Archive for May, 2011

LEDs make it cheaper to blind family and friends

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Freedom of choice: Lots of LEDs at Yamada Denki

The government wants you to save energy this summer because of the mess they’ve made up in Fukushima. The request is for you to reduce your consumption of electricity by 15 percent. Just in time for this setsuden (electricity reduction) season, the price of LED lamps is coming down. When LEDs first appeared on the market in 2009 the average price of a bulb was ¥3,827, according to the Light Bulb Manufacturers Association. The average price as of March was ¥2,274. Moreover, discount stores like Aeon and Don Quijote sell the 60-watt types for about ¥1,650.

Of course, when you say “60-watt type” you have to qualify the designation, since a 60-watt type LED does not, in fact, use 60 watts. Neither does a fluorescent bulb with that designation, which is still used because consumers are conditioned to think of a bulb’s brightness in terms of wattage, since that’s how you measured relative brightness with incandescent bulbs: the more power, the brighter the illumination. The same goes for fluorescents and LEDs but the proportions are much different, making comparisons almost pointless. For instance, a 60-watt type LED uses about one-eighth the power that a 60-watt incandescent bulb uses, but the brightness in terms of lumens is about half. The light bulb industry would prefer that you choose a bulb based on lumens, since the “XX-watt-type” designation is basically meaningless in the LED age.

Continue reading about LED light bulbs →

Will the ‘morning-after pill’ make gynecologists obsolete?

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

In February, the health ministry approved the “emergency contraception” drug NorLevo, which was developed in France and is being distributed in Japan by the pharmaceutical company Sosei. It went on sale this week. Often called “the morning-after pill,” the drug was first marketed in 1999 and since then has been approved for sale in 50 countries. Sosei first applied for approval in 2001. The reason it took so long has something to do with Japan’s sclerotic drug testing system, but probably more to do with bureaucratic queasiness over the idea of women being able to prevent pregnancies unilaterally. After all, it took more than three decades to get the low-dosage birth control pill approved, and less than a year for Viagra to receive the go-ahead.

Preemptive: Condom vending machine

NorLevo should not be confused with the so-called abortion pill, RU486. Emergency contraception is supposed to be taken within 72 hours following intercourse to prevent conception, with a second pill taken 12 hours after the first one. The effectiveness is said to be more than 80 percent. It will be available by prescription (in some countries, like Canada, it can be bought over the counter), but users cannot use national health insurance to pay for it. The internet import price is anywhere between ¥2,500 and ¥6,600 for one dosage, meaning two pills. So far the domestic price hasn’t been made public, but it is probably in that range.

It’s expensive, but still much cheaper than an abortion, the vast majority of which are performed on married women. Young, unmarried women tend to have the baby and marry the father. The average cost of an abortion is around ¥100,000. The procedure is basically illegal in Japan but there’s a loophole that allows gynecologists to perform them on women who have “economic issues.” In 2009, about 220,000 were done, or one-fifth the number of live births that year. Because of the unavailability of the low-dosage birth control pill until recently and the paucity of sex education classes in public schools, abortion was for many years considered a form of birth control. So despite its high price, NorLevo could very likely cut the number of abortions significantly in the future, which is a good thing for women’s reproductive rights but not necessarily good news for the obstetrics-gynecology profession.

For a while now ob-gyns have had to contend with falling incomes due to the declining birthrate. Abortions became a larger part of their livelihoods. When abortion becomes less of an option for women, gynecologists will have less to do. Fewer medical students, thinking it not a lucrative field, will choose gynecology and obstetrics as a course of study.

In the past, emergency contraception in Japan was carried out with the mid-dose birth control pill, which was approved many years ago ostensibly to treat menstrual disorders though mostly they were used as de facto birth control pills. Taken right after intercourse, the mid-dose pill will prevent pregnancy, though its effectiveness is not as high as NorLevo’s and the side effects are more noticeable. The police also distributed the mid-dose pill to rape victims free of charge, though, obviously, that meant the victim had to come to the police and file a rape report. Such victims may have preferred going to a doctor, who would have kept the incident confidential. But then they’d have to pay for the full treatment.

Cheap labor market will have to make do without Chinese workers

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

As the media so loudly pointed out, a large number of foreign residents left Japan right after the earthquake of March 11, mainly due to fears of radiation from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactor. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, most have returned, or, at least, those who worked in nominally white collar jobs did. For instance, about 40 percent of the foreign language teachers at Berlitz went home, and since then 90 percent have returned.

So that's why a bowl of beef is so cheap

The situation is much different when it comes to low-wage laborers, particularly those from China. The foreign trainee program has been badly hit. Many people believe that the program, which is supposed to offer people from foreign countries the opportunity to learn skills in Japan, is more or less a front for trafficking cheap labor, and the agricultural and textile industries are heavily dependent on workers from Asia. The Asahi Shimbun reports that before the earthquake there were about 40,000 foreign trainees working at Japanese textile companies, 99 percent of whom were Chinese. Almost all of them went home and very few have returned.

An association in Dalian that processes potential trainees for work in Japan told the Asahi that before the earthquake there were five applicants for every potential job opening, but now there are none. Another association that helps Chinese pass the test to be accepted in the trainee program said that all 50 people who passed a test to work at a marine products processing plant in Chiba Prefecture have now changed their mind and are staying in China. In almost all these cases the Chinese trainees are quite young, which means the decision to leave Japan or not go in the first place was made by their parents. Since China still has a one-child policy, a parent may not want to risk the health of his or her only child.

