Archive for December, 2011

Convenience stores gear up for a brighter future

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Ready when you are: 7-11 Premium prepared foods

The retail giant 7&i Holdings reported an 8 percent increase in sales for the first half of fiscal 2011 over the previous year. It was a new record and clearly driven by the company’s 7-11 convenience stores. They aren’t the only ones. The three other main CS chains — Family Mart, Lawson and Sunkus/Circle K — have also reported strong earnings, the result of what the Asahi Shimbun calls a “better opinion” of convenience stores in the wake of the March disaster.

Because there are so many convenience stores, they tend to be in closer proximity to people’s homes than larger retail operations, so during that anxious period when people did not want to stray too far from their homes and loved ones, CS became a sort of lifeline. As a result, demographics that previously didn’t patronize convenience stores, such as housewives and the elderly, came to rely on them more and more, and in the process also came to appreciate their distinctive merchandising schemes.

This success has given the industry a sense of purpose, and all four big CS chains have announced plans to open as many stores as possible over the next year or so. According to the Japan Franchise Association, as of March 2011 there were 45,769 convenience stores in Japan. The industry itself, according to the Asahi, believes that the “saturation point” for convenience stores in Japan is 50,000, though some analysts say that due to the rise in single-person households, which is exactly the sort of scenario that benefits CS, the market may be able to absorb even more.

7&i plans to open 1,350 stores in FY2012, while Family Mart, which over the past two years took over 800 former am/pm stores, plans to open another 800 brand new outlets. Lawson’s target for the same period is between 800 and 1,000, and the Sankus/Circle K juggernaut is aiming for 360.

Continue reading about the expansion of convenience store chains →

Auto-correct: Police getting more serious with parking scofflaws

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

‘Tis the season to try to become better for a new year. Often it starts with little things, like squaring debts. The police in Miyagi Prefecture, however, are taking no chances. They’ve just announced a new strategy to force car owners with outstanding parking tickets to pay up: Cars that have been impounded as “abandoned” will be auctioned off on Yahoo.

Don't even think about it

As in most countries where automobiles are widely used, Japan struggles with the problem of where to put them when they aren’t in motion. In fact, given its perennial space difficulties, it’s probably more of a problem in Japan, which explains why parking violations are, administratively at least, on a par with moving violations. If you’re caught illegally parking it goes down on your driving record, which is not generally the case in most other developed countries. That said, people with parking tickets seem just as likely to blow them off because the police don’t always have the time or resources to pursue scofflaws.

Fines for illegal parking are ¥15,000 or ¥12,000 for a regular passenger car, depending on the place and how long the vehicle stays there. It’s more for large vans and trucks (¥21,000 and ¥15,000) and less for motorcycles (¥9,000 and ¥7,000), though not as much as it is for “stopping” in traffic. If the car is towed, the violator also has to pay for the towing fee (about ¥14,000 in Tokyo) and storage costs (whatever the garage or lot happens to charge). However, according to an article in the Tokyo Shimbun, often when people show up to claim their vehicle, the operators will release it to the person even if he or she doesn’t have the cash to pay. They simply send the person a bill, which few, it seems, end up paying.

Miyagi Prefecture has more than 2,200 cases of unpaid parking fines comprising more than ¥30 million, which isn’t a lot in the scheme of things but apparently many police departments at the local level rely on fines to subsidize certain police functions, especially with regards to traffic safety. All traffic fines nationwide are collected by the Bank of Japan, and twice a year these funds are divided up according to population and number of traffic accidents and sent back to the prefectural police departments.

Continue reading about auctioning impounded cars →

You can’t get there from here: Railway tries to bust “orikaeshi” riders

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Two years ago, this blog talked about the Hokuso Line, which has been called the most expensive train in Japan. It runs between Keisei Takasago Station in eastern Tokyo and Inba Nihon Idai Station in northern Chiba Prefecture. Since that article was posted the Sky Access Limited Express opened between Keisei Ueno Station and Narita Airport. In Chiba this train, like the Narita Skyliner, runs on the Hokuso tracks. Consequently, a lot of commuters living in eastern Chiba who use the Hokuso Line to get to work in Tokyo were happy, since the Access adds an extra express train, making it faster to get to their jobs.

