Archive for July, 2010

Annals of Cheap: Kappa Sushi

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Screen shot 2010-07-07 at 5.08.48 PM

As low as they go

Sushi is Japan’s original fast food, at least in the literal sense. However, most sushi bars are too small and expensive to qualify for the more common meaning of the term “fast food.” Kaiten (revolving) sushi, on the other hand, fits the term to a T. The conveyor belt system made sushi more affordable to the hoi polloi back in the ’70s by stressing volume over every other consideration.

Kappa Sushi is the cheapest of the chain kaiten sushi restaurants. They regularly charge only ¥105 for a standard two-piece dish, with some items priced slightly higher. However, until July 16, the price at all 363 stores for everything on the menu is only ¥90 during weekdays, all day. And don’t forget, you can get all the tea and gari (ginger) you want for free. They’re promoting the deal with a pretty clever TV ad campaign.

Debtors left in the dark after new law goes into effect

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Notice at loan ATM indicating new rules related to proof of income

Notice at loan ATM indicating new rules related to proof of income

In December 2006 the government revised the law for consumer loans making it more difficult for certain people to borrow cash and reducing the amount of interest moneylenders could charge. Over the past 3½ years the law went into effect in stages, and as a result a number of consumer loan companies went out of business, since many were forced to pay back excessive interest they had charged their customers in the past. The main aim of the law is to curtail the occurrence of spiraling debt spread out among multiple companies.

Last month the last element of the revised law went into effect. From now on, a customer will not be able to borrow more than the equivalent of one-third of his or her annual income, and will have to submit documentation as proof of income. Though the law was conceived to save people from crushing debt, it may effectively drive more people to bankruptcy or to underground loan sharks.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t seem to know about the law. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, the Financial Services Agency found that less than 50 percent of the people it asked had ever even heard about the new law.

Housewives make up a good portion of consumer loan customers, and it seems they will be shut out of the system because of the new rules. Many housewives turn to consumer loan companies to pay the monthly bills when their husbands’ paychecks aren’t enough, and a good portion of them will not be able to borrow any more money from now on. The main reason is that they do not have jobs themselves and so have to submit their husband’s employment information. However, in many cases the husbands don’t even know their wives are borrowing money and the wives don’t want them to know. Even if they did get their husband’s information, because of the one-third limitation, they may not be able to borrow what they need. Much of the money that these women borrowed from consumer credit companies was used to pay off credit card debt.

The moneylenders industry association, Japan Financial Services Association, surveyed 4,000 customers in 2009 and found that half of them had debts that exceeded one-third of their annual income. It also estimates that there were 14.2 million people with outstanding loans at consumer credit companies, such as Acom, Promise and Aiful, when the law went into full effect June 1, and that about 4.9 million are housewives. (Many others are small businesses, which also rely on consumer credit to keep their companies operating on a daily basis.)

In addition, 85 percent of existing consumer loan companies have said they will no longer cater to housewives because the cost of developing systems that can handle their special needs under the revised law is prohibitive. A survey of 500 housewives conducted by JFSA found that 37 percent “know something” about the revised law, and the rest either “don’t know” about it or “don’t understand” what it means.

Josei Jiritsu no Kai (Women’s Independence Group) and other non-profit organizations have set up services to help these women who are now stuck with multiple debts and no way to refinance them, but the main problem right now is getting the word out. Though the government revised the law it didn’t take into consideration publicizing the fact and giving people enough time to prepare for the change. The JFSA, realizing the government’s neglect, started running TV commercials and other advertisements last month, but they may be too little too late. It’s likely that in the near future the personal bankruptcy rate will skyrocket, not to mention the divorce rate.

Small fry try to make a splash at the fishmonger

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

A fishmonger near Ueno Station

A fishmonger near Ueno Station

Japan’s voracious appetite for seafood, which, probably more than any other single factor, is blamed for the serious depletion of marine wildlife worldwide, is actually not as voracious as it used to be. In 2008, the average Japanese household consumed 36 kg of fish, down 30 percent compared to 1986. The leveling of Japan’s population has something to do with this drop, but it mainly has to do with a shift in preference toward more Western fare at the dinner table. Also, Japanese taste for fish has become more selective. Tuna sashimi remains a favorite, and salmon has even increased in popularity, something Norway and problem-plagued Chile, which export most of theirs to Japan, are grateful for. It is so-called “blue” fish, like the various species of mackerel (aji, saba, sanma, etc.) that have dipped in popularity.

Consequently, Japan’s fishing industry, not to mention its mom-and-pop fish retailers, are looking at a cloudy future, and some regional fishing cooperatives are trying to cultivate interest in zako, literally “miscellaneous fish” or “small fry” that people in the distant past may have eaten out of necessity but today’s consumers have never even heard of much less ever tasted. Fishermen in Toyama Prefecture, for instance, are catching more shiira, which in the West is known by the Hawaiian name mahi-mahi, a species that is notoriously difficult to prepare. The fishermen are not so much trying to convince housewives to buy shiira and cook it at home. Their main focus is on food companies that make kamaboko (fish cakes) and other processed seafood products. Currently, the most popular fish used for processed foods is cod, which has to be imported from Spain or Canada since Japan fished out most of its cod a long time ago. But the price of cod went way up two years ago, so companies are definitely interested in a substitute. Shiira is also increasingly being used as the fried bit of fish in convenience store bento.

Another appealing aspect of locally caught fish to food companies is that it’s cheaper to ship and store than imported fish, which has to be refrigerated for its entire journey overseas. This doesn’t necessarily help fishmongers, though, who sell directly to consumers. The trend nowadays is to buy fish that is easier to prepare — in other words, no de-boning and cleaning — and which doesn’t smell so much when you cook it. That’s why salmon is so popular and horse mackerel and squid are not. Another problem is that more and more people shop at supermarkets, which deal in volume and so prefer buying only popular fish. So far, supermarkets have shown no interest in trying to get customers interested in zako. The whole distribution structure discourages the marketing of new fish.

But zako will undoubtedly become more visible in the marketplace as overfishing of popular species becomes more of a problem. Fishermen say that there is still an abundance of seafood in the waters around Japan; it’s just that popular species are becoming more difficult to catch. If they can get people interested in a greater variety of perfectly edible fish, they may yet have a future.

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