Archive for November, 2011

Solar soon to be heating up in Tokyo

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

An old solar heating system collector

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident solar energy as a concept has become more attractive to the average person, and the central government’s recent passage of a law to promote renewable energies should help make solar power more widespread. Of course, solar power isn’t perfect, but not so much for the reasons nuclear apologists put forth. For instance, those who say solar energy is basically inefficient point to the fact that the electricity generated by household solar collectors is the equivalent in power of only 10 percent of the energy collected. This is a specious argument since sunlight is, for the time being at least, free, so we’re talking 10 percent of something that is constant and endless and which, untapped, just vanishes into the ether. It’s not like wasting the potential energy derived from gas or oil, since those are by definition finite energy sources.

The problem with solar energy is mainly a political one. According to the renewable energy law, which was sent to the cabinet for approval a day before the earthquake of March 11, power companies are obliged to buy excess energy from home solar systems. Tokyo Electric Power Co. announced last spring that it would buy electricity derived from solar collectors from private homes at double its usual rate. What the utility didn’t say so openly was that this expense would be reflected in electricity bills for all TEPCO customers. One of the main selling points of home solar systems is that, over time, the sale of excess energy to power companies would pay for the systems themselves, which are very expensive, though prices are coming down. People of limited means, which probably describes most households these days, can’t enjoy such benefits because they can’t afford to install solar systems. In the end, they help pay for the systems of the more well-off through their electric bills, not to mention schemes like eco points, which use tax money. So while some may claim that the greater good — greater reliance on solar energy — is worth it, the policy as it’s now carried out is inherently unfair.

A more equitable idea at the household level is using sunlight for heating rather than generating electricity. Solar collectors for heating water have been commercially available for years, and in terms of efficiency — 40 percent — beat out solar collectors for electricity. Since 2009, the Tokyo metropolitan government has been planning to subsidize solar collectors for home heating purposes. They will give people up to ¥500,000 if they install a solar heater in a new house. Condominium builders will also receive some kind of incentive. Recently, Tokyo solicited solar heater manufacturers, 60 of whom applied for approval. Fifty-one were selected whose products will be eligible for the subsidies.

It is the first time a local government has encouraged through subsidies the installation of solar heaters, which have never been so popular even though they are relatively inexpensive and easy to install. The hot water that is produced can not only be used for baths, showers and washing, but also for room heating if the home has a radiant heating system installed in the baseboards or the floors. Such systems, of course, can help households save on energy bills and do not produce extra carbon dioxide, which is the main benefit for Tokyo since local governments have been charged by the government with reducing their carbon output. More important, these savings are not at the expense of other households who do not have the system installed. Solar heating is self-contained, and therefore self-reliant.

Are digital newspaper subscriptions worth it?

Friday, November 25th, 2011

We subscribe to three daily newspapers, one English and two vernaculars: The Japan Times, the Asahi Shimbun and Tokyo Shimbun. JT and TS are delivered to our front door each morning, and like everyone, including non-subscribers, we can access JT’s website, with content going back to about 2000, for free. Our Asahi subscription is digital only. Until last July we subscribed to the paper edition. So altogether we spend ¥10,830 a month for news: ¥4,480 for JT, ¥3,800 for Asahi and ¥2,550 for TS (morning edition only; with the evening edition added it would be ¥2,800).

Stuff you don't get with a digital subscription to Asahi Shimbun

Ideally, we would prefer receiving all our news digitally. Though at the moment physical newspapers are easier to read and browse on a day-to-day basis, they are more difficult to file and reference, especially for work purposes. Most digital newspapers have a function similar to Google Alerts, and with Asahi you can register up to five key words or phrases; every day articles that contain these phrases are compiled separately. We also like Asahi’s scrapbook function. You can save articles you want to return to later in a separate folder, and as far as we can tell the number is unlimited. Nihon Keizai Shimbun also has a scrapbook function, but you can only save up to 100 articles.

The search function is less helpful, especially if you’re trying to retrieve something from a past issue. Digital subscribers can search up to a year in the past for articles published in the newspaper and up to six months in the past for articles in the digital edition, but from our experience it helps to remember the headline, since using key words and phrases doesn’t always work. Also, some features available in print aren’t always available in digital form. Once we tried to access an article in the special “Be” section, which deals with financial and consumer issues and is published on Saturdays. When we called the newspaper they told us we couldn’t access the section digitally until Sunday, and even then it was only portions.

And if you want to access archives that are older than a year you have to pay extra: ¥3,150 for private users, and that allows you to go back to 1984. However, it only lets you read the headlines. If you want to read the attached article, you have to pay an extra ¥84, which allows you to download it for seven days. Nihon Keizai Shimbun allows digital subscribers to access 25 articles a month up to five years old for free, and then you pay ¥175 for each article after the 25th. Institutional subscribers, such as libraries, can get access to Asahi’s full archives back to 1879 for ¥26,000 a month.

In the United States, in most cases if you subscribe to a physical publication you can access the digital edition for free. We subscribe to both The New Yorker and Harper’s and can access their full archives at no extra charge. The New York Times also allows newspaper subscribers the same unlimited access to its website that digital subscribers enjoy.

