Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Pusses galore: Cats dominate the pet industry

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Free at last: Stray female cat after undergoing spaying and about to be released

Free at last: Stray female cat after undergoing spaying and about to be released

Feb. 22 was Cat Day in Japan, because “two-two” in Japanese can be uttered using an approximation of a sound that cats make. It’s a typical pseudo-event, invented by the pet food industry, which is doing quite well by cats. In fact, it’s doing better by cats than by dogs if you’re talking about growth.

According to the Japan Pet Food Association, about 10.9 million dogs and 9.7 million cats are kept as pets in Japan. The pet-related market, including medical care, is worth about ¥1.4 trillion, but while the parity between the two species as animal companions is about equal, sales of respective food products is increasing more for cats than it is for dogs.

Dog food sales peaked in 2004 at a little more than 490,000 tons and has been gradually dropping ever since. Cat food sales in 2005 was much less, about 271,000 tons, but cats tend to be smaller and thus need less food, and at any rate, sales have been steadily increasing in the meantime. In 2014, the association says that a household with at least one dog spends on average ¥2,884 a month on dog food, while a household with at least one cat spends ¥2,996.

The slight difference can be explained by a number of factors: people with cats are more likely to have more than one animal than do dog owners, and dogs eat anything. Cats’ famous finicky tastes means that cat owners will likely buy more food to make sure their pets don’t get tired of the same thing.

Another economic related difference between cats and dogs is in their trafficking. According to the Yaseisha Pet Data Yearbook, in 2006, dogs accounted for 55.8 percent of pet shop sales (¥76.2 billion) while cats only accounted for 8.2 percent (¥11.2 billion). This wide gap is easy to explain. People who want dogs are more likely to buy them since they want pedigrees, while cat lovers are less particular about breeds and can easily pick up strays or get kittens from neighbors and shelters.

More to the point, the development of a pet culture in Japan has given rise to a concurrent awareness of the sanctity of non-human lives, an awareness that, taken to its natural ends, would not countenance the trafficking of pets, because when they are sold they are at the mercy of commercial prerogatives.

Only puppies and kittens are marketable as commodities, so once a pet-for-sale reaches a certain age it has to be “disposed of.” This realization means that, in all probability, the selling of dogs and cats for profit will someday be outlawed, or, at least, phased out in some way.

The manifestation of this pet-oriented sensibility is incumbent in the satsu shobun zero movement, which has become more prominent in the public sector. On Feb. 12, 60 national lawmakers representing all political parties formed a bipartisan group that “aims” to reduce the number of dogs and cats put down at public facilities to zero by 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics takes place. Kanagawa Prefecture already accomplished this aim with regard to dogs in 2013 thanks to the help of volunteers.

The prefecture’s next goal is no killings of cats, though the relevant authorities admit it’s more difficult since many cat owners still let their pets roam outside and don’t get them neutered, thinking it’s somehow cruel. Female cats can have two litters in a single year so the problem of stray cats killing birds and bothering neighbors will never go away, and so neither will the problem of having to somehow deal with unwanted cats.

Consequently, a lot of local governments also subsidize spaying and neutering of cats. According to Tokyo Shimbun, 30 percent throughout Japan have already implemented policies that address the stray cat issue. After successfully reducing the number of dogs put down in facilities by two-thirds over a five-year period, Kochi Prefecture set aside ¥4.9 million to spay female cats — ¥6,000 for a house pet, ¥10,000 for a stray.

The higher amount for an alley cat can be seen as encouraging to the TNR movement, wherein people trap stray cats, have them neutered, and then release them back in their familiar environment. Of course, some local governments don’t like this idea at all. Kyoto has proposed an ordinance making it illegal to feed stray cats, because people who don’t like cats somehow think that feeding them increases their numbers, but if you want to control the stray cat population TNR is a much more effective means.

Though not as effective as just catching and killing them outright, which is still the norm. In 2013, 128,135 dogs and cats were put down in public facilities, of which 99,566 were cats and 59,387 kittens. One of the hallmarks of the satsu shobun zero movement is finding new homes for abandoned pets. Of the 60,811 dogs brought to facilities in 2013, 15,129 were returned to their owners, since they were lost dogs, and 16,950 found new homes through adoption services.

Cats were less lucky: 115,273 were brought to facilities, with 305 returned to owners and 16,023 going to new homes. The rest were destroyed. Some local governments who have a zero-killing policy get around the problem by just not accepting abandoned animals, which is hardly a solution because in all likelihood the person who wants to bring a cat into a facility will just let it go in a local park. For the most part, a cat is abandoned because its owner’s living situation has changed and he or she can no longer keep the cat.

