Archive for the ‘Consumer tips’ Category

Consumption tax hike projected to increase appeal of electronic money

Monday, March 24th, 2014

The ones: You'll be seeing more of these guys in the near future

The ones: You’ll be seeing more of these guys in the near future

Last month the national mint intensified production of ¥1 coins in anticipation of the consumption tax hike on April 1. The Ministry of Finance wants 26 million of them manufactured by the end of March, and then another 160 million after the start of the new fiscal year. Once the consumption tax goes up from 5 to 8 percent, retailers will need more small change. With a 5 percent tax, it’s relatively easy for stores to limit their use of coins since they can set prices based on multiples of 5. Maybe it’s possible to do that with multiples of 8, too, but not right away, and many fear they will not have enough ¥1 coins on hand when the tax hike goes into effect. An employee of the nationwide ¥100 shop CanDo told Asahi Shimbun, “Altough we sometimes receive ¥1 coins in payment from customers, we don’t recycle them as change to other customers, but now we’re trying to hoard as many as possible.”

If the consumption tax increase is an inconvenience to retailers, it’s even more of a pain in the neck for the government, since it costs between ¥2 and ¥3 to make a ¥1 coin, which is 100 percent aluminum. It’s the first time the mint has produced ¥1 coins on anything approaching this scale in four years. It will also produce an extra 100 million ¥5 coins, just to be safe. The government doesn’t want to relive the small change panic that happened in 1989, when the 3 percent consumption tax was first introduced. Tokyo Shimbun reports that it took the finance ministry three years to put into circulation the extra 7.5 billion ¥1 coins necessary to make the new tax workable. Then, when the consumption tax went up to 5 percent in 1997 the demand for ¥1 coins decreased. At present there are 39 billion ¥1 coins in circulation, which is 3 billion less than the peak number in circulation in 2002.

But the development that really started making small change obsolete was the introduction of electronic money in 2001 with the emergence of the Edy card system, which is now owned by the Internet mall Rakuten. According to the Bank of Japan, in 2012 electronic money was used for ¥2.5 trillion in transactions, which is three times the amount used in 2008. Understandably, the electronic money industry thinks the consumption tax hike will increase usage even more. Edy, which is accepted at 370,000 retailers and vending machines nationwide, told Asahi that it is using the opportunity of the hike to increase consumer awareness for their system, and will offer bonus points for new users who sign up. NTT DoCoMo, which offers the iD electronic money system through wallet functions in mobile phones, now accepted at 514,000 points-of-sale (POS), says it is contracting with even more retailers to install electronic readers, as well as with parking lots and restaurants.

The biggest beneficiary may be EM systems run by transportation entities. Suica and Pasmo cards, each of which are usable at 240,000 POS, offer commuters and travelers a discount. People who buy tickets for train and bus rides will pay more since transport companies will round up fares to the nearest multiple of ¥10 after April 1, while EM users will pay the exact fare. For instance, a JR fare that now costs ¥450 will increase to ¥464 with the tax hike, and that is what EM users will pay. Ticket-buyers, however, will have to pay ¥470.

The mint isn’t the only institution working overtime to compensate for the tax hike. Japan Post is rushing to print ¥2 stamps to augment ¥50 postcards and ¥80 letter stamps. For the past 20 years, all postage has been in multiples of ¥10, so there was never a need for post offices to stock ¥1 coins.

But all this printing and minting will be short-lived if the consumption tax is hiked again, to 10 percent, in the fall of 2015, which is what the government is planning to do. In that case, the tax will actually be a multiple of 10, thus making it easy for everyone, especially cashiers who now dread all those elderly people wasting their time as they dig through their purses and pockets for exact change.

Consumption tax rush approaching peak time

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Curb your enthusiasm: Don't rush out and buy an aircon to beat the tax hike since it will probably be cheaper afterwards anyway

Curb your enthusiasm: Don’t rush out and buy an aircon to beat the tax hike since it will probably be cheaper afterwards anyway

Retailers continue to enjoy good business in the runup to the consumption tax hike on April 1, but some are a bit anxious that consumers may not understand the situation sufficiently. Tokyo Shimbun visited a few Tokyo department stores where the rush to buy is especially intense, causing them to post clarifying announcements to head off any attendant disappointment.

