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When protecting farmers hurts consumers — and farmers

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Sign in dairy case telling shoppers they are limited to only one package of butter per person

Sign in dairy case telling shoppers they are limited to only one package of butter per person

Butter isn’t as essential in Japanese cuisine as it is in certain other countries’ national styles of cooking, but it does have its place, most commonly in white sauces and baking, and anyone here who uses it regularly has had to pay premium prices for it. Lately, they’ve been paying even more.

In a recent Asahi Shimbun feature a housewife shopping in Minato Ward, Tokyo, is tempted to pick up a package of “luxury brand” butter because all the regular butter is sold out, but in the end she leaves the store without it because she just can’t see spending that much money. The article doesn’t say what that price is, but regular butter right now is said to cost “¥400 or more” for 200 grams, and the luxury butter is “twice as expensive.”

The implication is that ¥400 is already too much to pay, but in any case wherever you go, regular butter tends to be sold out, and many supermarkets now limit customers to only one package per trip. More significantly, businesses such as ramen restaurants and bakeries, which rely on butter as an essential ingredient, are also suffering from the price increase. That’s because there is an acute butter shortage.

And the reason there’s a butter shortage is that there’s a milk shortage and butter is the least prioritized of dairy products. Most milk that’s produced in Japan is sold as milk, and only when there is milk left over after being channeled into by-products like cheese and yogurt does butter get made. Unlike most other dairy products, butter can be frozen and stored for a long period of time.

But why is there a shortage of milk, especially since milk is fiercely protected by the government, making it one of the most contentious items on the table for the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations? Japanese dairy farmers insist that if the market is opened to imports of milk products they will be underpriced out of existence, but as it stands the dairy industy in Japan is dying anyway due to attrition. According to the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (JA), Hokkaido, which contains the bulk of Japan’s dairy farmers, is seeing a shortage of labor in the dairy field, but more importantly the price of feed has gone up greatly in the last year due to the drop in value of the yen. Three-quarters of livestock feed in Japan is imported. One Hokkaido dairy farmer told the Asahi that production has dropped 10 percent since spring and he doesn’t expect it to return to “normal” since he’s already reduced the number of cows on his farm.

Dairy prices are basically controlled by the three large food manufacturers, Meiji, Snow Brand (Yukijirushi), and Morinaga, all of which have enjoyed healthy profits due to the natural price increase brought about by their own control of shipments starting last winter. The ostensible explanation for the shortage was the unusually hot summers of 2012 and 2013. In hot weather, cows are less likely to become pregnant and thus milk production decreases. But a longer view shows that milk production has been steadily declining for almost 20 years. Total milk production in 2014 is expected to be 7.32 million tons, which is 15 percent less than the amount produced in the industry’s peak year of 1996.

Technically, all the butter sold in Japan is supposed to be domestically produced, but even during so-called normal years there is never enough for demand, so food companies make up the difference by buying foreign butter, which comes with a heavy tariff. But during particularly bad years the agricultural ministry will implement “emergency imports” of butter to meet demand, and such stopgap purchases have become more frequent as the number of dairy farms decrease and production drops.

There were emergency imports in 2008, 2011 and 2012. This year, however, there have already been two emergency imports —  7,000 tons in May and 3,000 tons in September. It’s the first time there has been more than one emergency import order in a given year. For purposes of reference, 10,000 tons of butter typically fulfills demand in Japan for 1.5 months.

Consequently, the situation will continue as it is, and will probably worsen, especially for consumers, unless real structural change is implemented, and not necessarily through TPP. What’s needed is internal structural change. Recently, a joint program began in Hokkaido to transfer dairy production technology from New Zealand. Twenty years ago Japan and New Zealand produced roughly about the same amount of milk, about 8.6 million tons each. In 2013 Japan’s output was 7.45 million tons, while New Zealand’s was 20 million.

The difference, as pointed out in a different Asahi article, is that New Zealand did away with subsidies and government support, forcing dairy farmers to rationalize production methods, while Japan’s dairy industry continues to fall under the sway of the agricultural ministry, whose main priority is maintaining influence, and JA, whose importance with regard to dairy farmers is tied to the fact that JA is their exclusive source for feed. The New Zealand protocol doesn’t use feed or factory methods.

It stresses pastures, short grass that is more nutritious than grain, and “seasonal reproduction,” meaning planned pregnancies that make it easier for farmers to plan their years. One reason young people don’t want to go into dairy farming is because the Japan method is time-intensive: year round and round-the-clock. With the New Zealand  method, work stops at dusk, and in the winter both farmers and cows get to take a break.

