Archive for March, 2013

Court says railway can make patrons pay through the nose

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Inzai Makinohara Station

Inzai Makinohara Station

We live on the Hokuso Line, which connects Takasago in eastern Tokyo to the Nihon University Medical Center in northern Chiba, a distance of 32.3 kilometers. The Hokuso Line has been called the most expensive train line in Japan. From one end to the other it costs ¥780, and for us to get from our station, Inzai Makinohara, to its neighbor to the west, Chiba New Town Chuo, it costs ¥290. Many people who live on the line and use it have complained to the relevant authorities and demanded that fares be reduced. In fact, five local residents sued the central government, demanding that the court rescind the state’s approval of the Hokuso Railway’s plan to lease its tracks to another railway company and claiming that the plan did not benefit users. On Mar. 26 the Tokyo District Court rejected the suit, saying that the government authorization did not damage the welfare of the railway’s users in any way.

The plaintiffs said they didn’t understand the judge’s reasoning. One, a 19-year-old man, told an Asahi Shimbun reporter that when he was a high school student he spent ¥90,000 on a six-month pass, which, on average, is about four times what it costs for a comparable student pass on any other line. Now that he’s graduated and going to a prep school he no longer qualifies for the student discount, and has to pay ¥170,000 for half-a-year. Single-station fares on the Hokuso are about twice as much as they are on other lines. The Hokuso Line is part of the Keisei Dentetsu Group, whose average fare for 32 kilometers is about ¥470, so the Hokuso fares are 70 percent higher than fares on other lines even within the same railway group. The reason for the high fares has been explained in this blog before, but in a nutshell, the line was designed to serve the Chiba New Town development project, which began in 1969. Planners envisioned 340,000 people eventually moving into the New Town area, which encompasses portions of three cities, but in the end only about 93,000 actually did. The main problem for the Hokuso Railway Co. was the cost of construction, in particular the cost of land. Purchases were made at the height of the bubble era, when land prices were sky high and so were interest rates. The debt currently stands at ¥90 billion, and the railway pays ¥5 billion on the note every year. But the Chiba New Town authority, which the railway belongs to, also has to pay shareholders, many of whom are farmers who sold it the land in the first place. You can see their huge houses, built with the money they made and are still making, all over the region that lies alongside the Hokuso Line. Since opening for business in 1991, the railway has raised its fares nine times, though it also cut a few, but only by ¥10.

The kernel of the court case is a leasing deal that the Hokuso Line made with Keisei Dentetsu, which wanted to use the Hokuso tracks for its Skyliner and Sky Access express trains to Narita Airport. Regular users of the Hokuso Line were under the impression that (more…)

Auto sales driven by gas mileage

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Fit to be drived

Fit to be drived

Last week Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan would participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, a prospect that worries American car makers since the trade agreement could remove any remaining tariffs from Japanese cars sold in the U.S., thus making them cheaper and even more attractive to American consumers. Apparently, carmakers in the U.S. don’t think the agreement will sufficiently remove what they deem barriers to American car sales in Japan. The fact that these barriers, which include, in the words of Reuters, “discriminatory taxes, onerous and costly certification procedures for foreign cars and [an] unwillingness by Japanese auto dealers to sell foreign cars,” have not prevented certain European automakers from doing well in Japan may, in fact, indicate that the problem is American products rather than Japanese protectionism. For instance, the U.S. claims that Japan’s preferential tax treatment for kei (light) cars — smaller automobiles whose engine displacement is 660cc — is a trade barrier, but since America doesn’t make kei cars it’s difficult to understand what it’s a barrier to. Kei cars account for about 30 percent of the Japanese car market, which means people like them, and the main reason they like them is their superior gas mileage.

It’s also the main reason for the popularity of hybrids. On March 3, the land ministry announced its most recent findings for the best gas mileage among cars sold in Japan. Toyota’s hybrid Aqua came out in first place with 35.4 km per liter (in JC08 mode). In second place was the first hybrid car sold in Japan, Toyota’s Prius with 32.6km/l. In third place was Toyota’s high-end hybrid Lexus at 30.4km/l, and fourth was Honda’s hybrid Insight. The highest non-hybrid on the list was the Mitsubishi Mirage, which gets 27.2km/l.

