Archive for July, 2010

The road to digital TV is not paved with enough antennas

Friday, July 30th, 2010

Which one is the UHF?

Which one is the UHF?

Two weeks ago, the various government and private groups promoting the spread of digital terrestiral TV organized a parade to remind people that analog TV broadcasts will end in a year, on July 24, 2011. That would seem to be plenty of time to make sure everyone will be with the program, but the statistics point to a less certain future. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications last March, 83.3 percent of Japanese households now receive digital TV signals. However, an NHK survey carried out two months earlier found this number to be only 63.7 percent, and a private research company quoted in the Yomiuri Shimbun said it was “less than 70 percent.”

Why the big discrepancy, and, more important, why don’t more people have digital capability despite the fact that digital broadcasts have been available for years and the government and broadcasters have been plugging the hell out of the changeover? NHK and the commercial stations have together spent ¥1.5 trillion to convert to digital, and the nation has contributed another ¥200 billion to the project. The important thing to remember is that once the changeover happens, you can’t go back. When analog is gone, it’s gone forever, and not just because it would be cost-prohibitive for stations to revert. Manufacturers have already stopped producing analog equipment.

And when analog is gone, it could mean that up to 30 percent of Japanese households will be without TV, which is a big problem for a democracy, not to mention a country as susceptible to natural disasters as Japan is. Though most of the media attention has been on the delivery systems, meaning the flatscreen, high-definition, digital sets that have been coming down in price over the past year, the real obstacle is antennas. Analog tuners use VHF antennas, while digital tuners need UHF. Most households no longer have UHF antennas, and even those who do may not have the proper kind. Moreover, UHF antennas for digital have to be properly positioned or else the signal is useless. With analog, even if the signal is weak, you can get something on your TV. With digital, if the signal drops below a certain level, you get nothing.

Continue reading about the road to digital TV →

The Diet thinks about cutting some calories

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Follow the money

Follow the money

On July 30 a special Diet session will start and last about a week. The main purpose is to fill posts that may have been left empty or have changed as a result of the July 11 Upper House elections. However, Minna no To, or Your Party, as it’s called in English, has requested a discussion of national assembly members’ pay for the month of July. As it stands, all national politicians receive salaries in monthly installments. The new members elected several weeks ago did not take up their posts until July 26, which means for the month of July they only accumulate six working days. However, according to the law, they are entitled to a full month’s pay, which comes to ¥2.3 million for each member. Nice work if you can get it.

Minna no To campaigned on a platform of reduced government spending, and that includes cutting personnel costs related to politicians and bureaucrats, either by cutting jobs or reducing salaries. So the party is proposing to pay salaries on a daily basis (hiwari) rather than on a monthly basis. If everyone agrees, then the pay for July, distributed Aug. 10, would only be ¥440,000, which is still pretty good. The government would thus save ¥130 million, which isn’t much compared to what they could have saved if they had a similar law in place last summer after the Lower House elections. Those freshman lawmakers took their positions with only two days left in August and received a full month’s pay. A hiwari law would have saved the government ¥580 million.

Given the current budget deficit, these savings are little more than symbolic, but apparently they’re a symbol that the citizens like. All the media outlets conducted street surveys and found unanimous support for such a law, which apparently prompted the ruling Democratic Party of Japan to change its mind. Originally, it opposed hiwari, but now it has said that if Minna no To can get an agreement from other parties it will go along with it.

The feeling is that the government made a big deal of asking the Japanese people during the election campaign to suck it up and accept a consumption tax increase but is nevertheless unwilling to reduce its own pay by even a little bit for work they aren’t even doing. And as representatives of Minna no To have said, they can pass such a bill in a day without much deliberation, so if any legislators resist, everyone will want to know who those legislators are.