Unhappy returns: Hokuso Line poster saying you need an extra ticket if you double back

In October, the Chiba New Town Railway, which operates the Hokuso Line, started a crackdown campaign against patrons who do what is called orikaeshi josha (“doubling back”). When we first saw the posters for the crackdown campaign in Inzai Makinohara Station, we misunderstood the reason for orikaeshi. Because Inzai Makinohara is not an Access stop, we assumed passengers returning home from Tokyo would take the express to Inba Nihon Idai Station, which is one station further than Makinohara, and then transfer to a local train going in the opposite direction. However, when we checked train schedules it didn’t make any sense. Most times of the day the local train going west from Inba Nihon Idai leaves one minute before any Access train going east arrives there; which means anyone doing orikaeshi would have to wait at least ten minutes for the next local going west.

What we learned is that people don’t do orikaeshi at Inzai Makinohara when they return home, but rather when they leave for work in the morning. To catch the Access, which cuts up to 20 minutes from their commute, passengers can transfer at the next station going west, Chiba New Town Chuo, but by that time all the seats have probably been filled by people who got on at the previous Access station, Inba Nihon Idai. So by “doubling back” to Inba Nihon Idai from Inzai Makinohara they can get a seat on the express.

However, passengers are supposed to pay to do that, and many don’t. Considering that the fare between Inzai and Inba — one station — is ¥290, the operators of the Hokuso Line obviously believe they’re losing a lot of money. Even for commuters with monthly passes, the difference is more than ¥2,000, which explains the crackdown.

Continue reading about orikaeshi josha →

Politicians’ pay: Even more than you think

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

Hirohisa Fujii, head of the Democratic Party of Japan's tax panel, listens to recent panel deliberations about a proposed tax hike to pay for reconstruction. (Kyodo photo)

In October we talked about how national assembly members’ pay was going back to normal after six months of pay cuts in the wake of the March disaster. At the same time, the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda failed in its attempt to cut civil servant pay by 7.8 percent because Rengo, the union federation that represents government workers, demanded reinstatement of collective bargaining rights as a concession, which the opposition Liberal Democratic Party wouldn’t go for, so the measure was defeated in the Diet. Because Noda’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan was pushing for the 7.8 percent cut it postponed the voluntary 0.23 percent cut proposed by the National Personnel Authority, so in the end bureaucrats are getting paid the same amount they’ve always been paid. Actually, they’re getting even more since last week they received bonuses that on average are 4.1 percent higher than they were last year.

The government pay situation is a huge PR problem for the administration, since it’s about to ask the public to accept a tax increase to pay for reconstruction. To put things in the proper perspective, the basic monthly salary for a Diet member is ¥1,294,000 and his/her yearly bonus amounts to ¥5,530,000. According to the national tax agency, the average salaryman working for a private company in Japan earned ¥295,000 a month in 2010, and received yearly bonuses of ¥580,000. So on an annual basis, a national politician receives more than ¥21 million and a salaryman a little more than ¥4 million.

But there’s more. Each lawmaker is allowed ¥1 million a month for tsushin kotsu taizai-hi (communications, transportation and lodging expenses). This allowance is supposed to be spent on anything having to do with sending documents to or communicating with constituents on matters of a “public nature,” which basically describes anything a politician does. However, lawmakers are not required to submit receipts showing how they spent this money, so that’s an extra ¥12 million a year, tax-free.

