Archive for January, 2011

Kaiten-zushi chains gird for battle

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

In a recent article in a regional Australian newspaper, an expat Japanese sushi chef complained that sushi chefs Down Under were getting a bit carried away with the mayo, not to mention the avocado, claiming that overuse of these two non-Japanese ingredients spoiled the sushi-eating experience. He added that in Japan, they don’t use as much.

Don't hold the mayo: Kappa Sushi

Obviously, he hasn’t been to a kaiten-zushi restaurant in his native country lately. Kaiten sushi are the fast-food dispensers of Japan’s most distinctive cuisine, where sushi is churned out by human and/or automated means and placed on conveyor belts that pass in front of patrons who just pick them up. After they’re finished, an employee counts the dishes and adds up the bill. The incorporation of mass-production methods means kaiten-zushi establishments can cater to families with young children, a demographic that traditionally was not welcome at sushi bars, where the dynamic is more personal: You deal directly with a chef who stands in front of you and makes dishes to your order. As kaiten chains became more widespread and more cost efficient, the variety of dishes expanded to satisfy newer or younger tastes; which is why what they now serve will likely offend the finer sensibilities, not to mention the pride, of traditional sushi chefs. Not only are mayonnaise and avocado regular ingredients at kaiten chains (and, contrary to what the gentleman in Cairns claims, slathered on quite liberally), but they also offer salads, Western-style desserts, and, making the fast-food analogy complete, hamburger and hot dog sushi.

Continue reading about kaiten-zushi

Hilton Hotels bag white elephant, turn it around

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Getting consumers to part with disposable income has become a national mission, and one success story in this regard is the increasing popularity of higaeri, or one-day excursions where travelers go someplace, enjoy that place, and return home without staying the night. Morning news and information programs are filled with suggestions for higaeri, and one of the most talked about destinations is the Hilton Odawara Resort and Spa, located on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture. Until Feb. 28, the Hilton is offering a special higaeri deal on weekdays. For ¥4,000, a person can partake of the resort’s lavish all-you-can-eat lunch buffet and use all of their spa facilities, which includes onsen (hot spring), sauna, Jacuzzi, an Olympic pool and more. Normally, the buffet itself is ¥3,850 and access to the spa facilities is as much as ¥3,000 for the day. In addition there’s free shuttle-bus service to the hotel from the JR Odawara or Nebukawa stations on the Tokaido line, about an hour from Tokyo Station.

Rooms with a view

A lot of resort hotels have higaeri deals, but what makes the Odawara one appealing is the Hilton name. In fact, it appears that many young women are taking advantage of the deal simply because they think it’s the only chance they’ll ever get to patronize a Hilton Hotel; and that, of course, prompts another question: What is Hilton, one of the grandest luxury hotel brands in the world, doing with a hot spring resort in the mountains of Shizuoka?

Hilton, in fact, doesn’t own the resort. It’s owned by Odawara city, which purchased the property from the Koyo Noryoku Kaihatsu Kiko (Employment and Human Resources Development Organization), one of those national bureaucratic organs whose main purpose is to justify its own existence. Nominally, the EHDO is charged with managing the funds collected through the workman’s compensation insurance program. In the not-so-distant past these funds were used to construct concert halls (Nakano Sun Plaza is one of the more famous EHDO projects) and other white elephants, the vast majority of which never made money. In fact, almost all of them lost money, a lot of money, including the elaborate hot spring resort they built in Odawara.

Continue reading about semi-public resorts →

Future of Japanese pension system as cloudy as ever

Friday, January 21st, 2011

One of the original planks in the Democratic Party of Japan’s 2009 platform, or manifesto as it’s normally called, was an overhaul of social security. Acknowledging that the national pension system was irreparably broken, the DPJ proposed tossing the old pay-as-you-go “insurance” model and replacing it with a system that paid benefits completely out of tax revenues. Upon retirement, every qualified person would receive ¥70,000 a month until they died.

