Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Where there’s a will: Attitudes toward inheritance change

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Who'll be the next in line?

Who’ll be the next in line?

About a million people die every year in Japan, and 10 percent of them leave wills (yuigonsho). That’s a smaller portion than in the English-speaking West — the BBC says about a third of British adults have wills and USA Today reports 59 percent of American baby boomers have written them — but it’s still larger than other Asian countries (about 1 percent in South Korea) and the number is growing every year.

Legal experts advocate wills as the only effective means of properly disposing of one’s assets after death, but in Japan they’ve traditionally been seen as disruptive. Japanese law outlines methods of inheritance and even stipulates shares for specific family relationships. But family ties have been strained in recent decades owing to shifting social demographics and economic trends. A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun reports that more and more people are dying without any clear beneficiaries. In 2012, ¥37.5 billion left behind by people who died was taken by the government because the deceased had no family willing to claim the body and the person’s property. According to the Supreme Court, this amount is three times what it was a decade ago.

When a person dies without spouses or children, or when those heirs have forfeited their right to the deceased’s assets, the proper court appoints an administrator to dispose of the estate. If the deceased had debts, the administrator repays them out of the available assets. If the deceased had a caregiver, the administrator may offer the person part of those assets. But for the most part the unclaimed money and proceeds from property goes to the central government.

One Yokohama lawyer in the Asahi article talks about his experiences as an administrator, which starts with going to the home of a person who has just died and “cleaning up.” He says he often finds large amounts of cash hidden behind or inside furniture, and now conducts seminars where he tells middle aged and older people about the importance of wills, partly as a means of showing their gratitude to those who helped them in life, regardless of whether or not those people are relatives. When the reporter talks to people who attend the lawyer’s seminar, some admit to having no contact with family and one says he feels compelled to draw up a will because he’s afraid of what might happen to his legacy if it all goes to his irresponsible son.

People in the West who don’t write wills are usually intimidated by the cost of lawyers or just plain scared of thinking about death. In Japan, while speaking of death is still a taboo for most people, the scarcity of wills can mainly be attributed to ignorance. The lawyer in the Asahi article implies that the authorities don’t promote wills because they make money when people die without heirs.

A recent trend that has boosted the status of wills is “ending notes.” Popularized by a hit 2011 documentary about a dying man’s last days, ending notes are books that help people think about their deaths. They explain different processes and often have diary-like features so that readers can write down their thoughts about death and what they want in terms of late-term care, a funeral and the disposal of their remains.

Ending notes actually compel readers to think about their lives right now by making them face the inevitability of death, and so rather than push away such thoughts they force the reader to consider measures such as DNR (do not resuscitate) declarations and last wills and testaments. Ending notes have also been commercialized to a certain extent, and some non-profit groups now hold seminars on the subject of shukatsu (final activities). Funeral homes participate in ending note plans and some banks even have programs to help people think about what they want to do with their assets after they die. According to a survey of people over 60 conducted by Research Bank, 49 percent said they wanted to write ending notes.

But ending note diaries are not legal documents. A will needs to be notarized if it is to hold up in court. One reason wills were previously unpopular in Japan is that when they were contested by family members, courts often sided with the plaintiffs, but that isn’t necessarily the case any more. According to one will-writing website, 7,767 wills were notarized in 1966. The number in 2009 was 76,436. Moreover, in 1985, Japanese courts heard 2,661 inheritance-related lawsuits. That number increased to 9,800 by 2008, and in the same year family courts nationwide received 154,160 requests for advice with regard to inheritance problems. More than 70 percent of all legal disputes over inheritance involve assets of more than ¥50 million. Obviously, you can’t take it with you, but older Japanese are now wising up to the fact that they don’t have to let it pass on to people they can’t stand.

Young women’s life preferences acknowledge workplace reality

Friday, September 27th, 2013

Preference or default?

Preference or default?

Social media has been buzzing about the results of a survey released this week by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The survey was carried out last March among men and women, both single and married, between the ages of 15 and 39. The results that provoked the most discussion had to do with attitudes toward marriage, or, more precisely, a woman’s role in a marriage.

When asked if they want to be full-time homemakers, 34.2 percent of the female respondents said “yes” or “probably.” And while more women, 38.5 percent to be exact, said they didn’t want to be homemakers, the portion who said they did was apparently higher than people expected, especially now that the government is pushing an agenda to make it easier for women to join the workforce and contribute more directly to the economy.

Some people are saying that these results indicate a regressive attitude among women, but it’s impossible to say from the results that the women who want to be homemakers are being guided by some kind of cultural gender identification.

