Archive for the ‘Consumer tips’ Category

Auto sales driven by gas mileage

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Fit to be drived

Fit to be drived

Last week Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan would participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, a prospect that worries American car makers since the trade agreement could remove any remaining tariffs from Japanese cars sold in the U.S., thus making them cheaper and even more attractive to American consumers. Apparently, carmakers in the U.S. don’t think the agreement will sufficiently remove what they deem barriers to American car sales in Japan. The fact that these barriers, which include, in the words of Reuters, “discriminatory taxes, onerous and costly certification procedures for foreign cars and [an] unwillingness by Japanese auto dealers to sell foreign cars,” have not prevented certain European automakers from doing well in Japan may, in fact, indicate that the problem is American products rather than Japanese protectionism. For instance, the U.S. claims that Japan’s preferential tax treatment for kei (light) cars — smaller automobiles whose engine displacement is 660cc — is a trade barrier, but since America doesn’t make kei cars it’s difficult to understand what it’s a barrier to. Kei cars account for about 30 percent of the Japanese car market, which means people like them, and the main reason they like them is their superior gas mileage.

It’s also the main reason for the popularity of hybrids. On March 3, the land ministry announced its most recent findings for the best gas mileage among cars sold in Japan. Toyota’s hybrid Aqua came out in first place with 35.4 km per liter (in JC08 mode). In second place was the first hybrid car sold in Japan, Toyota’s Prius with 32.6km/l. In third place was Toyota’s high-end hybrid Lexus at 30.4km/l, and fourth was Honda’s hybrid Insight. The highest non-hybrid on the list was the Mitsubishi Mirage, which gets 27.2km/l.

Aqua is also the best-selling model in Japan right now. In February, 24,526 Aquas were sold nationwide, with Prius in second place with 23,473. After that, it was Nissan’s Note with 16,497 followed by Honda’s Fit. However, overall kei cars still outsell regular cars and hybrids in terms of units, probably because in addition to good gas mileage they cost less to purchase. Suzuki’s Alto and Mazda’s Carol tied for first among kei cars in terms of fuel efficiency with 30.2km/l. American carmakers will probably not be happy to learn that the government has required all cars sold in Japan to meet stricter efficiency standards by 2015 in accordance with the revised Energy Conservation Law. As it stands, however, a fair number of domestic models already meet these standards.

Of course, the gas mileage figures offered by the government and the automakers themselves should be used purely for comparative purposes. One would probably have to drive straight on an expressway on perfectly balanced tires going downhill with the wind at one’s back to achieve 35km/l in an Aqua, but last week we decided to try one out for a day trip to Gunma. We picked up the car in Iwatsuki, Saitama Prefecture, at a branch of Toyota Rental & Leasing. The fee was ¥7,000 for the day, including the use of a car navigation system, plus ¥1,000 for insurance.

We drove about 250 km and ended up spending ¥1,372 for gasoline, which worked out to about 9 liters or a little less than 25km/l. That’s much less than the advertised rate, but better than we expected considering that more than a third of the drive was spent on surface roads rather than expressways. But we didn’t use the air conditioner, either. And when we checked several websites dedicated to jissai nenpi, or fuel efficiency under real driving conditions, the average gas mileage for the Aqua is around 21.5km/l.

For comparison’s sake, in January we rented Nissan’s compact (but not kei) March from Nikoniko rentals for ¥4,000 a day with insurance included but no car navigation system. We drove 140 km, none on expressways, and ended up using 8.37 liters, which means gas mileage was 17.9km/l (advertised: 24; real: 20). The advantage of the hybrid is obvious, and will likely become more so when Honda comes out with a new version of its hybrid Fit in August. The company is already boasting that gas mileage will exceed 36, thus topping Aqua. And it will be cheaper, too.

Energy conservation isn’t just for summers any more

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Last summer when the antinuclear movement was receiving a lot of media coverage, the government and utilities justified their plans for reopening nuclear power plants with statistics purportedly showing how dangerously close to capacity electricity usage is in the summer, when everyone has their air conditioners on. Thanks to energy conservation efforts on everyone’s part there were no overloads, but in terms of households, reibo (cooling) only accounts for 2 percent of overall energy usage when measured in calories. Danbo (heating), on the other hand, accounts for 25 percent of home-energy usage.

Fill ‘er up: Kerosene station in Chiba

Of course, there are various methods for heating homes in Japan. In addition to electricity, there is natural gas, liquid propane gas and kerosene (toyu), but electricity has been increasing in recent decades as a means for home-heating. Between 1980 and 2005, the use of kerosene, which is utilized in space-heating “stoves,” declined from 71 to 45 percent in terms of heating needs in the Kanto area, while both natural gas and LPG increased from 21 to 35 percent and electricity from 8 to 20 percent. However, when you factor in all of a home’s energy needs — cooking, lighting, bathing, etc. — electricity accounts for 50 percent, kerosene 17 percent, natural gas 20 percent and LPG 10 percent of household energy consumption. That was for all homes in Japan in 2009. In 1973, electricity only accounted for 28 percent of overall household energy usage. So with the promotion of all-electric houses in recent years, the overall portion of home heating by electricity has probably gone up even more.

