Archive for May, 2010

Summer gift season tests Miyazaki meat rep

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Miyazaki beef corner at Takashimaya department store in Nihonbashi

Miyazaki beef corner at Takashimaya department store in Nihonbashi

So far there hasn’t been any severe retail fallout from the foot and mouth disease crisis that has struck the livestock industry in Miyazaki Prefecture. However, department stores and major supermarkets are reportedly worried about the upcoming chugen (summer gift) season, which starts in June. For department stores, at least, chugen is one of the most important times of the year, and high-grade beef like that which Miyazaki is famous for plays a significant role. Department stores are having a hard enough time as it is, without the added burden of rumors that might cut into the sales of its biggest single money maker.

Some are taking a proactive approach. Not only are several department stores prominently displaying Miyazaki beef (and pork, too), but they’re also setting up donation boxes so that customers can contribute small change to the prefecture’s ranchers and pig farmers, many of whom have been devastated by the disease.

Takashimaya in Nihonbashi is currently having a Miyazaki Fair that isn’t limited to beef though beef seems to be the main attraction. According to a report in the Asahi Shimbun, the first day the beef counter opened, all 60 packages sold out within three hours. The proprietor quickly restocked. One reason for the good sales was the price: ¥661 for 100 grams, which is quite low for high-end beef. But there was another reason. As one 75-year-old woman told the newspaper, “I came to realize that the beef must be very good because Miyazaki sends calves to all the other major beef-producing areas of Japan.” In other words, all the dire news from the prefecture in the past couple of weeks also promoted the area’s reputation as the birthplace of Japan’s homegrown luxury beef industry.

But there is still concern. Though consuming meat from animals with foot and mouth disease is not harmful to humans and no meat from contaminated animals is being sold anyway, there is a feeling among some retailers that they have to handle the situation carefully. Supermarket chain Ito-Yokado says it will not make any kind of point-of-sale indications that “Miyazaki meat is safe” since it will only draw attention to the situation. And the closer to the source of the problem, the bigger the fear, it seems. Daimaru department store in Hakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, has already reported a drop in summer gift pre-orders for beef, and several restaurants who specialize in Miyazaki beef say that some people who made reservations before the outbreak of the disease have since cancelled them.

Lottery administrators get their comeuppance (so what?)

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

And what does Mizuho get out of it?

And what does Mizuho get out of it?

Last week the Government Revitalization Unit, which is holding public hearings on wasteful spending by government-related organs and receiving a lot of positive media attention for it, recommended that certain public corporations related to the lottery (Takarakuji) system be abolished.

The lottery system is run under the auspices of the internal affairs ministry, which permits prefectures and larger cities to sell lottery tickets through “agents,” which in this case is Mizuho Bank. According to ministry figures, sales of lottery tickets in 2008 amounted to about ¥1.42 trillion. About 46 percent of that money, or ¥476 billion, was distributed as prize money; 40 percent (¥418 billion) was distributed to local governments to be used for “public projects”; and about ¥148 billion was used for administrative expenses, including ¥18 billion by the Japan Lottery Association for “promotional activities.”

The watchdog panel found that a lot of the promotional activities carried out by the various public corporations are not only redundant but pointless. “Promotion” essentially means granting money from Takarakuji revenues to needless projects like ugly public statues or free DVDs celebrating a village’s roof-thatching activities and then having the Takarakuji logo imprinted somewhere on accompanying signs or packaging. And, of course, the public corporation retains some sort of administration costs for doing this. Consequently, much of the money earmarked for these “public projects” is siphoned off by the public corporations, through which it passes before going to local governments via multiple routes. Moreover, the heads of these corporations are almost all retired bureaucrats from the internal affairs ministry whose average salary is ¥20 million a year, much more than those of the mayors to whom they deliver the funds. One TV station likened the practice of distributing the money to that of a yakuza boss distributing favors.

