Archive for September, 2012

NHK uses carrot and stick approach to get your money

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Demand what you deserve: NHK’s On Demand home page

The good news first. Starting Oct. 1, NHK will be charging slightly less for subscriptions. If your account is only for regular terrestrial broadcasts (NHK-G and NHK-E), the price drops from ¥1,345 a month to ¥1,225, and if your account also includes satellite (NHK BS1 and NHK BS Premium) it goes from ¥2,290 a month to ¥2,170. The bad news, at least for corporate or institutional subscribers, is that the public broadcaster is cracking down on what it believes are scofflaws, particularly multiple-set users who don’t pay for every single TV they have.

On Sept. 10, the Tokyo District Court started hearing a case involving a lawsuit that NHK brought against the hotel chain Toyoko Inn. NHK is demanding the company pay ¥550 million for the period of January to July of this year. The money represents subscription fees for TVs in 236 hotels comprising some 34,000 rooms, which NHK claims Toyoko Inn has not paid in full. Toyoko’s defense is that it has for years had a contract with NHK to pay an annual subscription fee of ¥230 million, representing one-fourth of all the TVs in its possession.

The hotel chain says that it is unfair for NHK to demand fees for all the TV sets since rooms are not always occupied and even when they are guests don’t necessarily watch TV. Toyoko Inn’s lawyers told the Asahi Shimbun that NHK just “suddenly” demanded full subscription fees for all the rooms. He added that if NHK acknowledged the reality of the occupancy rate then the company would negotiate a new blanket subscription fee in good faith.

Continue reading about NHK's collection policies →

Backsliding Japan Post broadens its horizons on all fronts

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

While you’re out, drop by the post office to pick up some stamps . . . and a mortgage

On Oct. 1, two divisions of the Nihon Yusei Group, in English known as Japan Post Holdings, or JP, will consolidate. If you were never aware that four separate companies make up the post office service — Yubin Kyoku, Nihon Yubin Jigyo, Yucho Ginko and Kampo Seimei — then you shouldn’t feel embarrassed. The vast majority of Japanese don’t know about it either, so the merger of the two postal-related services, Yubin Kyoku, which manages the post office system, and Nihon Yubin Jigyo, which manages mail delivery, into one entity called Nihon Yubin may hardly qualify as news to most people.

In fact, most people will wonder what actually distinguishes these two entities. Aren’t the business of managing post offices and the business of delivering mail part and parcel of the same general enterprise? Apparently not, though you’d have to actually work in either of those companies to understand why. Perhaps the best way to explain this conundrum is to look at one of the new services that will be offered after the consolidation takes place, something called tsucho azukari.

With this service, a person who has a savings account at Yucho Ginko (Japan Post Bank) can entrust (azukari) his or her passbook (tsucho) to a regular delivery person, who brings it to the bank so that an employee can carry out a desired transaction on the person’s behalf. Logic would say this sounds like a cooperative service between Nihon Yubin Jigyo, the delivery arm of JP, and Yucho Ginko, the banking arm of JP, but all Yucho Ginko are located in JP post offices, which means it’s really a cooperative service betweeh Nihon Yubin and Yubin Kyoku.

Tsucho azukari is actually a traditional service, especially for the elderly in rural areas where it is sometimes difficult to make it to the post office. But in the past, it was an informal service, simply something that a delivery person did for someone on his route as a personal favor. The new service will be implemented initially on a trial basis at only 52 of JP’s 24,000 post offices. The service itself is less important than what it represents, a reversal of the postal decentralization that former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his life’s work and which started in 2007.

Continue reading about the birth of Nihon Yubin →

New stats about old folks

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

With the rapid aging of society it pays to pay attention to all the latest economic statistics regarding old people, and lately we’ve come across quite a few. Here are some new numbers about households in which the designated head-of-household is 65 or older, carried in the Asahi and Tokyo Shimbuns.

Keep on pushin’

  • The average monthly income in 2011 was ¥185,000, which is about ¥3,000 less than the average in 2010.
  • About 90% of total income is in the form of government and company pensions.
  • Average spending is ¥221,000 month, meaning that the average household is ¥36,000 in the hole.
  • However, in 2011 average savings for households when there are at least two people stood at ¥22.57 million. Savings among seniors has been increasing gradually since 2008, but the statistic may be misleading since it is heavily weighted toward upper income households newly entering the senior demographic. Median savings is ¥14.6 million.
  • 5.44 million people over the age of 64 worked in 2011, which represents 27.6 percent of the nation’s population over that age; 46 percent of men and 26 percent of women between the ages of 65 and 69 worked.
  • Total number of people over 64 exceeded 30 million in 2011, with 50,000 over the age of 100.
  • As reference, in 2005, when the number of elderly was slightly over 26 million, about 2.2 percent were collecting welfare. The average monthly welfare payment for two-person elderly households in Tokyo was ¥122,000 and for outside of Tokyo ¥94,500. About 47 percent of elderly who received welfare also received some sort of government pension, at an average of ¥46,000 a month.

Fast-food joints hail relaxed rules for U.S. beef, signal end of the world

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

Earlier this month a panel of experts recommended to the health ministry that it relax standards restricting imports of beef from the United States, Canada, France and the Netherlands for animals that are more than 20 months old. The panel suggests that cattle up to 30 months old be allowed for import and sale in Japan.

