Archive for April, 2013

Should healthy people pay less for health insurance?

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

Finance Minister Taro Aso has been shooting his mouth off again. Tokyo Shimbun reports that at a recent “meeting” he said it “wasn’t fair” that the country had to pay for the medical costs of people who “eat as much as they want and drink as much as they want and then end up with diabetes.”

Japan’s national health insurance does not discriminate between people who maintain good health and those who don’t. You pay according to your income. “Of course, if you have an inherent weakness, that’s another story,” Aso added, obviously recognizing that some people will take offense at his opinion.

Hospital bill for specified elderly patient (over 75), who only pays 10 percent out of pocket.

Hospital bill for specified elderly patient (over 75), who only pays 10 percent out of pocket.

But apparently it’s something he’s thought about a lot. The Asahi Shimbun reports that during opening remarks at a Lower House “party” of some kind Aso said, “I think we should make an incentive for people who are making an effort to stay healthy.”

The government is trying to reduce medical costs, and he believes if someone over, say, 70 continually foregoes treatment for minor complaints that person should be rewarded. “Maybe give them ¥100,000 in cash,” Aso suggested. Then, those people who think they might as well go to the hospital for something small will think twice.

This idea has been floated before, but doctors’ groups, which would suffer financially from such a change in the public mindset, have protested, saying that discouraging people from seeking medical advice for anything is tantamount to killing them.

Aso claims that the average medical cost for a person over 70 is a million yen a year. We couldn’t corroborate that statistic, but fellow Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taro Kono, in his email newsletter, said that the average Japanese person costs the government ¥24 million in health care during his/her lifetime — paid for through both insurance premiums and taxes — and that 49 percent of all medical outlays are spent on persons 70 and over.

Then we thought of our own situation. We’ve been paying into the national health insurance scheme for 26 years and reckon we’ve spent almost ¥10 million. We can also count on the fingers of one hand how many times we’ve actually gone to the doctor in those 26 years for something that falls under our coverage, so obviously we aren’t getting our money’s worth — so far.

Service contracts and the ‘mendokusai’ factor

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

"E" as in "exasperating"

“E” as in “exasperating”

Last week we received a monthly credit card statement that included the first payment for our emobile portable Wi-Fi service, which we signed up for at the end of February. The charge came to ¥4,642, which was higher than we expected. We had applied at a discount electronics store near our home. From the beginning we understood that the service costs ¥3,880 a month, and while that did not provide us with unlimited Wi-Fi access, the amount of access it did provide was more than enough for our needs.

We made this clear to the saleperson right from the beginning because there were other plans available at higher prices and we didn’t want to inadvertently sign up for one of those. He understood, but had to make his pitches.

The first had to do with the Wi-Fi device itself, which cost ¥33,600. Since the basic contract was for two years, that came to ¥1,400 a month, but because we were signing a two-year contract, the price of the device is waived, which means ¥1,400 would be deducted from the standard monthly fee. That doesn’t mean ¥1,400 is subtracted from the ¥3,880 emobile advertised as the basic monthly service fee. Apparently, ¥3,880 is the fee after the seemingly non-existent ¥1,400 device charge is subtracted.

If you break the contract before the two years are up or change to a different service/device, you have to pay a fee of ¥9,975. And if you don’t inform them that you don’t want to renew your contract at the end of two years, the company automatically renews it. This term has bothered a number of other subscribers, especially since there is only a one-month window at the end of a contract during which you can request that it not be renewed.

The second pitch had to do with options, none of which we took. One was insurance for both the device and the software, which costs ¥525 a month. The salesman didn’t try to push it, but he made a point of explaining that if we didn’t want it we had to “waive” it, meaning we had to actively decline the insurance. It wasn’t a matter of not taking it.

From our understanding, the insurance fee was automatically added to the service fee, which hardly made it an “option.” He said we would have to call the emobile customer support number to formally cancel it — for some reason we couldn’t do it through him — and that we should do it as soon as our Wi-Fi service went into effect, since we would be charged for the insurance almost as soon as we started using the device.

Continue reading about portable Wi-Fi contracts →

Deflation watch: gyudon

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Before the fall

Before the fall

Good news for beef lovers. On April 10 gyudon (beef bowl) chain Yoshinoya announced it would cut the price of its standard namimori serving by ¥100 to ¥280 starting April 18. Sukiya, the No. 1 gyudon chain, was selling its namimori version for ¥250 until April 12, and No. 3 in the race, Matsuya, was doing the same thing until April 15.

At the press conference where Yoshinoya made the announcement, company president Shuji Abe told reporters that Yoshinoya felt it could not reach its desired sales target “with prices as they are,” and since “price is the biggest factor affecting sales,” they decided to cut it by more than a fourth. Though Yoshinoya’s two rivals are ending their own price-cut campaigns this week, they carry them out on a fairly regular basis, so it’s likely they will react in kind to the announcement.

