Archive for April, 2010

Crash test dummies agree: Legacy is the one!

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Can I take this baby out for a test crash?

Can I take this baby out for a test crash?

The National Agency for Automotive Safety and Victim’s Aid recently released the results of its 2009-2010 New Car Assessment Program, which is designed to test the safety of new automobiles in six different crash situations. The winner of the Grand Prix was Subaru’s Legacy touring wagon (list price ¥3.2 million), which, according to the results, was the only model out of the 17 tested this time that received high marks across the board, including the so-detailed-it’s-scary “pedestrian head protection performance test.”

Good news for Subaru, though when we visited a showroom the salesman said his dealership had yet to take PR advantage of the news. Considering the controversy over the recent Toyota recalls in the U.S., one might think any salesman would make a big deal out of such a positive safety assessment. After all, when Consumer Union in the U.S. releases test results for new cars in its Consumer Reports magazine, positive ratings can do wonders for a model’s sales.

But Consumer Reports tests everything, not just body integrity in a collision. The purpose of the NCAP is to promote safety-related research and development among auto makers, but all it really does is test these cars in crash situations. As it stands, all the cars seem to do quite well: The difference between the Legacy and the other cars tested is a matter of very small degree. In fact, NASVA was just investigated by the Government Revitalization Unit, which is trying to cut bureaucratic waste. Apparently, there are two government organizations testing cars in crashes, the NASVA and the National Traffic Safety and Environment Laboratory. The differences in the two bodies’ test methods appear to be very slight, so the investigating unit wanted to know why Japan needed two. Apparently, the “power of impacts” tested are different. In any case, NTSEL may receive less money in the next budget.

Of course, what would really help potential car buyers is data about individual models that have been involved in accidents in the past, but that information is closely guarded, even by the police , who never reveal makes and models of cars involved in accidents, though they surely have that information on record. The NCAP obviously has a function, but the very fact that they award a Grand Prix suggests they’re less interested in safety than in devising tests. After all, they have never reported a car as being not safe. So the Subaru salesman’s blasé attitude about the Legacy’s prize is understandable. For most consumers, a safety award from the government probably isn’t going to be as much of a factor in selecting a car as price, design and features are.

Commuting by bicycle benefits more than just your health

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

fun ride station in Aoyama. They also operate two stations for runners.

Fun ride station in Aoyama. They also operate two stations for runners.

One of the components of Japan’s embattled lifetime employment system that remains firmly in place is compensation for commuting costs. In almost every other industrialized country, full-time employees pay for their own transportation to work, but in Japan your employer pays, regardless of how far you live from your workplace. It’s a great deal and certainly Japanese workers take if for granted.

However, it does have its drawbacks, at least for those who don’t work full-time. For one thing, this money is not taxed. Companies can declare it as an expense, but the government does not treat it as taxable income or benefits, unless the worker spends more than ¥100,000 a month for transportation. As a reference, someone living in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, would spend ¥83,000 a month to take the Shinkansen to central Tokyo to work every day.

In a sense, we are all subsidizing these workers’ commutes, which means we are subsidizing the public transportation or automobiles they use to get to work. These costs are also reflected in the prices of goods and services. In addition, the practice of subsidized commutes has fueled past real estate booms in suburban areas, since people who lived far away from their jobs didn’t have to worry about commuting costs (commuting times are quite another matter and warrant a separate study of a more psychological nature). If everybody was a full-time worker it would all be fair, but the ranks of part-time and contract workers are increasing, and they get no such benefits.

The attitude toward commuting by private car, however, does seem to be changing. Unlike benefits for public transportation commutes, benefits for automobile commutes tend to be fixed regardless of how far the commute is or how much fuel is consumed. Now, some companies and public offices are compensating employees who commute to work by bicycle. The Toyohashi city government in Aichi Prefecture, for instance, has added an allowance for workers who bike to work: ¥4,600 a month if you travel between 2 and 5 km, and ¥7,100 a month if you travel more than 5 km. At the same time, Toyohashi has reduced the allowance for car commutes to ¥2,000 a month for less than 5 km and ¥4,100 for more than 5 km.