Everybody seems happy that these greedy internal affairs “old boys” are getting their comeuppance, but there’s something a little frustrating about the way the watchdog group came down so hard on the lottery system, which is not, after all, paid for with tax money. People buy lottery tickets voluntarily, and though many of those people may be righteously miffed at the way the system is administered, their only real concern is whether or not they win. Nobody buys a lottery ticket because they want to support local governments. If they’re angry, it’s probably because the money that goes into ex-bureaucrats’ pockets could conceivably go toward larger cash prizes — or more cash prizes. The watchdog group is currently looking at public corporations that directly get funds from money-making schemes rather than taxes, but it isn’t within its power to suggest that moneys from lottery sales be specifically earmarked for more useful endeavors, like education (which is what lotteries in other countries usually subsidize) or infrastructure improvements. Its role is to suggest cuts that will reduce the government’s massive amount of red ink, and so far the number of cuts suggested for tax-subsidized bureaucracies has been far below what needs to be done. Making a big deal out of the lottery seems like grandstanding.

The Japan-Swiss EPA means nothing to cheese lovers

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

A bit rich: Cheese Okoku in Kita Senju

A bit rich: Cheese Okoku in Kita Senju

A common topic of conversation among my foreign friends is cheese, more specifically, where one can buy it at justifiable prices. Cheese is notoriously expensive in Japan owing to a number of factors both cultural and bureaucratic. The agricultural ministry is very protective of Japanese dairy farmers and slaps a fairly high tariff on any milk-based products from abroad. The duty on cheese is about 30 percent, but that’s 30 percent of the total cost of importing the cheese, meaning 30 percent of not only the wholesale price, but also 30 percent of the transportation cost and the insurance. And soft cheeses, at least, have to be shipped by air, so costs mount even more, and by the time the cheese is in your local store it has passed through the grubby hands of middlemen and can cost three or four times what it cost in its home country. Theoretically, if you buy it in bulk or over the Internet you can save some money, but Japanese, I’m always told, don’t eat cheese that much. If that’s true, then why is Japan the second biggest cheese importer in the world?

It’s no secret that the big national food companies that deal in dairy foods like Meiji, Yuki-jirushi (Snow Brand) and Morinaga directly benefit from the cheese tariff and most likely lobbied to have it put in place. But the bulk of their sales in this realm is processed cheese (natural cheese imported for the purpose of making processed cheese is tariff-free), which Japanese consumers prefer. In fact, 90 percent of the so-called natural cheese sold in Japan is imported from abroad. This would seem to indicate that Japan produces very little non-processed cheese. If it’s true that Japanese consumers in general don’t like “real” cheese, meaning the harder, smellier kind, what exactly is there to protect?

The price of cheese from Switzerland should have at least come down a little bit because Japan concluded an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the country that went into effect last September. This means that Swiss can buy cars and electrical appliances from Japan without any import duties and Japanese can buy luxury watches and chocolate and Nestle’s instant coffee with the same benefits. Cheese, too, since it’s a major Swiss export, mainly emmenthal (the one with the holes) and gruyere. However, we have not noticed any appreciable change in the price of cheese from Switzerland in the past nine months. At the very least, the price should have come down in relation to the Swiss franc, which, like most currencies, has lost much of its value against the yen in the past year. I know there’s a lead time when it comes to price changes pegged to foreign currency fluctuations, but I’ve seen absolutely no change in the past few years in the cheese cases of my local stores.

Last week we bought a tiny block of Swiss emmenthal (¥480 for 100 grams) and an even tinier block of Swiss gruyere (¥1,100 for 100 grams) at Cheese Oukoku (Cheese Kingdom), a chain operation that you usually find in the basements of department stores. Their salespeople like to show off their knowledge of all things cheesy by advising customers on how to enjoy certain types, how it’s made, the aging process, etc., but when we asked one of them about the Swiss issue he professed to know nothing, and said he had never even heard of the EPA. What about the drop in the franc and the euro? we asked. Shouldn’t that make a difference?  “The price of cheese hasn’t gone down,” he said. That much we knew just by standing there and looking.

Tower of power: What’s a view worth?

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

What you see is what you get

What you see is what you get

If you’ve lived in Japan for any length of time you know that any property you buy will likely not increase in value over time. Structures themselves, whether houses or condominiums, lose value as a matter of course because that’s the way the government and the housing industry planned it. And since the end of the bubble economy of the late ’80s, even land prices have dropped and continue to do so, thus contributing to the cycle of deflation that keeps the economy in the doldrums.