Spend it if you got it: pension passbook

With Kaoru Yosano assuming the position of fiscal and economic policy minister in the newly reshuffled cabinet, that proposal is all but doomed. Yosano, who is against ditching the premium system, filled a similar cabinet position under the last Liberal Democratic Party prime minister, Taro Aso, so it’s not likely he’s going to change his mind even while toiling for the DPJ. In fact, Prime Minister Naoto Kan implied only a few days ago that the social security plan in the manifesto is not realistic.

What he means is that it’s not realistic politically. Practically speaking, it’s certainly more realistic than the present system, which the welfare ministry favors because they think it’s more clearly ethical when it’s really anything but. To receive benefits after retirement, one has to pay into the system at least for 25 years. If you pay for only 24 years and 11 months, you get the same benefits as someone who paid nothing: ¥0. (In comparison, in order to qualify for minimum social security in the U.S., you have to pay SS tax for at least 40 quarters, or ten years)

Rather than overhaul a failed system, the welfare ministry continues to tweak it. Two weeks ago the government approved an ¥80 decrease in the monthly premiums people pay into the basic national pension (kokumin hoken), from ¥15,100 to ¥15,020. Though the drop seems hardly significant, the news of the drop is, since it is the first time since the social security system was launched in 1961 that premiums have been reduced. The reason for the cut is downward pressure on wages caused by deflation.

Continue reading about the Japanese pension system →

Love hotel operators lose some loopholes

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Several years ago, according to Sankei Shimbun, a group of children on their way to elementary school in Osaka’s Nishi Ward reported to their teachers that they saw a naked man waving from the window of a building which bordered on school property. The school reported the incident to police who investigated and found that the building was actually a love hotel, though it didn’t necessarily look like one.

Obviously not a fake love hotel

As a cultural fixture, love hotels supposedly fill a need for sexual privacy that many couples can’t secure in crowded, cluttered Japan, and with a specific commercialized service. All the special features of love hotels are designed either for discretion or for enhancing the implied sexual interlude, no matter how brief. It is because love hotels offer such a service that they fall under legal guidelines that differ from those for other commercial accommodations and which apply to the fuzoku eigyo-ho (law for businesses that affect public morals) that went into effect in 1985. According to this law, love hotels cannot be operated within 200 meters of school property, and Sankei says that the building in Nishi Ward has been the source of other complaints: cars emerging suddenly out of the curtained parking lot and fliers for sex services littering the area where kids can pick them up.

This particular business is what is called a giso (fake) love hotel, meaning that it looks like a regular hotel but operates as a love hotel. Regular hotels do not fall under the fuzoku eigyo-ho, even if couples use them for sexual trysts. So how does one distinguish a love hotel from a city or business hotel, or even a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn)? Apparently, it all has to do with structure and features. According to the fuzoku eigyo-ho, if a hotel has no kitchen and no lobby; or if its operators install vending machines selling “adult goods” and its guest rooms have features such as glass-partitioned bathrooms, rotating beds and ceiling mirrors, they qualify as love hotels. However, according to a non-profit organization called Zenkoku Giso Rabu Hoteru Nakasu Kai (The Group to Remove Fake Love Hotels Nationwide), fake love hotels have taken advantage of the wording of the law, which implies that businesses must have both special structures and special features. If either doesn’t apply, it doesn’t meet the legal criteria for a love hotel. When operators build their hotels, they include lobbies and kitchens so that they can qualify for registration as a regular inn or hotel under the ryokan gyo-ho (commercial inn law), and then after they receive certification they remodel the place with the usual love hotel fixtures, though usually only with regard to the interior so as not to attract too much attention from neighbors. Several years ago the National Police Agency said it identified about 3,600 fake love hotels operating throughout the country. The real number is undoubtedly higher.

