Archive for February, 2010

Soccer lottery BIG in Japan

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

BIG Lotto

Step right up!

Sports tabloids are all gaga over the latest offering of the soccer lottery known as BIG. Thanks to a record carryover of ¥2.5 billion from last year’s BIG lotteries, top prizes for the next round will be ¥600 million, which, if history is any indication, should result on a huge rush on BIG lottery tickets. In the annals of the game there has been a total of 118 first prize winners, 80 of which won ¥600 million each. In 2007, the first time such a huge jackpot was offered, the system broke down because demand was too high.

It’s also a huge turnaround for the somewhat euphemistically named National Agency for Advancement of Sports and Health, which runs the various soccer-related lotteries under the “toto” banner. When it was launched back in 2001, toto was closer to a betting game than a lottery. Players choose which J.League teams will win in certain sets of games, and a player wins the jackpot (¥200 million maxiumum) if he or she chooses correctly on all the games listed. For whatever reason the system never really took off and lost money in the beginning.

In 2006 the agency started BIG, which removed all the brain work: a computer “guesses” the winners at random. This totally serendipitous version of toto became extremely popular, probably because the odds of actually winning a top prize (1 in 4.8 million) were greater than those for winning the standard Takarakuji lottery (1 in 10 million).

And the odds for this round of BIG are even better — 1 in 2.9 million. Tickets, each of which costs ¥300, started going on sale Feb. 18 and will continue until March 6, which is the first day of the new J.League season. Over the years, some commentators have complained about the soccer lotteries, saying that it sets a bad example, especially for children, to raise money for various national sports endeavors (including the Olympics) through gambling. But, in a way, BIG isn’t gambling; or, at least, it isn’t gambling the way toto is. Whether it’s a waste of money probably depends on if you win.

Government housing allowance ignores market realities

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

The is the kind of rental the government probably has in mind

The is the kind of rental the government probably has in mind

One of the economic countermeasures adopted by the previous administration of Taro Aso that has been retained by the Democratic Party of Japan was the allowance for people who had lost their housing as a direct result of having lost their jobs. In most cases, the reason they lost their housing was because the place they were living in was either owned or subsidized by their employers. The DPJ plan originally earmarked ¥70 billion for this allowance, and an additional ¥30 billion has been set aside for it in the supplemental budget.

Local governments started accepting applications for the allowance last October. Rent subsidies last for six to nine months and the amount of the allowance depends on the location and other factors. For Tokyo residents, it comes to ¥69,000 a month for a “family” and ¥53,700 a month for a single person. The allowances would be handled by the welfare ministry in collaboration with local governments.

The ¥70 billion that has been set aside was calculated to cover 320,000 people. However, during the first three months that applications were accepted only 11,518 people applied and about 7,900 of them have so far qualified for the allowance. Local governments blame poor communications for the low demand, but there’s another, more significant reason why people aren’t flooding welfare offices to apply: They know it won’t mean anything.

Continue reading about rent subsidies →

Tracking the recession with the Moyashi Index

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Not just for rabbits any more!

Not just for rabbits any more!

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications just released economic figures for the last quarter of calendar year 2009. Their survey found that the average expenditures of a Japanese household, including one-person households, was ¥253,720. That’s a 2.9 percent decrease from the same quarter in 2008, or 1.4 percent down if you take into consideration price changes.

This figure means little unless you know the  income of an average family, which has 2.79 members and an average age of 45.2 years. Among “working households,” meaning households whose income is from employment and not from pensions, the average monthly income was ¥464, 649, which represented a 4.6 percent drop from the same quarter the previous year, or 3.1 percent after adjustment.

These statistics indicate that households spent less because of a decrease in earnings, and since certain expenses can’t be cut or reduced, such as utilities and expenses for education, the ministry tried to figure out what these households were doing without. Leisure, eating out and clothing were three items that received the axe, and since more people were eating at home, they also tried to save money at the supermarket.

And according to the Asahi Shimbun, the ministry found that households consisting of two persons or more reported a 10 percent increase in their consumption of moyashi (bean sprouts) over the same quarter in 2008. In fact, the ministry discovered that moyashi consumption has increased steadily over a period of 10 consecutive quarters.

The focus on the lowly bean sprout here would seem to indicate that the ministry has decided moyashi is a good index for determining the economic health of the average household. Moyashi are cheap and plentiful. A bag weighing 200 grams is usually between  ¥35 and ¥40 yen in a supermarket, but you can usually buy the same amount for ¥29 in discount food stores and even cheaper on special sales days. Japanese traditionally use moyashi to increase volume for any number of dishes, but there’s also a whole  food culture built around the sprout. Made from mung beans, they are also notoriously nutritious and always in season, since they aren’t “grown” in soil but rather sprouted in water. What’s interesting is that the government assumes people are buying more moyashi not because they like it or want a healthier diet, but because they want to save money. We won’t argue with that, but we also really like moyashi. Especially in ramen.