Eel economics: Why unagi is so popular (and expensive)

Monday, July 26th, 2010

The bottom line: When it's hot, so is Obana

The bottom line: When it's hot, so is Obana

Today, July 26, is doyo ushi no hi, which translates directly as “hot day of the ox” though the food that is traditionally eaten on this day is not beef but rather unagi (eel). So why isn’t it called unagi no hi? That’s a good question and one that isn’t easy to answer, since the idea originated many centuries ago in China, where the cycle of days was based on 12 rather than 7, and to help people remember the cycle each day was assigned an animal, in the same way that the old calendar groups years into cycles of 12 animals. Somehow over time the day of the ox came to represent the high point of summer, meaning the hottest day of the year, which was pinpointed as being 18 days before the first day of autumn according to the old calendar.

This year that day falls on July 26, which won’t make sense to anyone except people with an interest in arcane Asian astrology. It certainly doesn’t explain why people eat unagi on this day. There are many theories, one of which is that both “ushi” and “unagi” begin with the “u” sound, though the hypothesis that seems to be the most accepted is that some time during the Edo Period (1603-1868) fishmongers got together to promote eel because it didn’t sell as well as other fish and hit on the idea of saying that it boosted stamina during the dog days of summer. In other words, it was a marketing ploy, and just as American greeting-card companies effectively created Mother’s Day, these fishmongers hit on the proverbial hottest day of the year — doyo no ushi no hi — as a good day to promote eel sales.

The Japanese populace bought it, and ever since then unagi sales have been brisk on this day, despite the relative high price compared to other fish. The high value attached to unagi is another mystery and, again, seems to be more a matter of marketing than anything else. In recent years, there have been many scandals involving unagi distributors who have purposely mislabeled unagi from Taiwan or China as having been grown in Japan. Domestic eel commands a higher price, even though in many cases there’s absolutely no difference. The bulk of unagi sold in stores and to restaurants in Japan come from eel farms, and most of the farms, whether they are in Japan or China or Taiwan, get their fry from Japan.

It’s impossible to grow unagi from eggs because despite the fact that unagi is designated as a fresh water fish, it lays its eggs in the ocean. (Anago, another eel species that is a popular dish in Japan, live in seawater their whole lives.) Their life cycle is the opposite of salmon, which lay eggs in freshwater but live their lives in the sea. In fact, no one knows precisely where unagi lay their eggs, though the most common theory is some place in the vicinity of the Marianas. After hatching the fry make their way back to Japan waterways and are caught in nets. These fry are then sold to unagi farms where they are raised to adulthood.

You can also buy tennen (natural) unagi, meaning they are adult eels caught in rivers or lakes, and they are more expensive, usually by a factor of two, simply by dint of their lesser availability. Do they taste better? As with the difference between domestically grown unagi and foreign grown unagi, it’s a moot point and one that unagi wholesalers take advantage of to keep prices high. (It should be noted that more and more Chinese farms are getting their fry from Europe, which would seem to be a different species of eel.) But in any case, retail prices for domestic unagi are on the average 30 percent more than for foreign unagi, and according to a report I saw last night on NHK, this year about 80 percent of the unagi you buy in stores is from overseas, and prices are, on average, about ¥500 more than what they were last year owing to a 60 percent drop in catches of unagi fry. But true unagi lovers say the taste of eel has more to do with preparation than with origin, and thus another cost layer is added. It’s believed that the eel should be killed just prior to cooking, and “real” unagi restaurants keep tanks of live eels on the premises.

Yield to eel: Obana's pricey unaju

Yield to eel: Obana's cheapest unaju

There’s yet another layer of cost that can only be explained by cognitive dissonance. Probably the most famous unagi restaurant in Tokyo is Obana, located near Minami Senju Station in Arakawa Ward, next to the old execution grounds. Obana doesn’t advertise, doesn’t accept reservations and doesn’t allow media coverage. Moreover, it only serves three unaju (grilled eel on rice) dishes, and the wait is long. Typically, there is a long line outside the closed gate before the restaurant opens for business at 11:30 a.m., and it only stays open until its supply of unagi for the day runs out. Because preparation is Obana’s hallmark, once you sit down you have to wait one hour for your meal to arrive, which gives them plenty of time to sell you as much beer as you can drink. So the usual wait time is at least two hours: one hour waiting on line, and one hour waiting at one of the 25 two-person tables. And the dishes are expensive: ¥3,000, ¥3,500 and ¥4,000 (pickles included but no soup). Is it better than other unagi restaurants? Probably, but as a friend of mine used to say, if you wait in line an hour to see a movie, you’ll probably think it’s better than if you didn’t wait at all.