When men were asked in the survey if they wanted their wives to be homemakers, 19.3 percent said “yes” or “probably,” which implies that the other four-fifths want their wives to work. That’s because they know that a single income isn’t enough any more to support a household, especially one that does or will someday include children.

When the women were asked how much income they thought their husbands should make a month, 40.8 percent said ¥200,000-¥300,000, 24.8 percent said ¥300,000-¥400,000 and a mere 4.2 percent said “it doesn’t matter.” So much for marrying for love.

A more likely reason for this desire to stay at home is a perceived understanding of workplace norms, something the labor ministry didn’t ask about. In a different survey conducted by the Japan Management Association, young men (751) and women (249) already in the workforce were asked if they aspired to be leaders among their colleagues. Of the female respondents, 81 percent said they would rather be “supportive.”

One of the more pressing issues in Japan is the paucity of women managers, a situation that is blamed on implacable male dominance in the workplace. The association analyzes this result as meaning that women value their private lives over their careers. In other words, they don’t think they can raise children or have families if they are in leadership positions. And, in fact, this is still a widely held belief.

The sky becomes less of a limit for cabin attendants (unless you’re a man)

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Screen shot of ANA's new Airline School, which opens in October

Screen shot of ANA’s new Airline School, which opens in October

All Nippon Airways just announced a new hiring policy for cabin attendants (CA). Starting next year, new CAs will be full-time regular employees of the company. Since 1995, CAs at the company were hired as contract workers who could opt to become regular employees after three years. The reason for the change is tougher competition from low-cost carriers (LCCs). ANA says in order to ensure the best service for their patrons they want to offer flight attendants better employment security. Currently, ANA employs about 6,000 CAs, 1,600 of which are contract workers. Next year, if these 1,600 want to become regular employees they can. The company plans to hire 450 new CAs in 2014.

The contract system was adopted by both ANA and Japan Airlines (JAL) in the same year, when the bubble economy had ended and Japan was entering its long period of sluggish growth. The object was to keep personnel costs in check. JAL says it has no intention of abandoning its contract work system “for the time being.” Twenty percent of its 3,800 Japanese CAs are contract workers. LCCs Peach and Jetstar only hire CAs as contract workers, while Skymark offers its contract CAs regular employment after one year. Though ANA’s policy change means its personnel costs will rise, the company thinks it can offset these expenses with reduced training costs.

Presently, when an ANA CA’s contract expires, she is offered full-time employment, but she can also opt for another 3-year contract. Over the years, 80 percent of ANA’s CAs chose regular employment. Contract workers are paid by the hour, and during the initial training period the wage is less than ¥1,000. That goes up to about ¥1,200 an hour until the end of the contract. JAL pays even less, about ¥1,100. Typically, a cabin attendant earns about ¥2 million a year while she is a contract worker, which isn’t much but CAs, even contractors, have some perks, like access to inexpensive company housing. However, the difference between contract workers and regular workers is striking. In 2001, the average yearly pay for CAs in Japan was ¥6.79 million, reflecting the fact that their ranks were still dominated by full-time regular employees. By 2011 the average salary had dropped to ¥3.85 million, reflecting the dominance of contract workers and newer regular employees rather than veterans who make more due to seniority. Last year it was about ¥4.8 million.

Another factor that influences pay is employment longevity. On average, Japanese CAs remain in the business for 7.4 years, and their average age is 31.2. In the past, it was the most coveted job for women in Japan, though not necessarily for career reasons. It was considered a glamorous occupation during a time when Japan was still isolated from the world, and thus offered women the only chance for overseas travel. (It was also the best way to put one’s English language skills to use. At one time, all English conversation schools has special classes for aspiring flight attendants.) Also, it was considered the best way to find a good husband, since sutchi (stewardesses) were also coveted as wives by eligible bachelors.

It was something of a joke in the 60s and 70s that professional baseball players and sumo wrestlers married either TV announcers or JAL cabin attendants. That may explain why the average age remains low: few CAs continued to work after they married, and if they did they usually tried to get transferred to the position of “ground hostess,” which is even more glamorous since there are so few of them. Also, while both regular employees and contract workers can take maternity leave, only regular employees can ask for shorter hours after they return to work. Tokyo Shimbun says that 10 percent of contract workers quit before their option to become regular employees comes up and one of the main reasons is that they become pregnant.

There’s little doubt that management has a certain image of what CAs should be. Only 1 percent of CAs in Japanese airlines are men. Though it’s against the law to discriminate in terms of gender, it seems obvious that airlines hire women predominately, and Japanese men who want to become CAs know this. According to an article in Newsweek, European and Middle Eastern airlines actively recruit Japanese male cabin attendants. Of the Japanese CAs who work for European and Middle Eastern airlines, 10 percent are men. In Asia, the portion is the same as it is in Japan.