The irony is that despite all the work Japanese dairy farmers perform, they produce less than half of the milk New Zealand  dairy farmers do, and New Zealand’s population is smaller than Japan’s. Granted, milk products don’t have the traditional traction in the Japanese diet that they do in New Zealand’s, but that is because domestic dairy products or, at least, the kind sold by the three big food companies, aren’t appealing. T

These companies, JA and the agricultural ministry, in order to protect their own interests, have kept high quality imported cheese and butter outside the reach of average consumers, and as a result the domestic dairy industry is now suffering. Farmers are quitting because they think there is no future. They assume tariffs will fall and put them out of business. It doesn’t have to happen that way, but bureaucratic and corporate myopia seems to guarantee that it will.

Political gift culture refuses to die

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Former Justice Minister Midori Matsushima faces the error of her campaigning ways in the Lower House on Oct. 15. | KYODO

Former Justice Minister Midori Matsushima faces the error of her campaigning ways in the Lower House on Oct. 15. | KYODO

With almost breathless speed, two of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s most recent cabinet appointments, trade minister Yuko Obuchi and justice minister Midori Matsushima, resigned after it was revealed they violated political funding laws. Matsushima’s downfall, which revolves around her free distribution of uchiwa (round fans) to voters, may have as much to do with political expediency as with breaking rules, but Obuchi’s use of funds earmarked for public use to purchase gifts and supplement recreational outings for supporters was clearly illegal.

Which isn’t to say it’s not common. As one anonymous veteran of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — to which Obuchi belongs — told Tokyo Shimbun, the Gunma lawmaker’s problematic actions used to be a fairly normal practice in the Diet. Obuchi is accused of using her political funds, which come from taxpayers in the form of seito kofukin (political party subsidies), revenues from tickets sold for fund-raising get-togethers, and donations from individuals and groups, to supplement “theater tours” for her supporters. Obuchi’s supporters each paid ¥10,000-¥12,000 to go to Meiji-za in Tokyo to enjoy a day of stage performances. However, in her required political funds report there was an obvious discrepancy. Since 2007, the amount received from supporters for these excursions totaled ¥11.9 million, and it is deemed they cost more than ¥60 million to carry out, with the difference being ¥53.3 million that came from Obuchi’s funds.

The veteran says that such jaunts for supporters were normally arranged directly by the politician’s staff, but ever since the law became more thoroughly enforced, lawmakers have entrusted the job to travel agencies so as to divert the trail of money.

In her own defense, Obuchi professed that she didn’t know much about the tours, and while such naivete is perhaps understandable for someone still so relatively new to the game, it must be pointed out that she “inherited,” as it were, her father Keizo Obuchi‘s constituency when he died in 2000, and that included his political fund reserves of ¥120 million, not to mention the “sources” of that money, meaning Gunma individuals and groups who counted on him to see to their interests. It also means she took on his staff, who obviously should have known better.

But theater tickets to see some over-priced enka star isn’t the most of it. What really indicated Obuchi’s ignorance over her risky exposure to scandal was the use of political funds to purchase gifts, a lot of gifts. Former politician and current Keio University professor Yoshihiro Katayama expressed surprise to Tokyo Shimbun when he heard about the scandal. “Are they still doing that?” he asked wryly with regard to political gift-giving.

Though the media focus was on infant goods and accessories from a store owned by her brother-in-law, the funds report also includes mentions of cigars, gift coupons, exotic foods, an expensive stole and ¥685,000 worth of clothing by designer Jun Ashida. All these items were purchased at expensive Ginza department stores and earmarked as kosaihi (entertainment expenses), which is usually code for “gifts,” though, apparently, some of the items Obuchi bought for herself. If she offered these items as gifts to people within her constituency it would constitute a separate crime. When it is all added up over the years, the money spent on these items comes to more than ¥100 million, which apparently isn’t a big deal for Obuchi’s camp. In 2012 alone she took in ¥180 million.

Gift-giving is a common custom in Japan that comes with its own set of priorities. Usually, gifts are offered to superiors — bosses, teachers — in the hope that the recipient will do well by the giver in the future. It’s why people slip a surgeon a box of pastries with ¥100,000 tucked inside to make sure he does his best when he operates on the gift-giver. Japan’s election and political funding laws are very strict about such gifts, since by the very nature of the gesture the giver expects something in return.

