Archive for February, 2011

University entrance fee system profits from unstable job market

Monday, February 28th, 2011

One of the big local news stories last weekend was the revelation that an unknown party posted questions from university entrance exams on a website while the party was actually taking the exams. Apart from the obvious question of how someone could do that and not be noticed by a proctor, the incident is further evidence of how twisted the whole entrance examination (nyugaku shiken) process has become.

Can't touch this: Entrance to University of Tokyo

Now that most of the entrance examinations are finished, the students who took them (presumably without cheating) have to wait impatiently for the results. For their parents, the wait is doubly unnerving. Because national universities are more prestigious and tend to lead to better employment opportunities, many students sit for the two examinations required to get into national schools. The first, given in mid-January, is the Joint Stage Achievement Test, colloquially referred to as the sentaa shiken (“center test,” since it’s administered by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, yet another bureaucratic organ whose main job is to justify its own existence), a uniform exam that screens out some of the applicants. Then, in February, remaining applicants take exams for each national university they want to attend (kobetsu gakuryoku kensa). Students who are applying to private universities take only the tests for those schools.

The overlap in test-result announcements is what makes parents nervous. Many young people want to attend national universities, but they know the odds are against them: For the 2011 academic year there were 207,299 applications for 64,111 slots. Consequently, many also apply to private universities as a backup in case they don’t get into a national school. This process is known as suberi-dome, literally “prevention from sliding down.”

Continue reading about Japan's university admissions system →

Western Union charges into the money transfer breach

Friday, February 25th, 2011

A year ago, a new shikin kessai-ho (funds settlement law) went into effect with regard to foreign currency exchange, and as a result it is now legal for almost any financial institution to offer overseas money transfer services. Previously, in Japan only Japanese banks could offer this service, and anyone who has tried to wire money overseas through a bank will understand why a new law was needed. Besides charging sizable handling fees (tesuryo) for sending the money on top of an exchange fee, banks seem to take forever to make it happen.

Make that to go: Travelex window in Ueno Station

Western Union, the legendary telegraph company that provides international money transfer services in 240 countries, applied in Japan last July for permission to provide overseas remittances. The company presently commands an 8 percent share of the money transfer business in Asia, and its revenues have been decreasing every year since 2006, so Japan is seen as a vital opportunity. The service would specifically target foreign workers who regularly sent money back to their home countries, a market that will only grow as Japan inevitably allows more foreigners to work here and which Japanese banks have mostly ignored, at least until now.

Many foreign workers in the past used non-profit organizations whose intentions were above-board but which nevertheless operated in a legal gray area. Japanese banks tend to charge at least ¥4,000 to remit funds overseas, no matter how small, which is OK if you’re sending money once a year, but many foreign workers send money once a month. And since the bank is usually sending the funds to an unaffiliated financial institution, that institution charges the Japanese bank a fee, too, which the sender usually has to pay. With Western Union, it’s the same company on both ends of the transaction, so there’s only one fee.

WU has hooked up with the British currency exchange service Travelex, which already has outlets in six prefectures. Fees range from ¥990 for sums under ¥10,000 to ¥12,000 for remittances between ¥500,001 and ¥700,000, which is the maximum amount that WU Japan will transfer per transaction. (According to the Funds Settlement Law, you still need to use a bank to transfer funds of more than ¥1 million.) Better yet, the transfer is instantaneous, while it normally takes a bank several days to send your money. The Asahi Shimbun has already reported on how popular the service is among foreign workers and students in Japan.

Naturally, other companies are now entering the ring. Japan Travel Bureau and the SBI Group have started overseas remittance services that are actually slightly cheaper than WU’s: ¥880 for amounts of less than ¥30,000. Until the end of March, SBI even offers a special low fee of ¥1,980 for remittances over ¥250,000. Services other than Western Union’s, however, usually charge different fees depending on the country of destination. In addition, Rakuten Bank has also started a remittance service in January with Travelex, but only for businesses. Seven Bank, the ATM banking service connected to 7-11, has partnered with Western Union and this summer will begin offering money transfer services overseas through its system of 14,000 ATMs. SBI will offer a similar service through ATMs in Family Marts and branches of Japan Post’s Yucho Bank. Though they’ve been slow to acknowledge the new competition, Japanese banks are starting to stir. In November, Sumitomo Mitsui Bank started offering a 24-hour money transfer service over the Internet whose fees are ¥500 less than what they are if you make the transfer at a branch office. All transactions made through ATMs or over the Internet require pre-registration and documentation of email addresses and identification.

Consumers have last word on fate of rice farming

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Farmers are up in arms about the possibility that the government will participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, which would remove import tariffs on products from member countries. In particular, rice farmers say that allowing cheaper foreign rice into Japan would wipe them out, which is probably true for most of them.