Continue reading about the flight of cheap labor →

Disaster makes the heart grow fonder, but potential marriage partners still need cash

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Smile, you're married!

Since the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, there have been many heartwrenching stories in the news about people wanting to make more meaningful human connections, spurred by the realization that life is short. An article in the Asahi Shimbun reports that the clearest evidence of this change in societal attitude is a sharp rise in wedding-related goods and services. In the months of March and April, sales of engagement rings were 40 percent higher than they were for the same period last year; with sales of wedding rings 25 percent higher.

The marriage consulting and introduction service O-Net told the newspaper that “inquiries” into the company’s services rose 12 percent in April and 24 percent just from women in the Kanto region. There was also a 20 percent increase over last year in the number of people registered with the company who successfully tied the knot in March, and an 18 percent increase in April. A single woman in her 30s who newly registered with O-Net told the Asahi that she realized she wanted a life partner after she spent six hours walking home to an empty apartment on the night of March 11.

Continue reading about marriage in postquake Japan →

Post-disaster business opportunities attracting wrong kind of enterprises

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

There's a lot of work to be done in post-3/11 Tohoku and organized crime wants a piece of the action. (Satoko Kawasaki photo/The Japan Times)

Like ants to sugar, underworld organizations have been making their way to the towns and cities of the Tohoku region that were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11. The cost of cleanup and reconstruction is estimated to be some ¥15 trillion, so there seems to be enough sugar to go around, but according to the Sankei Shimbun, the boryokudan (organized crime), or yakuza, seem determined to secure as big a share as they can.

Police in the area are reporting that since early April two “unknown” organizations have been making the rounds of five evacuation centers in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, handing out plain brown envelopes to evacuees. Each envelope contains ¥30,000 in cash. Local officials have cautioned individual representatives of these organizations, saying that their way of distributing the money is “unfair,” and that it would be better for them to give the officials the money so that it could be distributed more properly. This request was ignored in Ishinomaki. However, the same groups also delivered a pile of envelopes each containing ¥30,000 to the disaster headquarters of another city in Miyagi, Minami Sanriku, for distribution. Altogether, the “contributions” in the two cities total somewhere between ¥30 and ¥50 million.

Continue reading about yakuza in post-quake Tohoku →

Only chumps recharge their cell phones at home

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

A popular and long-running theme on variety shows is zero-en seikatsu (no-yen living), an idea that goes beyond mere frugality to embrace a sort of charismatic philosophy. Since the March 11 earthquake and the attendant electrical power crisis, adherents of the zero-en lifestyle have been promoting the fact that sales outlets for the major mobile phone carriers all offer free battery-charging services to customers. Recently TV Tokyo’s “Sunday Big Variety” profiled a female office worker who makes a fairly good side living clipping coupons and taking part in product promotional lotteries, but the aspect of her no-spending lifestyle she was most proud of was the fact that for the last five years she hadn’t spent a single yen to recharge her phone.

DoCoMo recharger with locker.

Some people have to recharge their phones every day. How much does that normally cost if you do it at home? A number of Japanese bloggers have wondered the same thing. Apparently, it requires up to 10 watts of electricity per hour to recharge a cell phone, and the fee for household electricity is about ¥20 for 1 kilowatt per hour. Therefore, if it takes, say, four hours a day to recharge your phone, you will end up spending between ¥2 and ¥3 a month to do so. So that means the zero-en woman on the TV Tokyo show has, over five years, saved about ¥180.

To most people that won’t mean much, and for sure the providers don’t offer the recharging service for that reason. It’s mainly for busy people who need an emergency recharge when they’re not at home, and in that regard it’s a real life saver since the alternative is buying one of those clunky, expensive supplemental batteries in a convenience store. Nevertheless, the employees of the service providers don’t seem to know exactly how long it takes to recharge a cell phone. We went to several service centers that offer recharging and asked the employees how long it takes to recharge from zero, and only the DoCoMo staff was able to come up with a consistent, credible number: 2 hours. An au representative told us she didn’t know how long it took but most customers spent 30 minutes; while Softbank said only 20 minutes.

DoCoMo’s recharging service is slightly more elaborate in that it even offers juice for Mova models, which have been discontinued. They also have little “lockers”: If you can’t hang around while your phone is recharging, you can place it in a locker with a combination lock while it’s doing so and come back later. And if you want to copy data from one phone to another, or from your phone to another storage medium, like a CD, they have devices that will do that for free, too. Some service centers of DoCoMo and Softbank even have free beverage services while you wait. I’m sure that’s a big lure for zero-en tribe; even if the coffee tastes like mud, it doesn’t cost a thing.

The economics of scapegoating vending machines

Monday, May 9th, 2011

Two machines are always better than one

For his part in reviving a crippled Japan, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara has made himself the point man in the demonization of vending machines. “Only in such a country do you see them lined up everywhere,” he groused recently, and suggested that anyone who wants a cold drink buy it in a store and put it in his own refrigerator.

There are various reasons why vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan. From the demand side, Japanese people just like gadgets and don’t always enjoy the face-to-face experience of dealing with store clerks. From the supply side, Japan is a relatively safe country, meaning you can install as many vending machines as the law allows without fear of vandalism. And the law allows a lot. However, if Ishihara and four other Kanto region prefectural governors have their way, vending machine operations will be curbed, at least during the summer peak electrical usage months. According to Sankei Shimbun, the five Kanto prefectures are pushing the central government to implement directives to limit electrical usage of vending machines based on existing ordinances, some of which have been in place since the “oil shocks” of the 1970s.

Continue reading about vending machines →

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