Archive for March, 2010

Food cooperatives offer peace of mind for a price

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

This week's delivery

This week's delivery

With the arrest of a factory worker in China for the poisoning of frozen gyoza (dumplings) exported to Japan two years ago, the issue of food safety once again makes an appearance in the news. At the time the poisoning came to light there was a concerted push for consumers to buy domestic and for domestic producers to be more honest in the way they presented their merchandise, but once the scare died down most people went back to buying whatever was cheapest, and that usually meant imported from China.

One of the companies that imported the tainted gyoza was Co-op, a food cooperative that is also called Seikyo, which is short for seikatsu kyodo kumiai (life cooperative unions). Traditionally, these organizations were collections of neighbors who bought produce and meat and fish in bulk and then divided the shipment among themselves. These collectives eventually morphed into groups that were structured like membership clubs and in recent decades many have been at the forefront of a kind of back-to-the-land movement, stressing organic farming that uses less or no agrichemicals, fair prices for farmers, and greater environmental awareness in distribution and packaging. The gyoza scandal was thus a huge black eye, at least for Seikyo.

Three of the more conscientious coops available to residents of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area are Pal System (part of Seikyo), Radish Boya and Daichi. The mechanisms are all the same: You order the products you want (mostly food, but also personal care and household products) through order sheets or over the Internet and they are delivered to your home.

Continue reading about food cooperatives in Japan →

Before Obamacare: Japan’s national healthcare system saves some for private insurers

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

It ain't perfect, but it may be all you need

It ain't perfect, but it may be all you need

People who live in Japan and are following the health care reform issue in the U.S. may be drawing some parallels. Part of the problem that some people have with President Barack Obama’s history-making legislation is that it falls way short of what is usually referred to as universal coverage. In other countries that do have universal health care, like the U.K., France and Canada, the government pays for medical care. Under Obama’s new plan, the majority of Americans will still have to buy their medical insurance from private companies.

Japan’s system (kokumin kenko hoken) is somewhere in the middle. It’s national in that the government has a health insurance program that pays for almost everything, but it isn’t universal. In Japan you still have to “buy” your insurance, it’s just that you have to buy it from the government. The difference is important, because in countries that have universal coverage everyone is covered regardless of their circumstances. In Japan, you are covered as long as you pay the government. Once you stop for whatever reason, you lose your insurance. That means you could pay your premiums (which are based on income, basically making it a separate tax) to the government on time for forty years and never even use it, and then, suddenly, because you lost your job or otherwise can’t pay, you lose your insurance overnight.

But the real proof that Japan’s public insurance program isn’t universal is that private medical insurance is widely available, and quite popular. The AFLAC duck is more famous here that it is in its native USA. In fact, companies like AFLAC and Alico make as much as 75 percent of their profits in Japan, the third biggest insurance market in the world, and while much of those sales are in life insurance, a good deal is in supplementary medical insurance.

Continue reading about health care in Japan →

Old eco points vs. new eco points: Where’s the savings?

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

7,000 eco points if you buy by Mar. 31! And look at that price!

7,000 eco points if you buy by Mar. 31! And look at that price!

The government’s eco point system was started last May as a means of promoting the sale of energy-saving home appliances by offering points for particular products that could be traded in for discounts on other products or services whose energy-saving bona fides aren’t always so apparent (high class beef?) but just goes to show that the main purpose of the system is stimulating the economy — local economies, chiefly — rather than promoting more efficient use of resources.

The system will change on April 1, mainly for televisions. The energy-saving standards that qualify for eco points will be made stricter starting April 1, which is traditionally when home electronics makers come out with their new lines of products. New TVs will have to use 33 percent less energy than last year’s standard for eco points, and as a result retailers are busy pushing their inventories of old TVs because after March 31 many of those models won’t be eligible for eco points any more.

Continue reading about eco-points →

Driving schools cope with an auto-immune generation

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Note: this is not a public road

Note: this is not a public road

When the automobile industry slumps, it takes a bunch of other industries down with it. Take driving schools. Twenty years ago it was a great business to be in since it seemed everyone wanted a driver’s license and, owing to Japan’s cramped road conditions and love affair with red tape, there were lots of opportunities to make a lot of money helping those people obtain driver’s licenses. Unlike in the U.S., where many public schools have driver’s education programs (or, at least, used to) and most youngsters learn how to drive right there on public streets and obtain their permits before they graduate from high school, in Japan the restrictions against learners driving on streets force people to take lessons in for-profit driving schools, which charge dearly by the hour and more or less decide when you are ready to take your road test. It’s a time-consuming endeavor, so most people don’t do it until they are in college or thereafter, and traditionally it was normal for an individual to spend ¥200,000 to ¥300,000 on lessons before actually obtaining a license.

