Archive for June, 2011

The hidden economics of diabetes

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Last week the medical journal Lancet published the results of a study that found the number of diabetes patients rising rapidly throughout the world. Right now about 10 percent of the world’s population suffers from the disease, which is traditionally associated with countries that have higher standards of living, like the United States. However, Lancet reported that diabetes is reaching epidemic proportions in the developing world as well owing to obesity and inactivity. Since diabetes leads to all sorts of serious health problems, including kidney failure, heart attacks and blindness, the epidemic will add an insupportable burden to medical costs in the next century.

Pick-me-up: Patient delivery van outside of dialysis clinic in Chiba

Diabetes is on the increase in Japan, too, and is one of the reasons the national health insurance program is in trouble. A recent report on NHK’s “Closeup Gendai” showed how local governments are trying to reduce doctor visits among local residents. In Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, officials have compiled a database of people who may be contributing to “wasteful medical costs.” To qualify for the database, a person has to have visited a clinic or hospital at least 15 times during the course of a single month. An official then talks to this person to learn the reason for the frequent visits.

NHK points out that these inquiries are delicate. The doctor-patient relationship is a private one, and the local government is careful not to come across as interfering with that relationship. Nevertheless, many older people, because they pay very little out-of-pocket for a doctor’s visit, go to the hospital often even if their medical complaints are very slight. Some have even confessed to going to the hospital for social reasons, to chat with friends or make new ones. In any case, the local government official often suggests other ways of dealing with health problems in order to cut costs, such as asking for generic drugs when filling prescriptions or recommending lifestyle changes that can prevent future illnesses.

Continue reading about diabetes in Japan →

Joyful Honda and the rise of the car-centric ‘home center’

Friday, June 24th, 2011

What a gas: Joyful Honda in Inzai

People living in Tokyo, especially those who don’t own cars, can often be oblivious to the priorities of people living outside of Tokyo. So-called home centers have become a central facet of suburban people’s lives, and while you can find a few within the borders of the capital, the metro ones are by necessity much smaller. The whole point of a home center, which contains jumbo-sized retail sections dedicated to everything necessary for everyday living, from food to furniture to tools, is that you drive your car to it. A huge parking lot is part of the bargain, literally and figuratively.

One of the most successful home centers is Joyful Honda, which has no relation to Honda Motors, though it is conspicuously friendly to car culture. The company operates 15 outlets, the biggest of which is located in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, which is also the corporate headquarters. The Joyful Honda retail property in Hitachi covers, in the prosaic parlance of Japanese developers, the equivalent of 4.8 Tokyo Domes. Most of this real estate is taken up by parking lots, which can hold up to 6,800 vehicles. In land-scarce Japan, this is a huge investment and points to a sea change in the Japanese retail mindset. Traditionally, retail centers were built around train stations, even in suburban and rural areas. However, outside of large urban centers, retail complexes have become isolated, self-contained, destinations for motorists. Shoppers have to have parking; more importantly, free parking. At Joyful Honda, you don’t even have to have your parking validated the way you would at a store in Tokyo. The prices rival those you will find at the cheapest discount retailers, which means the cost of the parking fields they control (Inzai, Chiba Prefecture: 5,000 cars; Ota, Gunma Prefecture: 5,700 cars; Mizuo-cho, Tama: 3,200 cars) are somehow absorbed.

Continue reading about suburban home centers →

Reported epidemic of elder shoplifting may not be what it seems

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

For the past several years the media has been reporting a marked increase in the incidence of shoplifiting among the elderly. Most recently, the Mainichi Shimbun ran an article focusing on the problem in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where the percentage of arrests of people over 65 for shoplifting has exceeded those for minor males. According to local police, in 2000 43.3 percent of shoplifting arrests were of boys between the ages of 14 and 19, while arrests of people over 65 accounted for only 20 percent. In 2005, the portions were equal: 28 percent each. Since then, the percentages for over-65s has fluctuated between 30 and 40, while for minors it’s been between 20 and 30.