In any case, it works as a backhanded marketing tool. On Saturday, two days before doyo ushi no hi, there were about 100 persons standing in 35-degree heat with no shade outside Obana 15 minutes before it opened. Unlike eel, the old Edo Period strategy still has legs, so let’s hope the theory about unagi boosting stamina isn’t the myth it seems to be.

Post office attempts to reverse non-regular employment trend

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Got a job

Got a job

The frontline of Japan’s privatization steamroller is the post office. Junichiro Koizumi staked his political career on removing Japan Post from government control when he made his bid for reelection in 2005 and won by a landslide. However, Shizuka Kamei, the leader of the small Kokumin Shinto party who recently resigned as financial services minister, has staked his own political career on reversing the privatization of Japan Post owing to loyalties within the post-office community. Before quitting he asked Japan Post to offer more regular full-time positions to its non-regular workforce.

Kamei’s target was 100,000 employees, but last week JP announced that about 65,000 of its non-regular staff were actually qualified to take the test to become regular full-time employees, and among them only 34,000 said they would apply for the test by the July 28 deadline. Since these non-regular workers already toil full-time for all intents and purposes, there seemed to be some confusion about why more wouldn’t want to take the test. One of the main reasons, according to the Asahi Shimbun, is that some of them fear they would be eligible for transfers to other cities if they become regular employees.

Otherwise, the decision seems a no-brainer. Regular JP workers make on average three times as much as non-regular JP workers for the same number of hours worked and the same job description, and, of course, non-regular employees are not eligible for advancement and raises, and do not receive benefits, like sick pay. One non-regular employee interviewed by Asahi said he’s been working at JP as a sorter for 14 years. He works three 12-hour shifts a week and receives ¥2.3 million a year before taxes.

This individual wanted to take the test to get regular employment, but at first he couldn’t. The initial criteria for switching to regular employment was that the non-regular employee had to have worked for JP at least 30 years, be less than 60 years old, and is currently working at least 30 hours a week. In practice, the employee fit all three criteria, but in theory he missed out on the last one. His employment contract stated that he was only hired to work 27.5 hours a week, even though he always worked overtime thus putting his hours in excess of 30. But overtime didn’t count. Apparently, quite a few non-regular workers who have the same problem expressed it to their superiors, and before Kamei left his post he changed the criteria to 20 hours a week minimum.

All these potential new regular employees would cost JP an extra ¥100 billion a year. Since going private, the company has shifted to part-time and non-regular workers — it only hires about 2,000 regular employees a year — and the shift back would be expensive. Japan Post now has 210,000 non-regular employees, about half its workforce, making it the country’s single biggest employer of non-regular workers.

Tale of the tape: shoplifiting solution or just a band-aid?

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Even on the avocado?

Even on the avocado?

To paraphrase the Stones, summer’s here and the time is right for stealing. Or, at least, that’s what the National Police Agency thinks. Incidents of shoplifting rise during the summer months, apparently because of all those minors with nothing constructive to do after school lets out. The NPA has produced a public service announcement stating unequivocally that “shoplifting is a crime” and arranged for it to be shown in movie theaters before screenings of the new Studio Ghibli animated movie “Kari-gurashi no Arietty” (The Borrowers), assuming that all those bored, itchy-fingered kids will be in the audience. The PSA takes the curious position that youngsters, particularly elementary school and junior high school students, don’t know that manbiki (shoplifting) is a hanzai (crime).

