Archive for May, 2012

How high is up: Tokyo Skytree boosts economy for some

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

There’s a Japanese proverb that goes something like: Smoke and stupidity always rise to the highest places. It’s a useful saying when talking about the media frenzy regarding the Tokyo Skytree, which opened to the public May 22. Though it’s not our mission to ponder the psychology of why people like to go to the top of very tall structures and look down on everyone else, whatever the attraction, it hardly justifies the redundantly blanket media coverage of the new broadcast tower in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward. Of course, the Tobu Railway group, which owns and operates the tower, couldn’t have asked for better publicity. The number of visitors has so far exceeded its own estimates by 50 percent. No one has bothered to calculate the equivalent value in advertising that this free PR represents but it must

Skytree crowds on opening day (Satoko Kawasaki photo)

be in the billions of yen. And it’s paid off. As of last February, group reservations for tickets to the upper observation deck were booked until July 22, amounting to some 300,000 separate admissions. Because a number of people cancel on a daily basis, the operator of the 634-meter tower has decided to sell an additional 1,000 tickets a day to the lower observation deck (350 meters) between June 4 and July 10 at ¥2,500 a pop. The limit for daily admissions is 14,000, but after cancellations the number that have actually shown up is between 12,000 and 13,000. Altogether, 1.4 million
visitors have been in the tower, 85,000 of whom went to the upper observation deck (450 meters), which costs ¥3,500. Reservations must be made with a credit card (only those issued in Japan are acceptable), and there are no refunds. At those prices and those numbers, it should be no problem for Tobu to pay off its massive ¥400 billion construction cost in a matter or years rather than decades.

Tobu isn’t the only party counting on the Skytree to boost its financial situation. Tokyo Shimbun reports that the “economic impact” of the tower should also be felt nationwide to the tune of ¥174.6 billion and in the Tokyo metropolitan area by as much as ¥130 billion. Even more impressive, Sumida Ward expects ¥88 billion, and that’s just in income. Of the eight Tokyo districts where property values rose in 2011, two are in Sumida Ward near the Skytree. However, according to the Mainichi Shimbun there is some talk among Sumida residents of just how much they themselves will benefit in the balance. About 32 million people a year are projected to come to Tokyo Skytree Town and its retail complex Solamachi, which is considerable given that annual admissions to Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea total 25 million. But the surrounding area is more residential than commercial and while local merchants are trying to make the most of the tourist windfall, those who simply live there are wondering if the boost is worth all the trouble. How the influx compromises public safety

Banks get tax cut and finally decide to pay up

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

League of Extraordinarily Happy Gentlemen: entrance to Tokyo Bankers Association

On May 15 several major banks announced they would start paying corporate taxes. Mizuho Corporate Bank said it would start paying this year, while Mizuho Bank, Mitsui Sumitomo Bank and Resona Holdings will start next year. According to the Asahi Shimbun, it will be the first time in 15 years that Mitsui Sumitomo will pay any taxes. For Resona, a consolidation of Daiwa Bank, Kinki Osaka Bank, Nara Bank and, later, Asahi Bank, it’s the first time in 18 years.

The Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ financial group started paying corporate taxes last year. Despite the Lehman Brothers-triggered recession, all these banks have been in the black since at latest 2006. However, by law they can carry over cumulative losses from previous years on their books. All the banks suffered huge losses in the 1990s due to bad loans. At its worst point, Mizuho was in the hole by as much as ¥5 trillion; Mitsui Sumitomo ¥2.7 trillion. The three top banks’ total profits for fiscal 2012 is estimated to be ¥1.9 trillion, a 35 percent increase over 2011, even though they don’t lend money any more. All these banks received government bailouts and Resona was actually nationalized for a while. Of the total ¥3.1 trillion that was injected into the banking system by the government, ¥2.3 trillion has been paid back, and it’s assumed that the rest will be reimbursed earlier than originally planned.

Until the cut that went into effect April 1, Japanese companies always complained that corporate tax rates were higher here than in other countries, but 70 percent of them never pay any, including listed companies that pay dividends. More than 80 percent of companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange paid dividends last year. Moreover, before the Diet approved the 5 percent corporate tax reduction (from 40 to 35 percent for the biggest companies), the Japan Communist Party, which opposed any cuts to the corporate tax, revealed that “internal reserves” (naibu ryuho) of Japanese companies amounted to ¥266 trillion. At any rate, the special taxes enacted to pay for reconstruction have reduced the cut slightly, but companies still have a smaller rate than they did last year.