Chiba Prefecture's anti-shoplifiting poster seems to be aimed at people who are influenced by cute mascots

The police blame the increase on “poverty and loneliness.” All of the older people they arrest say they are on fixed incomes and have already spent their monthly pension allotments when they are caught shoplifting. Some spend all their money on gambling because, according to the police, “gambling is the only social activity in their lives, since they have no relatives or friends.” In almost all cases, elderly people steal food and alcoholic beverages. One supermarket told the Mainichi that 80 percent of the people caught shoplifting on its premises are over 65. In the past, the manager would call “the guardians” of the perpetrators in order to be reimbursed, because most were minors, but they can’t do that with old people. “They usually have no one.”

Nationwide, this seems to be a trend. The National Police Agency reports that of the 104,827 shoplifiting arrests made in 2010, 27,362 were of persons over 65, 343 more than in 2009. Minors still accounted for more arrests, 28,371, but the number has been steadily declining over the past decade, while the number of older people being arrested has steadily increased.

Alarming? At least one blogger writes that, statistically speaking, it’s to be expected. Masamizu Kibashiri (an obvious pseudonym) points out that the fatalist tone of the reporting on elder shoplifting hides a salient and very apparent fact: The number of old people has risen sharply during the past decade while the number of minors has declined at almost the same rate. In the past 20 years, the over-65 population of Japan has jumped from 15 million to 27 million. Given this increase, the slighter rise in shoplifting arrests could actually be taken as being encouraging: Not as many older people are shoplifting as might be expected.

Kibashiri proposes a different statistical model for gauging the phenomenon: Number of elder arrests per 10,000 population of over-65s. Using that statistical model, he finds that the percentage of elder shoplifters has, in fact, risen significantly, from 2.8 in 1989 to 9.5 in 2009, with the largest jump coming around 2005. Obviously, there is a meaningful increase here, but the media needs to qualify its reporting of an “epidemic.”

Annals of Cheap: 32-inch flat screen TVs

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

In your face: Most families have already replaced their main TV with one of these huge babies

Now’s the time to buy a TV if you’re in the market to replace the old analog CRT clunker that’s been your backup. Prices for mid-size and small flat screen sets are as low as they’re ever going to get owing to several factors that happened to have converged during the last few months.

According to an article in the Mainichi Shimbun, the average price of all the TVs sold in May was a little more than ¥53,000. Moreover, the average price of TVs in the 30-39 inch size range was ¥49,000. That’s a decrease of 30 percent and 40 percent, respectively, from the same month last year. And since those are general nationwide averages, the savings become even starker when you go to discount electronics stores. In March, the average price of a 32-inch flat screen TV set at a discount store was in the ¥50,000-60,000 range, and then dropped to below ¥39,000 in May. Right now, Bic Camera near Yurakucho Station in Tokyo is selling the most vanguard types — energy-conserving LED TVs — for about ¥50,000, but older models are going for as low as ¥30,000. The store’s sales of TVs are 80 percent higher than they were for the same period last year.

Continue reading about flat-screen TVs →

More shopping refugees: Residents of planned community at the mercy of bureaucratic prerogatives

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Build it and pray they will come: Landrome supermarket in Inzai

Nothing represents the bold urban vision of postwar Japan better than the concept of the “New Town.” In line with planned communities in the West, several were designed and constructed during the 1960s and 70s, mostly in the suburbs of Tokyo and Osaka. The most famous is probably Tama New Town in western Tokyo, which was fairly successful in attracting young families to its mix of public apartments and housing developments, though much less successful in attracting businesses. Part of the bold vision was that residents of New Towns wouldn’t have to commute all the way to the central cities, but companies proved reluctant to relocate to the suburbs. Consequently, the new communities didn’t grow. Tama New Town is presently inhabited almost completely by the elderly, meaning the same people who moved in when the project was new.

