Archive for the ‘Consumer tips’ Category

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).

Lottery operators still looking for last year’s winners

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Where am I? Lottery booths in Tokyo

Where am I? Lottery booths in Tokyo

According to the Mainichi Shimbun, as of May 13, the holders of seven winning ¥100 million lottery tickets that were sold last year for the Dream Jumbo Takarakuji have yet to claim their prizes, and if they don’t claim them by June 17 the tickets will become void. The media is cooperating by actually printing the names of the locations where the seven tickets were purchased in an effort to jog the memories of people who may have bought them but for reasons unknown have forgotten all about it. Being a responsible social medium, we here reprint these locations in the unlikely event that one or more of our readers happens to belong to this select group: The Koriyama branch of Mizuho Bank in Fukushima Prefecture; the TFC Kita Asaka TK Shop in Saitama City; the Nishi Ginza Chance Center and the Yotsuya Dream Center in Tokyo; the Hiratsuka branch of Mizuho Bank and the Yokohama Porta Chance Center in Kanagawa Prefecture; and the Tenmonkan Chance Center in Kagoshima Prefecture. To check the details and the winning numbers (in Japanese only), go here. The site also includes information about unclaimed prizes from more recent lotteries.

This is not, apparently, an unusual development. Since 2009, ¥20.1 billion worth of winning lottery tickets have become void because their holders did not redeem them by the deadline, which is one calendar year after the winning numbers are selected by computer. Included in this loot are 25 tickets that were worth at least ¥100 million. Since Takarakuji lotteries do not carry over, the money becomes the property of whichever local government presides over the place where the winning ticket was sold, so it’s not as if the money becames a complete waste. The free media publicity may have another purpose. Sales of Takarakuji have been dropping steadily for the last few years and the operators want to keep awareness of the lottery alive. In fact, the failure of some lottery buyers to check their tickets for winning numbers could be considered a symptom of the game’s loss of cultural topicality. As with the squirrel that works hard to hoard nuts for the winter and then forgets where it hid them, all the excitement is in the acquisition.

As land lines go the way of the dodo, what is a subscription right worth?

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Anyone who still owns, much less uses, a fax machine may be embarrassed by the fact. The rest of the developed world has abandoned the device, and it seems that only in Japan is its utility valued, if for no other reason that to send maps to people who still don’t know their way around Google. And the same march of technology that has rendered the fax obsolete is making land lines an unnecessary expense. Most young people who acquire their first apartments don’t bother applying for them. Their mobile phones are perfectly adequate.

What the hell is that?

What the hell is that?

So what about those of us who still have land lines? More specifically, is the kanyuken — the subscription right to the line — worth anything? Once upon a time it cost as much as ¥80,000 to have a telephone line set up in one’s name. That was the cost of the right to a subscription, a kind of investment in the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, and you carried it with you your whole life; unless you wanted to sell it, which you could do. In fact, there was a market, with agents willing to broker your kanyuken to others. Though no one ever made money off their subscription rights, some people used it as security for small loans or pawned them.

Japan started offering telephone service in 1890, but the kanyuken system didn’t begin until 1897, when it cost ¥15. However, households didn’t really start getting telephones on a major scale until after the war, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that more than half of the country’s population had phones in their homes. Many, in fact, were party lines. By 1976, the kanyuken cost more than ¥75,000, and subscribers could pay in installments. The telephones themselves were rented not owned. NTT was privatized in 1985, at which point the price of a subscription right dropped to ¥72,000, not including tax. It’s been slowly decreasing ever since. Since 2005 it has cost ¥36,000, though you can buy it on the market for as little as ¥11,000. NTT does not and never has bought back such rights, so once you purchase it it’s yours forever unless you unload it on someone down the line, and that’s becoming increasingly difficult. Few businesses now trade in kanyuken, though we did find one on the Internet that was offering ¥1,500 for a subscription right.

Consequently, some people forget that they have kanyuken. They move house and instead of having the land line in their new abode turned on, they just use their cell. In such situations, however, you still have to tell your local NTT office that you want to keep the right to a land line. After you do that they will send you a riyo kyushi no shirase (notice to stop usage), which allows you to maintain your subscription right, but only for 10 years. If you don’t re-remind the phone company that you want to keep the right, then after 10 years it expires and the shisetsu setchi futankin (money to facilitate operations) becomes invalid. Of course, during that time if you decide to reactivate your land line then the right is automatically preserved. In fact, the phone company recommends on the notice that you contact them every five years to confirm your subscription right. You never know. Faxes may make a comeback.

Anticipation: How high will mortgage interest go?

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Of course, you can always pay cash

Of course, you can always pay cash

Just as deposit interest rates have remained near zero for the past 20 years in Japan, housing mortgage interest rates have been lower here than almost anywhere else in the world. The effect of the latter has been almost counter-intuitive. Low interest usually spurs investment in real estate and home sales but Japan’s economic situation, not to mention its housing environment, is so odd to begin with that this hasn’t proved to be the case. Younger people thinking about buying homes have lived with low interest rates for so long that they think it’s the norm.

Last week interest rates for housing loans increased by 0.05 percent, the first rise in three months. Interest rates for loans are based on 10-year-bond interest rates. The Bank of Japan, on behalf of the prime minister, is gunning for a two percent inflation rate, and in order to achieve that goal it announced plans to buy government bonds from banks. Anticipating the BOJ’s move, investors have started to sell their bonds. When the price of bonds goes down the interest they pay goes up. More people sold bonds than the BOJ projected, which may not make the government happy since in the long run it will have to pay that interest to bondholders. If consumer prices and, in turn, salaries go up, that won’t be a problem since the government can collect more taxes as a result, but if inflation doesn’t kick in then it just means even more government debt.

Consumers are more concerned with how the change in interest rates will affect them directly. A recent article in Aera profiled a working couple in their 30s who have decided to buy a condominium in Tokyo right away in anticipation of the consumption tax rise next year. Because they both want to be near their workplaces, they settled on an area where the price of a condo that fits their lifestyle is about ¥50 million. They only have ¥3 million for a down payment, and they chose a variable interest rate because it’s lower than a fixed rate right now. Aera asked a financial planner about their situation and the planner seemed dubious.

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