The only exception to this trend is Tokyo, and the media has lately been reporting on how healthy the condo market is in the capital, but according to AERA it’s only specific areas of Tokyo, and not necessarily the ones you might expect. For instance, the “3A area” of Aoyama, Azabu and Akasaka — expensive locations favored by well-to-do expats — has been losing value steadily since the so-called Lehman Shock because of decreasing demand for rental property.

But there are locations that AERA says offer “some hope” for the future, meaning that if you buy a condo in these locations the value won’t go down “that much.” These properties lie in a “golden triangle” whose points are Akihabara station, Toyosu station and Shinagawa station; in other words, parts of Minato, Chuo and Koto Wards, especially the waterfront district, which has become very popular among the boomer generation’s own progeny, who are now entering middle age.

There’s one exception, and that’s Sumida Ward, or, at least, parts of Sumida Ward. Earlier this year, a condo complex called Oacity near Kinshicho station opened model rooms and put on sale 850 units in three phases. All the units in each phase sold out on the first day, even though the complex won’t be completely finished for several years. Many units were so popular they had to be chosen by lot.

Why is a condo in the usually ignored Shitamachi district so popular? Three words: Tokyo Sky Tree. Apparently, any new building, and even quite a few old ones, with an unblocked view of the new TV tower is a hot property. Since there are very few tall buildings in that part of Tokyo right now, it’s relatively easy to find an unblocked view, especially given the fact that the completed tower will be more than 600 meters tall, but you can definitely expect more high rises to go up in the next few years.

In fact, there’s a good possibility that the folks in Oacity who purchased an apartment with a theoretical perfect view of the Tree might not have one by the time they move in if, in the meantime, some other developer builds a higher condo that blocks it. In that case their property value will plummet. The better the view, the more money you can get, and the fiercer the competition.

Why doesn’t national health insurance pay for maternity care?

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Pink is the color of having babies

Pink is the color of having babies

Japan’s two national health insurance programs are predicated on coverage for sick people. Anything that falls outside of that very simple and general guideline does not apply. That’s why your national health insurance does not pay for annual checkups, though most local governments offer cancer screenings and other preventive health measures for free, or mostly free. In terms of dentistry, orthodontia — considered cosmetic in Japan while in the West it is a health concern since crooked teeth are likely to cause dental problems later in life — is not covered by insurance. Neither is teeth-cleaning, strictly speaking, though many dentists, including my own, have found a way to get around it.

Having a baby is also not covered by Japanese national insurance, though it is in most Western countries that have state-funded medical insurance plans. Unless the expectant mother has a complication that requires medical attention, she has to pay for all pre-natal, delivery-related and post-natal care out of her own pocket. However, the government does have a system of reimbursement called shussan ichijikin, which means “one-time payment for giving birth.” Traditionally, a woman who gives birth pays her obstetrics bill, which usually includes a hospital stay in addition to doctors’ fees, and then applies for the payment to the National Health Insurance Union (Kokumin Kenko Hoken Kumiai), which administers payouts. Several months later she receives a standard ¥420,000 payment, regardless of how much money she spent.

Last October, the health ministry started a new system on a test basis. Under this new system, the shussan ichijikin is paid directly to the hospital, not to the woman who gave birth. The idea is that the woman is not burdened with a large fee when she leaves the hospital. At the moment the system is optional for hospitals, and according to a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun many who did opt for the system say they are not happy with it. Because they have to wait up to three or four months to be reimbursed, it plays havoc with their cash flow. As a result, the future of the system, which was originally planned to be instituted fully at the end of March, is in doubt.

Continue reading about the cost of maternity care in Japan →

Strawberry hothouses forever

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Tochigi and Fukuoka duke it out in the produce section

Tochigi and Fukuoka duke it out in the produce section

Japanese people love to talk about how attuned they are to the seasons, and those who know their food are very picky about consuming produce only in season, which is, of course, the definition of a macrobiotic diet.

Before the rise of chain supermarkets, refrigerated transportation, international trade and sophisticated hothouses, there was actually no alternative to a macrobiotic diet. You ate what was available, and what was available was what was in season. But nowadays, you can get anything you want any time of the year, though, generally speaking, produce tends to be cheaper when it’s in season.