The NPA seems slightly behind the curve on this one, according to a recent report on NHK Tokyo’s Friday night news feature program, “Tokuho Shutoken” (Capital Special Report), which offered statistics showing that most shoplifting arrests involve adults. Fifteen years ago, it was mostly minors who stole things from retailers, but adult shoplifting subsequently skyrocketed, and last year there were 30 percent more arrests of people over 20. In fact, elderly people make up a good percentage of those arrested.

The reasons for this rise are many and not particularly difficult to comprehend. The main concern for retailers is how to prevent thefts from happening in their stores. The NHK report said that shoplifting in Tokyo alone accounted for business losses of ¥67 billion in 2009.

Japanese retailers have always resisted the security measures adopted overseas to prevent shoplifting, mainly because of Japan’s famous public order but also because of the special proprietor-customer dynamic that says you don’t do anything to make patrons feel uncomfortable, like asking them to check their bags at the door or put them in lockers, which is fairly common in the U.S. and Europe and is even a normal practice in South Korea.

Anti-shoplifting measures in Japan rely more on psychology. The NHK report showed how employees of a book store were trained to constantly greet customers with a cheery and loud “Irasshaimase!” (welcome), which supposedly has the effect of intimidating would-be boosters, especially if the employee manages to make eye contact with the customer. The implication is: “We are watching you.”

However, other than cameras, the occasional undercover security guard and the even rarer alarm gates the only generally accepted shoplifting-prevention measure in Japanese stores is the use of bags, which is meant to indicate that a person has paid for the items he or she is leaving the store with. Of course, resourceful shoplifters will easily think of ways of using bags to their advantage, but one thing the NHK special emphasized, at least with regard to older shoplifters, is that they aren’t always devious. If anything, they steal out of a need for attention or just out of compulsion.

The bigger problem with the bag solution is that, due to environmental concerns, many customers are bringing their own bags to stores so that they don’t have to use the plastic or paper ones that the stores provide. Again, in Europe and the U.S., retailers, especially supermarkets, actively discourage the use of bags. In South Korea, supermarkets regularly charge if you want bags. In Japan, since bags provide proof-of-purchase, there’s the problem of how do you know whether or not someone leaving a store with a non-disposable “eco bag” full of groceries didn’t steal them unless you check his receipt? The solution is embossed tape, which cashiers apply to the purchased items.

The Super Value solution

The Super Value solution

This is even a more dubious solution than the whole bag idea, since there aren’t usually enough security personnel in a store to check for the tape when a customer leaves. In fact, tape may actually do exactly what retailers are trying to avoid by not implementing truly effective security measures: It bugs the customers. I know several people who take offense to the practice, since its lack of common sense implies that customers are fools. That may be taking the issue a bit too much to heart, but, for sure, tape has no effect on shoplifting at all. It’s a psychological remedy, but the psychology is aimed backwards at the retailers, who fool themselves into thinking they’re actually doing something about the problem.

Super Value, a discount supermarket, has come up with a better idea. When you bring your gray basket to the checkout line, the cashier exchanges it for a yellow one without any handles. Since all customers bag their own groceries, anyone seen beyond the checkout area with a gray basket is automatically under suspicion. It isn’t a perfect system — dedicated shoplifters can probably think of ways of sneaking out merchandise without using baskets — but it certainly makes more sense than the tape method, which is just plain lazy.

The bonus is in the bank

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Japan Post wants your bonus, too

Japan Post wants your bonus, too

The life insurance company Sonpo Japan DIY just released its annual survey, in which it asks about 500 carefully selected housewives whose husbands are salaried employees between the ages of 20 and 50 what they plan to do with this summer’s bonus. The bonus is one of the cleverest ideas ever developed by the Japanese business world. Ostensibly, bonuses are tied to a company’s good fortune or an employee’s performance, but Japanese workers have always deemed them to be part of their salaries, and tend to plan their finances accordingly. Employees and employers look at bonuses differently: The former see them as an entitlement, while the latter use them as a safety valve.

Consequently, for the past several years, many companies have reduced bonuses and some have even eliminated them as profits have tanked. The Sonpo survey, though it’s rather small, is significant since it gives some idea of how the economy affects the average household.