Government commitment is essential for reducing the number of unwanted cats, either by funding facilities that prioritize adoption or subsidizing spay-neuter operations. As it stands, the Environmental Ministry has set aside ¥100 million for pet-related matters. That means local governments have to come up with more money themselves, or pet-related NPOs have to rely on donations from concerned pet-lovers. Some people have suggested a tax on pet food that would pay for shelters and operations.

Supporters of the TNR movement point to Tokyo Chiyoda Ward as a success story. The local government pays up to ¥17,000 for male cat neutering and up to ¥20,000 for female cat spay operations. Moreover, they will pay ¥25,000 for cat abortions. Consequently, there have been no cats put down in the ward for the past several years.

More convenience stores adopting restaurant functions, and vice versa

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Drink 'em if you got 'em: Counter area in a new Family Mart being built in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture

Drink ‘em if you got ‘em: Counter area in a new Family Mart being built in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture

Ministop, the fifth largest convenience store chain in Japan with 2,200 outlets nationwide, was the first of its ilk to provide counters, tables and chairs for patrons who preferred to consume their purchases on the premises. Because of relatively lax tax laws in Japan, they could do it without having to charge more. This service was originally devised as a gimmick that would differentiate Ministop from other chains, and for years no other CS chain felt that it needed to do the same thing.

Last summer, Ministop, which belongs to the Aeon retail conglomerate, expanded on this idea with an offshoot called Cisca, an abbreviation for “city small cafe.” It’s basically a more attractively appointed convenient store centered around the sit-down space. So far, only one Cisca has opened, in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, and according to Asahi Shimbun the target is women who work in the area. The selection is more limited than what you would find in a regular Ministop, with the focus on high quality deli items and beverages, including fresh coffee and alcoholic drinks.

The “eating corner” seats only 17, but what really distinguishes Cisca from other Ministops is that eating-in is encouraged with free use of utensils. You can buy a bottle of wine for ¥700, for instance, and drink it right there, because they will provide you with wine glasses. Each seat also has its own electrical outlet. According to Ministop’s publicity department, since the store opened it’s been almost continually full.

Cisca is part of a trend taking place in both the retail and restaurant trades toward a more practical and less expensive view of dining out. Half of the new outlets opened by CS giant Family Mart since the beginning of 2013 also have sit-down counters and tables.

CONTINUE READING about convenience-store meal corners →

Attitudes about money continue to affect marriage prospects

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Head first: Newly married couple having their picture taken at a park in Makuhari

Head first: Newly married couple having their picture taken at a park in Makuhari

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has characterized the upcoming general election as a referendum for his fiscal policies, popularly known as “Abenomics,” so it’s not surprising that the opposition has focused on those policies as a means of discrediting his administration.

The Democratic Party of Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, recently gave a public speech from a sound truck in Yamagata City, and talked mainly about the effect that Abenomics has had on employment. Abe brags about creating new jobs with his policy, but Edano contends that these jobs are not the kind that allow young people to “get married and start families,” since they are mostly temporary or contract work (haken) that doesn’t guarantee a stable future. “At the very least, we have to increase the number of jobs that guarantee stability, otherwise we can’t call it an employment policy,” he said.

Edano has a point, though he may not realize how sharp it actually is. Last year, the marriage information company O-Net, which is part of the Rakuten Group, conducted a survey of single men and women in the Tokyo metropolitan area between the ages of 25 and 39 to find out their prospects for marriage. When asked why they were not married, the most common answer (multiple responses were allowed) for both genders was that they “don’t have a chance to meet people of the opposite sex.”

CONTINUE READING about marriage proposal criteria

Local governments finally getting around to public toilets

Monday, November 24th, 2014

Get down: Public rest room in a park in northern Chiba Prefecture

Get down: Public rest room in a park in northern Chiba Prefecture

Japan is a country of tradeoffs. Though there is an intentional paucity of public waste receptacles, there are plenty of free public restrooms, something that foreign tourists should note with appreciation. What they may not appreciate is the fact that most of the public facilities still feature squat-type toilets, which is certainly an irony since one of Japan’s most famous gifts to the world is the all-service commode, or “washlet,” which does practically everything but pull your drawers up.

We searched high and low for some kind of survey that revealed the portion of public toilets that are squat-type and couldn’t find any, so our claim that most public toilets, whether they be in parks, train stations or just along a street, feature squat type facilities is mainly due to observation.

But it’s obviously a situation that people are aware of. Chiba Prefecture recently announced that it set aside a supplemental budget in order to subsidize local governments and private entities who need to replace older Japanese style toilets under their management with Western style equipment before 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics and it’s assumed lots of foreign tourists will come to the metropolitan area.

