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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.

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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.

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Show me the money: Who paid for what in the Lower House election

January 5th, 2015 by

Posters for LDP candidate still standing (and lying) in a Chiba field a month after the election

Posters for LDP candidate still standing (and lying) in a Chiba field a month after the election

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the Lower House in November and called a general election, some people complained about the cost. Why should taxpayers foot the bill for an election that was more or less being carried out on a whim?

The complaint got lost in the post-election buzz, when other complaints became louder, but at least one person still wonders about all that money. In a new column in the Asahi Shimbun called “Re: Okotae Shimasu” (Re: Answering Questions), a reader mentions that she heard that the election cost ¥63 billion. What, she asks, was that money spent on?

It’s a good question, but one that’s difficult to answer since the government is still adding up all the receipts and won’t actually reveal the results until next fall, by which time the election will be a distant memory. However, the Asahi was able to give the reader some idea based on the last general election held in 2012, which cost ¥58.8 billion.

In addition, when a “snap election” is held, meaning a poll that doesn’t follow the normal election cycle, the money comes from an “emergency fund” (yobihi) that is kept in reserve for when something unexpected happens.

CONTINUE READING about the cost of elections →

Consumer stimulus is not the same as welfare, though the purpose is the same

December 29th, 2014 by

Screen shot from Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, city office home page informing residents that the deadline for the one-time welfare handout is Jan. 5.

Screen grab from Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, city office home page informing residents that the deadline for the one-time welfare handout is Jan. 5.

Last weekend the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reemerged from its victory lap to approve an economic stimulus package worth ¥3.5 trillion whose purpose is to help rural areas cope with inflation brought on by last April’s consumption tax hike, not to mention the more recent drop in the yen’s value, which has made imported goods more expensive. Some of the money will go to local infrastructure projects, mainly in the area of disaster prevention, and a little less will go directly to consumers and companies.

This handout, however, shouldn’t be confused with the one that the government implemented last summer for poor people, though there will be overlap. In fact, some local governments, which administer the one-time welfare handouts (rinji kyufukin), are still looking for eligible people since many residents who aren’t on their welfare roles nevertheless are qualified to receive the money. So far, about 24 million have received the handout.

The only real difference between the welfare handout and the stimulus handout is the ostensible purpose: the former was designed to help low income people adjust to the CT hike, while the latter is a means of getting more money into the distribution system, but in the end the government wants the same thing: higher consumption, which is why the stimulus handout will likely be in the form of a coupon that can only be spent on goods and services. That isn’t necessary with low income people, who by necessity spend everything they get on goods and services.

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Annals of cheap: Narita express buses

December 22nd, 2014 by

Screen shot of new express bus service to Narita Airport

Screen shot of new express bus service to Narita Airport

We live in northern Chiba Prefecture on the Hokuso Line, part of the conduit for the Sky Access Express, a train that runs between Haneda and Narita airports and which incorporates a number of other private railways. Our closest station is only three stops from Narita International Airport, and it takes a little more than 20 minutes to get there. However, it costs ¥790 one-way, which seems like a lot of money for such a short journey.

The reason for the high fare is that the Hokuso Line is one of the most expensive train lines in Japan owing to its high construction costs and the fact that not enough people use it to pay off those costs. But if you take the Sky Access from Nihonbashi on the Toei Asakusa Subway Line, it takes one hour and 8 minutes to get to Narita and costs only ¥1,330. Though passengers who board the Sky Access for Narita at stations on lines other than the Hokuso still have to ride over Hokuso tracks, they don’t have to pay Hokuso prices.

What’s even more frustrating for us is that now there are express buses between central Tokyo and Narita Airport that cost only ¥1,000 each way. A company called B Transse, headquartered in Chiba City, launched an airport bus service in August 2012 between Ginza and Tokyo Station at one end and Narita Airport at the other: ¥1,000, one hour. And don’t worry. It has toilets.

The impetus behind the new service is the rise of Low-Cost Carriers (LCC), or budget airlines, which have been gaining a foothold at Narita ever since Haneda Airport in Tokyo started increasing the number of its international flights. Right now, 21.5 percent of all the flights in and out of Narita are LCCs. In April, Narita will open a new terminal dedicated exclusively to LCCs.

CONTINUE READING about transportation fees to Narita

Deflation Watch: bean sprouts

December 15th, 2014 by

Bean down so long: Cheap moyashi is still the norm

Bean down so long: Cheap moyashi is still the norm

Last week Tokyo Shimbun reported that an industry association of food producers sent letters to supermarket chains and other food retailers saying that they had reached their limit of patience. This particular association represents companies that produce moyashi, or bean sprouts, a pretty lowly item, even within the realm of produce, and one that is not strictly agricultural in nature.

Though bean sprouts definitely qualify as vegetables, almost all Japanese producers import the basic ingredient, which is mung beans (ryokuto or midori mame), and then make them sprout in factories. In other words, no land cultivation is involved. Bean sprout production is a ridiculously simple process, since all it entails is making the mung beans wet, setting them aside for a few days to sprout, and then packaging them.

The moyashi association is saying that production costs have become untenable, which sounds strange considering how easy the process is, but what they’re really talking about is the cost of mung beans, 80 percent of which are imported from China, mainly Jilin Province, where farmers are switching over to corn because the price of animal feed has gone up and they can make more money. Consequently, the market price for mung beans has also gone up, by as much as 30 percent since a year ago.

CONTINUE READING about the cost of bean sprouts

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