At Isetan, these notices are posted prominently in the furniture and bedding sections, as well as the eyeglass section, meaning departments where people order merchandise and then take delivery later. As one Isetan employee explained to the paper, the consumption tax is applied on the day of receipt of merchandise, not on the day it was ordered or even on the day it was paid for. A good portion of department store sales are order-made products, and the notices are cautioning customers to make sure they understand the date their stuff will be ready to pick up, otherwise they may end up paying more than they thought they would.

Keio department store is telling all its customers about the rule so that “there is no misunderstanding.” Daimaru Matsuzaka, near Tokyo Station, has seen sales of order-made men’s suits climb to 14.4 percent higher than last year, a new record, but the closer they get to March the more nervous they are since some suits take longer to make than others. Takashimaya in Nihonbashi is apparently the most conscientious department store, posting very detailed explanations in all its sections that insist the earlier you order something, the more likely it will be you can avoid the extra 3 percent charge.

However, a related article in the weekly Aera says that consumers shouldn’t worry that much, since there’s a good chance people will buy something now to avoid the tax hike only to end up paying more. Some retailers are not as straightforward as the above-mentioned department stores, using the rush as a means of getting customers to sign up for credit cards in order to compound their savings without realizing that in the end they’ll probably have to pay handling fees that will negate such savings, unless they happen to be frequent patrons of the store, in which case they probably already have a card. The magazine interviewed a few housewives who plan to make big purchases ahead of the tax hike.

One woman says she is going to buy all new household appliances, while another in her early 30s will buy baby shower and wedding gifts for friends who will celebrate these happy events in the near future, but as she said, “often these gifts go on sale in July, so I don’t know if I’m actually saving money by buying them now.”

A financial planner told Aera that it may be a mistake to buy some big ticket items now. Air conditioner sales, for instance, tend to be their lowest in March, which is between the cold and the hot seasons. That’s also when manufacturers put out new models, which means last year models will be quite cheap, so he advises to wait. Even after April 1, the price could be considerably less than they are now, even taking the tax hike into consideration. But automobiles and home improvement work, he says, should be ordered right now, if it already isn’t too late, because they require time before final delivery and there are no bargain sales associated with either. For mini-cars (kei jidosha), in particular, now is the time to buy since next year the car tax for buying one will increase by 50 percent.

In the end, here are items that Aera recommends buying now to beat the tax: household appliances; over-the-counter drugs that can be stored for long periods, like aspirin; gold, since the purchaser can buy at a lower tax rate and sell at a higher one; theme park tickets; long-term commuting passes and train tickets in bulk (kaisuken).

Items that Aera doesn’t recommend buying now: PCs and TVs, because they always go on sale; apparel and accessories, which tend to be much cheaper during semiannual bargain sales; real estate and stocks; gems and platinum, which, unlike gold, are more vulnerable to price fluctuations; and everyday necessities like toilet paper, which people all over the world tend to buy up whenever there is some sort of financial panic.

For customers of Japan’s biggest bank, it’s about to become harder to avoid fees

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Mickey Mouse club: passbook and Direct card for MUFG account holders

Mickey Mouse club: passbook and Direct card for MUFG account holders

Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ Bank (MUFG) is Japan’s largest bank in terms of number of branches, but there are none within the borders of the city where we live, which is only an hour by train from Nihonbashi, Tokyo. Since all of our freelance work is paid through the MUFG account we set up in the Aoyama branch years ago, this could be a problem, but MUFG offers online banking services and there are plenty of convenience stores with ATMs within walking distance of our apartment in case we need cash.

But that’s going to change on Dec. 20, when MUFG’s new ATM policy goes into effect. For people who live near a branch of the bank, the changes are a good thing. At present, account holders can withdraw money from MUFG ATMs without having to pay a handling fee if they do so between 8:45 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. At all other times they have to pay an extra ¥105. Starting December 20, the time for free withdrawals is extended to 9 p.m., and that includes weekends and holidays, which will also be free from now on. The ¥105 fee is still in effect from 9 p.m. to 8:45 a.m.

