Archive for December, 2010

New rain-check refunds gamble on the weather

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Have you ever planned a weekend away from it all only to end up stuck the whole time in your hotel room because it was raining outside? Obviously, no one can stop mother nature from doing what she pleases, but one travel service has come up with an option that may take the anxiety out of such unforeseen situations. A company called Best Reserve recently started a “weather insurance plan” (otenki hokentsuki plan). Customers who book rooms at the 1,500 hotels, inns and resorts that participate in the plan will have their entire room charges refunded if it rains.

Pennies from heaven: Best Reserve's weather insurance plan

If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. The conditions are fairly simple and straightforward, but also rather strict. The “premium” for the plan is 5 percent of the room charge per day, and both the charge and the premium must be paid at least eight days prior to the date of arrival at the accommodation by means of credit card through Best Reserve’s internet reservation system. Also, Best Reserve makes the judgment on what constitutes a rainout. In order for the room charge to be refunded (the 5 percent premium, it should be noted, is non-refundable, rain or no rain) it has to rain for ten hours during the day that is covered by the insurance; specifically, five consecutive hours from 1 to 6 p.m. on the day of arrival, and five consecutive hours from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. the following day. In order to confirm the rain, they use data supplied by the National Meteorological Agency’s particular AMeDAS rainfall measurement device nearest to the hotel or resort where the patron is spending the night. AMeDAS must show at least 0.5 mm per hour in the vicinity of the hotel during the ten hours that qualify for a refund. And guests don’t have to do anything like file a claim. Best Reserve automatically makes the judgment and if it discovers that the stay qualifies as a washout, the company sends an email to the customer asking for the bank account where the refund should be sent. However, the bank handling fee is subtracted from the amount refunded.

The weather insurance plan applies to all precipitation, including snow, but, obviously, if the participating accommodation is a ski resort or a hotel in an area where snow is the norm in the wintertime, the plan doesn’t apply. Nevertheless, Best Reserve is seriously thinking of offering the insurance for such accommodations on a seasonal basis, between, say, April and September.

It’s conceivable that you could have people making reservations and then gambling that the weather is bad, just so they can get a free night’s accommodation; especially businessmen, who usually don’t care if rain or snow or frogs fall from the sky during their overnight trips. It will also be interesting to see if more people take out insurance in places that customarily have more rainfall. For the record, the Japan Sea coast is the rainiest place in the country. The top three prefectures in terms of days of precipitation are, in order, Toyama, Akita and Ichikawa.

Finders keeper . . . except on the job

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Earlier this month, the city of Osaka punished 27 municipal employees for “embezzlement” (chakufuku). Usually, embezzlement is the purview of white collar miscreants, but these people all worked for the city’s sanitation bureau cleaning rivers and other publicly run properties. The city says these workers found cash while cleaning 10 rivers and canals and instead of handing the money in to their supervisors they pocketed it.

Famous Glico Man, who overlooks famous Dotonbori Canal in Osaka

Out of 42 employees investigated, six were fired and 21 were suspended without pay. The amounts weren’t particularly large. For instance, between July and October 2009, five people are said to have pocketed a total of ¥150,000 among them. The largest windfall at one time was ¥105,000, which was found and kept by two men who were cleaning the famous Dotonbori Canal. In fact, it was this incident that set off the whole investigation. A third employee who was with the two men recorded the find secretly with his camcorder and then reported it to his superiors. Though this individual might have been celebrated as a whistleblower, he ended up as one of the workers fired since, according to media reports, during subsequent questioning he made verbal threats to company investigators.

Osaka officials did not elaborate on the legal or ethical principles behind the disciplinary measure. Presumably, because the money was found in publicly maintained rivers, it is considered the property of the city unless the owners of the money can be located. But if a person who is not a municipal employee found the money by accident there is no legal recourse for compelling that person to hand the money over to the authorities. Ethically, of course, the person is expected to do so, and the normal procedure is that if no one comes forward to claim the money within a predetermined period of time, the finder gets to keep it. In these circumstances, however, the finders were city employees who found the money while they were on city time, so the money belonged to the city unless someone claimed it. Osaka, it should be noted, is pretty deep in debt, and every little bit helps.

Recycling rackets poised to make a killing at New Year’s

Friday, December 24th, 2010

With the danshari fad peaking, the custom of New Years housecleaning (osoji) becomes more urgent, which could mean bigger piles of garbage at the curb and more calls to local government offices for “oversized refuse” (sodaigomi) pickups. It should also mean a higher than usual spike in business for independent haikibutsu shori (waste disposal) companies, and it seems the authorities are keeping an eye on the situation. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, over the past several months police in four prefectures have arrested representatives of 13 waste disposal companies for collecting refuse without the proper licenses.

