Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

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" →

Old technology a threat to publishers’ bottom lines

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

By the gross: cheap reads at Book Off

There was only one book published in Japan this past year that sold at least a million copies: TV personality Sawako Agawa‘s volume of essays, “Kiku Chikara: Kokoro Hiraku 35 no Hinto” (The Power of Listening: 35 Hints to Get People to Talk About Themselves), a relatively inexpensive paperback published by Bungeishunju. Though the media has been claiming for years that reading is on the decline, a single million-seller is still pretty low by Japanese publishing standards. Last year, for instance, there were ten, and two years ago five. According to the industry organ Shuppan News, the main reason is that there were no topical books for publicity departments to push effectively.

Publishers and wholesalers usually focus promotion on titles they think will sell easily, but this year couldn’t find anything they really thought would catch the public’s imagination. The conventional wisdom about million sellers is that a good portion of them are bought by people who aren’t devoted readers. Remember the phenomenal sales for Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84″? Many of the buyers were people who were caught up in the “event.” They wanted to own a copy — or several, as the case may be. Some probably didn’t even read it. Experts say this phenomenon no longer applies. Interests have become more compartmentalized, more diverse. People no longer automatically buy a book or record just because everyone else does.

According to a recent article in Tokyo Shimbun, book sales in general have dropped. The peak year was 1996, when 915 million books were sold for a total of ¥1 trillion in revenue. In 2011, the total number of books sold was 700 million and revenues were ¥819 billion. This year, the drop is expected to be even greater.

Now, before you ask about the sales breakdown between printed books and e-books, keep in mind that sales of e-books remain relatively low in Japan, owing to industry resistance that is just now breaking down. The drop in sales has less to do with technology and more to do with demographics. In fact, the number of people who read regularly hasn’t really changed despite the decline in population. That’s because the loss in general readership is being compensated for by older retired people who now have time to read. However, these people don’t really care about owning books. The real reason for the drop in sales is that they have rediscovered the library.

According to the Japan Library Association, there were 2,522 libraries throughout Japan in 1998. By April 2011, that number had increased to 3,210. Last year, library users borrowed 716 million books, CDs and DVDs, a new record, which is surprising given that local governments are hurting financially and library budgets are usually one of the first things they cut.

Obviously, some rationalization is going on, but at least one local government, Takeyo in Saga Prefecture, has come up with — no pun intended — a novel solution. The city hired the entertainment media rental and sales company Tsutaya to run its public library and has saved 10 percent of its normal operating expenses in the bargain. In return, Tsutaya opened a store next door as a kind of annex to the library, complete with a cafe.

A researcher interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun said that the recession definitely has something to do with the boost in library usage. It has also boosted the success of used book chain stores like Book Off. Sales of used books have been increasing every year. Naturally, this is bad news for publishers and, especially, new book stores despite the fact that prices for new books are fixed by the publishers and can’t be changed by resellers. These prices tend to be set artificially high by making the print larger than necessary and dividing texts into multiple volumes. But as much as the publishing industry has tried, it can’t do anything about the used book market.

According to the Yano Financial Research Center, the market for used books in 2010 was ¥130 billion. Sales at Book Off alone amounted to ¥70 billion in 2010. Even if one keeps in mind that Book Off sells merchandise other than books, the retail giant obviously has a substantial share of the market. Their system is attractive to people who just like to read. You buy a used book for a few hundred yen, read it and then sell it back to Book Off for about ¥50. It’s especially attractive when it comes to best-sellers, for which there is usually a long waiting list at the local library. By their very nature of being best-sellers, there are usually a lot of them at Book Off, sometimes for as little as ¥100 plus tax.

For teachers, the business of education has become even more of a business

Friday, November 30th, 2012

Private high school students boarding a private high school bus

Private high school students boarding a private high school bus

The Asahi Shimbun and NHK recently ran features about the changing job situation for high school teachers, specifically those who work for private institutions. According to education ministry figures, there are about 90,000 teachers working at private high schools nationwide, a number that has stayed about the same since 2001.

About 34,000 of these teachers were considered “non-regular” in 2011, meaning they were either hired directly by the schools on a yearly contract basis or obtained through temporary human resources companies. That number represents 36.8 percent of all private high school teachers, whereas the portion of public school teachers who are non-regular is 19.7 percent.

Furthermore, since 2001, the number of regular teachers in private high schools has decreased by more than 4,000, mainly the result of attrition through retirement, while the number of non-regular teachers has increased by 2,800. During the same period, the number of students attending private high schools has dropped by about 15 percent, while the number of private high schools hasn’t changed.

Private high schools are under pressure to maintain enrollment just to stay solvent, and one of their main incentives to attract students is student-teacher ratios, the smaller the better. So even as the number of students declines, these schools have to maintain staff numbers, a situation that puts more strain on their budgets. They have to cut expenses wherever they can, and since 70 percent of a private school’s expenditures goes to personnel, teacher pay is the obvious target for rationalization.