Not so in Japan. If you take daily delivery of the Asahi Shimbun, it costs ¥3,925 a month. If you want the digital edition, it’s ¥1,000 extra. But if you want the digital edition alone, it’s ¥3,800 a month, a savings of only ¥125. Nikkei’s system is similar. A subscription to the newspaper is ¥4,383 a month and an added digital subscription ¥1,000. The digital subscription alone is ¥4,000.

Continue reading about Japanese newspapers' digital editions →

Annals of cheap: Skymark Airlines

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Last spring, budget carrier Skymark Airlines announced new service from Narita airport to Hokkaido, Okinawa and Kyushu starting this fall, and as a special promotional incentive would offer one-way fares at only ¥980 for the first three months on each new route. The deal is limited to only 20 seats on each flight. These seats can only be booked through Skymark’s website and have to be reserved at least 28 days in advance. Service to Asahikawa (one round trip a day) and Shin Chitose (Sapporo, two round trips) in Hokkaido commenced Oct. 30. Flights to Naha in Okinawa will begin Dec. 8 (two round trips), and supposedly the Fukuoka route opens on Feb. 1 of next year, though it hasn’t been announced on the website yet. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, the ¥980 seats tend to be snatched up minutes after they’re made available.

Skymark Airlines website

Skymark, which opened for business in 1996, has established these routes to compete with ANA’s new special low-cost carrier Peach Airlines, which has begun service, but for the moment only flies out of Kansai International Airport in Osaka. The regular one-way fares for the new routes on Skymark are ¥12,800 for Shin Chitose, ¥13,800 for Asahikawa and Fukuoka and ¥16,800 for Naha, though there is also another limited deal for one-way flights as low as ¥3,800 for bookings made at least 21 days in advance. Regular one-way flights to all these destinations on JAL or ANA from Narita start at about ¥30,000. Basically, Skymark is be the first budget carrier to open a hub at Narita.

A Mainichi reporter took a flight to Shin Chitose the first day the ¥980 seats were available. He had been made aware that the flight offered “no service,” though it’s the same no matter which fare you pay. Consequently, he spent ¥120 for a bottle of tea in the airport and then discovered that Skymark only charged ¥100 for the same amount of tea on board. Having been conditioned to expect higher charges he was surprised (though not as surprised as we were that security allowed him to carry a liquid onto the plane). He also said the seats were not as cramped as he thought they’d be, comparing them to “non-reserved seats on the Shinkansen” in terms of roominess. He met a 31-year-old man on the flight who was going home to Sapporo “for the first time in 3 years” and felt it strange that the train from Shin Chitose Airport to the city proper was more (¥1,040) than the air fare from Tokyo.

The one demerit about the ¥980 flight is that Skymark has no arrangement with other airlines at Narita for backup flights to Hokkaido. That means if a Skymark flight is cancelled for any reason, the passenger either has to wait until the next available Skymark flight with empty seats, which might not be until the next day, or cancel the Skymark flight and buy a new ticket on another airline. The problem here is that most airlines that fly from Tokyo to Hokkaido — or anywhere in Japan — do so out of Haneda, including an increasing number of international carriers.

Fair Trade turns from a movement into a brand

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Guilt-free indulgence

We stopped buying chocolate after seeing a March 2010 BBC Panorama report about child slavery on cocoa plantations in western Africa. Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire produce 60 percent of the world’s cocoa, and much of the picking is done by children who are sold to plantations by their impoverished parents or human traffickers. Some cooperatives that had been approved for Fair Trade status were later found to have used child labor and suspended from receiving the designation by the Fair Trade Foundation. That meant their cocoa could not be used in chocolate that received the Fair Trade label, which indicates that production followed certain standards and producers were being paid a “fair” price for their wares. The BBC’s point was that almost any chocolate that did not bear the Fair Trade label was likely to have been produced by slave labor.

Once or twice a year, however, we do buy Fair Trade chocolate from People Tree Japan through a local food cooperative. People Tree is a non-profit group that specializes in Fair Trade products from all over the world. According to the organization’s literature, the cocoa that goes into their chocolate bars is produced in various South American countries and Ghana, and then processed in Switzerland under the People Tree brand. Shipments of the chocolate to People Tree are not continuous. When the NPO receives a periodic shipment they announce it through their various distributors, and apparently stocks sell out rather quickly. The chocolate isn’t cheap: ¥290 for a 50-gram bar. At your local supermarket you can buy the same size chocolate bar made by Meiji, Morinaga or any other major confectionery company for as low as ¥100. Does the People Tree chocolate taste better? That’s a matter of personal preference, but chocolate is chocolate. In any case, it’s apparent that people buy it because of the Fair Trade label.

Continue reading about Fair Trade products →

Back to business as usual for condominium developers?