Getting paid for doing the right thing

Monday, February 15th, 2010

The website that explains the anonymous reporting procedure doesn't mention rewards...yet

A police Web site outlines the anonymous reporting procedure

Last week some newspapers reported that the National Police Agency will begin accepting anonymous tips related to suspected cases of child abuse and that the agency will pay up to ¥100,000 in reward money for any tips that lead to an arrest. This is news because in the past the police did not accept anonymous reports for child abuse cases, much less offer money in return for such information, and the media has speculated that the sudden turnaround indicates desperation in the face of the death of 7-year-old Kaito Okamoto on Jan. 24.

The boy’s parents have been accused of beating him, and it turns out that at least one neighbor had heard beatings taking place for the past year. In addition, a hospital that treated him had him in its care for a week and did not call the police, though they are required to do so if they suspect that a patient is the victim of abuse. Even staff at Kaito’s school apparently suspected something was wrong but didn’t say anything.

Continue reading about incentives for police tips →

The other New Year: Can Chinese prop up J-retail?

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Celebrating Chinese New Years at Llaox

Celebrating Chinese New Years at Laox

The sorry state of Japanese department stores has one hopeful sign: Chinese tourists seem to love them, or, at least, the richer tourists do. According to TV Tokyo’s “Business Satellite,” many of Japan’s nicer department stores are directly catering to Chinese visitors, who are reacting favorably to the attention by whipping out their Union Pay cards, which qualify them for discounts at a lot of Tokyo retailers, including most of the electronics stores in Akihabara.

And right now is the prime time to catch them since it’s Chinese New Year when Chinese people traditionally open their purses and spend big. If you go to the Laox Duty Free store on Akihabara’s main drag you’ll see tour bus after tour bus pull up in front and disgorge happy shoppers from the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

It’s more than just the duty-free aspect that brings them to Laox. The company went through a thorough reorganization last year that involved the closing of most of its suburban branches and a hefty investment from a Chinese company. In fact, the president of Laox is now Chinese, and he’s made sure that every tourist who comes to Japan has the Akihabara store on his or her itinerary. Since the store reopened in October, sales have been very good, since the buyers have focused on merchandise that specifically target Chinese rather than Japanese.

Continue reading about Chinese tourism →

Consumer finance regroups: Promise to be good?

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Promise, Pocket Bank, Acom up to their old tricks again?

Promise, Pocket Bank, Acom up to their old tricks again?

Last month the consumer finance company Promise started closing some of its retail outlets, specifically those that still feature human beings. Thirty percent of the company’s staff will be laid off by the end of the year. Promise is currently the biggest of the consumer lending companies that were making so much money at the beginning of the last decade, with 1,361 unstaffed branches and 148 staffed. It was also the first to announce the closing of branches, though according to an article in the Asahi Shimbun all consumer finance companies are following suit. Acom started whittling away at its 118 branches last September and will have only 45 by March. Aiful will have reduced its original 96 stores to 28 by the end of February. And Takefuji will have reduced its 180 outlets to 100 by the end of the year.

Several years ago the consumer finance industry was hit with multiple lawsuits from customers who said the companies were charging too much interest. Courts agreed and awarded large settlements, and in 2006 the government changed regulations to get rid of the so-called gray area that allowed for such exorbitant interest rates. In June, the Money Lending Business Law will start to be enforced, greatly restricting loan extensions. Almost all of the consumer loan companies declared bankruptcy after 2006 and have had to reorganize in order to stay alive. In most cases they’ve gotten back on their feet thanks to their partnerships with major banks, many of which predated their bankruptcies.

Continue reading about Japan's consumer finance industry →

Kids are all right at Softbank

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

What? No iPhone for Taro Junior?

What? No iPhone for Taro Junior?

Softbank Corp. announced on Tuesday that its profits for the first three quarters of the current fiscal year rose 63 percent over the same period in fiscal 2008. Nice going in this particular environment; which automatically raises the question: What is the company going to do with all that money in terms of the people who work for them?

Actually, Softbank and its group companies — Softbank Mobile, Softbank BB and Softbank Telecom — have a corporate policy that stresses the importance of its employees’ lives while addressing social problems such as the declining birthrate. That’s why Softbank introduced the shussan iwai-kin (birth celebration money) system some years ago and even upgraded it in April 2007. With this system, full-time employees who have worked for the company at least one year are given a bonus of ¥50,000 when they have their first child, ¥100,000 when they have their second child, ¥1,000,000 for the third, ¥3,000,000 for the fourth, and ¥5,000,000 for the fifth.

So far there has only been one employee who has scored the jackpot with a fifth kid, but since 2007 there have been 12 who have claimed the ¥3,000,000 bonus with their respective fourth offsprings. There are other companies that also offer bonuses for babies, but I can’t find any that provide these big payouts for fourth and fifth births.

Pretty sweet, and certainly a good reason to stay with Softbank if you’re planning a big family. But how is Softbank in terms of maternity and paternity leaves, which is another gauge of corporate concern for employee welfare? A closer look at the company’s home page revealed this:

Continue reading about family-raising perks at Softbank →

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