Japan Post would prefer to let sleeping dogs, and accounts, lie

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Sleep tight: Japan Post data center in Chiba

Since last year, the government has talked about tapping so-called kyumin koza to help fund reconstruction in the areas hit by the March 11 disaster. Kyumin koza are “sleeping bank accounts,” meaning savings in financial institutions that have gone untouched for long periods of time. The government says it needs at least ¥50 billion for reconstruction, and every year banks “uncover” about ¥80 billion in unclaimed accounts, 90 percent of which contain less than ¥10,000 each. For banking purposes the definition of a kyumin koza is an account from which no transactions have been carried out for ten years and whose holder the bank has not been able to contact.

Under such circumstances, banks typically move this money into the plus column on their books, which is why the financial industry isn’t too crazy about the government’s plan to commandeer the comatose cash. The banks’ argument is that even though they have taken over this money, if the account holder does show up with proper identification and other pertinent documentation they will happily return it; but they couldn’t do that if the government has taken it first.

It’s a credible argument, though Japanese weekly magazine Gendai points out that ever since the end of the bubble era in the early 1990s, banks have become very strict about closing bank accounts, meaning that someone who had not touched their money for more than 10 years would probably require a lot of paperwork to prove the account was his. It would thus be very difficult for individuals to access accounts of family members who have died, since those individuals would have to produce death certificates, proof of relationship and other documents. Moreover, an account can only be closed at the branch where it was opened. It’s assumed that a large number of sleeping accounts have gone untouched because the account holder died without informing his or her family of its existence.

Why the sudden jump in "sleeping account" proceeds? →

Japanese laws make abortion an economic issue

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

Women’s clinic in Chiba Prefecture

Contrary to what most people believe, abortion in Japan is not legal. The reason abortions are performed freely in Japan — 210,000 were reported in 2010, but the number is probably higher — is that shortly after the war the dataizai (illegal abortion) law was exchanged for the Eugenics Law to address the population boom. This law allowed for a pregnant woman to abort her child only if the pregnancy threatens her life or health, or if the woman is financially unable to raise the child. It did not make abortion a right available to any woman who wanted one.

It is thus assumed, for legal purposes, that the vast majority of women who undergo abortions do so for economic reasons. However, since there is no real provision for having women state their reasons when seeking abortions, and no woman in Japan has been prosecuted for aborting a fetus since World War II, abortion is considered effectively legal. It is also quite expensive. Unless the procedure is being carried out specifically for health reasons, national insurance will not cover it. This situation has lead to a paradox: Most women in Japan who seek abortions ostensibly do so because of financial hardship, but are nevertheless forced to pay a great deal of money to have those abortions performed.

According to our own Internet survey of gynecology services and comments on various blogs and websites, the cost of an abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy ranges from ¥80,000 to ¥150,000, which is only the cost of the procedure and does not include consultation fees and medication. However, after the 12th week of pregnancy, the cost increases considerably. Abortions performed between the 12th and 22nd week of pregnancy are between ¥300,000 and ¥500,000. Also, if the patient suffers from a chronic condition that could complicate the procedure, such as asthma, she is required to undergo the procedure at a general clinic, which tends to be more expensive than a women’s clinic or a gynecology office.

Of course, if a physician concludes that the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or health, insurance can be used for the abortion; and if the cost of the operation goes above a certain level, she can receive a refund for any money she pays out of pocket. Even if the cost does not rise above that designated level, if she files an income tax return she can deduct the cost of her abortion on her return, including money she paid for sanitary napkins and even the taxi fare to the clinic. But this is only if the procedure was done for health reasons. Other costs that apply but usually aren’t mentioned have to do with the aborted fetus. If an abortion (or miscarriage) takes place after the eleventh week of pregnancy, the attending physician has to fill out a death report which the mother then files at the local city office. After that she has to pay for cremation. There is also mizuko kuyo, or memorial services for aborted babies, which are completely optional, though some parties have tried to make a business out it.