Continue reading about politicians' pay →

Competition taking a bite out of dentistry schools’ tuition schemes

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Drive 'n' drill: Former convenience store turned into dentist's office

Recently, the Japan Medical Association protested the government’s desire to increase the number of medical schools as a means of solving the doctor shortage. The JMA says that more physicians will undermine the pay potential of all doctors and points to the situation of dentists, whose average salaries have decreased markedly in recent years due to a glut.

In a society aging as rapidly as Japan’s is, you can never have too many doctors, but dentists? As a medical practice, dentistry tends to be self-defeating. The better job dentists do in promoting oral hygiene, the less there is for them to do. Like America in the ’50s and ’60s, Japan became more aware of dental health in the ’80s and ’90s and people spent more money on their teeth and those of their children. Such a development had two outcomes: More young people turned to dentistry as a career, and people’s teeth became healthier. Since the latter meant that people required less capital-intensive dental work in the long run, dentists on the whole made less money, especially since their numbers grew as the years progressed.

Consequently, fewer students are opting for careers in dentistry, which is bad news for dentistry schools, especially private ones. According to a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun, the number of university students who said they “wanted to enter dentistry” dropped below 10,000 for the first time in 2008. A year later that number had plummeted to less than 5,000. This year, the number of applicants to the nation’s 17 private dentistry schools is less than the number of openings.

Continue reading about dentistry in Japan →

Annals of cheap: 5manika.com

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Redecorate your one-room apartment in retro (read: cramped) style!

“Deflation” continues to be the word on everyone’s lips when they talk about Japan’s economic problems, but so far one area has resisted the price-reduction trend: apartment rents. That may be finally changing. According to a recent article in the Tokyo Shimbun, it is now possible to find a one-room apartment with bath and toilet in the 23 wards of Tokyo for less than ¥50,000 a month. Generally speaking, since the mid-’80s the only units in the center of the city that were less than ¥50,000 were those in old wooden apartment buildings with communal toilets and no bath, meaning you had to patronize the local sento (public bath). Tokyo Shimbun credits the rise of the Internet with the reduction in rent, since more real estate companies are publicizing properties on the net and, as a result, apartment-seekers have more of an opportunity to compare prices. Before the Internet, you had to basically visit every real estate office in the area where you wanted to live, which is a time-consuming endeavor.

One young entrepreneur, Kenji Yoshioka, is already profiting from the trend. A former employee for an investment fund who handled real estate, the 33-year-old set up a company called A Power Home last April and launched a website called Yachin Go-man-en Ika that advertises only apartments which are ¥50,000 a month or less. He was responding to the reality that younger full-time workers were less well off than their predecessors, who had bigger benefit packages, more assured salaries and, most importantly, the use of company housing. Young people wanted cheap apartments near their workplaces but didn’t want to give up basic amenities, like a private toilet and bath. Yoshioka decided to collect this information in one easy-to-navigate website. It was an immediate hit and in October he even set up his own real estate company.

In most cases, the cheap apartments that Yoshioka publicizes are “sleeping,” meaning that they’ve been vacant for some time. Normally when people go to realtors and specifically ask for apartments that are less than ¥50,000, the agents turn them away because the commission isn’t really worth the time and effort. Landlords, however, are desperate to rent such places and many have remodeled them to make them more attractive while keeping prices affordable, adding things like sound-proofing and even elevators. Many attempt to attract women tenants (who make up more than 50 percent of single apartment-seekers looking for cheaper units) by allowing pets. Tokyo Shimbun mentions a one-room apartment with a loft, kitchen, unit bath-with-toilet, and even a window only ten minutes walk from Itabashi Station that costs ¥48,000 a month. There are even some properties listed for as low as ¥30,000 that have baths and toilets.

According to the real estate research company Home’s, the average rent for a one-room apartment in Tokyo has decreased by 5.3 percent in the last year alone. In addition, security deposits on such units have decreased by 8 percent and gift money by 11 percent. Since the vacancy rate for apartments in general in Tokyo is more than 10 percent (undoubtedly higher for cheap one-rooms) it’s not likely that rents will go up in the near future.

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