Continue reading about love hotels in Japan →

More independent women taking out insurance

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

Every three years the Japan Institute for Life Insurance (Seimei Hoken Bunka Sentaa) conducts a survey to measure trends in the insurance market. Last year the institute quizzed more than 4,000 people and for the first time since the survey started in 1987 the percentage of women who say they have taken out insurance policies exceeded the percentage of men who said they have. The margin may seem negligible — 81. 4 percent to 79.9 percent — but in 1987 the rate for men was 84.9 percent and that for women was 71.2 percent, so at the very least there’s been a sizable increase in the female insurance market.

Juri Ueno of NHK's "Go" gets jiggy for Orix supplemental health insurance

Insurance in this case is the personal kind, meaning life insurance, annunities and supplemental health insurance, all of which are related to long-term individual financial planning. The drop in insurance policy rates for men is attributable to several factors, concludes the institute, the main one being that men are marrying later (if at all) and thus putting off insurance purchases, in particular life insurance with death benefits. Certainly the main reason for the rise of insurance purchases among women is due to the increasing participation of women in the permanent workforce. Insurance companies have not neglected this trend and have duly developed products that target women, including supplemental health insurance covering illnesses that specifically affect women, such as breast cancer. Despite the fact that Japan’s national insurance program pays for cancer treatment and necessary hospital stays, women seem particularly interested in supplemental cancer insurance, not so much because they can upgrade to a better hospital care (which is the more traditional reason for buying it) but because such extra money, usually from ¥5,000 to ¥10,000 a day, helps alleviate the loss of income that often accompanies such treatment.

The institute doesn’t analyze their results to this extent, but it seems obvious that the women taking out these policies are single and thus financially dependent on no one but themselves. For instance, few seem to be actually taking out life insurance with death benefits. But as with suppliemental health insurance, one kind of policy that is quickly gaining popularity among this demographic is wage insurance (kyuryo hoken). Such insurance gives policy holders guaranteed income for limited periods of time when they cannot work due to illness or accident or reasons of an unforeseeable nature.

Hitachi Capital offers a policy that provides ¥100,000 a month for up to five years (and whose promos feature a salarywoman not a salaryman), while American Home Direct pays ¥120,000 a month for up to a year. The insurance provider AXA has a policy that combines cancer insurance with income insurance (shunyu hoken) and aims it squarely at women, as illustrated by the company’s TV commercial, which shows the famous model An (daughter of actor Ken Watanabe) playing an office worker facing her supervisor and forcefully telling him that she’s taking time off to fight her cancer. On its website AXA claims that two-thirds of working women who have cancer report that their income dropped after they were diagnosed, and elsewhere in the media a commonly cited, though somewhat misleading, statistic says that half of all Japanese will be diagnosed with cancer sometime in their lives.

Because Japanese people don’t trust the government and aren’t assured by public welfare policies, they comprise one of the most lucrative life insurance markets in the world. And since women have traditionally been marginalized in terms of employment, they may feel more of a need to assure for themselves a future that isn’t assured at all.

Got your back: Randoseru makers enjoy a captive, if shrinking, clientele

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

For the past several weeks some good Samaritans have been sending gifts to various child-welfare facilities throughout Japan. All of the senders identified themselves as “Naoto Date,” the name of the fictional character who was a professional wrestler called Tiger Mask in a popular animated series that aired between 1969 and 1971. Date also grew up in a child welfare facility, which for all intents and purposes is an orphanage; when he grew up and made money, he gave some of it to the facility that raised him.

Randoseru display at Nitori

In at least three of these charitable incidents, the anonymous donor deposited gift-wrapped randoseru at the entrances of the facilities. English-language news outlets translate this word as “school bags,” which doesn’t do justice to the thing it describes. Randoseru, a local rendering of the Dutch word ransel, is considered a uniquely Japanese accoutrement to the lives of young children. Randoseru are those boxy, hard leather backpacks that elementary children wear on their way to and from school and which are considered mandatory for no other reason than that everyone at that age wears them. Traditionally, they are expensive, which explains why the anonymous gift-giver chose that particular gift: orphanages, he figures, probably wouldn’t be able to afford them. He obviously thought he was giving those kids, who likely attend public schools alongside non-orphans, a measure of self-esteem.

