Archive for the ‘Consumer tips’ Category

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.

Fair Trade turns from a movement into a brand

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Guilt-free indulgence

We stopped buying chocolate after seeing a March 2010 BBC Panorama report about child slavery on cocoa plantations in western Africa. Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire produce 60 percent of the world’s cocoa, and much of the picking is done by children who are sold to plantations by their impoverished parents or human traffickers. Some cooperatives that had been approved for Fair Trade status were later found to have used child labor and suspended from receiving the designation by the Fair Trade Foundation. That meant their cocoa could not be used in chocolate that received the Fair Trade label, which indicates that production followed certain standards and producers were being paid a “fair” price for their wares. The BBC’s point was that almost any chocolate that did not bear the Fair Trade label was likely to have been produced by slave labor.

Once or twice a year, however, we do buy Fair Trade chocolate from People Tree Japan through a local food cooperative. People Tree is a non-profit group that specializes in Fair Trade products from all over the world. According to the organization’s literature, the cocoa that goes into their chocolate bars is produced in various South American countries and Ghana, and then processed in Switzerland under the People Tree brand. Shipments of the chocolate to People Tree are not continuous. When the NPO receives a periodic shipment they announce it through their various distributors, and apparently stocks sell out rather quickly. The chocolate isn’t cheap: ¥290 for a 50-gram bar. At your local supermarket you can buy the same size chocolate bar made by Meiji, Morinaga or any other major confectionery company for as low as ¥100. Does the People Tree chocolate taste better? That’s a matter of personal preference, but chocolate is chocolate. In any case, it’s apparent that people buy it because of the Fair Trade label.

Continue reading about Fair Trade products →

Are consumers being short-changed by the yen’s appreciation?

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

"Endaka" sale: Limited time only?

An ongoing matter of concern in the Japanese financial pages is the continued appreciation of the yen against almost every other currency. According to the overriding narrative attendant to this concern, Japanese exporters “enjoyed” a lower yen (en-yasu) until the middle of 2007, meaning that because the yen was valued low in relation to the currencies in the countries where these companies’ goods were sold, they made more money. That changed, and especially after the financial crisis of 2008, the yen shot up and continued to rise over the next three years, even after Japan’s economy was pummeled by the earthquake and tsunami last March. The yen is now up about 25 percent over what it was four years ago.

This is generally considered a bad thing since Japan’s economy depends on exports, but a lot of economists are saying the situation isn’t as dire as the media has portrayed it. Major exporters like Toyota and Sony have the ear of the mass media, so their troubles tend to represent all of Japanese industry in the financial press, but exports account for less than 20 percent of Japan’s economy. These companies threaten to move operations overseas if the yen isn’t brought down, but they’ve already moved a huge portion of their manufacturing overseas. In addition, they buy parts and materials from countries where their yen goes much further.

The economists who point this out also explain that the high yen can be considered a good thing for consumers, who should expect to “enjoy” substantially lower prices for imported products and Japanese products that use foreign ingredients. That should go without saying, and we’ve been waiting to see these savings at our local retailers. We’re still waiting. When we ask why the high yen isn’t reflected in prices we get answers like this: Though the yen is appreciating, commodity prices are increasing; many countries are experiencing inflation; since all imports have to be shipped, prices depend on the price of oil. In the end, these answers sound like excuses, because except for some isolated retail areas (Amazon; one particular brand of imported camembert, pictured), almost nothing sold in Japan from overseas has become noticeably cheaper in the last three years.

Continue reading about the high yen not translating to savings →

Annals of cheap: Fukushima peaches

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Eat a peach

On Thursday, the government lifted the ban on beef shipments for farmers and ranchers in the Tohoku region. That means cattle can be shipped, but the meat they produce will still have to be inspected for radioactive materials. Ranchers in Fukushima, however, want more. They want the government to buy up the beef that went to market before the ban but was not sold.

Farmers in Fukushima, where the stricken nuclear reactor is located, may attempt similar countermeasures for other produce, which is not selling because the public is afraid it might be contaminated. Of course, the very fact that Fukushima fruits and vegetables are in stores proves that those fruits and vegetables have passed inspection and are thus deemed safe according to government standards, but there’s always fuhyo higai (hearsay damage), which can be as deadly to commerce as any trace of cesium. If sales of certain produce are banned, then the farmers can ask for compensation from the government or Tokyo Electric Power Co., but if consumers just refuse to buy the produce because they’re afraid to eat it, there’s no recourse except to throw the produce away.

As cynical as it may sound, there is a silver lining to this situation, and that’s lower prices. In particular, the prices of peaches from Fukushima are lower than they’ve ever been, and if you’ve ever tasted a peach from the prefecture, you’ll understand what good news that is.

Continue reading about Fukushima peaches →

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