Things are different, however, for convenience store ATMs. Presently, account holders for certain banks can use CS ATMs for free during the day on weekdays. For MUFG customers it’s the same as it is for bank AMTs — no fee between 8:45 a.m. and 6 p.m. But starting December 20, a ¥105 fee will be charged for withdrawals from CS ATMs between 8:45 and 6, and a ¥210 fee for withdrawals at other hours. So that means we can’t avoid paying a fee if we need cash quickly.

But there are ways to circumvent the fees if you’re an MUFG customer, it’s just that they’re not that easy to understand, so we’ll try to make it simple.

In principle, customers who have accounts called Super Futsu Yokin (Main Bank Plus) can withdraw cash from ATMs for free, though it depends on your “stage” and the type of ATM.

White stage: At the end of the month, if your account balance is at least ¥100,000 you can withdraw cash from an MUFG bank ATM for free any time, even in the middle of the night. This also applies to account holders who have an MUFG-issued credit card, in which case a minimum balance is not required. This no-fee condition is effective from the 20th of the following month until the 19th of the month after that.

Silver stage: At the end of the month, if your account balance is at least ¥300,000, or if you receive your salary in your account and your salary is at least ¥100,000 a month, then you can withdraw cash from bank ATMs anytime for free and up to three times during the following month from CS ATMs for free any time. Again, the month is counted as starting from the next 20th to the following 19th. Note that “salary” has to be transferred as such (kyūryō) and printed in your passbook.

Platinum stage: At the end of the month, if your account balance is at least ¥5 million, or if you have taken out a housing loan with MUFG and the balance is more than ¥5 million, there are no fees anywhere for anything. You can also make up to three money transfers (usually ¥315) in a month’s time for free.

One more catch: To qualify for any of these deals you have to register your account for MUFG Direct, which is MUFG’s internet banking service. Good luck.

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.

Deflation watch: Kabocha

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Japanese pumpkin, raw and prepared

Japanese pumpkin, raw and prepared

The main story at the heart of Abenomics as far as the Japanese media is concerned is that Japanese exporters are making more money since the Liberal Democratic Party regained power. Secondarily, energy costs are rising thanks to a related increase in the dollar against the yen, not to mention imported wheat prices, which affect all sorts of processed foods in Japan. Many food-related manufacturers started raising prices on July 1 as a result.

So far, the price of imported fresh produce hasn’t been affected that much. Last year we reported on the very low price of bananas due to specific circumstances, and since then the price has gone up quite a bit owing to a typhoon that destroyed much of the Philippines’ crop. However, the prices of other fruits and vegetables that tend to be imported in large amounts haven’t changed significantly. If anything, some local produce may have come down in price and thus become more competitive, notably kabocha, the Japanese style of pumpkin, often called buttercup squash in English.

Kabocha is grown in Japan but is mainly available in the fall and early winter. During the rest of the year it is imported mainly Mexico and New Zealand, but also from New Caledonia and South Korea. Demand is so strong that Japanese companies have been running farms in these countries for almost 20 years to grow kabocha exclusively. New Zealand first started exporting the vegetable to Japan in 1988. Actually, China, India and Russia produce much more pumpkin and other types of squash but the kind they grow is not necessarily popular here. (Also, there seems to be some issue with China’s use of agrichemicals.) Japanese prefer a strain referred to as kuri-kabocha, which is drier.

Normally, the price of Japanese kabocha is two to three times that of the imported kind. In April at the Tokyo Central Produce Market, domestic kabocha was going for ¥356 per kg, while foreign kabocha was only about ¥97. However, lately the price of Japanese kabocha has come down to almost even with foreign kabocha, which is a remarkable drop. Last week at our local supermarket kabocha from Mexico was only a little less expensive than kabocha grown in Ibaraki Prefecture. It’s not clear if this is due to higher import prices because of the rising dollar or just that the domestic product is suddenly cheaper. It’s probably both, since Japanese farmers have to contend with Mexican kabocha almost year-round now that there are two growing seasons for kabocha in Mexico.

Also, kabocha, once a standard item in the Japanese diet, lost popularity some years ago and seems to be making a big comeback now among health-conscious families — kabocha contains more calcium than milk does — so farmers are producing as much as they can, thus bringing the price down.