Get it while it’s cheap: Yoshinoya outlet in Roppongi, Tokyo

The restrictions were implemented in 2005 after BSE, or “mad cow disease,” was discovered in some livestock in the U.S. in 2003. Between 2003 and 2005 beef imports from the U.S. were banned. When the restriction went into effect, the U.S. objected, saying there was no conclusive proof that the age of the animal has anything to do with whether or not it can get BSE, and in any case, the incidence of the disease was extremely small and statistically insignificant. The government panel seems to have agreed with this opinion by saying that the age of the cow has no relationship “to people’s health.” They will give their official evaluation to the health ministry some time this fall, and the regulations should be relaxed by early next year.

Retailers and restaurateurs, especially fast food chains, are happy with the panel’s decision since it means they can start selling more U.S. beef, which is very popular among consumers here because of its higher fat content. More than 60 percent of the beef sold in supermarkets now is Australian, with 20 percent coming from the U.S. and the remainder from domestic producers. Though the American dollar is, for the moment at least, worth less in Japan than the Australian dollar, U.S. beef is more expensive than Australian beef due to the restrictions. In fact, the high yen is the only reason U.S. beef is at all affordable in Japan right now. By limiting U.S. beef to animals less than 21 months old, imports are seasonal and thus more expensive. Only about 20 percent of all cattle in the U.S. is slaughtered at less than 21 months, while 90 percent is less than 31 months. Consequently, almost all the animals slaughtered in the U.S. can be exported to Japan after the new year.

Continue reading about U.S. beef imorts →

Home centers forcing JA to improve its game for farmers

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Komeri outlet in Sakae Town, Chiba Prefecture

The Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, more commonly known by the acronym JA (for Japan Agriculture), or the Japanese abbreviation Nokyo, has, in one form or another, controlled the finances and structure of the country’s farm sector since the early 1950s. That means not only does JA help keep prices high so that farmers can make a living, but provides farm families with everything they need to make that living, from loans to sales of equipment, supplies and fertilizer. It even sells insurance and does banking, under an exception granted by the central government. As with any semi-public organization that has a given field to itself, JA’s operations have become sclerotic over the years. In 2008, the agricultural ministry conducted a survey of farmers. When asked where they bought their fertilizer, 70 percent answered “JA,” but 80 percent of these farmers also answered that they were “dissatisfied” with the cooperative’s prices.

JA is famous for using a lot of middlemen in their sales channels, which invariably drives up the prices of everything they sell. In addition, various handling fees and distribution costs make the prices even higher. In a recent Asahi Shimbun article a professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture said that with the recession and the possibility of more imports coming into the Japanese market, farmers have become extra sensitive about costs and as a result are beginning to wonder if JA is really looking after their interests properly. Some have already started leaving the cooperative.

But where to go? According to the agricultural ministry survey, only 2.5 percent of farmers were buying their fertilizer from so-called home centers in 2008, but that portion has likely gone up considerably since then. Home centers, called home improvement centers in the U.S., are large retail outlets that sell everything for the home, but mainly supplies that homeowners need for things like repairs or renovations, as well as gardening and landscaping. The Japan DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Association reports that there were 4,310 home centers in Japan in 2011, double the number that existed in 1990. The home center chain with the most outlets is Komeri, who own more than a thousand. And while home center sales have mostly been stagnant since 2005 owing to the growth of other retail models, mainly drug stores, Komeri is also growing. The chain says it plans to double its present number of stores in 10 years’ time.

Continue reading about home center Komeri →

Buy now to beat the consumption tax increase … or don’t

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Diagram of new Tokyo condo with flowers marking the units that have been sold

Lookin’ rosy: Diagram of new Tokyo condo with flowers marking the units that have been sold

The term kakekomi kounyu means rushing to buy something at the last minute after hesitating for a long time. The implication is that there is some time limit involved. It’s being used a lot now in the media with reference to the consumption tax, which is scheduled to rise from 5 to 8 percent in April 2014, and then again to 10 percent in October 2015. It’s assumed that many consumers will try to buy big-ticket items before the increase goes into effect in order to save money, and that a good portion will wait until the last minute.

Some economists are advising people to not wait too long, especially if they’re thinking about buying a new home. Recent articles in both the Asahi Shimbun and the weekly magazine Shukan Post say pretty much the same thing on the subject: If you’re thinking about buying a home or a car, you should start planning right now. The Asahi uses the example of a ¥30 million condominium. You can figure that about a third of this is the price of the land, and since land sales are exempt from consumption tax it means you’ll pay tax on ¥20 million.

At present, the tax will come to ¥1 million, but after April 2014 it will go up to ¥1.6 million, and then 18 months later to ¥2 million. If you want to take advantage of this savings, experts say you should move now, because the tax is levied not when you sign the contract for the new home, but when occupancy of the property is “transferred over” (hikiwatashi) into your name, and in most cases the average time between the point when a particular unit goes on sale and the point when the buyer takes possession of it is one year.

So if you want to beat the consumption tax raise you have to start looking now. That’s why so many real estate flyers for new homes stress that “now is the chance.” They really do mean “now,” as in “today.” Moreover, realtors and developers are saying that since there will be a rush to beat the tax, demand will be high and so the longer you wait the less likely it will be that you can find what you want. Prices may even be higher the closer you get to April 2014.

Continue reading about making big purchases before the tax hike →

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