Bring out your dead!

These companies are rackets. They slowly patrol residential areas in small pickup trucks equipped with loudspeaker systems, offering to cart away broken or unused household appliances. What often happens is that someone flags down the truck and says he has some things he wishes to dispose of. The driver picks up the items and places them in the back of the truck and then demands a fee that is much higher than the owner of the items expected; if, in fact, he expected to pay a fee at all. Sometimes, the recorded announcements vaguely imply that there is no charge, though they are careful not to actually use the word “muryo” (free). This practice is known as “sakizumi,” or “pre-loading,” meaning the removal fee is quoted after the item is put on the truck. According to police, the fee is sometimes as much as ¥30,000 or even ¥50,000 per item. Of course, the person could simply refuse to pay and remove the item from the back of the truck, but that might be very difficult if the item is a washing machine or some other heavy appliance. In any case, most of these victims are embarrassed and intimidated (the drivers are often described as being rough in appearance and manner) and just pay. The companies seem to purposely target older residents. (It should be pointed out that not all recycling companies that patrol neighborhoods in small trucks are rackets, but it should also be pointed out that few of them, despite what they say in their flyers, will take your stuff for free.)

Continue reading about recycling scams →

Scandal economics: Shochiku rides out Ebizo brawl all the way to the bank

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Never underestimate the public relations value of a good show-biz scandal. That bloody nose that 32-year-old kabuki superstar Ichikawa Ebizo suffered last month at the hands of a “motorcycle gang” member who didn’t like the way the drunken celebrity was treating his senpai (senior) may have embarrassed the hell out of Ebizo and forced his employer, Shochiku Entertainment, to facilitate all sorts of face-saving measures, including suspending the activities of one of their biggest cash cows, but the whole business has a silver lining.

Poster for Bando Tamasaburo Special Performance

The sold-out Hatsuharu Hanagata (New Years All-Star) kabuki performance that Ebizo was scheduled to headline at the Ginza Theatre in January had to be canceled and all the tickets refunded. Media were predicting a loss of millions of yen for Shochiku, but that apparently won’t be the case. The rien’s (kabuki world’s) most illustrious onnagata (specialist in female roles), Bando Tamasaburo, has valiantly agreed to step into the breach. At the televised press conference where he made the announcement, Tamasaburo said with proper humility that he was “the only one who happened to be free that month” for a substitute engagement at the same theater, which runs Jan. 2-20. Usually, he doesn’t perform in any of the New Years programs, but, as it turns out, he hasn’t done any kabuki since the sayonara performances at the old Kabuki-za last spring, so it may be about time for him to hit the boards again.

According to Sports Nippon, all 13,200 tickets for Tamasaburo’s entire 18-show engagement sold out in 30 minutes when they went on sale Dec. 16, which is even faster than Ebizo’s. More importantly, the top ticket price of ¥18,000 is higher than that for Ebizo’s canceled shows, which was ¥15,000. Shochiku told the media on the 17th that they “are not sure if we will lose money” on the cancellation, but it doesn’t seem likely. For one thing the company didn’t have to spend anything on advertising for the Tamasaburo shows. The press conference was covered by all the television stations (Tamasaburo rarely appears on TV), thus spreading the word beyond the usual kabuki fan base instantly. Ginza Theatre doesn’t even have to publicize the performances or the fact that another superstar, Nakamura Shido, is taking part.

One thing’s for certain: When Ebizo returns to the stage in May after his suspension the tickets will sell like hot cakes and will probably be more expensive than they’ve been for his performances in the past. In the theater world, at least, bad boys have added value.

Bonenkai season a blast for some, drag for others

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

‘Tis the season to get drunk and candid, at least with your work colleagues. The term bonenkai literally means “a meeting to forget the year,” which always sounded inauspicious to us, especially considering it’s used to describe a Japanese custom that is supposed to be festive. But bonenkai tend to be associated in people’s minds with the companies they work for, and there’s the rub.

Forget about it

Protocol dictates that the company bonenkai tantosha (person-in-charge) schedule the party as close to the end of the year as possible and, ideally, just before a holiday or the weekend; which means the peak days for bonenkai this year are Dec. 17 and Dec. 22, since the 23rd is a national holiday and the 24th is Christmas Eve, when a lot of people have plans of their own. Company bonenkai are, of course, paid for by the company, and though no one says so, all employees are expected, if not outright obligated, to show up, since it is considered a part of “company activities,” a chance to blow off steam and one of the few settings where an employee can be frank to his superiors and co-workers. “Communication” is supposedly an important element of bonenkai, though the obligatory aspect often just makes people more uncomfortable. According to a survey carried out by Kirin, a company that has a lot at stake in bonenkai, only 33.5 percent of the 6,000 people they questioned nationwide said they were “eager” to attend their companies’ bonenkai.