The peak period for electricity usage in the wintertime is between 5 and 6 p.m., and during the current sharp cold spell, electricity usage as reported by Tokyo Electric Power has been over 90 percent during the peak time slot. The main difference between wintertime and summertime is that power plants reduce capacity in the winter, so 90 percent represents less power usage in the winter than it does in the summer. Most air conditioners run on electricity, but as shown above heating systems use a variety of methods, so electrical usage is deemed to be less. But since electricity usage in the winter is on the increase, why aren’t power companies warning people to cut back when the usage gets close to the limit, as they did last summer?

Continue reading about wintertime energy conservation →

Working the system: Beware of doctors with private rooms

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Sleeping alone in a place like this could cost you.

Japan’s national health insurance system isn’t perfect, but it’s fairly airtight. Unless you have a condition that might benefit from some sort of experimental treatment which has yet to be approved by the government, everything is covered, meaning you won’t pay more than 30 percent of the cost of that treatment. And if the amount you do pay exceeds a certain amount, the government will pay for most of that as well, so there is very little danger of, say, a patient having to mortgage his house to pay for care, even for a so-called catastrophic illness, which is something that occasionally happens in the United States.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t medical situations where people end up paying a lot of money; it’s just that they probably don’t have to. This is why we’ve always been mystified by the supplemental health insurance business in Japan. Why buy extra insurance when the national system takes care of everything? One of the main reasons is private rooms, which the government doesn’t pay for. National insurance covers overnight stays, but only for non-private rooms, and only a very limited amount. If a patient wants a private or semi-private room, or even a special type of bed in a non-private room, he or she has to pay for it out of pocket.

Some doctors use this exception to make money. An acquaintance of ours, whom we’ll call A-san, recently told us a story about a visit she made to a private gynecology/obstetrics clinic in Saitama Prefecture. A-san was worried about her 77-year-old mother, who lives separately from her and has been suffering from a gynecological disorder for almost a year. Though she had been to her local hospital, the doctor there said he could not treat the condition properly, and while it wasn’t life threatening, it made everyday life difficult. A-san’s mother is on a fixed income and not tech-savvy, so A-san Googled the name of her condition and the first clinic that came up in the search said it had experience treating elderly women for that particular condition and happened to be not far from her mother’s home. She made an appointment.

The clinic’s owner and only doctor was quite chatty, and, after examining her mother, he told A-san that she needed an operation, and that because she had special insurance for elderly people she would only pay 10 percent of the surgery cost. In addition, since the surgery was expensive, she could apply for the kogaku iryo (high cost medicine) system, which would refund most of the 10 percent she would normally have ended up paying. In the end, she would only have to pay ¥44,400 for the actual operation.

But there was a catch. The clinic, which mostly catered to expecting mothers, only offered private rooms for ¥16,900 a night. The doctor said that following the operation, A-san’s mother would need to remain in the clinic for 10 nights, so altogether the operation would cost more than ¥200,000, not counting transportation to and from the hospital and whatever medication she would have to take. An interesting justification for extra charges...

NHK uses carrot and stick approach to get your money

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Demand what you deserve: NHK’s On Demand home page

The good news first. Starting Oct. 1, NHK will be charging slightly less for subscriptions. If your account is only for regular terrestrial broadcasts (NHK-G and NHK-E), the price drops from ¥1,345 a month to ¥1,225, and if your account also includes satellite (NHK BS1 and NHK BS Premium) it goes from ¥2,290 a month to ¥2,170. The bad news, at least for corporate or institutional subscribers, is that the public broadcaster is cracking down on what it believes are scofflaws, particularly multiple-set users who don’t pay for every single TV they have.

On Sept. 10, the Tokyo District Court started hearing a case involving a lawsuit that NHK brought against the hotel chain Toyoko Inn. NHK is demanding the company pay ¥550 million for the period of January to July of this year. The money represents subscription fees for TVs in 236 hotels comprising some 34,000 rooms, which NHK claims Toyoko Inn has not paid in full. Toyoko’s defense is that it has for years had a contract with NHK to pay an annual subscription fee of ¥230 million, representing one-fourth of all the TVs in its possession.

The hotel chain says that it is unfair for NHK to demand fees for all the TV sets since rooms are not always occupied and even when they are guests don’t necessarily watch TV. Toyoko Inn’s lawyers told the Asahi Shimbun that NHK just “suddenly” demanded full subscription fees for all the rooms. He added that if NHK acknowledged the reality of the occupancy rate then the company would negotiate a new blanket subscription fee in good faith.

Continue reading about NHK's collection policies →

Buy now to beat the consumption tax increase … or don’t

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Diagram of new Tokyo condo with flowers marking the units that have been sold

Lookin’ rosy: Diagram of new Tokyo condo with flowers marking the units that have been sold

The term kakekomi kounyu means rushing to buy something at the last minute after hesitating for a long time. The implication is that there is some time limit involved. It’s being used a lot now in the media with reference to the consumption tax, which is scheduled to rise from 5 to 8 percent in April 2014, and then again to 10 percent in October 2015. It’s assumed that many consumers will try to buy big-ticket items before the increase goes into effect in order to save money, and that a good portion will wait until the last minute.