Not so in the case of strawberries, which for all intents and purposes are mostly grown in hothouses. Right now is the natural strawberry season, and until the end of May you can still find fields and hothouses that will let you pick and eat strawberries (more vitamin C than oranges!) for a fee. But the science of growing strawberries indoors has become so exact that most people can’t tell the difference in taste any more between a field grown berry and a hothouse one. For that reason, strawberries are one of the few agricultural endeavors, along with melons, that are guaranteed money-makers. Considered the ultimate of luxuries as recently as the 1980s, they are now affordable to everyone, and no one doesn’t love strawberries.

Tochigi Prefecture is the strawberry capital of Japan, with the Tochi Otome (Tochi maiden) breed of strawberries holding the largest share in the country. The natural season for strawberries is April and May, but hothouse strawberries are available from November to May. Most strawberries are picked when they are slightly unripe and the area around the stem is still white. The reason is that the berries continue to ripen after picking, so that they are at the peak of their flavor by the time they hit the supermarket. If the berries are picked when they’re ripe, they’ll likely be spoiled (and moldy) by the time they are in stores. After being picked they are immediately chilled at around 7 degrees centigrade in order to firm them up so that they won’t bruise as easily.

Continue reading about hothouse strawberries in Japan →

Communal living: It isn’t just for foreigners anymore

Monday, May 10th, 2010

About 8 minutes from Gotanno station on the Tobu Isezaki line

A place to share, about 8 minutes from Gotanno Station on the Tobu Isezaki line

Considering how expensive housing is in Japan, foreigners just off the boat tend to be surprised that there isn’t more communal living going on. Most Japanese apartments, even the larger ones, are not really adequate for communal living the way apartments in the West are, and in any case Japanese landlords tend to frown on renting out properties to multiple persons if those persons are not married or otherwise related. Consequently, there’s no vocabulary for shared dwellings, much less a market.

That is until now, and it appears to be a market-driven development. The explosion of vacant rental properties in the larger cities have prompted some real estate companies to take it upon themselves to offer what is being called “share houses,” meaning houses and apartment buildings with communal living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms. These companies rent out the bedrooms as they would apartments, and the practice has caught on so much so that the media is covering it as a trend, as seen on our comrade blog, Japan Pulse.

The main appeal is economic, but the real draw is social, especially among women who don’t feel safe living by themselves in one-room apartments in the city. Share houses offer privacy with the option of interpersonal interaction. The model for this kind of living is Share Place Gotanno in Adachi Ward, Tokyo. Formerly a company dormitory (most share rooms are), the building has been converted by the Tokyo Electric-affiliated housing renovation company ReBita into 45 rooms centered around a living and dining area that is the equivalent in size to three households’ worth. Consequently, the kitchen has three large refrigerators. Each bedroom is the size of about seven tatami mats and includes an air conditioner, a bed, a desk, and a storage unit. The monthly rent is from ¥58,000 to ¥63,000, there’s a “management fee” of ¥13,500, and a ¥50,000 deposit (¥30,000 refundable) is required. There’s also a ¥36,000 “processing fee” and a one-time insurance fee of ¥8,000. Foreigners are welcome.

Gotanno Share Place

Share Place Gotanno

At present about 60 percent of the residents are women, and while many room share facilities are coed, there is one network called Tokyo Girls Fudosan that caters exclusively to females. They run several communal houses in the metropolitan area, some of which contain only three rooms. TGF has the added value of offering “theme rooms,” meaning designs and colors that match the mood of the potential tenant. The whole idea of their rentals is that communal living is fun. One share house profiled on NHK involved a group of young professionals who share a love of gardening and got together to rent a huge house in Kanagawa Prefecture that had a large piece of land attached where they could grow flowers and food.

In the Japanese style, share rooms have no uncertainties; no possibility of two roommates having to cover a third because he doesn’t have the rent or his share of the phone bill or utilities. Phone bills are basically nonexistent because everybody has a cell phone now, and as for utilities, including internet connections, most take care of it in the management fee. Many share houses don’t take smokers, though some have isolated smoking areas.

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