As Tokyo Shimbun pointed out, the supporters who partook of the theater tours probably felt they deserved the gesture because of their support and certainly didn’t think there was anything wrong about it. But the fact is, there are even strict rules regarding compensation for campaign workers. A candidate can provide lunch only if it is prepackaged and each volunteer gets the exact same item as the next volunteer. And it all has to be written down.

That’s why Matsushima’s uchiwa were such a problem. She was essentially buying votes. But Obuchi’s use of gifts is baffling since she seemed to be giving them to friends and family, as well as to herself and her children. There didn’t seem to be any expectation of returned favors, so the only explanation is ignorance, which, to some people, is even worse than venality.

In any case, political funds are only supposed to be used for political activities, not personal fulfilment. A politician who doesn’t understand how to break the rules without getting caught isn’t a politician at all.

How employer transportation allowances helped create commuter hell

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Rush hour at Yurakucho Station

Rush hour at Yurakucho Station. By nesnad [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, about 86 percent of Japanese companies pay their employees’ tsukin teate, or “commuting allowance.” To many Japanese the high rate will probably be less surprising than the fact that not all companies pay it. It’s a common misconception that the allowance is somehow a legal mandate, but it isn’t.

Employers don’t have to pay their workers’ transportation expenses, but most do. In fact, as the so-called lifetime employment system that was so central to Japan’s postwar economic growth has slowly been abandoned over the past two decades, more companies have opted to either cut back on transportation allowances by limiting the amounts, or eliminating them altogether. The above figure is for regular full-time employees, and the growing trend among employers now is to hire non-regular employees, either as temps or contract workers.

But while transportation expenses are not legally mandated, they are regulated. Companies can write them off as business expenses, but only up to ¥100,000 a month per employee. If an employee’s commuting costs exceed ¥100,000 in a month, the excess is subject to tax as if it were income.

That’s a lot of money to spend on commuting, even in Japan, and, for sure, the vast majority don’t spend that much. But inadvertently or not, the tsukin teate system has contributed directly to the concentration of businesses in major cities, thus exacerbating the problem of long commutes and over-crowded public transportation.

If employees had to pay their own transportation expenses, which is the case in most developed countries, they would naturally find work that is as close to their homes as possible or move their residence to within a comfortable commuting distance of their work place.

In other words, they would balance their job particulars — working circumstances and salaries — with commuting conditions — length and cost. In any case, there would likely not be the situation that you now have in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, where commutes can take two hours one way on trains that are often over 150 percent capacity.

In its series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Shinkansen “bullet train,” Tokyo Shimbun described how the iconic high-speed express gave rise to a “new way of working.” One article profiles a man named Akira Wachi, who has commuted from his home in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, to his job in the Osaki area of Tokyo for 26 years via Shinkansen. The trip takes 90 minutes one-way. In 1976, his company, which happens to make electrical devices used in Shinkansen, transferred him from Tokyo to its Numazu factory. Six years later, thinking he would not be transferred again, he built a house. He was 32 years old. However, six years after that he was transferred, back to the company’s headquarters in Tokyo. With two children in elementary school he didn’t want to move his family again so he applied for permission to commute by Shinkansen. His request was approved.

His commute is now ¥87,600 a month, and his company bears the entire cost. (Reserved seats, like Green Cars, are not paid for by tsukin teate) In fact, he is not the only employee who commutes by Shinkansen. There are 112 other people in the head office who do so as well. The cost to the company is obviously formidable, and surely adds to the cost of its products. The various JR companies that operate the Shinkansen have encouraged commutes by adding LAN capabilities on its trains. One man, who commutes every day from his home in Shizuoka to Tokyo, says he gets a lot of work done on the train even before he arrives at his office.

The article goes on to point out that during the bubble era, when property values rose greatly, salarymen built homes farther from city centers, and could do so because their companies paid for their commutes, so in a sense tsukin teate also contributed to skyrocketing property values. As more Shinkansen lines were built, the train was used more and more as a means of commuting. Takasaki Station in Gunma, which is one hour and 11 minutes from Tokyo Station by Shinkansen, sells about 5,700 Shinkansen commuter passes per month.