Retailers and restaurants get slippery with unagi prices

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

July 22 is doyo no ushi no hi — day of the ox.” It is not a holiday to mark the cultural contributions of bovine, but rather a reminder that there are 18 more days until a seasonal change, during which falls the day of the ox — one of the signs of the Chinese zodiac. Traditionally in Japan people eat grilled eel (unagi), on this day, because it is believed that eel strengthens physical stamina during the hottest days of summer. But this year foodies and purveyors of unagi are faced with a problem, since eel in the wild is becoming increasingly scarce and may soon end up on a list of endangered species. The fisheries agency reports that the amount of eel fry bought by wholesalers in Japan this year has averaged 25 percent less than last year.

Yield to eel: Banners promoting unadon outside Sukiya

Yield to eel: Banners promoting unadon outside Sukiya

So it was definitely surprising when Daiei, one of Japan’s major supermarket chains, announced on July 11 that it would be selling packaged unagi kabayaki (grilled eel) in its stores for 20 percent less than last summer’s price on July 13-15 and July 20-22. According to Asahi Shimbun the price of unagi fry is now as much as 6.5 times what it was in 2009.

In most retail outlets, the price of prepared grilled eel is 26 percent higher than it was last summer. Usually, unagi that goes on sale in July is bought by Daiei in bulk sometime after January of the same year. It is then processed and frozen by a contractor. However, anticipating the rise in prices Daiei bought its unagi last fall and asked its contractor to carry out processing and freezing “when it had the time to do so,” thus saving money. Also, Daiei usually buys unagi for lunch boxes and unagi for packaged sushi separately, but this year they bought unagi for both at the same time in bulk, saving even more money.

But the real reason they can charge less is because they want to. Daiei admits that it will lose money during these two three-day periods by selling unagi kabayaki for 20 percent less. The supermarket is using unagi as a loss leader, a means of getting customers into its stores, where they will buy other things. And it seems to be working. Daiei started accepting pre-orders last month. Another market chain, Seiyu, announced that despite increases in wholesale prices, it will sell domestic unagi kabayaki at the same price as last summer: ¥1,470 for 140 grams. Seiyu expects sales to be 10 percent higher than last year.

Restaurants, on the other hand, seem to have no choice but to raise prices, but the amount of increase depends on the type of eatery. Asahi says that Tokyo ryotei — upscale, reservation-only restaurants — have increased unagi dishes by about ¥400 since last year, and famous restaurants that specialize in unagi have raised prices by as much as ¥1,000 per dish.

However, chain restaurants are trying to keep the increase to a minimum. Many sushi chains that usually charge ¥100 per plate serve unaju (grilled eel over rice) in the summertime, though usually only for takeout. One of these chains, Kura Sushi, is advertising unadon (eel over rice in a bowl) for only ¥598. That’s pretty cheap compared to gyudon (beef bowl) chains, which also do good business with unadon in the summer. Sukiya, the biggest gyudon chain, is selling unadon for ¥780, while Yoshinoya has increased its eel bowl ¥30 since last summer to ¥680. In 2010 it was only ¥500. Both Sukiya and Yoshinoya buy their unagi from China, but insist that they supervise the raising and harvest themselves, without relying on middlemen, to ensure quality.

Summer travel biz shows signs of recovery

Friday, July 12th, 2013

So close, and so far away

So close, and so far away

According to statistics released by Japan Travel Bureau on July 3, overseas travel this summer is projected to be up by 5.8 percent from last year, though continued sour relations with China and South Korea have seen fewer Japanese travelers this year to those two destinations. Another important consideration that doesn’t seem to have had a bad effect is the higher value of the dollar and other currencies against the yen. In terms of numbers, 2.6 million have reservations to travel overseas between July 15 and Aug. 31. The main bright spot is Europe, which will see a 15 percent boost in Japanese visitors as opposed to 2012. Also, Southeast Asia seems to be maintaining its popularity as a vacation spot. The average amount of money being spent per person on foreign travel this summer is ¥243,000, which is ¥11,800 more than was spent in 2012.

In addition, 76.2 million people have domestic travel plans this summer that involve more than one night away from home, which is the highest number since 2000. Even better, the average amount of money spent per person for these trips is ¥35,010, or ¥1,280 more than last summer. Several circumstances are credited with pushing up these numbers: the 30th anniversary of Tokyo Disney Resort; renovations to Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture and Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture; and Mount Fuji’s recent listing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and the intense media coverage that preceded it.