The price is rice: 2010 Koshihikari at ¥58 per bowl

Some ambitious high-grade rice producers are determined to meet the challenge not only in Japan, but overseas, as well. The rice collective Beisist Shonan is already selling its expensive brand in Taiwan and Europe. One company in Kobe called Shinmei has a plan to sell 1,200 tons of 2010 rice overseas, which is 870 more tons than they sold of 2009 rice. The company projects that it will export 10,000 tons by 2018. But those companies represent a small portion of rice farmers, the vast majority of whom are part-timers whose methods aren’t very efficient.

At present, the farm sector contributes about ¥10 trillion to Japan’s economy every year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Foresty and Fisheries, which estimates that the sector will lose about ¥4.1 trillion if Japan joins TPP. In addition, Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate will drop from 40 percent to 14 percent. About 10 percent of the rice produced in Japan is high-grade (Niigata Koshihikari, organic brands, etc.) and is thus considered invulnerable to foreign imports. Nevertheless, the ministry estimates the price will drop from the current average of ¥280 per kg to ¥177 retail. The remaining 90 percent of Japanese rice, which will compete directly with foreign brands, costs now about ¥247 per kg.

Continue reading about expected effects of the TPP →

Annals of cheap: Only Free Paper

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Free magazines and newspapers, which in Japan are lumped under the general English term “free paper,” are the cheapest form of entertainment you can find in Japan. And while the digitalization of everything under the sun has caused huge problems for the publishing industry and related fields, free papers appear to be thriving. According to a survey conducted by the Japan Free Newspapers Association (JAFNA), in 2009 at least 337 million copies of free papers were printed that year by profit-making organizations, which means the survey didn’t take into consideration the thousands of free publications printed by non-profit concerns such as universities. About 61 percent of the publications included in the survey were newspapers and 38 percent were magazines. In terms or frequency, 43 percent were monthlies and 19 percent weeklies. Biweeklies and “seasonals” accounted for 11 percent each.

No cover charge

JAFNA doesn’t give figures on content, which is what most people care about, but it did study the “purpose” of the free publications and found that 64 percent were distributed as “customer countermeasures,” which means premiums for people who bought other things from a company, including itmes such newspaper inserts or special free editions from publishers who otherwise charge for their product. Another 39 percent were created to “increase revenues” (zoshu taisaku) of companies’ main businesses, meaning presumably as promotional tools.

Thirty percent were strictly delivery devices for advertising. Sixty-six percent of free papers were funded by resources other than advertising, such as charging other advertisers to insert flyers in their publications or simply through direct sponsorship by parent companies. Of those that sold advertising, about 40 percent reported yearly revenues of less than ¥30 million each and 26 percent revenues of more than ¥100 million each. However, probably the most significant figures were those for distribution methods, since the whole idea of free papers is to get them in the hands of as many people as possible. About 42 percent were made available in places of business (restaurants, book stores, etc.), while 37 percent were distributed as either direct mail or other forms of delivery; 24 percent were placed in “public areas”; and a full 16 percent were put in railway stations. About three-fourths have web tie-ins.

Continue reading about free papers in Japan →

More reasons to spend money on chocolate, as well as reasons not to

Monday, February 14th, 2011

It may be a bit late, but for the record 20 percent of all chocolate sales in Japan are connected to Valentine’s Day. Everyone who’s lived in Japan for any length of time knows the ritual: On Valentine’s Day, women give gifts of chocolate to the men in their lives, whether they love them or not, and then on March 14 — White Day, as it’s been dubbed — men are supposed to reciprocate. The custom of giri-choco, or chocolate that’s given to men as a kind of “obligation” (i.e., work superiors and colleagues) didn’t develop until the early ’90s. In fact, giving chocolate to one’s lover wasn’t widespread here until the ’70s. Though Valentine’s Day sort of took off after the war, there were no hard and fast rules. You just gave sweets to your boy/girlfriend or spouse, and not necessarily chocolate.

Will you be my...hey! Come back!

This year, chocolate makers have been especially hopeful about sales for two reasons. This is the first Valentine’s Day in three years that falls on a weekday, and manufacturers think women will be buying more giri-choco for their male co-workers, even though figures show that custom seems to be fading overall. In fact, most confectioners are predicting double-digit increases over last year’s sales. The second bright spot is that women seem to have expanded their circle of chocolate recipients. Now there’s something called tomo-choco, meaning chocolate that is given to friends, specifically other women. This development seems to be in response to the general feeling that men who receive giri-choco don’t necessarily want to receive it, so women basically exchange chocolate with other women. Taking this idea to its solipsistic end, there’s even something called gohobi-choco, which is chocolate, usually expensive chocolate, that you give to yourself. (Gohobi in this case means to “reward” yourself).

In any event, one chocolate maker, Glico, says that according to its research, the average young woman who gives chocolate on Valentine’s Day gives it to more than 10 persons. Another confectioner, Lotte, found in a survey of females ranging from junior high school students to 40-somethings that the average woman will spend ¥3,266 on chocolate during this Valentine’s Day season, which is a 16 percent increase over last year’s actual average sales.

