Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

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 →

Government shows awareness of something called ‘child support’

Friday, April 20th, 2012

Divorce in Japan can be ridiculously easy. If the two parties are in agreement about breaking up, all they have to do is go down to their local government office, fill out a rikon todoke (divorce notification) and give it to the Man. No fuss, no muss, no grounds. In fact, both parties don’t even have to be present, as long as their seals are affixed to the document. About 90 percent of all divorces are carried out in this “mutual consent” (kyogi-teki) way.

Page 2 of divorce notification with "minor child" box in lower right corner

Starting this spring, however, the notification form has a new box in the lower, right-hand corner. The box concerns “minor offspring.” If the couple has a child under the age of 20, they are required to check this box, though if they don’t nothing will happen. The divorce will still go through. According to a recent article in the Tokyo Shimbun, when someone goes into his or her city hall and asks for the divorce notification form, the clerk is supposed to explain the purpose of this new box and encourage the person to check the appropriate statements if he or she has children, but in principle such disclosure is voluntary.

The purpose of the new box is to promote greater awareness of children’s position in a divorce with regard to visitation and child support. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has said that children’s welfare should be prioritized by parents who are divorcing, and the box is a nudge to get them to at least think about visitation and child support before they finalize their divorce.

As it stands, both concepts are still very weak in Japan. In a 2006 survey conducted by the ministry, only 34 percent of single parents who went through mutually agreed upon divorces (meaning no lawyers, mediation or courts) said they had made verbal agreements with their ex-spouses to the effect that the latter would pay something in the way of child support. However, in reality, less than 19 percent actually paid, and 60 percent of all divorced custodial parents have never received any assistance from their ex-partners at all.

In the United States it’s the opposite: 60 percent of custodial parents receive child support from the non-custodial parent. In 2005, the average amount of this support was $6,200 a year, regardless of how many children are being supported. In Japan, the average child support payment among non-custodial parents who actually do pay is ¥42,000 a month, which works out to be about the same. According to research carried out by the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, in the U.S. when custodial parents don’t demand child support it’s usually because they don’t need it; while in Japan a custodial parent usually doesn’t demand it because she doesn’t think her ex-partner can pay. In such situations, they don’t even think about alimony.

Continue reading about child support in Japan →

Putting the ‘fortune’ back in fortune telling

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

For more than a month the tabloid press has been obsessed with comedian Tomoko Nakajima, who apparently has squandered her career and whatever money it made her on the services of a self-styled fortune teller who effectively commandeered her life. In Japan, fortune tellers, or uranai-shi, do pretty much the same thing that fortune tellers do everywhere else in the world. They use supposedly timeless, spiritual or other non-scientific techniques to predict an individual’s future. Uranai-shi have more of an accepted social position Japan than they do in a lot of other developed countries. A few, in fact, are bona fide stars whose advice is sought by the rich and famous, thus making them rich and famous, too.

You will meet a tall, dark stranger: Fortune teller's sign in Ginza

A recent article in Asahi Shimbun discussed people who, like Nakajima, have become “addicted” to fortune tellers. About 80 percent of the people who patronize uranai-shi are women, the majority in their 30s. One told the newspaper that she first turned to uranai-shi when she needed advice about becoming a freelance writer. A fortune teller told her to get married instead, and she did, but the marriage didn’t work and she divorced.

Despite what turned out to be bad advice she continued seeking counsel from fortune tellers, obsessed with what would happen to her in the future. She paid upward of ¥20,000 per session for two years and eventually amassed a debt of more than ¥3 million. In the end, she kicked her habit by studying the psychology of addiction, and now makes a living counseling fortune telling addicts like herself. Nice work if you can get it. She points out that the act of “regurgitating” emotions to a fortune teller is what makes the process so habit-forming. It’s like a “tranquilizer” to ease the fear of the unknown, but since the fear is never directly dealt with it never goes away, and so the patron has to continue seeking advice.

Money is an integral component of the addiction, since it clarifies the relationship. Traditionally, one finds fortune tellers on the street, sitting in front of little stands, handing out advice in ten-minute blocks of time, and ten minutes is never enough. More successful practitioners work out of offices. But growth in the industry is now in fortune telling over the phone and on the Internet. One entrepreneur told the Asahi that he runs 20 fortune-telling hotlines that charge ¥9,000 for 30 minutes, and candidly admits that his main mission is to listen to people’s problems and “cheer them up.” And though many of his customers are repeat users, he insists that if he or his staff suspect anyone of being an addict, they “reject” them.

Like all consumers, people who use fortune tellers insist on getting their money’s worth. Asahi reported that one site received a lot of complaints, not so much for its exorbitant fee — several thousand yen per minute — but because the advice didn’t work. One has to wonder if the degree of dissatisfaction has a direct correlation to the dearness of the charge, but as fortune telling becomes more of a legitimate commercial enterprise it also becomes more of an issue. The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan reports that formal claims against fortune tellers have increased over the past decade. In 2001 the center received 871 complaints for the whole year. As of March 2, it’s already received 1,801 since Jan. 1. The complaints are about not fees but rather the product. People demand predictions that work out.

Asahi says that DoCoMo’s goo website survey found that the starting price for fortune tellers is about ¥5,000 for 30 minutes, which is about the same as the consultation fee you’d pay to a psychiatrist or a lawyer. It makes sense. All three specialize in giving advice with no guarantee of results.

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