Friday, November 11th, 2011

Construction activity in the old North Yards near Osaka Station, December 2010

Last month a model room opened for a new condominium complex in Osaka with the revealing name Owner’s Tower. Part of the new Grand Front development project situated in the huge tract of land near Osaka Station that once was home to the Japan National Railways Umeda North Yard cargo terminal, the new residence is a forthrightly upscale facility that targets high-income buyers, in particular foreigners who are looking for a second home in Japan’s second biggest city. The building is 48 stories comprising 525 units, the smallest of which is 90 sq. meters. Prices start at ¥3 million per tsubo (3.3 sq. meters). In the first sales phase, apartments on floors 40 through 48 will be made available at prices ranging from ¥83.5 million to ¥415 million. The projection is that residents will be able to start moving in in August 2013.

The developer Sekisui House emphasizes that Owners Tower is very different from the “family-type” condos that tend to dominate the urban housing market, but in fact central Osaka will soon see a lot of new family-type tower condos going on sale in the coming months. Several buildings are now going up in Kita Ward offering a total of 400 units, and in Tennoji Ward, which is considered the heart of Osaka’s business district, about 260 units are under construction. The average prices are slightly less than ¥2 million per tsubo, or about 30 percent higher than prices in areas outside the city center.

Why are families moving to the center of the city? The main reason seems to be that while these condos are expensive, they are still much cheaper than they were, say, four years ago. Ever since the so-called Lehman shock of 2008, real estate in all the major cities has dropped in value as large companies unloaded properties to raise cash. Those developers that managed to stay in business cut back on new projects, but now they’re taking advantage of the lower land prices and building again.

Continue to read about the return of high-rise condos →

The more, the thriftier: guests indispensable for expensive weddings

Monday, November 7th, 2011

Almost a church: a wedding chapel in Chiba Prefecture

Japanese weddings, with their interminable sentimental speeches and stage-managed atmosphere, can be more grueling than heartwarming for some guests, and what non-Japanese usually fail to realize is that they are expected to pay for the privilege of enduring these festivities. Unlike funerals, where guests pay their respects, eat a little food, and leave, friends and relatives who attend wedding receptions pay cash gifts to the happy couple. According to the bridal magazine Zexy, while there are no hard and fast rules regarding the amount of the gift, the customary contribution is ¥20,000-30,000 for “friends and colleagues” of the bride and/or groom, ¥30,000-50,000 for a boss or supervisor, and ¥50,000-100,000 for relatives (calculated as couples). In the West, guests are expected to celebrate by giving something, too, but they usually offer gifts that are presumably for the couple’s new life together. Japanese cash gifts are meant to go toward paying for the wedding.

Zexy estimates that a couple spends on average about ¥1 million on their wedding themselves, and whatever difference there is is made up for by cash gifts from guests (goshuki). That means the more guests they invite (and actually show up), the more the couple can spend. In the wedding business parlance, there are two general types of wedding receptions. Hade-kon are “showy” weddings, meant to stress appearances; while omotenashi-kon emphasize “hospitality” by putting guests first. Hade-kon are not necessarily more expensive on a per-person basis, and in any case the venue will make as much money as it can regardless of the real intentions of the people involved. Anyone who has been to a Japanese wedding will probably note that there’s always way too much food and the presents the couple gives out to guests (selected from a list provided by the service provider) are usually superfluous.

Continue reading about the requirements of a big fat wedding in Japan →

Car taxes could be cut next year

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Old or new, buy later and save!

When you buy an automobile in Japan you pay a bunch of taxes. And when you own an automobile in Japan, you pay a bunch even more taxes on a yearly or biannual basis. Since car sales are considered an engine of the economy second only to home purchases in terms of consumer spending, the government wants more people to buy cars and is thinking about slashing these related taxes.

A tax study group is now discussing the abolition of the jidosha shutokuzei (car purchase tax), which currently amounts to 5 percent of the price paid for a regular automobile and 3 percent for a “mini” (kei) car whose engine displacement is 660 cc or less. This tax is levied on all car sales, new or used, of over ¥500,000 and goes to local governments. Since it’s estimated that car purchase tax revenues for fiscal 2011 will amount to ¥200 billion, it’s quite a sacrifice, but the auto industry has taken a pounding since the March 11 disaster and taxes constitute a fairly large portion of the outlay for a car purchase.

However, there’s more. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, as well as the various related industry associations, are pushing for eliminating or reducing other auto-related taxes, in particular the annual automobile tax, which is ¥39,000 for passenger cars and ¥7,200 for kei cars. Then there’s the juryozei (weight tax), which is levied at the time of purchase and then every time the automobile is brought in for its mandatory vehicle inspection (shaken) and brings in about ¥700 billion for the central government. That’s ¥37,000 for a vehicle of less than one ton, ¥56,000 for vehicles between 1 and 1.5 tons, etc. Then there’s also a special tax just for kei cars, and, of course, don’t forget that consumption taxes apply to all purchases of cars and parts, not to mention gasoline taxes.

Local governments will probably have something to say about the reduction of all these taxes since they are the main beneficiary. The provisional tax reduction for automobiles designated as being environmentally friendly (eco cars) is scheduled to end on April 30 of next year, and the study group is thinking of eliminating or at least greatly reducing both the car purchase tax and the weight taxes for eco cars in order to promote their sale. In any event, if and when the reductions are approved, they won’t go into effect until fiscal 2012.

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