Some economists are advising people to not wait too long, especially if they’re thinking about buying a new home. Recent articles in both the Asahi Shimbun and the weekly magazine Shukan Post say pretty much the same thing on the subject: If you’re thinking about buying a home or a car, you should start planning right now. The Asahi uses the example of a ¥30 million condominium. You can figure that about a third of this is the price of the land, and since land sales are exempt from consumption tax it means you’ll pay tax on ¥20 million.

At present, the tax will come to ¥1 million, but after April 2014 it will go up to ¥1.6 million, and then 18 months later to ¥2 million. If you want to take advantage of this savings, experts say you should move now, because the tax is levied not when you sign the contract for the new home, but when occupancy of the property is “transferred over” (hikiwatashi) into your name, and in most cases the average time between the point when a particular unit goes on sale and the point when the buyer takes possession of it is one year.

So if you want to beat the consumption tax raise you have to start looking now. That’s why so many real estate flyers for new homes stress that “now is the chance.” They really do mean “now,” as in “today.” Moreover, realtors and developers are saying that since there will be a rush to beat the tax, demand will be high and so the longer you wait the less likely it will be that you can find what you want. Prices may even be higher the closer you get to April 2014.

Continue reading about making big purchases before the tax hike →

Breaker, breaker: How to conserve energy without thinking too much

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

Power trip: electrical panel with 30-ampere main breaker switch

Last Monday the summer setsuden (electricity-saving) campaign started. All the regional utilities except Okinawa’s are requesting that customers cut back on their energy use so as not to put a strain on the grid, which has been compromised by the shutdown of so many nuclear power plants in the wake of last year’s meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 reactors. As evidenced by the large anti-nuclear demonstrations taking place, a lot of people have strong feelings about atomic energy, but whether you believe it to be too dangerous to handle or an acceptable alternative to carbon-based sources, the best way to address the more pressing issue of energy shortages is to reduce usage.

Though there are many piecemeal methods for saving energy, one way to immediately cut down is to exchange your main circuit breaker, the gatekeeper for the current that flows into your home. Power is measured by means of watts, and the number printed on your breaker, which stands for amperes, represents the maximum amount of wattage that can pass into your home at one time. Different household appliances use different amounts of power. Anything that cooks or produces heat will use more power than other appliances. When the amount of power flowing into your home exceeds the ampere level of your breaker, it automatically trips, causing a blackout, but only in your home. If you use a lot of electricity, then you should install a breaker with a higher ampere number.

In Japan, household breakers come in seven steps, from 10 amperes to 60. The higher the number, the higher the basic charge on your monthly electricity bill. If you are a Tokyo Electric Power Co. customer you pay ¥273 for 10 amperes, ¥409 for 15, ¥546 for 20, ¥819 for 30, ¥1,092 for 40, ¥1,365 for 50 and ¥1,638 for 60. In order to figure out which breaker level is appropriate, take a survey of all your household appliances and how often you use each one.

Continue reading about easy energy consevation →

Bottoms up: Discount takeout sushi less than meets the eye

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

The other day we came across this blog post reporting on misleading marketing by an American company called Banzai with regard to the photographs it uses on its packaging. It’s a common complaint: Products always look larger — or, at least, better — in the promo materials than they do in reality.

Reality vs. fantasy

It struck a nerve since we had just taken advantage of a limited campaign for cut-price takeout sushi from a certain national chain. In the flyers for the campaign, which continues through Jan. 20, the food looks particularly inviting, and among the things we ordered was the ¥590 Hokkaido-style chirashi sushi, a tray divided into three sections, each of which contained a bed of rice covered with various toppings. In the store display case it seemed equal to the size indicated in the ads, which even included the exact width and length of the box in millimeters, but once we got it home and dug in we discovered that what looked OK in two dimensions was deficient in the third. The layer of rice in all three compartments was barely three grains thick. This is a marketing trick called soko-age, or “raising the bottom.”

Of course, we should have guessed that ¥590 was way too cheap for anything labeled “sushi,” especially since chain sushi restaurants have a reputation for skimping. The neta, or slice of flesh that goes on the top of the ball of rice, tends to be thinner than it appears to be in the display cases and advertisements, which are always careful to point out that the photos provided are only “images,” a vague enough word in English but when used in Japanese is usually closer in meaning to “imagination.”

We should point out that the quality of the ingredients is usually satisfactory. The whole point is that “bargain” mean you’re getting less than meets the eye, especially when it comes to chain restaurants and takeout businesses. The same goes for hotels. For years, any “limited time bargain” room we booked turned out to seem much more cramped than the room that the hotel used in its Internet advertisements, so we’ve come to understand that you do, in fact, get what you pay for. If you reserve a cheaper room, it will likely look cheap when you arrive, regardless of the visual representation. This should be obvious since such ads for bargain rate accommodations invariably state, in small type, that the guest will not be able to choose the room.

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