There are reasons not to give chocolate, as well, the main one being that the prime ingredient, cocoa, is a notoriously exploitative crop. About 70 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from four African countries: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. The bulk of this crop is cultivated and harvested with child labor, much of it unpaid. Japan imports more than 55,000 tons of cocoa a year, 69 percent of which is from Ghana, so there’s a good chance that if you buy chocolate made by the usual domestic companies it’s going to be the product of slave labor. Fair Trade labels aren’t always a guarantee in this situation since a lot of plantations in Africa that use slave labor have in the past managed to still get covered by fair trade agreements, and according to Amnesty International, only 0.5 percent of the retail price of a chocolate product makes it back to the grower anyway. But most of the fair trade chocolate sold in Japan is from Bolivia, which seems to have better labor conditions than Africa does. Top Valu, a discount brand sold at Aeon, Saty and Jusco supermarkets, offers Fair Trade chocolate, so that’s an option for gift-givers with consciences and tight budgets.

Driving is believing: Don’t trust manufacturers’ mileage claims

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Though revenues were initially spurred by the government’s eco point system, hybrid cars are definitely the way to go for carmakers right now. Last month, sales of Honda’s Fit hybrid outpaced those for Toyota’s Prius hybrid, which had been Japan’s best-selling car since March 2009. Though consumers seem to be getting on the environmental bandwagon, the real appeal of hybrids is economical: They use less gasoline. Or, at least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe.

Tell the truth: Prius at Tokyo dealership

Actually, it’s difficult to know what to believe, according to the mobile telephone site E-Nenpi. Nenpi is the Japanese word for gasoline mileage, and people who subscribe to the site have helped the company that runs it, Iidosha, compile mileage statistics for almost every Japanese car model. Iidosha is of the opinion that the mileage figures supplied by car manufacturers in their brochures are unreliable, since they are based on tests that have no relation to real driving conditions. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has apparently picked up on this skepticism and recently announced it would demand “improved” reporting on mileage testing.

Presently, the standard testing method in Japan is the “10.15 mode,” which utilizes a fixed roller in a government-run facility. Automobiles “drive” on the roller at different speeds and an average mileage figure is calculated from the results. Starting in April, however, the standard testing method will become the “JC08 mode,” which reproduces actual road driving conditions more closely. This method, however, has already been used by most automakers for several years and is usually listed in current brochures alongside the 10.15 mode figure, thus causing unnecessary confusion.

E-Nenpi doesn’t trust either test. The site asks its 500,000 subscribers throughout Japan to do their own mileage calculations based on gasoline bought and kilometers driven. Apparently, about 100,000 subscribers participate through cell phone uploads, and while there are no officials on hand to verify the results of each contributor, 100,000 is a pretty decent sampling and certainly more credible than any figures you’d get from the 10.15 mode tests. According to Toyota, the Prius gets 35.5 km per liter for the 10.15 mode test and 30.4 km per liter for the JC08 mode test. However, E-Nenpi comes up with 19.3 km per liter. That’s 45 percent less than the official 10.15 mode findings, and, apparently, that’s one of the better results. E-nenpi finds even greater discrepancies in the findings for other Japanese models.

Continue reading about mileage tests →

Seniors reconnecting to retail

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

A new term being tossed around by the media is kaimono nanmin (shopping refugees). It refers to people who have been cut off from the retail sector. Usually, it describes older people on fixed incomes living in remote areas, which over the past decade or so have become even more remote with the shuttering of traditional local retail districts (shotengai).

Shop til you drop: Shotengai in Sugamo

These shopping arcades used to be the only retail options one had in the countryside. The increased promotion of automobile use, which in turn prompted liberalization of laws related to distribution, gave rise to American-style shopping malls and the introduction of large international discount retailers into Japanese suburbs. Many family-owned businesses couldn’t compete, and those who did were eventually forced out of business by the recession or the fact that no one in the family wanted to take over the shop when the time came. In any case, the situation has left many older people who don’t have driver’s licenses, much less cars, without access to stores. According to Nihon TV, there are an estimated 6 million shopping refugees in Japan.

So far, most of the countermeasures for this problem have been formulated by retailers themselves, or retailers in association with local governments. Coop has a special delivery service for less mobile older folks, but as with many such services there’s a one-week gap between the time the order is made and when it’s delivered.

The most creative solution may be the one from 7&i Holdings, which runs the 7-11 convenience store chain and Ito Yokado supermarkets. On Feb. 4, 7-11 started a new test service in association with NTT and the UR public housing corporation. Five hundred households in Tokyo’s Meguro and Chuo Wards have been supplied with touch-screen tablet computers that they use to order food and sundries directly from 7-11, which are then delivered directly to their homes in a matter of hours. Currently, 7-11 offers delivery services on orders made via telephone or PC, but many elderly persons still don’t know how to use computers, and the tablets are considered simpler to use. All the user has to do is touch the image on the screen. Minimum orders are ¥1,000 with a ¥200 delivery charge per order. The test period will last six months.

Continue reading about elderly shoppers →

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