Archive for the ‘Consumer tips’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Which appliance is the energy hog? It’s not your air conditioner

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

See that red button on the right...

Actually, in terms of overall electricity usage in households, air conditioners use the most on a continual basis, followed by refrigerators. But on a unit per hour basis, air conditioners are not that bad, even though they’ve been made the villain by the media. Broadcasters, in particular, are offering tips to households on how to cut down on energy consumption and the main suggestion is to set your air conditioner at 28 degrees centigrade. Because so many people, in particular the elderly, have fallen victim to heat stroke, no one is saying to turn off the air conditioner any more, but the general consensus is that the average air conditioner in the average home uses about 130 watts of energy and, overall, accounts for a bit less than a fourth of the summer electricity bill, which gives you some idea of the savings potential.

What the media doesn’t say, according to an article in the most recent issue of Shukan Post, is that there is another appliance in your house that actually uses more electricity. A typical large screen (over 37 inches) LCD television set uses on average 220 watts, or 70 percent more energy than the air conditioner if both are being used continuously, but, of course, media companies aren’t going to suggest you turn off the TV because that would hurt their business.

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Annals of Cheap: 32-inch flat screen TVs

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

In your face: Most families have already replaced their main TV with one of these huge babies

Now’s the time to buy a TV if you’re in the market to replace the old analog CRT clunker that’s been your backup. Prices for mid-size and small flat screen sets are as low as they’re ever going to get owing to several factors that happened to have converged during the last few months.

According to an article in the Mainichi Shimbun, the average price of all the TVs sold in May was a little more than ¥53,000. Moreover, the average price of TVs in the 30-39 inch size range was ¥49,000. That’s a decrease of 30 percent and 40 percent, respectively, from the same month last year. And since those are general nationwide averages, the savings become even starker when you go to discount electronics stores. In March, the average price of a 32-inch flat screen TV set at a discount store was in the ¥50,000-60,000 range, and then dropped to below ¥39,000 in May. Right now, Bic Camera near Yurakucho Station in Tokyo is selling the most vanguard types — energy-conserving LED TVs — for about ¥50,000, but older models are going for as low as ¥30,000. The store’s sales of TVs are 80 percent higher than they were for the same period last year.

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