found it difficult to make regular visits to a hospital, so he moved back to the city.

Takahashi and her 57-year-old husband are childless. They have their own health concerns, and when both were forced to retire early they sold their Tokyo home and bought an ekichika (close to station) high-rise condo, also in Tokyo. They are close to hospitals and retail outlets, and with two train lines within easy walking distance they can get anywhere without having to drive. Moreover, they’ve found that most of the people in their building are the same age, and have thus joined a new community with relative ease.

CONTINUE READING about the changing real estate market for boomers →

Hair-care industry has anxious consumers coming and going

February 2nd, 2015 by

Does he or doesn't he? Scalp stimulators on sale in discount drug store

Does he or doesn’t he? Scalp stimulators on sale in discount drug store

According to the Yano Research Institute, Japan’s hair-care products market in 2013 was worth a little more than ¥432 billion, a 2 percent increase over the previous year’s revenues, which is easy to believe. After cars and beer, hair-care items are probably the most advertised products on Japanese television, and the ones that saw the most growth (no pun intended) were those related to either hair-growth promotion (hatsumo/ikumo) or hair replacement, such as implants and hair pieces.

It’s hardly a surprising development demographically. As everyone knows, there are more old people in Japan every year, and thus more people with thinning hair in the population. What’s more, according to Yano, is that in line with these changes there is currently an entire “anti-aging” market that has materialized, encompassing everything from vitamin supplements to health club memberships.

Underlying it all is the sense among average Japanese, reinforced by popular culture, that they are likely to lose their hair. In fact, statistics seem to bear this feeling out, as they show that Japan is the baldest country in Asia (Czech Republic takes the honor for the world), and it isn’t just a concern for men. A large portion of the hair growth/replacement market is aimed at women.

CONTINUE READING about the hair-care industry →

Where’s the milk? School lunches no longer sacred cows

January 26th, 2015 by

Screen shot of February lunch menus for an elementary school in Gifu Prefecture

The February lunch menu for an elementary school in Gifu Prefecture

Last Saturday was the start of Gakko Kyushoku Shukan (School Lunch Week), an annual celebration of the meals that public elementary and junior high school students in Japan enjoy every day by force of law.

School lunches have been a point of pride for Japan’s education institutions, a means of integrating lifelong health maintenance into the standard curriculum. On another level, mandatory school lunches, as the late writer Kuniko Mukoda once famously pointed out, was the basis for the widespread idea that all Japanese belonged to the “middle class.”

Several years ago, the government said it wanted to reinforce “food education,” though it hardly seems necessary since the school lunch program already does that, and very effectively. According to law, all public school children below high school must buy lunch, and those who cannot afford it receive subsidies from the authorities. Each school will have its own nutritionist to make sure the children receive properly balanced meals. In terms of cost, the ingredients for the meals will be paid for by the students, meaning their parents, while labor, maintenance and other related expenses are taken care of by local governments with help from the central government.

This latter element has lately been challenged as more local governments look for ways to cut their budgets. Last summer, Sanjo, a city in Niigata Prefecture, “experimentally” stopped serving milk with lunches at 30 public schools. The ostensible reason, according to the mayor, was that parents complained that milk doesn’t fit in with the Japanese cuisine the schools served.

CONTINUE READING about school lunches →

More convenience stores adopting restaurant functions, and vice versa

January 19th, 2015 by

Drink 'em if you got 'em: Counter area in a new Family Mart being built in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture

Drink ‘em if you got ‘em: Counter area in a new Family Mart being built in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture

Ministop, the fifth largest convenience store chain in Japan with 2,200 outlets nationwide, was the first of its ilk to provide counters, tables and chairs for patrons who preferred to consume their purchases on the premises. Because of relatively lax tax laws in Japan, they could do it without having to charge more. This service was originally devised as a gimmick that would differentiate Ministop from other chains, and for years no other CS chain felt that it needed to do the same thing.

Last summer, Ministop, which belongs to the Aeon retail conglomerate, expanded on this idea with an offshoot called Cisca, an abbreviation for “city small cafe.” It’s basically a more attractively appointed convenient store centered around the sit-down space. So far, only one Cisca has opened, in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, and according to Asahi Shimbun the target is women who work in the area. The selection is more limited than what you would find in a regular Ministop, with the focus on high quality deli items and beverages, including fresh coffee and alcoholic drinks.

The “eating corner” seats only 17, but what really distinguishes Cisca from other Ministops is that eating-in is encouraged with free use of utensils. You can buy a bottle of wine for ¥700, for instance, and drink it right there, because they will provide you with wine glasses. Each seat also has its own electrical outlet. According to Ministop’s publicity department, since the store opened it’s been almost continually full.

Cisca is part of a trend taking place in both the retail and restaurant trades toward a more practical and less expensive view of dining out. Half of the new outlets opened by CS giant Family Mart since the beginning of 2013 also have sit-down counters and tables.

CONTINUE READING about convenience-store meal corners →

Cheap smokes finally going up in price

January 13th, 2015 by

Lower class: the 3 most inexpensive cigarette brands

Lower class: the 3 most inexpensive cigarette brands

At the end of last year the ruling coalition studied some tax revisions for 2015 and decided to review the one for tobacco. The review mainly affects three brands, which remain cheap five years after cigarette taxes were increased considerably. These three brands — Wakaba, Echo and Golden Bat — are classified as “third-class tobacco,” which meant that their tax was half the portion levied on other cigarette brands. Apparently, the government wants to make the tax on these three brands equal to that for other brands.

The reason for the tobacco tax in the first place had nothing to do with health and everything to do with the notion that only well-off people smoked, which is the same rationale that governed the tax on alcohol. This was back in the middle 19th century. The government originally owned the tobacco monopoly and still has a hefty share of the stock in the nominally private Japan Tobacco, so the tax has always had a political dimension.

During the Meiji Era, when Japan suddenly decided it had to compete with the rest of the world, the authorities needed revenue fast, and tobacco was an easy way to get it. With the rise of the military and more involvement in foreign wars, the government supplied soldiers with free cigarettes in order to cultivate the tobacco market. Thus cigarettes became a classless commodity whose sales were spurred by its addictive nature.

CONTINUE READING about cheap cigarettes →

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