The plans for Chiba New Town were finished in 1966, and covered parts of three cities in northern Chiba Prefecture: Shiroi, Inzai and Funabashi. The plan presumed a population of 340,000 and a new private train line that would serve these residents. For whatever reason, the people didn’t show, at least not in the numbers the planners envisioned, though the commuter line was built, and as a result of the lack of patronage the Hokuso Railway is the most expensive train line in Japan. From Chiba New Town Chuo to the next station, Inzai Makinohara, a ticket costs ¥280 for a distance that takes about four minutes to cover.

As with most New Towns, Chiba’s was developed by the prefectural government with help from the central government. In 1978, the central government’s housing corporation, Toshi Kiban Seibi Kodan, usually referred to as simply Kodan, became involved in Chiba New Town, developing whole neighborhoods and constructing residences to rent and sell. Kodan would become semi-private in 2004 during the rush to privatize government organs promoted by the administration of Junichiro Koizumi. It changed its name to the more colorful, commercial-sounding Urban Renaissance Agency (though, more accurately, it is a corporation). The change was cosmetically important since Kodan had been bleeding money for decades, but because the agency and its dependent organs had grown so big, it was difficult to make it completely private. Kodan’s whole existence was based on momentum, which is why, despite the fiscal difficulties that perpetually surrounded Chiba New Town, UR was instrumental in opening a new station in 2000 on the Hokuso Line called Inba Nihon Idai, which was centered around the Nippon Medical School Chiba Hokuso Hospital, established in 1994. The hospital is three minutes from the station by shuttle bus, 10 minutes on foot.

Continue reading about "new towns" in Japan →

Regional bank tries to make money work for good things

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Small, regional banks have a tough time trying to get you to switch your business from megabanks, whose main benefit to average consumers is the fact that their branches can be found anywhere in Japan. More locally situated banks tend to grow up around local commercial customers, but they need average borrowers, too. The trick is: How do they make up for the lack of a widespread presence?

Jonan's Shibuya branch

One obvious solution is to offer services and products that other banks don’t, and in that regard Jonan Shinyo Kinko, which is headquartered in Shinagawa, Tokyo, is quite creative. Perhaps their most controversial gimmick is a “lottery savings account,” a deal that was apparently frowned upon by the Finance Ministry but which has been copied by some other small banks. If you keep a certain amount of money in a special savings account, the bank will buy lottery tickets for you, and they guarantee that your odds of winning are greater than if you bought the tickets yourself.

The latest product from Jonan (which means “south of the castle,” thus indicating Shinagawa’s position in relation to Edo Castle) is much more edifying. The bank believes that Japanese society is “not safe” as long as it relies so much on nuclear power for its energy needs, and wants to encourage not only conservation but also the promotion of renewable energy sources. For its own part, Jonan has pledged to reduce its own energy consumption by 30 percent over the next three years by resetting its air conditioners and heaters, applying energy saving fixtures and facilities, installing better insulation and buying into a self-generating power system for its own offices.

Then on April 28, the bank made an announcement that it would go even further. Customers could expect more beneficial interests rates on both savings accounts and loans if they could prove to the bank that they were making a concerted effort to be more energy efficient. For instance, a depositor who could show Jonan that he spent more than ¥100,000 on conservation devices such as solar systems, electrical rechargers, or LED lamps would receive an extra 1 percent in interest on savings accounts of up to ¥1 million. Given that most banks only give about 0.02 percent, it’s a sizable allowance. In addition, if a customer takes out a home improvement loan to boost the energy efficiency of his dwelling for amounts between ¥500,000 and ¥3 million, the loan will be interest free for the first year, and thereafter interest will be fixed at 1 percent for loan periods of 3 to 8 years. Most home improvement loans are around 3.5 percent.

Jonan isn’t the only bank that is trying to make a difference since the March 11 tragedy, though it seems to be the only one that has tied its sense of social responsibility to rewards for customers. Sony Bank currently offers limited time savings accounts with special interest rates, of which Sony will donate 0.01 percent to charity. Basically, it’s no skin off Sony’s nose. Jonan, on the other hand, puts its money where its mouth it.

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