Archive for November, 2013

Government tries to jolt EV sales with charging station subsidies

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Newspaper ad promoting installation of recharging stations for EVs

Newspaper ad promoting installation of recharging stations for EVs

Norway boasts the highest per capita ownership of electric cars in the world, for a number of interrelated reasons, it seems. The tax on purchases of new cars, all of which are imported, can be more than 100 percent, depending on weight and fuel efficiency, but it’s almost zero for electric cars. The annual automobile tax is about a seventh of the tax burden for a gas-powered vehicle. This savings is apparently enough to offset the higher sticker price of electric cars. According to a friend of ours who is Norwegian, the American Tesla sells for 580,000 kroner, or ¥9.6 million, and there is a six-month waiting list. We asked our friend if there were enough high-speed charging stations in Norway, and he said there are about 4,000, which is not considered enough but he says most people are “satisfied” with charging their EVs at home, where it takes about 8 hours to top them off.

In addition to offering tax breaks, the government promotes EVs by subsidizing the installation of charging stations. EVs do not have to pay road tolls, and they can use lanes that are normally limited to buses and taxis. More significantly, despite the fact that Norway’s wealth is derived from oil, its gas prices are among the highest in the world, twice as much as they are in Japan. So while EVs are very expensive to buy , in the long run they are much more economical thanks to the government.

One of the reasons auto-related taxes are so high in Norway is that the country has no automotive industry to protect. Electric cars are manufactured in Japan and are relatively cheap, but much less popular. At last week’s Tokyo Motor Show, Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Nissan, which makes the electric Leaf, admitted that EVs weren’t selling as well as expected and that the company’s sales goal of 1.5 million units by 2016 would not be reached.

According to Sankei Biz, EV sales in Japan have picked up slightly in recent months, and as of October 120,000 electric cars have been sold in Japan since they were introduced. About 87,000 of these were made by Nissan. Ghosn says the main reason the target won’t be met is “lack of infrastructure,” meaning lack of charging stations.

In August, Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mitsubishi announced that they would jointly build more recharging stations throughout Japan to promote electric vehicle sales, with the help of government subsidies, and last week the four automakers agreed on the details of “specific financial assistance” to parties who install charging stations.

Tokyo Shimbun reports that at present there are 1,900 quick charging stations in Japan and about 3,500 normal charging stations. The government will provide subsidies of up to ¥1.7 million to businesses that install quick recharging stations on their properties and ¥400,000 to businesses that install normal recharging stations. The government’s aim is to increase the number of quick stations by 4,000 and normal stations by 8,000, though no timeline has been given.

These subsidies are being offered through both the central government and local governments. Maintenance of the stations will also be subsidized for a limited time. If the business is a convenience store, it has to have parking for at least ten cars, and if it’s a gas station it has to be open 24 hours. Applications for the subsidy, however, will only be taken until February of next year.

Supermarkets finally get serious about shopping bags

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

A few weeks ago we were waiting at a checkout counter in an Aeon supermarket and placed in the basket one of those laminated cards that say you don’t need a shopping bag. When our turn came the cashier gave us a funny look and asked us if we really needed a bag for one item. We then read the card, which said that you should put it in your basket if you want a shopping bag.

Card saying bags cost ¥2 each

Card saying bags cost ¥2 each

We made a false assumption because we don’t usually shop at Aeon. The supermarket we normally patronize asks you to indicate if you don’t want a bag, and they’ll knock ¥2 off the total if you do. Apparently, that practice is now giving way to the opposite tactic: You have to tell the cashier if you want a bag, in which case they will charge you for it.

Aeon, Japan’s biggest supermarket chain, started this practice way back in 2007, and as of Nov. 1 every outlet follows the policy, which is ¥5 for an extra large bag and ¥3 for a large bag. Even Aeon’s discount food chain, MaxValu, has adopted the charge-for-bags policy. For that matter, so has every other major supermarket chain. Ito Yokado charges ¥2 per bag, Uny ¥5, Seiyu ¥2 for a medium and ¥3 for a large, and Daiei ¥3 to ¥5, depending on the size.

According to Sankei Shimbun, Aeon donates all the money it collects for bags to various environmental causes, while Uny donates half the money it collects. Saving the environment is what bag reduction is all about, though the government stresses it from a different angle than you might think. A study sponsored by the Environmental Ministry looked at the shopping bag problem in terms of resources. One bag requires 18.3 ml of oil and Japan uses 30.5 billion shopping bags a year, which is the equivalent of more than 600,000 kiloliters of oil.

The study also calculates that 967 shopping bags are given away every second in Japan, or the equivalent of 8.82 two-liter PET bottles of oil. The study says that shopping bags waste precious resources, which is of course a relevant situation in resource-starved Japan, though in most other countries the plastic bag problem is associated with pollution.

The main reason bags aren’t considered a waste problem in Japan is that they are routinely incinerated here. In America plastics generally are not burned, which is why the campaign against shopping bags is older, since most end up as landfill. Then again, more European countries are starting to burn plastic refuse, but they are also more strict about shopping bags. In Ireland, for example, a shopping bag will cost you ¥15, which is why there are almost none in Ireland any more.