The survey also indicated that companies may be willing to spend more on bonenkai, which should please eating and drinking establishments, where 90 percent of companies hold their year-end parties. December is one of the most crucial business times of the year for the food and drink industry. Kirin found that companies planned to spend on average ¥4,828 per person this year, a ¥45 increase over last year’s budget after three consecutive years of declines.

However, the survey also pointed out that many people, mostly those under the age of 40, are now having “private” bonenkai at their homes for friends and colleagues outside of work. Interestingly, 30 percent of the women surveyed said they hosted such parties while only 19 percent of men said the same, thus pointing out that men obviously associate bonenkai with work and not their private social lives. Another aspect that may alarm the restaurant industry is that, according to a report on NHK the other night, more companies are opting to hold their parties on their own premises. They use large conference rooms and hire catering services and even outside entertainers, thus saving money (no “table charges,” for one thing) and allowing revelers to revel even longer, since restaurants and izakaya usually limit the time for each party. The main drawback that we could see in this option was the atmosphere that usually comes with a conference room: Those overhead fluorescent lights are a guaranteed buzz kill.

Rich kids set to inherit higher taxes

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Some members of the Democratic Party in the United States, not to mention a good portion of the American people, are upset that President Barack Obama caved in to pressure from the Republicans to extend the Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. The issue speaks to one of the most contentious aspects of capitalism as it operates in a democracy: Are people who benefit the most from the democratic free enterprise system obligated to pay a larger share toward its maintenance?

Sorry, you can't take it with you

A corollary to this debate is how much of their wealth should citizens be allowed to pass on to their heirs. In a purely socialist system, ideally it would be zero, but many who don’t necessarily advocate socialist government often support heavy taxation of inheritances for ethical and moral reasons: Why should the child of a rich person have special advantages in life just because of birth? Other people (usually the rich) counter that in a laissez faire economic system, no one has a right to tell anyone else what they can or can’t do with their money.

The Japanese government is now thinking about raising the inheritance tax. As everyone knows the country is running out of money, and already the Democratic Party of Japan has cut the corporate tax, increased the amount of the child allowance, and put off any increase in the consumption tax indefinitely. Because the widening income gap is becoming more of a topic in the news, the DPJ probably feels the public will be receptive to a boost on taxes for richer people.

Continue reading about inheritance tax revisions →

Caregiving not the unemployment panacea the government hoped for

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

The Kaigo Hoken Seido (Long-term Care Insurance System) that the government launched in 2000 had two purposes. The first was to collect monthly premiums from everyone over the age of 40 to pay for caregiving services for the ever-burgeoning ranks of the elderly; and the second was to provide employment for that other burgeoning demographic of people who needed full-time work in an economy that was increasingly shipping jobs overseas and which at home was resorting more to non-regular employees.

A nursing home in Arakawa Ward, Tokyo

According to the law the system has to be reviewed every three years, and the government is now thinking of revisions for 2012. In all likelihood, premiums will be raised again, since they’ve been raised every time the system has come up for review in the past. The average premium for salaried employees under 65 has risen from ¥2,075 a month in 2000 to ¥4,342 in 2009; while for people 65 and older it’s risen from ¥2,900 to ¥4,160.

These increases are supposed to help cover the cost of the system, which was ¥3.2 trillion in 2000, ¥6 trillion in 2005 and ¥7.9 trillion this year. Premiums provide half the money needed, with tax revenues covering the other half. People who require care pay about 10 percent of the bill out of their own pocket with the rest being paid for by the kaigo hoken system. These moneys are paid to care providers, often NPOs and even corporations that hire and dispatch licensed caregivers or run care facilities. So the money not only goes to pay workers, but also to purchase equipment and pay administrative costs. These various costs have skyrocketed in the past decade, and one of the changes that the government is contemplating for 2012 is a raise in the deductible to 20 percent. According to an article in the Yomiuri Shimbun, however, there are many elderly who are too poor right now to even cover the current 10 percent.

Moreover, the system doesn’t seem to be strong enough to support the kind of workforce the government originally envisioned. A survey conducted by the Wakate Fukushi Jushisha Network (Young Welfare Employees Network) found that 83 percent of younger professional caregivers thought their jobs were both “difficult” and “low paying.” Turnover in the industry is big. In 2008, the quitting rate among “home helpers” — workers who visit the homes of the elderly to clean house, as well as cook for and bathe their clients — was 13.9 percent. For nursing home employees it was 22 percent. Throughout the entire industry, whether the worker is part-time or full-time, 39 percent quit before they’ve worked a year and 36 percent quit before they’ve worked three years.

Continue reading about caregiving in Japan →

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