Aqua is also the best-selling model in Japan right now. In February, 24,526 Aquas were sold nationwide, with Prius in second place with 23,473. After that, it was Nissan’s Note with 16,497 followed by Honda’s Fit. However, overall kei cars still outsell regular cars and hybrids in terms of units, probably because in addition to good gas mileage they cost less to purchase. Suzuki’s Alto and Mazda’s Carol tied for first among kei cars in terms of fuel efficiency with 30.2km/l. American carmakers will probably not be happy to learn that the government has required all cars sold in Japan to meet stricter efficiency standards by 2015 in accordance with the revised Energy Conservation Law. As it stands, however, a fair number of domestic models already meet these standards.

Of course, the gas mileage figures offered by the government and the automakers themselves should be used purely for comparative purposes. One would probably have to drive straight on an expressway on perfectly balanced tires going downhill with the wind at one’s back to achieve 35km/l in an Aqua, but last week we decided to try one out for a day trip to Gunma. We picked up the car in Iwatsuki, Saitama Prefecture, at a branch of Toyota Rental & Leasing. The fee was ¥7,000 for the day, including the use of a car navigation system, plus ¥1,000 for insurance.

We drove about 250 km and ended up spending ¥1,372 for gasoline, which worked out to about 9 liters or a little less than 25km/l. That’s much less than the advertised rate, but better than we expected considering that more than a third of the drive was spent on surface roads rather than expressways. But we didn’t use the air conditioner, either. And when we checked several websites dedicated to jissai nenpi, or fuel efficiency under real driving conditions, the average gas mileage for the Aqua is around 21.5km/l.

For comparison’s sake, in January we rented Nissan’s compact (but not kei) March from Nikoniko rentals for ¥4,000 a day with insurance included but no car navigation system. We drove 140 km, none on expressways, and ended up using 8.37 liters, which means gas mileage was 17.9km/l (advertised: 24; real: 20). The advantage of the hybrid is obvious, and will likely become more so when Honda comes out with a new version of its hybrid Fit in August. The company is already boasting that gas mileage will exceed 36, thus topping Aqua. And it will be cheaper, too.

Convenience store companies boost employee income, engage in one-upmanship

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

No raises here: Recently shuttered convenience store

No raises here: Recently shuttered convenience store

If Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to boost inflation and the economy along with it is to succeed, companies will have to raise employee salaries and wages, otherwise there will be no increase in consumer spending. Earlier this week, a number of automotive companies and electronics makers said they would go along with this plan and announced bigger bonuses, seemingly as a gesture of support for Abe’s scheme. However, one company got the jump on all of them, the #2 convenience store chain Lawson. The company’s president, Takeshi Ninami, who happens to also serve on the government’s Advisory Panel on Industrial Competitiveness, said earlier this month that employees “in their 20s to their 40s” would be eligible for a pay hike of 3 percent, or one percentage point higher than Abe’s inflation target.

Ninami told Nihon Keizai Shimbun that Lawson employees in this age group account for 70 percent of the company’s workforce. It should be noted that the vast majority of Lawson employees who interface with the public, meaning clerks at Lawson’s stores, are not eligible, since they are either hired by the franchise owners or, if the store is company-owned, employed as part-time help (arubaito). Ninami admitted this to Nikkei, but said that Lawson would try to “secure higher incomes” for these workers by implementing “activities to increase profits for our franchisees, starting in March.”

In response, Seven and i Holdings, which runs the No. 1 convenience store chain 7-11, and Family Mart, which operates the No. 3 chain, will also boost pay to stay competitive, since there’s a danger some of their regular employees might bolt to Lawson if they don’t. Ostensibly, however, or at least according to Tokyo Shimbun, the convenience store industry believes it needs to support the Abe plan because retail “is very close to the consumer” and thus must provide an example that could help open tightly closed wallets. Because convenience stores have continued to do well even during the recession, and retail workers tend to be paid less per hour than workers in other industries, CS companies need to take the lead in the hope that other distribution-related firms will also increase wages and, as a result, boost consumption in general.