Card saying no bags and it's ¥2 off your purchase

Card saying no bags and it’s ¥2 off your purchase

Refuse officials in Japan say there is no problem with burning plastic. Dioxin emissions are almost non-existent because Japanese incinerators use very high temperatures, an assertion some environmentalists are skeptical of. But in any case, people still use shopping bags and plastic bags mandated by local governments to dispose of household waste, and the real problem with incineration isn’t plastic but organic waste and kitchen scraps, which tend to be wet and thus require a lot more heat to burn up.

So while the bags themselves may not be a problem, what they contain is. San Francisco realized this and went beyond limiting plastic bags, requiring residents to dispose of organic waste in composting boxes, and it’s been a success.

So while every reduction helps, environmentalists belief that only limiting shopping bag usage isn’t enough. One person on the Internet (scroll down to commenter qqme9839) calculated that in 2009 burning garbage accounted for only 3 percent of all CO2 emissions. And since plastic constituted 45 percent of the garbage being burned, it created only 1.35 percent of the CO2 that was emitted that year. And since production of shopping bags in 2009 accounted for 0.55 percent of all discarded plastic by weight, that means plastic bags’ contribution to CO2 was 0.075 percent. Reducing people’s reliance on shopping bags is a good thing, but it’s not the only thing.

Where’s the beef? Japanese taste buds dictate processing methods

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Something to chew on: Packages of fat-injected processed beef in a supermarket

Something to chew on: Packages of fat-injected processed beef in a supermarket

Thanks to the hotel restaurant menu scandal, even food retailers’ product descriptions have come under scrutiny. Internet mall Rakuten received the biggest black eye, though it appears to have been for a genuine mistake and not because of a planned deception. To celebrate its baseball team’s Japan Series victory, Rakuten held a bargain sale that marked some prices down as much as 77 percent, but in several cases the markdowns were carried out so sloppily that a whole digit was lost. For instance, an A5-grade, 550-gram “steak set” that normally sells for ¥18,400 was marked down to ¥1,000, which is a lot more than 77 percent.

The sale price was supposed to be ¥10,000, but somehow one of the zeroes didn’t make the transition. Rakuten received lots of complaints and had to apologize again (having already suffered the same mistake over boxes of cream puffs) and fork out refunds, but anyone who knows anything about Japanese beef prices should have realized that ¥1,000 for Tosa-bred wagyu (Japanese beef) had to be an error.

Increased scrutiny, in fact, has revealed that many indications for beef, whether sold in restaurants or in stores, while not being technically deceptive are less then forthcoming. Aera reports that one Hokkaido beef wholesaler has been cited for misrepresenting its wares, calling some of its items “beef” when it should be labeled “processed beef” (kako-niku).

The closer attention to wording was probably fallout from the menu scandal, in which Osaka’s Shin-Hankyu Hotel was found to be at fault for listing processed beef as “beef steak,” which it is not. The Kintetsu Hotel restaurant, awarded a star by Michelin, sells processed beef as wagyu steak for a whopping ¥6,300. Even Takashimaya department store’s “beef filets” were found to be processed. A steak or filet is a cut of meat that has not been changed in any way, but many meat sellers take cheaper cuts of beef and inject them with fat to give them the marbled effect that Japanese people prefer.

In the West, the adjective “lean,” which implies less fat, is considered a positive attribute for beef, but wagyu is characteristically streaked with fat, which means it has a richer flavor and is more tender. Generally speaking, the beef that Americans, Australians and Europeans eat is considered by Japanese to be tough and difficult to chew. Thanks to improvements in feed grains in the early 90s, American producers developed softer beef for the Japanese market, which is why so many fast food chains prefer using cheaper USA beef.

Most Australia beef sold in Japan has been processed, meaning that fat has been added. Some store cuts that look like steak may even have been “molded” (seikei). Different pieces of meat are “glued” together to make what looks like a steak and then injected with fat. A friend of ours who once had a job promoting “Aussie Beef” in Japan said the joke among his Australian colleagues was that “Japanese really don’t like the taste of beef,” since to Australians real beef is chewy and has no fat.

It should be noted that the reason beef is chewy is because the cattle is more muscular, in other words healthier than cattle that has more fat. Australian cattle are typically raised on the range where they eat grass, while in Japan and America the cows are penned up and fed grain (and lots of antibiotics to fight the infections that such a diet gives rise to). Also, range-raised beef is not as susceptible to BSE (mad cow disease).

Restaurants and retailers are required by law to indicate that their meat is processed, but the print tends to be tiny and obscure. This could cause problems, however, since ingredients used to process the fat can include dairy and soy products, which many people are allergic to. Parents of at-risk children know to look for the fine print, but restaurants are supposed to ask customers if they have any food allergies when people call on the phone for takeout. If the person says yes, then “real” beef will be substituted for the usual processed kind.