With refrigerators, bigger is better in more ways than you think

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

High end: a 603-liter refrigerator with a five-star rating and 244 percent energy efficiency that uses ¥5,500 of electricity a year

High end: a 603-liter refrigerator with a five-star rating and 244 percent energy efficiency that uses ¥5,500 of electricity a year

Over the past decade or so our diet has changed slightly. We almost never eat meat at home and have gradually eliminated most dairy products. Consequently, the volume of food in our refrigerator has decreased over time, and since we bought it in 2002 it is already considered obsolete, inefficient even. Refrigeration technology has improved markedly in the past 10 years to the point that devices made now use as little as one-fourth the amount of energy used by an equivalent sized refrigerator made in the ’80s or ’90s. And since we are contemplating moving sometime in the future we decided it might be a good idea to buy a new, smaller model when we do in order to take advantage of this greater efficiency.

So we went to our local discount electronics store and looked at all the models. Of course, smaller refrigerators cost less than larger ones, but when we looked at the energy consumption specifications we became confused. The bigger the volume of the refrigerator, the less energy it used. In some comparisons the difference was startling. If you look on the inside of the main compartment door of a refrigerator there is a sticker with the pertinent specifications, one of which is the average amount of kilowatts the appliance uses in a given year when operating continuously. We saw one 500-liter model that used only 40 percent of the energy that a 350-liter model used. The manufacturers make the comparison even easier by printing the average amount of money you will pay in electricity for a year on the outside of a given model. Moreover, there are star ratings, from one to five, that indicate energy efficiency in relative terms, with five stars indicating the most efficient.

We asked a salesman if there was a smaller refrigerator that was as efficient as a large one and he quickly said there wasn’t. The difference he said was that larger refrigerators used inverters to control the operation of the compressors in a smoother fashion, while smaller refrigerators used conventional compressors that simply went on and off to control interior temperatures. The inverter, however, also makes the refrigerator itself more expensive. When we said our present refrigerator was 415 liters and that we wanted something smaller, he said rather presumptuously, “I can tell you which size you need.”

Since we aren’t newlyweds and found his manner condescending we decided to look into the matter ourselves. The star system is administered by the Energy Conservation Center of Japan, a government organ, and is based on the energy savings achievement rate (sho-ene taseiritsu) established by the 2006 Energy Conservation Law. The unit used for comparison’s sake is Annual Performance Factor, a means of measuring energy efficiency. In order to come up with an efficiency rating, the ECCJ currently uses “the most efficient product” on the market in terms of energy consumption in 2010. The efficiency percentages on the store sticker are based on APF and thus only indicate relative values. For instance, an energy efficiency finding of 110 percent means that the model is 10 percent more efficient than the 2010 model chosen by the ECCJ as the standard, and which is not publicly disclosed. The stars are more or less a means of making these comparisons even easier. However, comparing refrigerator prices against money saved on electricity bills may require a certain algebraic capability that most consumers don’t possess or, if they do, probably don’t want to bother with.

Conventional compressors, which use electricity and chemicals to cool the interior of the refrigerator, turn off when the desired temperature is reached and then turn on again when the temperature rises above that level. It takes a lot of energy to turn a compressor on. The inverter works on a kind of fuzzy logic principle. It keeps the compressor working all the time but at variable levels, using less energy in the process. It also produces much less noise since conventional compressors tend to get loud when they start up again. That’s why an older refrigerator, or a smaller new one, suddenly kicks into high gear whenever you open the door. An inverter will add at least ¥20,000 to the price of a refrigerator, and according to one website we saw electronics manufacturers don’t think people will buy smaller refrigerators if the price is above a certain threshold, so they don’t bother putting inverters in them.

Of course, some people simply think that the small-big energy-saving paradox is a scheme by these manufacturers to compel consumers to buy refrigerators that may be too big for their homes or their needs, since profit margins rise almost exponentially with the price of the unit. If that’s the case then it seems to be working. Last year, the only household appliances whose recycling rates increased were air conditioners (up 0.8 percent) and refrigerators (2.7 percent).

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