CONTINUE READING about public rest rooms

Political gift culture refuses to die

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Former Justice Minister Midori Matsushima faces the error of her campaigning ways in the Lower House on Oct. 15. | KYODO

Former Justice Minister Midori Matsushima faces the error of her campaigning ways in the Lower House on Oct. 15. | KYODO

With almost breathless speed, two of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s most recent cabinet appointments, trade minister Yuko Obuchi and justice minister Midori Matsushima, resigned after it was revealed they violated political funding laws. Matsushima’s downfall, which revolves around her free distribution of uchiwa (round fans) to voters, may have as much to do with political expediency as with breaking rules, but Obuchi’s use of funds earmarked for public use to purchase gifts and supplement recreational outings for supporters was clearly illegal.

Which isn’t to say it’s not common. As one anonymous veteran of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — to which Obuchi belongs — told Tokyo Shimbun, the Gunma lawmaker’s problematic actions used to be a fairly normal practice in the Diet. Obuchi is accused of using her political funds, which come from taxpayers in the form of seito kofukin (political party subsidies), revenues from tickets sold for fund-raising get-togethers, and donations from individuals and groups, to supplement “theater tours” for her supporters. Obuchi’s supporters each paid ¥10,000-¥12,000 to go to Meiji-za in Tokyo to enjoy a day of stage performances. However, in her required political funds report there was an obvious discrepancy. Since 2007, the amount received from supporters for these excursions totaled ¥11.9 million, and it is deemed they cost more than ¥60 million to carry out, with the difference being ¥53.3 million that came from Obuchi’s funds.

The veteran says that such jaunts for supporters were normally arranged directly by the politician’s staff, but ever since the law became more thoroughly enforced, lawmakers have entrusted the job to travel agencies so as to divert the trail of money.

CONTINUE READING about political gifts →

Mail order scofflaws are the exception that proves the rule

Monday, September 15th, 2014

The gods know if you're honest: An unmanned farm stand in Inzai

The gods know if you’re honest: An unmanned farm stand in Inzai

A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun described a small cross section of consumers who take advantage of a peculiar aspect of mail-order sales in Japan. Some small- and medium-sized sales agents who do their business over the Internet have problems with customers who don’t pay. In most cases, Internet and mail order sales are done on a prepaid basis: The buyer either provides credit/debit card information or makes a bank/post office money transfer prior to the item being shipped. But a few work on what can best be described as the honor system. They send the item to the buyer with a bill that the buyer pays after receiving the item. Sometimes the bill has a handling fee attached and sometimes it doesn’t.

According to the Asahi article, some people don’t pay up, and perhaps never intended to. A non-profit organization called the Mail Order Unpaid Protection Network (MOUPN), which monitors such scofflaws, estimates that mail-order sales companies lose about ¥20 billion a year to such people.

Asahi, in fact, found one, though he seems reluctant to admit it. In the article, a reporter visits an unnamed man “in his 50s living in an apartment in Tokyo.” The man receives an order of green tea by courier, but the reporter notes that the name on the package is that of a woman. “I made the order on behalf of a friend,” the man explains. When asked why he didn’t use his real name, the man doesn’t answer. Other packages arrive addressed to different women. When asked what’s in one of them the man shrugs and says, “Maybe food?” He insists that he will pay for it but usually “just forgets.”

CONTINUE READING about abuse of Japan's honor system

A modest proposal for alleviating the endangerment of Japanese eels

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

Fish fans: People waiting in line at a popular eel restaurant near Minami Senju Station in Tokyo

Fish fans: People waiting in line at a popular eel restaurant near Minami Senju Station in Tokyo

This year, doyo no ushi no hi, the “day of the ox,” falls on July 29 in accordance with the old Chinese calendar. Counterintuitively, Japanese people don’t celebrate the day by eating beef but rather eel, because, supposedly, eel, or unagi, helps maintain a person’s stamina during the hottest days of summer. But it should be noted that the custom of eating eel is commercial in origin. According to legend, the tradition started in the 18th century in Hino, Western Tokyo, where nobody ate eel because the fish was a kind of local deity. An inventor named Hiraga Gennai came up with a publicity campaign to get people to eat unagi on doyo no ushi no hi because both ushi and unagi start with the “u” sound. The campaign worked, and now everybody eats unagi on doyo no ushi no hi. Well, maybe not everybody, but enough to drive Japanese eel to the brink of extinction.

Japanese eel for consumption are caught in the wild as fry and transported to eel farms throughout Asia. Eel is now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s endangered red list, and so the environment ministry made the same designation on its list of at-risk species. However, this information has been tempered somewhat lately by media reports saying that the eel catch was higher this past year, thus driving the price of imported eel, mainly from China and Taiwan, down considerably. Consequently, eel dishes on the 29th may be cheaper in some places than they were last year.

Unagi fans will see this as good news, but it isn’t. The reason eel is on the endangered list is that Japanese people catch and eat too much of the fish, which wasn’t the case before the mid-1980s, when eel was considered something of a delicacy eaten only on special occasions. In other words, the cheaper the eel, the more likely eel stocks will be decimated.

CONTINUE READING about the unagi shortage →

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