The good news is that the average bonus this summer was ¥670,000 after taxes, which is about ¥115,000 more than it was last year. This is the first time in three years that the trend has reversed. About 41 percent of the respondents said that their bonuses increased from last year, while a little more than 28 percent said it went down. What’s still a bit scary is that, of the respondents who said their bonuses were less than last year’s, the average decrease was ¥159,000.

Perhaps of more concern to the government is what these people are doing with their bonuses. According to a survey by a research panel in the Bank of Japan, 74.2 percent said they planned to put all or part of it in their savings. Last year, the percentage who saved was a little more than 50; 39.6 percent said they would spend theirs on “everyday life,” and 37.6 percent said it would go toward repaying a mortgage or other loans. Not much economic stimulation going on there, which could mean that those companies will continue to be stingy with their bonuses in the future.

Wanted: Train driver wannabe with money

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Dreams made of steel

Dreams made of steel

Right now in general release there’s a Japanese movie called “Railways” about a 49-year-old electronics company executive who chucks his high-paying job in Tokyo to move back to his hometown in Shimane Prefecture and realize his childhood dream, which was to be a train driver. In doing so, he not only becomes closer to his family but closer to “life,” whatever that is.

Such a wish-fulfillment fantasy is a cinema genre unto itself, but the ambition to drive a train seems to have special significance in Japan, especially among men who grew up during Japan’s postwar economic miracle, when the nation’s train network became the life blood of that miracle. Since the privatization of the Japan National Railways in 1987, more and more lines have been going bankrupt, victims of the rise of automobile culture and the decline of the population in general. One line in Chiba Prefecture, however, has tried to extend its life by tapping into the very nostalgia that defines “Railways.”

Last March, Isumi Tetsudo, which is headquartered in the town of Otaki near the east coast of Chiba, solicited new drivers, but with a catch. “Do you want to make your childhood dream come true,” the advertisement said, adding, “and through your own ability?” By “ability” the company meant that the men chosen would have to pay ¥7 million each for their own training, which would take from between 14 and 24 months. The maximum age was 59, and the applicants had to be shakaijin, meaning that they were already — or, at least, had been at one point — full-time employees of a company or government office. During their period of training, the new drivers would be paid the minimum wage, and once completed they’d be hired as “contract” workers, meaning they would not receive benefits.

According to the Sankei Shimbun, six men answered the ad, and four were eventually selected to be trainees. They come from Chiba, Tokyo, Saitama and Hiroshima, and range in age from 42 to 51. One of them told the newspaper that he wanted to “make my dream come true in the last half of my life.” It may be a shorter life than he thinks. Despite the fact that Isumi Tetsudo is now ¥28 million richer, the company is still on the verge of bankruptcy. The president, who himself quit his job as an airline executive to take over the tiny third sector railroad (26.8 km comprising 14 stations), has implemented a number of creative ways to bring money in, including selling the names of stations to sponsors (Dental Support Otaki Station) and adopting characters from the popular Swedish-Finnish storybook “Moomin” as mascots in order to sell more railroad-related souvenirs. But the Wikipedia entry for the line states that a decision will be made sometime in August as to whether or not the line will be closed down. The fiscal report for 2009 saw “no chance for recovery.”

Which is a shame, and not just for those four fledgling Casey Joneses. Isumi Tetsudo is perenially named by railroad freaks as one of the loveliest lines in all Japan. Though it’s short, it snakes slowly through the hills and rice fields of eastern Chiba, which remains pretty much untouched by development. For ¥1,000 you can buy an all-day pass that lets you disembark and reboard as much as you want, and Ohara, where the line starts, is only about 75 minutes by express train from central Tokyo. Those new drivers are likely to be the last of their kind. In a 2008 survey of elementary school kids who were asked what they wanted to be when they grow up, “train driver” didn’t even make the best 10, though 40 years ago it would have been at the top. Isumi Tetsudo is sort of the last of its kind, too, so if you get a chance, check it out. It may not be around much longer.


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