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Local governments finally getting around to public toilets

Monday, November 24th, 2014

Get down: Public rest room in a park in northern Chiba Prefecture

Get down: Public rest room in a park in northern Chiba Prefecture

Japan is a country of tradeoffs. Though there is an intentional paucity of public waste receptacles, there are plenty of free public restrooms, something that foreign tourists should note with appreciation. What they may not appreciate is the fact that most of the public facilities still feature squat-type toilets, which is certainly an irony since one of Japan’s most famous gifts to the world is the all-service commode, or “washlet,” which does practically everything but pull your drawers up.

We searched high and low for some kind of survey that revealed the portion of public toilets that are squat-type and couldn’t find any, so our claim that most public toilets, whether they be in parks, train stations or just along a street, feature squat type facilities is mainly due to observation.

But it’s obviously a situation that people are aware of. Chiba Prefecture recently announced that it set aside a supplemental budget in order to subsidize local governments and private entities who need to replace older Japanese style toilets under their management with Western style equipment before 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics and it’s assumed lots of foreign tourists will come to the metropolitan area.

CONTINUE READING about public rest rooms

Are Japan’s public school teachers paid too much?

Monday, November 17th, 2014

Japanese teachers make more money than the world average, but they also work many more hours. (Photo by ajari CC by 2.0

Japanese teachers make more money than the world average, but they also work many more hours. (Photo by ajari CC by 2.0)

Last month the Ministry of Finance presented a policy recommendation based on studies made by an advisory group. Such recommendations are fairly common, but this one caught more than the usual amount of attention because of where it was directed.

The ministry thinks that the maximum class size for first year elementary school students should be increased from 35 to 40. In purely economic terms, such a change would result in a reduction of as many as 4,000 teachers, which would translate as ¥8.6 billion in savings for the central government alone. However, the ministry’s explanation for why the change should be implemented was not made in fiscal terms. It was made in educational terms.

Until the Democratic Party of Japan became the ruling party, maximum class size was 40, and the DPJ changed it to 35 in order to address the bullying problem. But the finance ministry says that bullying incidents have increased slightly since class sizes were reduced, so obviously it has had no effect.

CONTINUE READING about education budgets

Megabanks start to feel the heat from upstarts

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Shop 'n' save: Taking applications for Aeon credit cards and Aeon Bank accounts

Shop ‘n’ save: Taking applications for Aeon credit cards and Aeon Bank accounts

With the coming sale of the retail banking operations of Citibank in Japan, many of the bank’s customers here are looking for an alternative, especially if those customers want to transfer money to and from overseas. Japanese banks tend to be disappointing when it comes to this type of service, but they are also becoming less appealing in terms of other matters most people used to take for granted.

For instance, we have done most of our banking with the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ for many years, but since we moved out of Tokyo we’ve had to carry out local transactions at convenience stores because there are no MUFG branches or ATMs anywhere near our home, even though we live in a populous and growing suburb of Tokyo.

So we’ve been looking to change banks, and have found that new financial services provided by retailers and IT-related firms are more attractive than what’s available from so-called mega-banks. A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun described how the retail giant Aeon has been signing up new customers for its banking business by offering services that regular banks can’t . . . or won’t.

CONTINUE READING about new banking upstarts →

The case for a higher consumption tax

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Big needs: Should daily necessities by exempt from the consumption tax?

Big needs: Should daily necessities by exempt from the consumption tax?

Right now the government is fretting over whether or not to raise the consumption tax to its planned level of 10 percent in October of next year. For a while it seemed like a sure thing, but the drop in demand that accompanied the most recent hike to 8 percent in April, coupled with less inflation than the administration and the Bank of Japan had hoped for, has put the plan into doubt. The fear is that another boost in the tax will send the economy into a recessionary tailspin.

Akira Sugawara, a high school teacher who has published an economics primer for businessmen, recently wrote a simple, easy-to-understand polemic in favor of raising the tax for the online version of the business magazine Toyo Keizai. In line with his mission to explain economic principles to people who don’t have a strong grasp of basics, Sugawara starts out by explaining what the consumption tax is supposed to do, rather than what it is actually doing.

Originally, the purpose of the tax was to bolster social security in the face of a rapidly aging society, and though so far revenues from the tax have been used to pay off Japan’s massive debt, Sugawara still thinks social security should be prioritized when discussing the consumption tax.

CONTINUE READING about higher consumption tax →

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.

CONTINUE READING about Japan's butter shortage →

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.

CONTINUE READING about political gifts →

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.

CONTINUE READING about commuting allowances →

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