In order to attract new residents to its area, the city of Saku in Nagano Prefecture offers a commuting subsidy: up to ¥25,000 a month if the new resident’s employer does not pay the full amount of the commute via the Nagano Shinkansen, which stops at Saku-Daira station. Since the monthly commuting cost from Saku-Daira to Tokyo is ¥132,830, even if the employee’s company pays the full ¥100,000, the employee will have to pay ¥7,830 a month out of pocket. And it isn’t just Tokyo. Some cities located along the relatively new Kyushu Shinkansen offer subsidies to commuters.

It’s notable that the Kyushu Shinkansen was mainly built with tourism in mind and is currently operating in the red, which brings up another by-product of the tsukin teate, which is the enormous revenues of railways in the major industrial corridor between Tokyo and Osaka. JR Tokai, which operates the highly profitable Tokaido Shinkansen between those two cities, says that revenue from monthly and multi-monthly passes increased eleven-fold between 1987, when Japan National Railways was privatized, and 2013.

On the plus side these profits have led to even better service in this corridor, but because all the money is concentrated there, regional railways are going out of business, forcing even more people to move to the cities. Many will say that’s simply the way the market works. Exactly.

Foreign tourists expected to take up (some of) the slack in consumption

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Everyday low prices: Duty Free store at Narita Airport

Everyday low prices: Duty Free store at Narita Airport

According to a survey of 12,000 tourists in 2013 carried out by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Chinese spend more than any other group, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising is by how much they outspend other nationalities.

On average, a Chinese visitor spends ¥191,741 in Tokyo. The average spent by all foreign tourists in Tokyo is only ¥46,546, which means Chinese spend about three times as much.

After China, the most spent is by Singaporeans (¥135,377), and then Spaniards (¥129,558). Another notable aspect of Chinese spending is that the bulk is not spend on accommodations or dining, but rather on souvenirs, about ¥122,000. The most popular area for Chinese shoppers is Ginza, because that’s where all the luxury brand stores are.

The government wants them to spend even more, and is thus expanding the list of items that foreign tourists can buy without having to pay consumption tax. Previously, consumables like food, liquor and cosmetics were not exempt from CT when bought by foreign tourists at stores in Japan, but since Oct. 1 they are.

The main beneficiary of this new regulation is department stores, which have been doing badly since the consumption tax went up in April. One of the reasons consumables weren’t exempt before was that there was no way to check if the items were consumed in Japan or overseas, and anything consumed in Japan should be subject to tax. But many Chinese buy food and liquor in Japan as souvenirs for relatives and friends.

The discount is given at the point of purchase, which means the store has to be registered to waive the consumption tax. They check the buyers passport to make sure he or she is not a Japanese national. Technically, the item can be checked at the airport to make sure it wasn’t consumed before leaving the country, but that sounds almost impossible to do.

At present foreign tourism is one of the only bright spots in terms of revenues. In August, spending by foreign tourists was 40 percent more than it was last August, and ¥4.7 billion of it was spent in department stores alone. These numbers will probably go up more now that the yen is dropping.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates that the new duty-free rule will mean a loss of ¥9 billion in CT revenues for the year, but it will also mean a boost in sales of about ¥78 billion, which means it will make up for at least some of the domestic consumption that was lost after the tax increase was implemented.

The duty free system was established in the early 1950s, when less than 40,000 foreign tourists visited Japan in a year. Department stores have always been lobbying the government to expand the list of exempt items, even though administering the system is bothersome for retailers, as well as for tourists, who have to fill out forms. METI is thus thinking of streamlining the system even more by 2020, when the Olympics will be held. At present 5,777 stores belong to the duty-free system.

Rice is nice when the price is right

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Early birds: Harvesting rice crop in northern Chiba prefecture in September

Early birds: Harvesting rice crop in northern Chiba Prefecture in September

The main rallying cry of those opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotations, such as JA (National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations), is that Japan can no long feed itself with the food it produces, since its self-sufficiency rate is a meager 39 percent. But as attorney Colin P.A. Jones recently pointed out in his Japan Times “Law of the Land” column, this figure is misleading since it measures food consumed in calories.

In terms of production, Japan’s self-sufficiency rate is 65 percent. Moreover, in terms of total volume of food produced, Japan is fifth in the world. The point is, Japan produces plenty of food for itself, and it also imports lots of food. It is a wealthy country by any measure. However, its agricultural sector is lopsided in that it doesn’t produce food in a way that matches demand.

Rice is the culprit. Even without American threatening their livelihood with shiploads at the ready of cheap short-grained rice, farmers in Japan are already seeing prices drop precipitously. There is just too much rice being produced, despite the fact that the government still pays farmers not to produce so much.