Continue reading about the recovery of tourism in Japan →

Japan still paying for war sins through international copyrights

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

A recent feature in the Tokyo Shimbun looked into a conundrum that few people know about. Fifty-two years after his death, Ernest Hemingway remains one of the most popular novelists on the planet. Translated into dozens of languages, his books continue to sell well. Whether those works are now in the public domain depends on each individual country’s copyright laws. In Japan, the copyright for written works is protected for 50 years after an author’s death, but if you look at Hemingway’s individual novels there’s something strange. “The Old Man and the Sea,” which was published in 1952, is now a public domain work in Japan, but “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” published in 1940, is not, and it won’t be until 2022.

Get thee to a library: Cover of Japanese translation of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”

The reason for this discrepancy is a term included in the San Francisco Peace Treaty that officially ended the Pacific War when it was signed in 1951. This term in Japanese is called senji kasan, which in the body of the treaty is explained as a “wartime add-on to the protection period” of a particular work’s copyright. In other words, during the war, Japanese users of copyrighted works from the 15 countries aligned with the Allied cause did not pay fees and royalties to those copyright holders, so the period of that non-payment, from the declaration of war in 1941 to the signing of the San Francisco treaty, was added on to the regular copyright protection period in order to collect fees “retroactively.” Moreover, this add-on period was calculated in days, since each of the fifteen countries concluded the treaty at different times. For instance, Lebanon didn’t sign until Jan. 17, 1954, which means the add-on was 4,413 days.

What’s unique about senji kasan is that it only applies to Japan. The other two Axis powers, Germany and Italy, were not obligated to implement the add-on. Actually, Italy was supposed to have been obligated, albeit for only five years, but the country’s government negotiated with each of the Allied countries and eventually had the protection extension cancelled in 1993 when the European Union was being formed. France also had a similar extension condition domestically, since for much of the war it was occupied by the Nazis, but it expired a long time ago. According to Tokyo Shimbun, copyright experts tend to agree that the SF treaty extension is discriminatory and is merely a lingering remnant of the Allies’ will to punish Japan. But the war ended in 1945. Isn’t it about time the extension was rescinded?

As it turns out, the problem is not really the countries who benefit from this extension. According to one expert interviewed in the article, the problem is that the Japanese government “accepted the extension as punishment, a term of surrender,” and thus feels an obligation to pay, even now. None of the Japanese administrations that have been in power for the past 50 years even bothered to address the issue. It is simply a matter of laziness. If Japan wanted to get rid of the extension it would be relatively easy but time-consuming, since it would entail negotiations with each of the fifteen countries that signed the treaty. Some have said that the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership talks provides a perfect venue for discussing the matter.

Then again, there are some powerful parties in Japan who benefit from the extension, such as the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers, which collects the royalties for foreign copyright holders. (more…)

Cleaning ‘angels’ reinforce positive image of Japanese workers

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Cleaning crew (in pink) waiting with the hordes at Tokyo Station for the train to arrive (photos: Jason Jenkins)

If, like thousands of others, you took the shinkansen (super express) during the recent New Year’s holiday break, when you arrived at a line terminal you likely saw uniformed cleaning crews waiting at attention for the train to stop. They would have bowed as you left the car and then scurried on board to clean it up before the passengers waiting on the platform were allowed to board. During this time of year, in particular, express trains are packed 24/7, and keeping arrivals and departures on time is the number one priority. These cleaners, on average, have only seven minutes to make the cars spic-and-span, and their methodical efficiency in getting that job done has made them heroes in the media, the newest symbols of Japan’s storied work ethic.

At least one book has been written about these train cleaners, CNN produced a special report on them and dozens of magazine articles have covered them in detail. A recent issue of Shukan Post concentrated on one of the companies, Techno Heart Tessei, which is a subsidiary of JR East. Right at the beginning of the article, the Post offers the opinion that these workers provide a positive example for any business in Japan. It then goes on to describe in detail the “shinkansen gekijo,” (bullet train theater): how the cleaners, both men and women, accomplish their “miraculous” task, which is methodical and reducible to the second. There is one cleaner per non-reserved car, two or three per reserved car.

Overhead racks are checked on the initial round while seats are reset to their original orientation and underfoot trash is quickly swept to the middle aisle. On the return round, window ledges, blinds and panes as well as folding tables are wiped; headrest covers are replaced if dirty. Then someone comes through with a broom to collect the trash. Separate staff handles toilets. All operations are checked by the supervising cleaner and cleared. Usually, these teams complete their jobs with more than a minute to spare. On the average, they clean 20 trains a shift.

Continue reading about train-cleaning "angels" →

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