In reporting the announcement, the Asahi Shimbun reporter remarked that, although consumers will certainly appreciate the lower price, how can Yoshinoya hope to make a profit after such a drastic cut? Moreover, what does the move say about the government’s strategy of boosting inflation? Yoshinoya’s Abe stressed that the business environment has become “even more difficult” owing to the decrease in the yen’s value, which makes importing beef more expensive. But he also said that the company will still be able to turn a profit because it plans to import even more beef and thus can expect cheaper wholesale prices now that the regulations with regard to beef imports have changed.

In 2004, imports were restricted due to the BSE scare, but those restrictions have now been lifted, and beef from older animals can be sold in Japan. In addition, Yoshinoya plans to cut its retail personnel by “making the work routine in restaurants more efficient.” So even if the prices for the main product drop by 25 percent, according to company projections based on past experience the number of customers should increase by 30 percent, and if that happens sales will increase 15 to 20 percent.

A food industry analyst pointed out something else to the Asahi: Fast food in general has become cheaper in the past 10 years or so, and consumers have just become accustomed to the fact. There seems to be an upper limit to what they will pay, and chain businesses know this. What that means is that these businesses will fall into a permanent state of price competition, even as the cost of ingredients goes up. That means personnel costs will not rise; if anything they’ll have to be cut. And restaurants that don’t belong to chains will be squeezed out. For a while Yoshinoya tried to compete in terms of quality and selection by adding new products to their line, but obviously they’ve abandoned that strategy and returned to price competition.

This is not the kind of outcome the government wants, but consumers have become so used to lower prices they probably won’t spend more except for basic necessities, and the retailers who can keep their prices down will make profits through volume. Much has been made in the media of how department stores are suddenly enjoying better sales, but their customers tend to be people with larger amounts of discretionary income through investments in stocks and foreign currencies, both of which are going up. Such people spend their windfalls on expensive watches. They are not representative of the general public, much of which still decide their spending regimens based on wages and salaries, and despite the government’s hopes and efforts those aren’t likely to rise any time soon.

Japan has become a nation of coupon clippers and bargain hunters. It’s a hard habit to break.

Employment counselors forced to sit on the other side of the window

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

The rise of non-regular employment has received a lot of coverage because of its effect on job security in the general work force. A seldom discussed side effect is the acute anxiety experienced by non-regulars as their contracts approach their expiration dates. Will mine be picked up for another year? Will I have to go out and look for a new job next month?

Hello Work website

Hello Work website

For public non-regular employees this emotional roller coaster starts right after Jan. 1, since most contracts end with the fiscal year in March. And for those who have been working in the same position for an extended length of time, there is no solace in the new law that goes into effect this year and which says an employer must hire a contract worker as a regular full-time employee, complete with benefits, if the worker has been in the same position for five years.

Though it’s assumed that many employers will work the loophole by not renewing a contract just before the five-year period is reached and then hiring the person back after a six month “cooling off” period with an open-ended contract, non-regulars who work in the public sector aren’t covered by the new law in the first place. They can be retained as non-regulars indefinitely.

This exception was highlighted when the labor ministry announced that 2,200 non-regular members of its unemployment advisory staff had not had their contracts renewed for fiscal 2013. That represents 10 percent of all the non-regulars employed at Hello Work counseling centers nationwide, and presents an interesting scenario: Former employment counselors who themselves must seek employment advice.

In fact, a Tokyo Shimbun article described one woman in her 50s who received her notice in early March while she still had several weeks on her contract. Though she knew there was always the possibility her yearly contract would not be renewed the lateness of the notice (the media reported the announcement as being “sudden”) caught her off-guard.

In the last weeks of March she was looking for a new job at Hello Work on Saturdays while still working Monday through Friday at the same facility counseling people who themselves were looking for jobs.

One part of the new law that was already in effect before April 1 is to make the practice called yatoidome illegal. “Yatoidome” means nonrenewal of an employment contract for “no good reason,” but, of course, “good reason” constitutes a gray area that the Japanese legal system isn’t equipped to address. It is this part of the law that doesn’t apply to public workers, supposedly because non-regular government employees are only hired as stopgap workers, meaning people employed to fill certain positions on a temporary basis. They do not have to pass a test the way full-time regular civil servants do. However, in many cases, these workers become as indispensable as regular employees. In 2012, 63 percent of all Hello Work employees were non-regulars.

As for why the labor ministry decided to effectively lay off so many employment center staff at one time, a representative told the media that the ministry hired extra contract workers when the recession worsened in 2008 and again after the disaster of 2011, but now the job situation “is stabilizing” so the ministry doesn’t need as many counselors. Some laid-off employees counter this explanation by claiming that their workloads have been heavier in recent months, not lighter, especially in areas most affected by the disaster. What may have sparked the layoffs was the finance ministry, which has been auditing budgets across all government agencies and ministries and demanding cuts.

