Archive for November, 2010

Tourist spots averse to foreign exchange

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

Sign at Hakone souvenir shop

Discouraging words: Sign at Hakone souvenir shop

A friend in the tourist industry recently brought a group of middle aged and elderly Americans to Hakone National Park in Shizuoka Prefecture and the area around Mount Fuji. In Hakone, one of Japan’s most famous sightseeing spots, the Americans were discouraged from buying souvenirs when they got off the sightseeing boat at Lake Ashi because the large store at the dock does not take credit cards. This is not unusual for merchants outside of the major cities in Japan, but Hakone supposedly is enthusiastic about attracting foreign tourism. In fact, the policy seems downright stupid since the one souvenir shop in Hakone that does take credit cards is always packed.

My friend said that he always has the same problem in Hakone. Most of the restaurants there don’t take credit cards either. In addition, there are no foreign exchange services in Hakone except at some large hotels, which only guests can use. And the hotel in Fuji City where the American group stayed because it has a good view of Mount Fuji also does not exchange money. In fact, when our friend asked the front desk where people could exchange money in Fuji City the employee said he didn’t know.

We called the Hakone tourist association directly and asked about foreign exchange. The person who answered had to inquire of someone else and then told us that “some banks” in Hakone offer foreign exchange services but he didn’t know which ones. Also, banks in the area close at 3 p.m. on weekdays and are not open at all on weekends. We know that ATMs in post offices and 7-11 convenience stores will dispense yen for most foreign credit cards, but that means foreign tourists have to know this beforehand and then locate those businesses.

The truth is, Japan has never been very accommodating to tourists when it comes to foreign exchange, despite occasional campaigns like “Yokoso Japan” to boost foreign tourism. Of course, most tourists prefer to use credit cards these days, and you can use them easily enough in large Japanese cities, but once you leave metropolitan areas it gets a bit dodgy. Stand-alone foreign exchange services (ryogaejo) can be found at international airports and places like Tokyo Disneyland, but elsewhere they’re usually integrated into banks, which often make the exchange process a chore, requiring the copying of passports and other time-consuming procedures.

Let’s face it. Most Japanese businesses don’t trust anything but yen, in cash.

Cost of education a drag on the economy

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Save it for later: Japan Post's school expenses insurance plan

A survey carried out by the Japan Finance Corporation has been getting a lot of attention in the media this past week. JFC asked 5,400 households that receive government education loans about the amount of money they spend on education for their children. The respondents on average answered that they have spent 37.6 percent of their income on education in 2010. The average percentage in 2009 was 33.7.

One of the reasons for the percentage rise is that household incomes themselves have dropped, from an average ¥5.92 million in 2009 to ¥5.72 million this year. What’s particularly shocking is that the burden rises considerably as household income drops. For households making between ¥2 million and ¥4 million a year, education costs account for an average 56.5 percent of household incomes. Last year it was 48.3 percent.

The JFC says that tuition, textbook prices and transportation costs to and from school have gone up in the last year. The average student in 2010 will spend ¥10.6 million from the point he or she sits for a high school entrance exam until university graduation. That’s an increase of ¥520,000 over the average in 2009.

Respondents said they are cutting back on other expenses in order to cover education costs, with 63 percent saying they have reduced spending on leisure and travel, 51 percent forgoing eating out and 41 percent eliminating “pocket money” (kozukai) for the adults in the family. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan, of course, made public high schools tuition-free last spring, one of the few campaign pledges they’ve kept so far, but education remains a serious drag on household spending and, by extension, on the economy as a whole.

Education is a huge industry in Japan but the trickle-down benefits aren’t very clear. However, the benefits to education executives are clear and can be understood by that recent scandal involving Teikyo University, whose late chancellor, Shoichi Okinaga, was found to have stashed a cool ¥1.5 billion in a bank in Liechtenstein without telling Japanese tax authorities. Obviously, the education biz is good for some people.

Living off the land in Okinawa

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Okinawa: Island of no return

Island of no return

One of the arguments in favor of keeping U.S. military bases on Okinawa is that many Okinawans make a living from the bases. If they were gone, these people would lose income. Among this group are people who own the land where some of the bases are located. The Japanese government pays rent to these people, who number about 3,000.

According to an article in the Asahi Shimbun, the total amount of money paid to these “landlords” in 2008 was ¥6.5 billion. That’s about 8 percent of all the rent paid to all 34,000 landlords on Okinawa. To put this in perspective, the American military controls about 20 percent of Okinawa’s land area (though it only occupies 11 percent), and rent on property accounts for 2 percent of Okinawa’s prefectural production (tourism accounts for about 10 percent). Moreover, only 8 percent of the landlords who get money from the bases receive more than ¥5 million a year. More than half the landlords receive less than a million yen, which means most landlords don’t make a living from the bases.

The upshot is that the U.S. military controls land that might be more economically viable if the residents of Okinawa controlled it. It’s very difficult to develop Okinawa for industry and commercial purposes, which is what many candidates for office in Okinawa want to do, because the position and size of the U.S.-controlled land make it impossible to build continuous transportation networks. Okinawa is the only Japanese prefecture with no rail service. Of course, Okinawa’s agricultural sector was greatly diminished by the U.S. military, which confiscated any land it wanted in 1945 (while detaining its owners indefinitely in camps) and then continued appropriating property as it pleased right up until 1972 when the island reverted to Japanese control. Compare this to the U.S. bases on Honshu. Ninety percent of that land was confiscated from the Japanese military during the American occupation. Sixty percent of the land used by U.S. bases on Okinawa is either private property or owned by local municipalities.