Continue reading about commuting by bicycle →

Be good to your vacuum cleaner and it will suck, if you’re lucky

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Nature abhors a vacuum cleaner

Nature abhors a vacuum cleaner

Japan’s vacuum cleaner market is bigger than you might think. About 5 million are sold a year, which could be considered a lot for a country of 130 million if you think about how long a vacuum cleaner should last. Then again, there is that age-old marketing concept of planned obsolescence. Until about 10 years ago, there was little reason to go out and replace your vacuum cleaner the way you would replace, say, a television or computer. The basic mechanism of a vacuum cleaner has never changed over the years, so as long as it worked there was never much reason to want a new one. When I first came to Japan, I was given a little red Toshiba vacuum cleaner by someone who was leaving and it lasted me another 15 years.

Since then, manufacturers have added features in order to encourage people to replace perfectly good VCs like that Toshiba: floor sensors, flea zappers (for tatami), quieter motors. Such filigree only complicates the machine, providing more reasons for it to break down. About ten years ago, the big sales point, introduced by Dyson, was the so-called “cyclone” cleaner, which means no need for bags, thus reducing maintenance costs and appealing to environmentally aware people who wanted to cut down on waste. I bought one of those a few years ago, made by Mitsubishi, and it’s turned out to be a lemon. Instead of a bag, it has a complex series of compartments and a self-cleaning fan that broke down several months after the warranty ended. As a result the sucking power is diminished and every time I remove the dust I also have to take the fan apart and clean it by hand.

Continue reading about vacuum cleaners in Japan →

Hair restoration and the economics of great expectations

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Gone today, hair tomorrow?

Gone today, hair tomorrow?

Earlier this month the Japanese Dermatological Association released the results of a study on the effects of various commercial treatments for baldness, and industry that’s worth about ¥60 billion. The association estimates that some 8 million men in Japan “worry” about thinning hair, and the number of complaints about seemingly bogus baldness cures has been on the increase, even if the absolute number of complaints is pretty low, given the size of the market. The National Consumer Affairs Center received 153 complaints about baldness cures in 2009, which is 2.5 times as many as it received in 2005. The JDA decided to lend its expertise to the issue, but rather than conduct its own experimental study into the efficacy of various products and treatments, it basically studied documentation submitted by manufacturers and then compared it to scientific papers published here and abroad.

Consequently, the results were hardly conclusive in a way that would probably make a difference; and, in fact, efficacy was closely related to cost. The JDA ranked treatments into five categories, with “A” being “strongly recommended,” “B” being simply “recommended,” “C1″ being possibly effective but lacking in scientific proof, “C2″ not recommended, and “D” possibly harmful.

What makes the results a bit eyebrow-raising is that the two products that earned “A” ratings were both mentioned by brand name: the hair tonic RiUP, made by Taisho Pharmaceutical, and the orally administered prescription drug Propecia, made by Merck and distributed in Japan by Banyu. The only treatments that earned a “B” rating were hair transplant methods that utilized the patient’s own hair, while products categorized under “C1″ and “C2″ were only mentioned in terms of their active ingredients, so if you want to find out which products actually use those ingredients you would have to do your own research. Obviously, the JDA’s obligations to balding men (and women, for that matter) is limited when it comes to hurting the feelings of some of the companies who make their living off of them.

Continue reading about anti-hair loss products →

Lawson 100 and the evolution of the convenience store

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Lawson 100Japan has about 40,000 convenience stores, and sales at these stores have been declining for the past year. Given that sales everywhere have declined, that shouldn’t be surprising, but convenience stores in Japan had previously been resistant to recessions. That’s why there are 40,000 of them.

Apparently, it’s no longer the case. What tends to separate convenience stores from other retail operations in Japan is that people expect their prices to be higher. That, after all, is the cost of “convenience,” and the companies that run the stores took advantage of this prejudice by never reducing prices for any reason. Even when food approached its sell-by date/hour, store managers were not allowed to put it on sale. If they couldn’t sell it, then they would just have to throw it out (and absorb the loss). At least, that was 7-11′s policy until recently, when media coverage of this wasteful practice forced them to rethink it.

Continue reading about Lawson Store 100 →

Where’s the (cheap) beef?