According to Tokyo Shimbun the problem started in 2011 after the Great East Japan Earthquake destroyed much of the crop in the Tohoku region, a major rice-producing region. Consequently, rice stocks became low and the price skyrocketed. This situation lasted through the 2012 harvest. As a result, restaurants and prepared food makers cut back on the amount of rice they used. But by the middle of 2013, stocks of rice had increased to the point of a surplus, and a bumper crop was produced in the fall. But demand didn’t follow suit and the surplus grew considerably. Again, the situation remained unchanged and the price has been dropping steadily since then to the point where it’s lower than it was before the earthquake.

CONTINUE READING about domestic vs. foreign rice →

Annals of Cheap: Eco Rent-a-car

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

All you need to know: Sign outside Eco Rent-a-car office in Ota advertising prices

All you need to know: Sign outside Eco Rent-a-car office in Ota advertising prices

Since selling our car some years ago we’ve made do with public transportation, bicycles and our own four feet to get around, even after we moved out of the city. It hasn’t been as much of a hassle as you might think, but, then again, we’re easy about such things. Still, once in a while you need a car.

Several weeks ago we had to go to Ota in Gunma Prefecture to do some research. Ota is the home of the manufacturer Fuji Juko, whose most famous product is Subaru automobiles. Our mission in Ota would take us to two locations, and since we don’t have a car we had to play out our itinerary beforehand to make sure we would be able to get around. Getting to Ota from where we live wasn’t a problem at all. From Kita Senju in Tokyo, which is convenient from where we live, we caught the Tobu express train to Ota and got there in about an hour.

Our first destination in the city itself was on another local Tobu train line that connected to Ota Station, but there is only one train an hour. That station is 5 km from Ota Station, so walking was not a desirable option. The bus system also seemed dodgy, which is often the case in towns where large car makers are the main source of employment. Sometimes you can rent bicycles near a station, and they usually cost between ¥1,000 and ¥2,000 for two hours or so, but usually it’s a place that receives a lot of tourists, which doesn’t describe Ota at all.

We considered taking a taxi and estimated that the first leg of our trip would cost at least ¥3,000. When we were finished with our research at that location, we would have to call another taxi to take us to our second destination. Of course, when you order a taxi in Japan by phone they tack on an extra fare segment. We figured it might cost ¥5,000 to get to the next place, so that would already be ¥8,000 even before we found a way to get back to Ota Station for the return trip home.

So we decided to rent a choinori (short drive) car and almost accidently came across Eco Rent-a-car, which we’d never heard of but happened to have an office right at Ota Station. Much more interesting than the location, however, was the price: ¥980 for three hours. Was that right? There had to be some sort of catch, even if it was for the smallest model, a mini-car (k-car, in Japanese). You even got a 5 percent discount if you reserved online, so we did. Naturally, all the cars Eco provides, including an electric model, are made by Subaru.

CONTINUE READING about Eco Rent-a-car →

Mail order scofflaws are the exception that proves the rule

Monday, September 15th, 2014

The gods know if you're honest: An unmanned farm stand in Inzai

The gods know if you’re honest: An unmanned farm stand in Inzai

A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun described a small cross section of consumers who take advantage of a peculiar aspect of mail-order sales in Japan. Some small- and medium-sized sales agents who do their business over the Internet have problems with customers who don’t pay. In most cases, Internet and mail order sales are done on a prepaid basis: The buyer either provides credit/debit card information or makes a bank/post office money transfer prior to the item being shipped. But a few work on what can best be described as the honor system. They send the item to the buyer with a bill that the buyer pays after receiving the item. Sometimes the bill has a handling fee attached and sometimes it doesn’t.

According to the Asahi article, some people don’t pay up, and perhaps never intended to. A non-profit organization called the Mail Order Unpaid Protection Network (MOUPN), which monitors such scofflaws, estimates that mail-order sales companies lose about ¥20 billion a year to such people.

Asahi, in fact, found one, though he seems reluctant to admit it. In the article, a reporter visits an unnamed man “in his 50s living in an apartment in Tokyo.” The man receives an order of green tea by courier, but the reporter notes that the name on the package is that of a woman. “I made the order on behalf of a friend,” the man explains. When asked why he didn’t use his real name, the man doesn’t answer. Other packages arrive addressed to different women. When asked what’s in one of them the man shrugs and says, “Maybe food?” He insists that he will pay for it but usually “just forgets.”

CONTINUE READING about abuse of Japan's honor system

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