Continue reading about the price of abortions in Japan →

Diaper manufacturers get them coming and going

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Checking out the merchandise

Ever since Japan emerged as a manufacturing giant it has concentrated a great deal of sales efforts on exports, but in the past decade or so, as the country’s population has begun to contract, foreign markets have become even more important to sustain corporate growth. And nowhere is this dynamic felt more acutely than in the disposable diaper business. Japanese are having fewer babies. In 2011 the domestic market for disposable baby diapers was about ¥140 billion, but according to one major manufacturer, Unicharm, that market is shrinking at a rate of about 2 percent a year. However, in many other Asian countries,  population is increasing along with average living standards.

Whether it foresaw these changes or not, Unicharm entered the foreign market early and started selling diapers in Taiwan in 1984. It now has a presence in 80 countries and territories, in the form of factories or sales channels. This summer the company plans to open a plant in Egypt, its first on the African continent. Unicharm’s strategy is to adjust quality and price for specific local markets. For instance, it offers three price grades of diapers in Thailand and Malaysia, each price targeted at a specific income group; while in Indonesia it sells diapers individually rather than in packs since that is the way most retail sales work in the country.

Japanese disposable diapers are generally considered to be of high quality, and many manufacturers, such as Kao, which makes Merries, the best-selling diaper in Japan, simply target parents in foreign countries who can afford to pay a little more for diapers. Merries is quite popular among middle class parents in China, where they are 20 to 30 percent more expensive than “regular” disposable diapers. Meanwhile, Daio Paper, which is also considered high quality and sells 40 percent of its disposable diapers outside of Japan, seems to be particularly popular among the well-to-do in Shanghai.

But the real news in the diaper business is at the other demographic end. In 2011, for the first time, sales of adult diapers in Japan exceeded sales of baby diapers. According to Yano Research, sales of adult diapers in 2011 increased by more than 100 percent from 2010, with revenues topping ¥160 billion. Unicharm alone recorded sales of ¥60 billion. Growth in the adult diaper market is propelled by more than just the aging of the population. Purchases of adult diapers can be subsidized in part by the Long-term Nursing Care Insurance system (kaigo hoken), and while babies usually need diapers for three years, four at most, older people could conceivably need to use them longer. And as advertising becomes more widespread the hazukashii (embarrassment) factor will continue to abate.

Bus driver salaries inversely proportional to risk involved

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Media crews across the street from Rikuentai offices in Chiba Prefecture

Shortly after he was elected mayor of Osaka earlier this year, Toru Hashimoto announced that one of his first acts in tackling the city’s deficit would be to cut municipal bus driver salaries by as much as 40 percent for a savings of ¥200 billion a year. The city employs 700 drivers whose average age is 50 and average annual pay is ¥7.39 million. Hashimoto wants to bring their salaries down to about the same level that bus drivers of private companies make in the region. According to the land ministry, the average pay of bus drivers in Osaka, whether they work for a private company or a public entity, is ¥4.6 million a year. Since Osaka municipal drivers belong to a union, it’s assumed Hashimoto has his work cut out for him, but likely he’ll make the change he wants gradually, by cutting pay grade increases for newer drivers.

Bus drivers are in the news now because of the accident on the Kanetsu Expressway in which seven passengers died during an overnight charter bus trip from Kanazawa to Tokyo. The driver fell asleep at the wheel and the bus crashed into an overpass wall. Though the driver was arrested for negligence, the accident has brought attention to the stress that long-distance bus drivers contend with every day. Driving a bus, especially in cramped Japan, is a risky occupation since the driver is responsible for passengers’ lives, but salaries don’t necessarily reflect that risk. Municipal bus drivers tend to make the most, but they almost never drive long monotonous distances that can cause drowsiness.

According to a blog that solicits readers about their salaries, municipal drivers and highway route drivers who work for major transportation companies make the most money, around ¥7 million, followed by route bus drivers who work for private companies. They make between ¥5.5 million and ¥6 million, or less depending on the region. The lowest pay is earned by charter tour bus drivers, like the one who had the accident on the Kanetsu. One 50-year-old who posted on the blog said he made ¥4.8 million a year, while a 29-year-old charter driver said he makes only ¥2.4 million.

Continue reading about bus driver salaries →

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