In stores, however, it’s quite easy to determine which meat is real and which is processed without having to squint. Just look at the price. According to Asahi Shimbun, one kilogram of unprocessed grade A3 (highest: A5) Japanese sirloin is at least ¥5,000 per kilogram, whereas one kilogram of processed sirloin is between ¥1,400 and ¥2,000. Seikei cuts of meat are only ¥700-¥800 per kg. What’s interesting is that while fat-injection has been a common practice since the early 1980s, it was always thought of mainly as an economic measure. The purpose was to make beef affordable on an everyday level, but the Asahi reports that many restaurants now say that their customers prefer the taste of cheaper processed beef to more expensive genuine cuts of beef, even when that genuine beef is sufficiently marbled.

Collecting organizations try to give credit where it’s due, don’t always succeed

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

In a recent series on credit information reporting, the Asahi Shimbun explained the plight of a young Kanto woman who had applied for a credit card last March. The card she was interested in offered discounts at selected stores and could be used as an IC card for public transportation. It also had an attractive point system. Almost all her work colleagues had the card and since her financial particulars were the same as theirs she didn’t think she’d be turned down, but she was and the rejection confused her. She had one other credit card, which she had always paid on time. When she called the credit company that refused her they said they couldn’t give her the reason for the rejection.

A gift campaign notice that comes with a monthly credit card statement

A gift campaign notice that comes with a monthly credit card statement

Then she received a letter from Softbank Mobile, her cell phone service carrier, which said that due to a mistake her payments had been reported to a credit information (CI) company as being delinquent. The period of her false delinquency, she realized, fell during the same time that she applied for the credit card. In the letter Softbank said that it had corrected the mistake with the CI company, and when she applied for the card again after a while, she was approved, but when she tried to find out why they had changed their mind the company again said they couldn’t tell her.

Such situations are not uncommon, but since credit card companies are not obliged to give reasons for rejecting or accepting customers, most applicants have no idea that these problems even exist until it’s too late.

In Softbank’s case, the carrier was actually alerted to the “mistake” last March when customers pointed it out to them. The company investigated the claim and found that between December 2012 and March 2013, about 63,000 customers were reported to credit information companies as having been late with their payments, even though they hadn’t been. The reason for the mistake was fairly complex, and common enough for such a reporting system. All of the affected customers, including the woman profiled by the Asahi, had purchased their terminal devices — meaning their cell phones — through a revolving credit plan. Moreover, they accumulated points over time that could be redeemed as credit through the revolving payment system.

Softbank reported all this information to the relevant CI collecting company, but because of a computer programming redesign that took place late last year the settings that translated points into credit did not work correctly, so people who had paid for their cell phones through points were incorrectly flagged as being delinquent as far back as 2009.

When a financial institution screens someone to determine if the person is credit-worthy, they use CI from various sources: the Credit Information Center (CIC), which mostly works with credit card companies and revolving payment plans; the Japan Credit Information Reference Center Corporation (JICC), whose members are consumer loan outfits; and the Japanese Bankers Association, which collects information related to bank loans. When someone applies for a credit card or a loan the institution requests credit history information from the relevant organization. All lenders and retailers who offer revolving payment plans are obliged by law to report credit histories of customers to one of these CI organizations.

CI includes personal data, such as name, address, birthdate and nature of the transaction; as well as “payment information,” including payment trends and the balance of the account. As long as the customer pays on time, no information is recorded, but when the customer misses a payment the CI collecting company receives a notice of there being an “unpaid situation.” If that situation continues for 3 months straight, the payment situation is reported as being “irregular,” which means the customer is placed on a blacklist.

Being on a blacklist does not necessarily mean that the person will lose his or her credit card or be denied a loan. The financial institutions who request this information for screening purposes can interpret it however they want, but generally if an irregularity is persistent the person’s credit history will be tarnished. Information about irregularities stay in the customer’s credit history for five years, even if the loan or credit bill has been paid off. However, if the irregularity is the result of a mistake on the part of either the company reporting the credit information or the company collecting it, then it is immediately removed from the record.

The problem is that often such mistakes don’t come to light, and while credit reporting companies and lending institutions or credit card companies are not obligated to reveal reasons for rejections to applicants, the credit collection companies are. For instance, if you have a question about your credit card history you can call CIC and, for a fee (¥500-¥1,000), they will give it to you. It’s the same for the other two organizations, depending on where you have borrowed money. An expert in the Asahi article recommends that anyone planning to take out a large loan check beforehand with CI collecting organizations to find out whether or not there may be problems.

The Asahi also reports that an increasing number of young people are showing up on blacklists due to their phone bills. CI, it should be noted, has nothing to do with paying utility bills, a matter that is strictly between the utility and the customer. In the case of cell phones, CI is only reported on people who have bought their phones through revolving payment systems, which are usually attached to phone bills.

The problem here is that many young people forget that they are paying back money loaned to them for their phones. They think that they are paying their phone bill, so if they’re late with a payment they simply have to pay a small penalty. They don’t realize that their credit history is being damaged in the process. In many cases, in fact, it is their parents’ credit history that’s being damaged, since some parents cosign for their kids’s cell phones. It gives them more reason to monitor their cell phone usage.

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