Domestic consumption accounts for 60 percent of Japan’s GDP. That’s why Abe stood in front of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) and two other business associations in February and bowed deeply, asking them to increase salaries. They reacted “cautiously,” saying that the business situation is “still difficult,” but Abe probably expected that. He made sure cameras were there to record it so that the public would know that he was trying and other business leaders might be shamed into going along. Then Ninami, who is basically part of the Abe team, announced Lawson’s wage plan. In addition, Family Mart announced its wage hike right after economic reconstruction minister, Akira Amari, told reporters that he hoped the company would do exactly that.

Specifically, Lawson will increase bonuses for 3,300 of its 3,500 regular employees for an overall 3 percent boost in employee income. The 54 group companies of Seven & i Holdings comprise 53,500 regular employees, who will receive a “base up” — meaning all affected receive a uniform raise — in addition to regularly scheduled individual salary increases (teikishoku) based on position, age and number of years at the company. Family Mart will give 2,700 of its 3,100 regular employees a 1.5 percent raise in teikishoku and a 0.7 percent bonus increase.

As Tokyo Shimbun points out these measures are mostly cosmetic. Since more and more workers are non-regular employees of the people they work for, there is no chance for a boost in inflation unless they get wage increases as well, and except for Ninami’s vague promise to “increase profits for franchises,” no one has said anything about non-regular and part-time workers, including major media. To give some idea of the scale involved, there are more than 13,000 7-11 franchises and 400 company-owned stores; the respective breakdown for Lawson is about 9,300 to 1,000; and for Family Mart its 7,500 to 450. Franchise employees are paid by the franchise owner, not the company whose name is on the store.

Uniqlo not as different as its workers thought it would be

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

Stock til you drop: Uniqlo branch in northern Chiba

Stock til you drop: Uniqlo branch in northern Chiba

The highest ranking Japanese person on Forbes’ most recent Billionaires List is Tadashi Yanai, the president of Fast Retailing Co., which operates the huge discount clothing chain Uniqlo. Yanai placed 66th on the list with $13.3 billion. His inclusion in the world’s most prestigious business magazine’s prestigious list is appropriate in that Fast Retailing has promoted an image of being more internationally oriented than other major Japanese companies, with its insistence that management be fluent or at least conversant in English and employment policies that have resulted in one of the highest percentages of female management of any company in Japan. When recruiting new talent, Fast Retailing pushes its global outlook and hints that ambitious new employees could see themselves transferred to Paris after only 18 months on the job. Consequently, the company has became a top draw for university graduates, who see it as a forward-looking company that rejects the insularity Japanese firms are known for.

Coincidentally, the weekly economics magazine Toyo Keizai recently ran a cover feature critical of Fast Retailing titled “Hihei suru shokuba” (“The worn-out workplace”). The article describes the company as a different sort of employer than its image would have you believe, dwelling on labor practices that follow all the worst stereotypes of Japanese corporations. Apparently, this isn’t news. Fast Retailing is suing Bungei Shunju for publishing an unflattering book about the “Uniqlo Empire,” asking for ¥200 million in damages and halting sales of all remaining copies. Toyo Keizai seems to have gotten Uniqlo’s cooperation up to a point. In addition to talking to a number of former and current employees (anonymously, of course), they interviewed executives who gave them some startling statistics, such as the turnover rate. In 2007, 37.9 percent of all new regular employees quit the company within three years. This portion rose to 53 percent by 2009. Moreover, 43 percent of employees who take sick leave cite mental stress as the reason. It’s common for new grads to become disillusioned with company life, but that’s pretty high for a company with Uniqlo’s appeal.

The problem is the workload. Company policy prohibits (more…)

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