The yatoidome exception doesn’t just apply to national public workers. One-third of all local government employees, or about 700,000 people, are also non-regulars. That’s an increase of about 100,000 since 2008, according to a labor ministry survey. Of these, 60 percent work more hours than regular employees. More than half of these non-regulars make less than ¥160,000 a month or ¥2 million a year. And because they are technically part-timers, they are not up for promotions or salary increases. The most prevalent jobs in this category of public worker is day care attendant and librarian, but it also includes policemen, firemen and school teachers.

Local government attempts to make citizens rat on welfare recipients

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

A goal of the resurgent Liberal Democratic Party is to reduce public welfare expenditures over the next three years by cutting handouts to the tune of ¥67 billion, or about 10 percent. The targets of these cuts are households who receive more money in welfare than do “lower income” households who don’t, the purpose being to bring the monthly payments made to non-working poor families down to or below the monthly earnings of working poor families. Thus the public assistance payment for a family of four would drop from an average of ¥220,000 to ¥200,000.

They call it gambling: Pachinko enthusiasts waiting for their loot

They call it gambling: Pachinko enthusiasts waiting for their loot

As to what this family would have to give up, one category ripe for reduction is “recreation” (goraku), which includes everything from TV sets and PCs to books and magazines. However, according to a 2010 government survey, welfare recipients only spent 6.4 percent of their money on recreation, and due to the LDP’s prime bugbear, deflation, they are spending less in this area all the time, so the keepers of the treasury will have to find other places to cut.

One public figure, however, feels that the goraku category hasn’t been scrutinized enough. The city assembly of Ono, Hyogo Prefecture, passed a law that went into effect April 1 prohibiting people who receive public assistance from the city to use that money for gambling. The law also compels city residents to report any instance of gambling by welfare recipients to the police. Given the timing of the implementation and the nature of the law, some people may wonder if it’s a joke, but Mayor Tsutomu Horai, who wrote it, is quite passionate about the matter, which is why the media have covered it so closely.

Ono currently pays out ¥290 million in welfare annually to 120 households. The population of the city is 50,000. The new law states that anyone who observes a welfare recipient spending “too much money” on gambling has a responsibility to report it to the authorities. The model seems to be local versions of child abuse prevention laws, which state that anyone who believes a child is the victim of violence or neglect must report the abuse to police.

The bill first became publicly known in February, before it was approved, and the city received some 7,000 “opinions” from all over Japan, 70 percent of which were positive. As Horai told the weekly magazine Aera at the time, “Let’s say your friend asks to borrow money because of some trouble, and then later you see him playing pachinko. Naturally, you’re going to be annoyed.”

The problem, as he saw it, was that most people don’t care about public money, and so he wants to change that perception. There is no penalty if a person sees a welfare recipient gambling and does not report it, probably because that would be impossible to prove. Horai certainly understands this, but claims that 90 percent of the city’s residents, including welfare recipients themselves, support the law and so most of his job is already done.

The Hyogo Prefecture Bar Association has come out against the law, saying that its purpose of involving average citizens in the monitoring of welfare recipients’ behavior will result in greater “discrimination of and bias toward” the latter. In fact, Ono’s finances are healthier than most local government’s. Its treasury actually reports a surplus balance of ¥8.5 billion, and the mayor himself has said that the aim of the law is not to reduce the welfare budget. If anything, he hopes the law will also alert people who may qualify for assistance to apply for it.

As it stands, the central government provides three-fourths of a typical handout with the remainder handled by municipalities. About 1.7 percent of the national population receives welfare, while the portion in Ono is only 0.3 percent. However, both statistics are on the rise — the number of recipients in Ono increased by 64 percent over the last five years — and is certainly a reflection of the economic situation in general, but Horai thinks that it has to do with a more relaxed attitude toward government handouts. He told Aera that he first thought of devising the bill when he was at city hall and overheard several people who were waiting on line for their welfare packets. One asked another, “Where are you going to play pachinko later?”

Horai focuses on pachinko, which, legally speaking, isn’t gambling. Players can only earn money by trading the excess balls they win for premiums in the pachinko parlors and then “selling” those premiums at specially established booths outside the premises. Though no one is fooled that this isn’t betting in practice, it’s gambling by legal loophole. What’s more, the off-site payment booths are regulated by the National Police Agency, so why doesn’t pachinko qualify as legal recreation, which is considered acceptable for welfare recipients? And why doesn’t Horai induce citizens to narc on welfare recipients who, say, buy lottery tickets?

Actually, he has an answer to those questions. “People say pachinko is merely entertainment,” he told Aera. “But they don’t understand reality. People who spend too much on pachinko are addicts.” In truth, he wants welfare recipients who play “too much” pachinko to seek medical help, which they can do easily since, as welfare recipients, their medical insurance is free. Horai’s system may not make much sense, but he wants you to know his heart is in the right place.

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