Continue reading about non-regular teachers →

Theme parks make a comeback thanks to grandma and grandpa

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Ho-hum. Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea recorded another record season. Between April and September, Japan’s favorite theme parks were visited by 13.25 million people, a 23 percent increase over the same period last year, which is understandable given that “self-restraint” was the order of business in summer 2011 after the earthquake and tsunami. Still, that’s an impressive increase under any circumstances since it translates as an operating income of ¥39 billion — double last year’s — and a net profit of ¥25.5 billion — triple last year’s.

Yumiko Yamashita! You are the 100 millionth visitor to Universal Studios Japan!

But TDL isn’t the only theme park that did well this summer. According to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, attendance at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka was up 19.5 percent during the same period, Tokyo’s Toshimaen amusement park saw an 18.7 percent rise, Yomiuri Land in western Tokyo 30 percent, Nagashima Spa Land in Mie Prefecture 3 percent, Fujikyu Highland in Shizuoka Prefecture 4 percent, and even the Dutch theme park Huis Ten Bosch in Kyushu, which almost went bankrupt before being bought by travel agent H.I.S., enjoyed an 11 percent year-on-year boost in attendance from Jan. to June.

Could all this healthy leisure spending be explained by a post-disaster recovery bump, as theorized by Sankei Shimbun? A recent segment of the TBS noon-time wide show “Hiruobi” looked into the matter and found that there’s something else involved, namely a confluence of demographics that has resulted in wider-open wallets. The program sent a reporter to Universal Studios to cover the 100 millionth admission and found that a good portion of park attendance was made up of families of three generations, with the youngest layer comprised of very young children and the oldest of grandparents who are recently retired but still relatively young and, more importantly, have a lot of savings they’re only too happy to spend on their grandkids. “My grandma buys me anything I want,” said one little girl without shame.

Continue reading about theme-park repeaters →

Candidate deposit requirement guarantees same faces on the ballot

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Ever wonder why so many Japanese politicians are old and that the only new faces tend to be their progeny? There are a number of cultural explanations for this phenomenon, but there’s also a financial one. It’s called the kyotakukin, or deposit, system.

The candidacy … paid in full (or How much is that politician in the window)

To run for any office in Japan, whether national or local, a person must deposit a certain amount of cash with the relevant election authorities. If the person wins, the deposit will be returned, but if the candidate loses and in the process fails to garner a certain percentage of the votes cast, he or she forfeits the money. The amounts required are high, and for national office almost prohibitively so. Candidates for prefectural and municipal office need to pay deposits of between ¥300,000 and ¥600,000, depending on the size of the constituency. However, candidates for the Lower House of the Diet have to deposit ¥3 million for a constituency seat and ¥6 million for a proportional seat. Constituency seats are decided for an electoral district simply by the number of votes cast in the district. Proportional seats are decided by the portion of votes a particular party receives on the proportional part of the ballot.

Many candidates, in order to guarantee success, run in both contests, because while they may lose in the constituency race, their party may gain a large enough portion of votes to allow them to be swept into office on the proportional ticket. In that case they have to pay deposits for both seats, meaning ¥9 million. If a constituency candidate doesn’t garner at least 10 percent of the total votes, he or she has to forfeit the deposit.

A few other countries have candidate deposit systems, but Japan’s is the most expensive by far. According to a recent article in the Tokyo Shimbun, the United Kingdom only requires the equivalent of ¥62,000 to run for national office, Canada ¥80,000, and Korea about ¥1 million, the highest after Japan. Most democracies either never had the system or have done away with it. Historically, its purpose was always obvious: to limit the number of candidates and make sure that those with financial power also held political power.

Continue reading about election campaign deposits →

Package funeral services take the (financial) sting out of dying

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Funeral hearse

Your ride’s here

The Tokyo metropolitan government  has launched a jumokuso service for individuals. Jumokuso means “tree funeral.” For a fee, a person can have his or her ashes buried at the foot of a tree planted in a special park in Kodaira. The financial advantage of this particular burial model is that the person pays only once. Most remains are interred in family graves located in graveyards that are managed by either local governments or religious entities. Graveyards require kanriryo (administration fees) in perpetuity.

In principle, a jumokuso customer will have his ashes mixed with other customers. It costs ¥134,000 for roughly cremated remains and ¥44,000 for remains that have already been reduced to ash (a more involved and thus more expensive process). Enough space for 10,700 people is being planned for the park, and the first group of 500 “plots” was recently sold via lottery. There were 8,169 applicants.

Obviously, many people are not attached to the traditional Japanese style of burial any more, and it probably has a lot to do with the traditional funerals that go with it, which can be extremely expensive. A recent Asahi Shimbun article described a woman in her 60s who was shocked when she received the bill for her husband’s funeral. The funeral service company had quoted ¥1.7 million for the whole thing, but the invoice came to ¥2.6 million.

Continue reading about the funeral business in Japan →

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