In 1960 there were 125 driving schools throughout Japan. Ten years later this number had increased tenfold and pretty much stayed constant until the 90s. The population of 18-year-olds peaked in 1992, and between 1990 and 2008 104 driving schools went out of business. Competition among those who remained has become fiercer and fiercer. About 1.6 million people obtained driver’s licenses in 1999. Only 1.2 million obtained them in 2008, a drop of 30 percent.

Continue reading about driving schools in Japan →

The road to nowhere leads to Ibaraki Airport

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Ibaraki Airport parking lot: You can even ride your bicycle there!

Ibaraki Airport parking lot: You can even ride your bicycle there!

The media has been buzzing about Ibaraki Airport, which opened for business last Thursday with one-count-’em-one flight from Seoul; that is, if you don’t count the “commemorative flight” from Ibaraki to Haneda, which we assume didn’t reach cruising altitude. A second daily flight will start next month between Ibaraki and Kobe on Skymark, which has already offered a nice deal to drum up business at the airport. If you take that flight and transfer to a Skymark flight to Naha, the entire trip will only cost you only ¥13,600.

Cheap! But one thing you always have to factor in when you fly anywhere, and especially in Japan, is the cost of getting to the airport. Despite the fact that the Ibaraki airport authorities are trying to sell their baby as the third airport in the Tokyo metropolitan area, it’s highly doubtful that anyone except Ibarakians (Ibarakiites?) will use it, and even that’s in doubt. Before it opened, the airport is projected to be ¥20 million in the red for the first year of operation. When it was being planned some 20 years ago it was estimated that 810,000 people a year would use it. Media have since reduced that number to 220,000, and the prefecture now only predicts 167,000.

If Ibaraki wants a peek at its future, it doesn’t have to look farther than 100 km away to Fukushima Airport, which for reasons nobody has ever explained satisfactorily, was also touted as a Tokyo metropolitan airport when it opened in 1993. The number of passengers has since dropped steadily and now it only offers three flights a day, and all to Seoul.

Continue reading about Ibaraki Airport →

Tax deductions and the myth of the “no-donation culture”

Monday, March 8th, 2010

From heaven Audrey guarantees your donation to UNICEF is tax deductible

From heaven Audrey guarantees that your donation to UNICEF is tax deductible

Around this time of year, letters to the editors sections of the national newspapers are filled with tales of people filing income tax returns and coming away confused. One 65-year-old man wrote to the Asahi Shimbun recently about tax deductions for donations to charities and non-profit organizations. He brought receipts for four donations he made, and the tax office accepted two of them, one for UNICEF and the other for Doctors Without Borders, but rejected the other two, both of which were for contributions he made to local NPOs who worked with homeless people. The letter writer was understandably disappointed and quoted the well-know physician, Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara, who is a strong advocate for a broad and transparent tax deduction system so that Japanese people will contribute more freely.

Japanese people donate about ¥260 billion a year to charities, while Americans donate about ¥20.4 trillion, or 8 times as much. Accordingly, Japan has been called, usually by the Japanese themselves, a “no-donation culture,” which makes it sound as if the very idea of contributing to charities were something they can’t get their heads around. This is a myth, or, at least, a convenient means of explaining the lack of structural encouragement for donations. Almost every day on the news you see people collecting money for immediate, specific needs, like earthquake relief or overseas surgery for some poor sick kid, and people always give, but in those situations we’re talking small change. On a larger level people don’t give because they are not encouraged to do so.

Continue reading about making donations in Japan →

Annals of cheap: Tokyo Metro kaisuken

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

See that second button from the left? Press it. It won't hurt you.

See that second button from the left? Press it. It won’t hurt you.

The only thing I have against Tokyo’s two subway systems is that they don’t run 24 hours a day, though that may change for one of them. In almost every other aspect I think they’re pretty terrific, and since Tokyo Metro is cheaper than the Toei subway network, it’s even more terrific. Does that sound funny, calling something in Japan cheap? In terms of average fares, it’s actually one of the cheapest in the world. Of all the world capitals, only Mexico City, Beijing, Seoul and Moscow are cheaper. And considering how clean and reliable the Metro is, it’s even more of a bargain.

And because it’s cheap patrons may take it for granted. Since the advent of the PASMO rechargeable smart card, which enables mass transit users in the Tokyo metropolitan area to enter and exit stations, as well as transfer from one mode of transport to another, without the need for tickets, Tokyo Metro has increased the number of wickets in stations that don’t take tickets. PASMO and JR’s Suica card obviate the need to buy individual tickets, and thus save time and resources, but they don’t necessarily save money. If your PASMO is also a Tokyo Metro credit card you can earn points when you ride that can be used for discounts, but the discount comes out to less than one percent. However, if you buy tickets of the same value in multiples of 10 from either Tokyo Metro or JR, you get an 11th for free, meaning a discount of 10 percent. These multiple tickets are called kaisuken.

Continue reading about kaisuken →

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