But that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be enormous financial problems if the U.S. military left. It would require a lot of time and money to redevelop the land so that it could be used effectively for agriculture or industry, which means the Japanese government would probably have to pay for it because the island itself is so poor. It would be more than what they pay now to host the bases. So that’s another reason why the government isn’t so anxious to see the Americans leave.

Electronics retailers likely to phase out point systems

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Yamada's Nabi store in Shibuya

Yamada's Labi store in Shibuya

Thanks to the eco-point campaign implemented by the government to spur consumption and encourage the use of “green” appliances, electronics retailers have enjoyed a banner year. Almost every one has seen record sales. The upstart Yamada leads the pack, with ¥1.14 trillion in revenues for the first half of the fiscal year (April-September), the first time any electronics retailer has broken the trillion-yen mark for a six-month period. That translates as ¥47 billion in business profits, an 87 percent increase over 2009, and ¥28 billion in net profits, a 72 percent increase over the same period last year.

The eco-point system, which rewards consumers who buy certain energy-saving goods with points that can be redeemed for other goods later on, is the reason for this windfall, but retailers are worried that sales will drop considerably after Dec. 1, when the number of points allowed per purchase will be cut in half. Retailers are making a big push before then, and competition is fierce. The real fear is not so much the loss of the eco-point incentive, which is scheduled to end altogether in March, but that the incentive itself has been so successful people won’t want or need to buy anything after it’s finished.

Continue reading about the phasing out of point systems →

Pachinko parlors pulling in pensioners

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Has anybody seen grandpa?

Has anybody seen grandpa?

The pinball pastime known as pachinko reached its peak of popularity in 1995, when the industry raked in almost ¥30 trillion. Since then it’s been all downhill, owing mainly to population shrinkage and the attendant loss of disposable income. However, the biggest blow to pachinko revenues came in 2007 with stricter regulations for slot machines (or “pachislot“), which were a little too much like gambling as far as the National Police Agency was concerned. This may be a matter of splitting hairs since standard pachinko is also a form of gambling that can be quite addictive, but in any case more and more pachinko parlors have gone out of business in the three years since. There are now about 12,600 parlors throughout Japan, 2,000 less than there were in 2007 and 30 percent less than there were in 1995.

Slot machines were more popular among younger pachinko enthusiasts, and rather than try to reclaim what will likely be a dwindling demographic, the industry has gone in the opposite direction. Since 2008 pachinko parlors have targeted the elderly, with surprising success. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of pachinko users over the age of 60 grew from about 2 million to 3 million; but in the subsequent two years the number jumped to 4.3 million.

Continue reading about pachinko and pensioners →

Price of mercy can be dear when it comes to transplants

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Home page of the Japan Assoc. for Kidney Disease Patients

Website of the Japan Association for Kidney Disease Patients

One of the lesser discussed principles of Japan’s national health insurance policy is that it only pays for treatment. That sounds like a pretty broad mandate, but what most people don’t realize is that “treatment” presupposes a condition that needs to be remedied. In other words, you have to be sick. If you’re not, insurance won’t cover it. That’s why pregnancy testing and periodic checkups are not covered by insurance, though many local governments provide free cancer screenings and other preventive measures to residents of a certain age.

This principle receives a thorough test in the realm of organ transplants. Last week, the Tokyo Shimbun ran a letter from a 65-year-old woman who said that she wanted to donate one of her kidneys to her brother, who had to receive dialysis treatment at least once a week. Living organ donors have to undergo a series of tests to make sure that the organ they are donating is compatible, and the woman spent one week in an Aichi Prefecture hospital where her kidneys, as well as her overall health situation, was thoroughly scrutinized. Afterward, doctors determined that her kidney was “not functional enough” for transplantation into her brother.

Continue reading about health insurance and organ donors →

Annals of Cheap: Pan no mimi

Monday, November 1st, 2010

The seduction of mimi: Heels or crusts?

The seduction of mimi: Heels or crusts?

Until about 30 years ago in Japan, foreign food was luxury food, even the humble sandwich. If you bought a sandwich in a restaurant, invariably it would arrive with the crusts cut off. It was more of an aesthetic affectation than a culinary decision, but it shaped the way Japanese people approached shoku pan (white bread). When bread became a staple in school lunches after the war, certain students, presumably the more well-to-do, would leave the crusts. Even today, if you buy a packaged sandwich in a convenience store, more likely than not it won’t have crusts. And if you buy sliced bread in a supermarket or even in a bakery, the ends, or “heels,” are not included, because it’s assumed people don’t want them.

Crusts and heels are categorized as pan no mimi (literally “bread ears”). Some bakeries just throw them in the garbage, but many sell them or even give them away. Homeless people frequent bakeries or bread factories to either ask for the discarded crusts or scrounge through trash bins for them. A lot of people use crusts to feed their pets or the birds that congregate in their gardens. As the recession grinds on and more and more middle-class folks are forced to cut corners, crusts have become more popular. Bakeries tend to have varied reactions to requests for discards, though.

Continue reading about pan no mimi →

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