Legend has it that the randoseru craze was sparked when the future Emperor Taisho was given a genuine Dutch backpack as a child, and while explanations for the subsequent popularity of such an accessory focus on practicality, a closer look at the phenomenon reveals it has more to do with marketing and status. Because a child will only use it from the first to the sixth year of elementary school (though many stop wearing theirs by the beginning of fifth year because randoseru look ridiculous on larger kids), he or she will most likely only possess one, and so the randoseru represents in commodity form a child’s formal entrance into the educational system. It is an emblem of a rite of passage. All children show up to class on the first day of first grade dressed in their school uniforms and sporting identical and — most important — brand new randoseru. God help the child who shows up with his older brother’s or sister’s hand-me-down bag or even a standard canvas backpack, no matter how new and fashionable. The kid would be teased mercilessly.

Continue reading about randoseru →

Telephone swindlers adapt; old folks don’t

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

It sounds so 2004, but the scourge of furikome sagi (bank transfer swindles), formerly known by the less sophisticated term “ore-ore sagi” (It’s me! It’s me! swindles), is still very much a problem even if the media no longer finds it interesting enough to cover. According to the National Police Agency, as of Nov. 10, there were 6,030 reported cases of telephone fraud nationwide for the year 2010 in which a total of ¥7.2 billion had been swindled. And despite the change in terminology and huge publicity campaign that brought attention to the problem, “ore-ore” cases, in which swindlers pretend to be children or grandchildren of the persons they call, pleading for money to solve a pending debt crisis or pay off someone for a slight, are still a popular form of con. However, a more common method in the last couple of years has been callers pretending to be police officers actually investigating swindling rackets. The fake officers tell the people they call that they may be the victim of a bank swindle and need their bank cards and passwords in order to make sure their accounts are safe. Then they drop by, dressed as bank officials, to collect the cards and information. Other con jobs involve the sale of previously unlisted stocks, “fees” for converting television systems from analog to digital, and government handouts (kyufukin), which somehow requires the recipient of the handout to first pay a large amount of money.

It's me!: Poster of swindling suspects in a post office

Even without all the intense publicity campaigns carried out by the NPA and individual banks to warn citizens about the dangers of furikome sagi, one would think that people would be naturally suspicious of anyone asking for such large amounts of money. But it seems people can still be quite gullible, especially elderly people. A recent Asahi Shimbun article related how a woman in her 70s went up to a teller in a Tokyo bank and asked to have ¥1.5 million from her account transferred to another account she had written down on a piece of paper. The teller, trained to intercept such suspicious transfers, asked the woman what it was for. The woman wouldn’t explained and became desperate, screaming at the teller to make the transfer, which the teller did. However, once the woman left the bank, the teller’s supervisor stopped the transfer and checked the receiving account, which he discovered had only been set up a few days before. He then called the woman and told her he thought the account was fake, but the woman still didn’t believe him. “Yesterday, my son called me and said he had guaranteed a loan for a friend who defaulted and had to pay it back immediately,” she explained. When the bank employee asked for her son’s telephone number, she refused. Fortunately, the son happened to drop by his mother’s house that day just as the swindler called asking why the money hadn’t been transferred yet.

This is what banks and the police have to contend with. In the case cited above, the police discovered that the swindling team had information about the woman’s family and were able to convince her that the caller was her son (with a cold, thus explaining the change in tone). However, in more and more cases, at least 40 percent in 2010, swindlers didn’t utilize telephones, opting instead for face-to-face encounters. Last year, police arrested 254 swindlers, 67 of whom were “ambushed” outside victims’ homes. Swindlers also try to avoid ATMs now, since many have security cameras and other devices that can pinpoint when a suspicious withdrawal takes place. In any case, criminals seem to be a lot more resourceful than old people.

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