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Yoshinoya: Blink and the campaign is over

Yoshinoya: Blink and the campaign is over

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is presently in Japan to restart talks on beef imports, might be heartened by the gyudon (beef bowl) war going on in the fast food sector. All three of the big gyudon chains are fighting a bloody battle for market share. Yoshinoya has the most at stake. The food service company had projected a ¥1.3 billion loss for the last quarter that ended up being an ¥8.9 billion loss, the largest since the company went public in1990.

This week all three chains announced cheaper prices for their basic beef bowl (nami-mori). Matsuya reduced its product by ¥70 to ¥250, while Sukiya, the industry leader, cut its gyudon from ¥280 to ¥250.

The savings won’t last forever. Matsuya’s shinseikatsu oen (“new life” for new company employees) campaign will end April 23, while Sukiya’s is only until April 21. Yoshinoya’s is even shorter. It ends April 13.

On a related note, the sanuki udon (wheat noodle) chain Hanamaru, which has been discussed in this blog before, is also having a bargain campaign for regular “users.” Between April 7 and 16, outlets will be selling a limited number of teiki-ken (limited time passes) fashioned after public transportation passes. The passes cost ¥500 and are good until May 15. During the effective period, the pass will get you ¥105 off any udon dish in the store, which means you have to use it at least five times between now and May 15 to get your money’s worth.

Annals of Cheap: Super Hotel

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

The new Super Hotel in Okachimachi, which opens Apr. 29

The new Super Hotel in Okachimachi, which opens April 29

A government-sponsored marketing conference called Service Productivity and Innovation for Growth conducted a survey in Japan earlier this year that attracted some 100,000 respondents, who were supplied with the names of 291 service-related companies comprising 29 industry sectors. They were asked to rate these companies for 100 separate criteria in order to determine “high customer satisfaction.” The number one company, with 82.3 average points, was Oriental Land, which runs Tokyo Disneyland.

At number 13 was Super Hotel, the highest ranking accommodation-related business (though Oriental Land does operate Disney Resorts), even higher than the Imperial Hotel. In a way, it’s an unfair comparison. The infamously expensive Imperial is a “city hotel” while Super Hotel runs a chain of 94 “business hotels.” Anyone who has stayed in both knows the difference: city hotels stress comfort while business hotels stress convenience and economy.

However, even among business hotels Super is special, which explains its high rating. People were just surprised at how good it was for the price, and the price is pretty amazing: as low as ¥4,900 a night for a single room, including breakfast (Japanese or Western). In most of the bigger cities the price is comparably more expensive, but not much. Tokyo, for instance, has nine Super Hotels (10 on Apr. 29, when the Super Hotel in Okachimachi opens), the most expensive of which is in Shimbashi (¥9,000 single) and the cheapest of which is Kameido (¥6,490 single). And when you start going to double and triple rooms, called Super Rooms, the savings get better. A single at the Hakodate Super Hotel is ¥5,480, a double is ¥7,480, and a triple ¥8,480. If you reserve a single room for a whole month in Hakodate you can get it for ¥3,980 a day.

Is it worth it? If you’ve ever stayed at a business hotel, with their tiny windows, plastic “unit baths” and lack of elbow room, you know what to expect, but Super Hotels, which started in Osaka in 1989, offers a little bit more because of its policy of not sweating the extraneous stuff. All the beds are semi-doubles, 34 of the hotels have free public baths (which tend to get raves from regulars), and many rooms have free Internet access. The extraneous stuff they feel you can do without include air conditioning in the elevators and hallways, personnel (the front desk is only manned, depending on the hotel, from 7-10 a.m. and 3-12 p.m.), and guest room telephones. Also, guests prepay for their rooms, usually via vending machines in the lobby, and many of the hotels do not take credit cards.

But Super Hotels is obviously a progressive company. Several branches have rooms and even floors that are exclusively for female guests, and two hotels, one in Fuji City and another in Takamatsu, are completely smoke-free. Also, some are aiming for the tourist market, like the Super Hotel in Nara, with a more upscale atmosphere built around the eco-marketing concept called Lohas.

Super Hotel also has an English Web site.

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